This is a follow-up on Nathaniel Gray Sutanto’s recent post, “Theology, Sphere Sovereignty, and the University.”
I completely agree with Sutanto’s view, developed from Schleiermacher and Bavinck, that “the Church needs specialists who would research, investigate, and analyze the ‘essence’ of Christianity in a conducive, scientific (wissenschaftliche) sense,” and that “theology’s role in the university… is not so much to serve the theoretical needs of ecclesial leaders, but to unify the various disciplines undertaken in the university.” On Sutanto’s view, academic theology in the university as such is burdened with a sacred vocation that the seminary cannot fulfil, a view that may not necessarily apply in the context of the Chinese-speaking world in which I reside.
Sutanto’s article speaks sharply and appropriately into the Indonesian situation, which is in many ways very similar to the cultural milieu of Chinese Christianity. The scenario that he depicts is all too familiar to me: “I’ve lost count of how many times particular educators in Indonesia have accused of ‘academics’ about their lack of a ‘fighting spirit,’ a ‘missionary zeal’ or ‘evangelistic fervor’ precisely because their professors spend all their time teaching classes and writing books (those, apparently, don’t really count).”
To be sure, serious academic theology is not entirely foreign to universities in the Chinese-speaking world. Chung Yuan Christian University in Taiwan is home to a number of elite theological scholars, as well as the world-class academic journal Sino-Christian Studies. The Divinity School of Chung Chi College, a constituent college of one of Asia’s very top universities, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is known for having exerted considerable social influence within and beyond the university through respectable scholarship. Even in mainland China where atheism is the official religion, theological research has gained firm footing in elite universities like Peking, Fudan, Zhejiang, Renmin, etc. under the title of Christian philosophy or religious studies.
What worries me, however, is the attitude of the majority of church leaders in the Chinese world toward this kind of serious theological research. For Schleiermacher, Bavinck, and Barth–to name but three of the greatest modern university theologians whose doctrinal outlooks differ vastly from one another–dogmatics is a science bound by the faith of the church to serve the understanding of the church. This is so even for Schleiermacher, whom many consider to be the father of modern liberal theology, hence the full title of his magnum opus, The Christian Faith: According to the Tenets of the Evangelical Church. For Schleiermacher, dogmatics is a science (Wissenschaft) that has as its object the history of the doctrinal expressions of the church’s religious feelings. For Bavinck and Barth, dogmatics has to be a science about God in which God is truly known and then studied. To say that theology is a science about God is to say that God can be known and has been known, and to assert the knowability of God is to acknowledge that God has spoken and revealed Godself to humankind. Thus Bavinck: “dogmatics is the knowledge that God has revealed in his Word to the church concerning himself and all creatures as they stand in relation to him.” Or, more simply, as my beloved master J. I. Packer has always told his students, “Theology is the study of God in relation to everything that is not God.”
If theology as a science is understood as such, then, according to Bavinck, “the imperative task of the dogmatician is to think God’s thoughts after him and to trace their unity.” This is precisely why Sutanto and I insist that theology–especially dogmatic theology–is the one science that lends unity and coherence to the diverse disciplines in the university as well as all spheres of our human existence.
Thus understood, the primary, though not exclusive, way in which an academic theologian is called to serve the church is to rigorously construe the basic framework of a Christian worldview (Barth is known for having rejected the notion of a Christian Weltanschauung, but by this term he is referring to a Schleiermacherian notion of world-intuition rather than the neo-Calvinist understanding of a Christian worldview) as the starting-point, the set of axiomatic presuppositions, from which all members of the church may understand their own vocations as well as all spheres of human life.
From my own observations, this sense of a Christian worldview is quite weak in most Chinese churches. Most Chinese Christians have a strong tendency to separate the secular from the sacred. A Christian businessperson can lie and cheat in his or her profession and avoid taxes legally or illegally, only to donate handsome sums of money to “sacred” purposes such as church buildings or Christian universities. A Christian politician may know very well from the gospel accounts of the crucifixion that the triumph of truth is not to be accomplished by means of popular opinion, but he or she would still organise a hundred thousand men and women to parade for or against gay marriage. For many, if not most, Chinese Christians, piety is a matter of the sacred sphere of life, and our knowledge of God has little to do with what they deem as secular spheres of human existence.
Such mutilation of the Christian faith in many Chinese churches goes hand in hand with the attitude of the majority of Chinese church leaders toward academic theology. The attitude is all too obvious: it is to evaluate the worth of academic theology by the standard of pragmatic agendas such as so-called “church growth,” ministry expansion, mass evangelism, ecclesial or social movements, etc.. The pragmatic view of learning that Chinese societies in general have inherited from Confucianism of old (notwithstanding Confucius’s proverb, “Once one hears the Tao in the morning, one can die [without regret] in the evening”) as well as John Dewey’s pragmatism and western neo-liberal views of education are so pervasive that even leaders of the church are indoctrinated with their errors.
