A tweet I sent out recently opened up an interesting discussion: “It is not enough to be the smartest person in the room. Someone normal must be able to understand you. #NoteToYoungPhDGraduates.”
There were some who joked on my Facebook page about sending this tweet to Northern Seminary professors, of which I am one.
Others talked about doing some in-depth study at seminary and then not being able to go back to church and make sense to anybody.
A few others complained about not being able to easily enter into theological discussions in general because the “theo-jargon” was just too much.
All of this, I think, gets at the point of my tweet and this column: True theological education is a “there and back” exercise.
1. Theology requires us to go somewhere, usually over “there” to a different place from where we are familiar.
We study theology usually because we have questions about God, culture and the Christian life.
But if the answers were obvious, we would not need to study or read books that challenge our thinking and indeed require us to stretch.
Instead, we need to understand how we got to think what we think. We need to understand culture and where the assumptions come from that drive what we do and how we experience.
We cannot think “ex nihilo” (out of nothing) because we are then basically parroting the culture or cultures that taught us to think, feel and relate like this.
Not all culture is good, not all culture is bad, but to discern culture we need to reflect on it.
Likewise, Christians need to understand how they came to understand their beliefs and practices in this particular way.
We need to understand church history, Scripture and the history of interpretation.
If we don’t go “there,” we will assume that the way we think about salvation, for example, is the only way to think about it in the whole world and in the history of Christianity. Anyone know somebody like this?
The study of theology, therefore, requires us to go “there” and this is what enables us to lead in church life not out of ego, hubris or ignorance, but out of the ability to ask good questions, direct others to sources of authority, and lead good, biblically based reflections.
Understanding the breadth behind the issues helps us navigate the new turf of the cultures we are living in. It requires us to go “there.”
2. The work of theology does not end “there.”
We must be able to go “back” to be among our friends, families, churches, coffee shops, everyday life, and be able to listen and know deeply the languages and cultures of the people with whom we live life.
We must then be able to know how to take our theological growth and speak from it in that language.
This requires discerning what is helpful to teach, what is helpful to observe and what you should keep to yourself as helpful only to you.
We must, in the end, be able to lead by being among the people and speaking in a language that they can understand. This requires us being able to:
− Ask and answer questions by placing them into the context of Scripture and history
− Give relevant, understandable illustrations and stories
− Pray for the needs of those around us
− Speak in terms that don’t require the other person to need a dictionary
Going “back” to be among the people will then help you be a better theologian, ask more helpful questions, better translate the gospel and grow as a person of faith.
It might be said this going “back” is more essential to good theology than the going “there” part, and that the going “back” takes more effort than the going “there.”
Theologically educated people too often think their degrees have given them an office to pontificate, and the “people” will just have to deal with it.
I suggest this kind of person is short for the ministry and soon to become irrelevant in both spheres of the “there” and “back.”
We need both the “there” and “back” for life and ministry. Both are necessary for true theological education.
David Fitch is the Betty R. Linder chair of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Reclaiming the Mission, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @fitchest.
David E. Fitch (PhD, Northwestern University) is the B. R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and the cofounder of Missio Alliance. He is the founding pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community, a missional church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, and is currently on the pastoral staff at Peace of Christ Church in Westmont, Illinois.