Examining the de facto agnosticism of theological education

Examining the de facto agnosticism of theological education December 9, 2022

My friend, David Watson describes a tension that no Christian who studies Scripture can escape: the competing claims of the church and the academy.  The former believes that Scripture is “God-breathed” and that – while it is a product of specific historical settings and it cannot be applied without careful interpretation – it is a vehicle for the Holy Spirit.  We read Scripture, but it reads us, as well. The latter holds that the Bible is simply library of documents composed by human beings and that what matters most are the human, religious, historical, and social dynamics that shape its content.  Any interest in its convictions about God, the human condition, and the purpose of life is of secondary interest and is an obstacle to accurate interpretation.  The last of these enforces a de facto agnosticism.

Students of Scripture, including seminarians, are exposed to this tension, and whether they pursue a doctoral degree in biblical studies or they take basic courses in biblical studies en route to a Masters of Divinity, they are forced to choose.  The tension is inescapable, in part because their own professors have been marinated in the same crucible and have made a choice; in part because the complex nature of Scripture forces students to explore how to reconcile the convictions that the church holds about the place and nature of Scripture with the complex nature of the text itself; and in part because the over-specialized nature of theological studies has forced those who interpret Scripture and those who talk about its place in our faith into separate disciplines.

As someone whose research degree was originally in New Testament studies and who belongs to the same academic societies that David describes in his article, I think that it is fair to say that a significant number of biblical scholars– though certainly not all – end up embracing some version of the de facto agnosticism advanced by the academy.  There are a variety of reasons for this: As hard as it might be for some to believe, some scholars lack faith commitments that would intrude on the academy’s metaphysical assumptions.  As David notes, some are people who were overwhelmed by the questions that modern biblical scholarship raises and because the metaphysical assumptions that underpin that approach are never acknowledged or examined, sso they look more objective than they actually are.  Other academics and students come from fundamentalist backgrounds and begin their studies with such weak and simplistic theological categories that they are never able to find a way forward, so they surrender the effort.  And, frankly, still others embrace the academy’s point of view because it is simply easier to fit in and find employment.

David’s article got me thinking about the years that I spent attending the same meetings, and I would offer some observations that aren’t meant as an objection to his article, but as an elaboration on the point that he makes:

What is at stake is not just a different vocation, but the spiritual formation of the church itself.  If the church’s theological educators and clergy begin their task by embracing de facto agnosticism, more often than not they end up inculcating a de facto agnosticism.  As a colleague of mine once put it, “We Protestants gave people the Bible and then taught them not to trust it.”

This does not mean that we ought to push simplistic, fundamentalist categories on people, nor does it mean that we should ignore the literary, social, religious, and historical complexity of the Bible.  But it does mean that as educators and clergy with a vocation to teach the apostolic faith, we ought to offer a sound, sophisticated, defensible, and faithful approach to the use and interpretation of Scripture.

The importance of that effort is apparent in the new passion for “deconstructing” the faith.  That word means many things to many people, and if it entails deconstructing fundamentalist categories, it may well be necessary.  But it is a process that is spiritually poisonous, if deconstruction is an end itself.  Spiritual formation entails offering people a sound, life-giving way forward on the journey into God in Christ.

Finally, it is worth noting that the tension that David identifies goes well beyond biblical studies.  The de facto agnosticism that bedevils biblical studies can be found in every theological discipline, including systematic theology, spirituality, and even liturgics.  Clergy, whose vocation and vows are to teach the apostolic faith, should examine their own theological preparation to ask whether it prepared them adequately to address that tension.  David’s reflection is a great prompt to do that work.

Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash

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