For many Chinese church leaders, especially those of mega churches, studying God in relation to everything that is not God is a futile task, because it does not immediately enhance the pragmatic causes of church growth or ministry expansion. Academic theology is too inconvenient for these pragmatic agendas. Having to hear what a John Calvin or a Paul Tillich might have to say on this or that matter and to decide whom to follow is just too cumbersome. Theological reflection slows down the praxis of the church, and a leader preoccupied with church growth, ministry expansion, political influence, or other pragmatic agendas has no time to slow down to think God’s thoughts after God.
To be sure, most of these churches do teach and preach the Word of God. Those mega churches usually have an abundance of Bible study groups suitable for a variety of needs. Yet, this is precisely where the subtle but serious problem lies: knowledge of God and the understanding of faith are offered on the basis of needs.
In other words, the American “need-based” church model delivers right into the pragmatic mentality of Chinese Christianity, and in this model, knowing God becomes the means–sometimes convenient and sometimes inconvenient–by which to fulfil the false end of pragmatic needs of the church. To that end, shallow and fragmented knowledge of the scriptures would suffice; profound and systematic understanding of God in relation to everything that is not God would complicate the church’s pragmatic agendas. Finally, these churches become oblivious to their vocation to be the pillar and foundation of truth in this world; they forget that in God’s design of the church as the natural means of supernatural grace, theology (the understanding of faith–intellectus fidei), the purpose and all-inclusive content of which is doxology (praise and glory of God), is the end of praxis, and not the other way around.
In this grave situation, the majority of Chinese seminaries have done little to rescue academic theology from its demise. Perhaps China Graduate School of Theology in Hong Kong may be one exception, along with Taiwan Theological College and Seminary. I have good hope that the seminary to which I belong is in the process of joining these exceptions. The problem with the majority of Chinese seminaries today is that most of our professors are neither pastors (they do not perform pastoral duties like regular visitations, etc.) nor scholars (they rarely engage in academic research; they rarely converse with true scholars on cutting-edge topics of scientific theology; if they write books, these books are usually intended for non-academic readerships; they publish articles on academic journals not qualified to be listed on the A&HCI). Yet, in the churches and the ecclesiastical media, these professors, myself included, are honoured as both “scholars” and “pastors.”
When a true theological scholar like Sam Tsang finally comes along, the majority of Chinese church leaders and seminary professors would judge the value of his works solely on the basis of his doctrinal convictions (i.e., whether or not he is “liberal”). A Barthian like Ou Li-Jen, no matter how surpassingly outstanding his scholarship is, is rarely mentioned in the classrooms of a conservative evangelical seminary, let alone the churches out there.
Worse yet, many evangelical seminaries in East Asia are ultra-conservative/fundamentalist in praxis, but many of their professors indoctrinate students with theological ideas that are far from normative in evangelical churches. As a result, ministers trained at these seminaries can sometimes be bewilderingly inconsistent in faith and praxis. On one hand they could tell you that the Old Testament comprises both polytheistic and monotheistic tenets; or that one of the many authors of Genesis plagiarised some Babylonian myth; or that 1 and 2 Peter were written by different authors; or that Paul never taught the imputation of righteousness and non-imputation of sin as understood by the Reformers; or that Christ was born with original sin; or that Joseph was Jesus’s biological father. On the other hand they would tell you that smoking and drinking invoke the wrath of God; or that the Old Testament forbids tattoos; or that a pastor with a part-time job is an unfaithful servant; or that theological education is all about piety and that too much theological knowledge hinders true religion; or that sneaking out from the seminary dorms after curfew dishonours the name of the Lord (that’s exactly what it says on a warning note hanging against the window through which I climb out after the 11pm curfew); or that students of theology need to learn to serve God by doing weekly chores at the seminary.
It occurs to me that this type of seminary education is dangerous, because it fosters the kind of pragmatist anti-intellectualism that has pervaded modern Asian Christianity since its very inception, the cost of which is the very consistency of Christian thought and life to which all believers are called (and right at this juncture, some alumni of our seminary will ask me to point to at least one passage in the Bible that explicitly and directly states this idea–I wonder if they really learned anything in our systematic theology and exegesis classes).
But the question is, what can we do about this whole situation? As a seminary professor, I believe that the reversal of this unhappy marginalisation of academic theology in the churches must begin with significant changes in the seminaries.
Sure enough, the seminary is primarily tasked with training future ministers and missionaries. But does this mean that “theology fits into the university in a way that it cannot in the seminary”? I would argue otherwise, and my alma mater, Regent College, serves as a good example to explain why I would do so. Systematic theology and biblical theology constitute the core curriculum at the seminary, and next to these is the great spiritual theology tradition at Regent. Without engaging in a debate over the doctrinal soundness of these departments (some consider my friend and mentor Hans Boersma to be basically Eastern Orthodox, and the Old Testament scholar Iain Provan to be basically liberal–I have no interest in these labels), I would say that Regent provides a model of seminary education that dissolves traditional taxonomies (e.g. the Athens-Jerusalem-Geneva-Berlin taxonomy) that are generally unhelpful. The faculty at Regent College comprises academic historians, an economist, a sociologist, an art historian and artist, a former medical doctor, and a former BBC producer and director. In this way, theology at Regent regularly engages with other disciplines to establish the coherence of the Christian worldview, and students witness first-hand how, say, a sociologist like Craig Gay reflects on the issues of his discipline theologically.
