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Theology for the Sake of the Church

November 16, 2017

David M. VanDrunen

Westminster Seminary California often advertises itself as providing an academically rigorous theological education. That is truth in advertising. The seminary requires extensive study of Hebrew and Greek, careful exegesis of biblical texts, research papers on theological topics, and many other academic exercises. But WSC also claims to pursue its mission for the sake of the church. That too, we hope, is truth in advertising. WSC strives to teach theology not simply for its own sake, but to prepare future leaders for practical service to the people of God.

    The distinction between graduate schools and professional schools may illuminate this distinction. Graduate schools are designed to promote knowledge for its own sake. M.A. or Ph.D. programs in, say, history or biology aim to promote learning and research in these fields, not to provide career training as such. In contrast, law schools and medical schools offer J.D. or M.D programs not for the advancement of jurisprudence or medical science per se, but to prepare the next generation of lawyers and physicians. That does not make J.D. and M.D. programs intellectually flabby—quite the opposite. But their goal is providing students with the intellectual skills necessary for legal or medical practice.

    A good seminary education is more like the professional school: it does not advance the discipline of theology as an end in itself, but equips future pastors and other leaders to be faithful servants of Christ for the sake of his church. This need not strip seminary programs of intellectual rigor, but it does focus the theological work on a practical goal: blessing the people of God through promoting the truth that undergirds Christian faith and life.

    Another way to think about this is through the old debate whether theology is a theoretical or practical science. Eminent theologians have had different opinions, but many have recognized truth on both sides. In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas argued that theology is both theoretical and practical—but more theoretical, because it’s concerned more with God himself than with human acts (Summa Theologiae, I 1.4). It’s hard to argue with this line of reasoning: we do indeed wish our theology to be theocentric rather than anthropocentric! Yet we can also appreciate seventeenth-century Reformed theologian Francis Turretin’s conclusion. He agrees with Aquinas that theology is both theoretical and practical, but claims it is more practical. Turretin helpfully observes that theology “at the same time connects the theory of the true with the practice of the good.” He adds: “There is no mystery proposed to our contemplation as an object of faith which does not excite us to the worship of God or which is not prerequisite for its proper performance” (Institutes, I.VII.2, 4). That is surely the kind of learning that seminaries ought to promote: theology that flows into worship.

"That is surely the kind of learning that seminaries ought to promote: theology that flows into worship."

    In the end, seminaries need to provide a rich theological education because pastors and the church need good theology. Physicians and lawyers untrained in medicine and law won’t be competent in their work, no matter how kind and well-meaning they are. So also with pastors unlearned in theology, unable to train their flocks. A church with mistaken views of God will unwittingly make idols. A church without a good anthropology will be defenseless against cultural pressures to redefine what it means to be human. Without a good Christology and soteriology, churchgoers will seek assurance of salvation in false places. Without a good ecclesiology, people won’t understand what the church is, what it’s supposed to do, and how it’s different from other institutions. As thrilling as it is to learn wonderful divine truths through seminary studies, it is a far richer privilege to pass that learning along, in a way that promotes the church’s trust, worship, and service of its savior.