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Moving beyond ‘Bible school theology’

A recent campus ministry conference here featured a theology seminar on christology. The speaker talked about the incarnate Christ, the post-incarnate Christ, and most of all, the pre-incarnate Christ — the personal appearance of the Son of God in the Old Testament.

The session was called ‘the doctrine of Christ’, yet the pre-incarnate Christ is a doctrine held only by some, typically in the Reformed tradition. Many others would deny the idea, or simply find it uninteresting.

Why all the talk about the pre-incarnate Christ here, especially when the session wasn’t explicitly angling for, or informed by, a Reformed christology?

What the presenter laid out for us in great detail was a logic puzzle: the Old Testament sometimes refers to God in mysterious and apparently plural terms, while the New Testament presents us with the Trinity. The key to this problem lies in the identity of ‘the angel of the Lord’, who is Christ. The pre-incarnate Christ was therefore a way of making sense of a mass of biblical data and the questions that seemed to arise from it.

What’s on view here is what I call ‘Bible school theology’.

I’m referring to the way in which Christian doctrine or ‘systematic theology’ is taught and published at the popular level and sometimes at a seminary level. It is used by pastors as well as ordinary Christians. In a way, it is the people’s theology. For an example, see Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (discussed previously).

Along with logic puzzles, Bible school theology tends to treat its subject matter as a fixed body of knowledge. It involves a limited range of topics, and while the categories can be reordered or communicated in new ways, they are otherwise fixed. This body of knowledge is also an expression of a specific Christian tradition. Systematic Theology, for example, comes from a baptistic Reformed evangelical charismatic complementarian perspective. There are predetermined questions and answers depending on who’s talking.

Bible school theology is also ahistorical, in that it often leaves the voices of church history off the table, apart from perhaps a few heroic figures. Of course, I doubt anyone would claim that you can do theology without history, but I’m talking about what happens in practice. My point is that Bible school theology emphasises a straight-to-the-Bible approach, encouraging us to delve into the Bible without any filters, at least, not filters that need to be talked about much. Systematic Theology is a case in point.

And Bible school theology is strongly personal and devotional, designed for the benefit of an individual’s spiritual walk. I see this as its great strength: it draws us to worship; it is practical; it emphasises personal transformation. For those new to theology, there is certainly spiritual nurture to be found here. Again I have in mind Systematic Theology, which ends its chapters with songs and prayers.

However, while Bible school theology can be a good place to begin, I don’t think it’s a good place to remain — if we want to cultivate theological interest beyond our own personal faith journey.

city-dweller-chris-sardegnaYou could say its greatest strength is its greatest weakness. In its keen emphasis on personal piety, Bible school theology has very little to say about the wider world, or to it. I’m not talking about ‘the world’ in the Johannine sense, the world arrayed against God, but about the Earth, the contested realm in which the Kingdom is cropping up. How are Christians to navigate, share in, and bring challenges to the great social issues of our times? That is surely theological territory, yet Bible school theology is aimed squarely at Christians.

The conference I mentioned above was for people working in campus ministry, the world of the university and the city. I talked about the need for Christians on campus to develop a thinking faith that can handle the world they are part of and moving into. The kind of spiritual maturity required of Christian students and professionals is of a particular calibre: an urban faith, a faith for a world that is complex and complicated. It involves lifelong learning in which the answers evolve, and so do the questions. I don’t think it’s the kind of faith that can be sustained with Bible school theology.

Academic theology is capable of equipping us for the complex world we are called to inhabit.

Academic theology is tied to the academy, a community of scholars, as well as the local church. It is historical and it presents theology as an ongoing conversation. It is in this sense that I have previously recommended Alister McGrath’s textbook in contrast to Grudem’s.

In academic theology, theology is not just a distinct discipline (a field of intellectual inquiry), but a perspective to bring to other things. I mean, theology has power not just as a noun (‘theology’) but as an adjective (‘theological anthropology’). This is, I think, how terms like ‘political theology’ and ‘philosophical theology’ are best understood: not as theology absorbing other disciplines into itself, but theology bringing new ideas and questions to bear on all kinds of thought-communities and bodies of knowledge. John Dickson made a similar point last year about the integrative nature of academic theology.

In this way, academic theology is able to bring the world’s questions to the church, and the church’s questions to the world.

I’m not saying that academic theology is superior to Bible school theology. My point is that Bible school theology is not all there is to theology, that academic theology does vital things that Bible school theology is incapable of, and that if we are interested in becoming public Christians or world Christians (despite the fanciful terminology!), we must somehow get beyond Bible school theology.

