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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Modern Theology?

I just finished reading a book called The Importance of Being Foolish, by Brennan Manning. It's one of those books that you feel compelled to read. After all, it has a by-line under the title, "How to think like Jesus." It seemed like a noble cause. So I bought the book and began reading it. Now that I've finished it, I have to confess to feeling more than a little cheated. It reminded me of another book I tried to read recently, Jesus Made in America, by Stephen J. Nichols. It also had a catchy by-line, "A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of the Christ." Again, a seemingly worthy endeavor - so I had bought that book and started reading it.

But I have to confess that Jesus Made in America isn't a book I could stick with. I didn't finish it. In fact, I was so irritated by it that I wanted to haul it to Half Price Books instantly. The Importance of Being Foolish was a little more endearing, so I continued to read it. But now that I've finished it, I honestly cannot tell you what the book was about. There was little in it that was remarkable, save for a few catchy quotes in the text. The author (Manning) seems to have an affinity for twelve-step programs and gives classic descriptions of denial. Oddly enough, he seems to be describing most of the current Christian culture with his twelve-step vernacular.

So what's the problem here? Well, like so many other books I've picked up, authors like these talk a lot but say very little. They espouse wisdom, but provide no practical application. They like to wax poetic and intellectualize most of the biblical truths that they claim to be magnifying. Several times, for example, I had to re-read parts of what Manning was writing --- just to figure out what the heck he was trying to say. They use words like "existential" or "paschal." Does the common reader have any idea what such words mean? (Even if you looked them up in the dictionary, I suspect you'd still wonder what "existential' means!)

I once contemplated going to seminary. A dear friend, pastor and licensed counselor who has completed seminary training, told me, "Larry, don't do it. It will just mess you up!" I never really understood what he meant. I just concluded that I had a good reason not to spend time on seminary training. It seemed like convenient advice at the time. But for years I've wondered what I missed. Should I go to seminary? Others --- whose ministries I have less than utmost respect for --- have implored me to go to seminary. They insisted it is absolutely necessary for effective ministry (which they themselves are not engaged in).

In the last couple of years, I've gotten involved with some seminarians (graduates of seminary). With doctorate degrees in theology and other seminary credentials, these are smart guys. They asked me to help train pastors. They've asked me to help write and edit curriculum for what they consider seminary-level training for pastors. I just finished editing five different courses on major doctrines of the Bible. Through that experience, I gained some valuable insight. When I began, I thought I would acquire some intelligence that I lacked. As I finished though, I found the experience to be much like my recent reading endeavors. The courses seemed to talk much but say little.

So I'm wondering about these people, these academic intellectuals, who like to study the Bible and write ad nauseum about what it means or says. I think back to what the Scripture says about understanding the Bible --- that the Holy Spirit has to help me or I won't get it. I wonder if these guys know that. It seems they feel compelled to explain Scripture to death. They invent new words like, "the Pauline theory" --- a major theory of the Apostle Paul. They'll use words like the "Timothean writings" --- the writings of Timothy. I can't find such words in my Bible. I'm not sure that if something is a theory of Paul's it could also be God-breathed. I wonder if these academeans have considered that.

I'm pondering the fact that there is a very real danger here. It is the danger that the power of Scripture could get rendered impotent by man's intellectual fiddling. It is the risk that people who read this stuff will mess the message and wonder of Scripture. They'll fail to be hit between the eyes or moved to radical belief in what God speaks to them through Scripture. Why? It seems to me that we could very well spend all our time explaining, analyzing and cataloguing Scripture ... only to completely miss the message.

When I consider God; when I read His Word ... I am amazed. Simply amazed. This awesome God calls me out among all others. He asks me to believe the unbelievable. He promises me the inconceivable. And He creates a life in me that is beyond my wildest imaginations. I don't think it's Pauline, or Timothean, or even existential. I think it is the miracle of Christ Jesus, living in me. You see, I have a problem with the Bible. I think it's real. I take it at face value and believe God on His Word. I don't need to analyze or dissect it. I just take it and believe it. If I stumble on any parts that seem unbelievable, I get on my knees and confess those to God. And He helps my unbelief.

So my conclusion is that it is good to be educated about the Bible and its teachings. However, a seminary education isn't what transforms us. One of the central teachings of the Bible is that the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to understand it. The Holy Spirit does the teaching and the transforming. I wonder if seminaries get the difference. How does one keep a balance on intellectual knowledge versus spiritual transformation?

It's been several years now since my friend, the seminary graduate, told me not to go to seminary because it would just mess me up. But I'm finally beginning to understand what he meant. When I read God's Word today, I stand in awe and wonder at this amazing God who is too big for me to even comprehend. Quite honestly, I'm more certain than ever that I don't want to lose that sense of wonder or awe. I don't want any education to "screw that up!"

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