Again, I’m writing from the context of the campus. Put it this way: if students are studying university-level chemistry or economics, wouldn’t I want them to experience university-level theology? Why would I offer them theology that wouldn’t pass muster in a university course?

  • Q: How valuable is the distinction between Bible school theology and academic theology?
  • Q: To what extent is it feasible to bring academic theology into view in campus ministry?
  • Q: How do we prepare Christian students to participate fully in their corner of the city and the world?

Image credit: Chris Sardegna

Categories: University ministry Written by Arthur

Tagged as:

Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

8 replies

  1. Hmm, I find the label ‘bible school theology’ a bit confusing! It seems like you’re focus in on contrasting two different approaches to systematics, with Grudem and McGrath as your two examples. Is that right?

    Is so, what place do you think biblical studies and biblical theology has?

    For example, reflecting on practice: the Sydney campus group I’ve been involved with has often used the line “get a university-level understanding of the bible”. For us, that has meant majoring on biblical studies, with various seminars on key bits of philosophy, church history, etc thrown in.

    That is, our priority is to push students hard to grapple deeper with the bible and be better equipped to read and study it for themselves, as well as better able to discern right from wrong teaching.

    1. G’day Sam!

      Yeah, Tamie said I should work on the labels, but the post was already up! (Time difference issues…) I’ve used it as a catch-all term for the introductory theology which can be found in Bible schools and seminaries. I’m including biblical studies, not only systematic theology.

      Getting a university-level understanding of the Bible is definitely something I’m affirming here, but what I’m pushing for is the ability to connect this understanding with the wider world. An emphasis on being able to make up your own mind and make the orthodox decisions is something I would tend to identify with ‘Bible school theology’. I don’t want students to simply ‘collect the whole set’ of orthodoxy if it leaves them unresponsive to the world around them. Identifying right teaching can be personally reassuring but does not in itself enable you to think Christianly about your workplace, media, politics, technology, etc etc etc. ‘Skills, not just beliefs’ might be another way of putting it, or ‘questions, not just answers’. Do you know what I’m getting at?

      Maybe ‘static theology’ and ‘engaging theology’ are more descriptive of the characteristics I’m trying to describe?

      Might see you at NTE this year…!

  2. That helps clarify. It does kinda sound like you’re talking about the distinction between biblical studies and doctrine/ethics now, perhaps?

    That is, given the outworking from text to life of: exegesis > biblical theology > systematic theology > doctrine/ethics.

    When you say ‘think Christianly about your workplace, media, politics, technology, etc’, it sounds like you feel the end point is neglected?

    1. I’m referring to theology as a broader perspective of which biblical studies is part, and which puts biblical studies to work for wider purposes. (E.g. the John Dickson article linked to above.)

      Yes, I think ‘thinking Christianly’ is often neglected — as in, I reckon we often hardly make a beginning of it. The hierarchy of exegesis through to ethics is certainly how I was taught to think while at uni, but my experience was that we were not well-practiced at actually pushing all the way through to (say) ethics (where the rubber hits the road in the real world). Consider the way that doctrine and ethics were confined to strands 3 and 4 at NTE…

      Have a look under the tag engaging the university, where we’ve written a lot more about these things.

  3. Ah ok. So maybe there’s two things? :)

    (1) Doing ‘historical’ systematic theology, rather than ‘ahistorical’
    (2) Doing ethics / applied theology more broadly.

    I say two things, because you have have ‘academic theology’ (by your definition) which doesn’t necessarily touch on the questions you want to ask (media, politics, technology, etc).

    p.s. won’t be at NTE sorry!

    1. Yeah, that’s sort of it… It’s not just that ‘static theology’ tends to be ahistorical, it’s also that it tends to treat ‘systematic theology’ as the main game. Actually, I think (1) and (2) are closely related, because ‘history’ and ‘application’ fully come into view only if we see theology as a living and diverse practice, rather than just an account of what-we-believe-and-how-we-got-there.

      By academic theology, I’m simply talking about theology that happens as part and parcel of the university, not something that is necessarily theoretical. Like I say in the post, I do think that it has the goods to engage in real-world social reflection (although of course there may also be reasons it could be called an ivory tower).

      Clear as mud? :D

  4. Haha, murky water maybe? :) I think I get some of the basic concerns, but also I think you’re speaking into a context I don’t quite get. It’s making me think though!

    1. I get the impression that ‘static theology’ is pretty commonplace in evangelical Christianity around the world, but yeah, this might not be heaps widely or directly applicable to the Australian/AFES context, especially because we’ve got a pretty sophisticated thing going on with biblical theology. Where I think we can grow as Aussies is in the ‘thinking Christianly’ department — see engaging the university.

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