Furthermore, at Regent College, praxis and practicum are allotted to the respective churches to which each student belongs. The seminary teaches practical theology rather than praxis. Even Darrell Johnson, Professor of Pastoral Theology at Regent who has decades of experience as senior pastor in a number of Presbyterian churches, would keep reminding us that his practical experience will always remain his own, and that what we could learn from him would be the theology guiding his praxis rather than the praxis itself. To expect the seminary to teach praxis on top of or even in place of practical theology is like asking Stephen Curry to do Draymond Green’s job and outmuscle LeBron James in rebounds and slam dunks instead of doing what Curry does best. Regent College has a very clear understanding of what seminary professors do best and how they can be at their best.
Of course, I am not claiming that a China Evangelical Seminary (where I presently serve) should follow the Regent model of seminary education–we do not even have the resources to do so. What we can and should do, however, is to follow Regent in knowing what theology professors do best, and take academic theology seriously as the intellectual basis of the Christian worldview.
If we want seminary professors to engage in real academic work, we have to stop expecting them to be pastor-scholars. The vocation of a pastor and that of a scholar are both sacred, but the two are vastly different, and the history of the church has shown that pastor-scholars or scholar-pastors are extremely rare. John Piper may be a scholarly pastor, but he is not a scholar in any serious sense of the word (his writings are not even remotely comparable in academic rigour to the works of a Richard Muller or a Willem van Asselt), and thus not a scholar-pastor (see Mark Jone’s Ref21 post on pastor-scholars).
More specifically, the duty of pastoring seminary students should not fall on the shoulders of the professors–we should hire a chaplain and a professional counsellor to do that. At China Evangelical Seminary, our professors are expected to participate in weekly group meetings in the capacity of the groups’ counsellors, and in that capacity we have to attend monthly counsellors’ meetings that usually take up two hours each time. Additionally, each semester we have to meet with every single group member separately for counselling sessions. Sometimes one of these sessions may last for up to two hours or more because of special circumstances. When a group member is due to preach a graduation sermon, the professor in charge of the group is expected to go over the manuscript with him or her in detail in advance (at least that is what my students expect of me). Even more, people from all the churches at which our professors have preached randomly flock to us for pastoral care, because even outside of our institution, seminary professors are regarded as the pastors of pastors. These pastoral duties may not seem to take up much time altogether, but as they are scattered throughout the week and the semester, the professor’s reading time would be truncated, and his or her concentration on research and writing would be disturbed.
Of course, research supervision also takes up time, but this is different from pastoral duties. Currently I am supervising two Th.M. students, and one of them is graduating this month. Meeting up with her to discuss her thesis has taken up quite a lot of time, but this kind of meetings are intellectually stimulating. Conversing with students on theological topics contributes positively to the cause of academic theology, whereas regular pastoral duties inevitably shifts one’s attention away from rigorous academic issues.
I am not saying that theological scholars should not be pastoral. I am only saying that aside from a very few exceptions, it is quite impossible for a person to be both a scholar and a pastor at once. A theological scholar should by all means develop a pastoral heart, but to assume a pastoral job or role is altogether a different matter.
The expectation for seminary professors to serve as the pastors of their students practically means that they can hardly ever fulfil their vocation as theologians of the church and for the church. Ideally, as theologians, these professors should be adept at their profession; they should be proficient in the trade of theological research; they should regularly refresh their theological knowledge by visiting the frontiers of their respective disciplines. Seminary professors are supposed to be virtuosos in the craft of academic theology. Yet, when they are expected to be pastor-scholars, usually they end up being neither pastors nor scholars, or, worse yet, pseudo-pastors and pseudo-scholars.
In this awkward position in which we become neither scholars nor pastors, we can hardly accomplish the sacred goal of seminary education: to train our students to become ministers of the Word and sacraments so that they can establish their churches as the pillar and foundation of truth in this world. The reason is that we ourselves have lost the rigour and vigour of the theological mind with which we were called to train our students to think theologically, that is, to think God’s thoughts after God and to trace the unity of these thoughts. There will always be a few nerdy students who are interested in academic theology for its own sake–the kind of students who are capable of setting forth doctrinal orthodoxy in ink without being able to search the heart of any reader. For the rest of the students at our seminaries, the kind of theology that their professors teach them is irrelevant to the life of the church. They fail to see how church-state relations in the framework of Protestant theology hinges upon some subtleties in, say, the doctrine of creation, because even their systematic theology professors are not sufficiently well-versed in this very discipline to recognise the correlations. As a result, they fail to see how the doctrine of election has anything to do with the next presidential election, and for many of them, the latter is much more pertinent to the pragmatic concerns of the church than the former.
In a word, theology becomes irrelevant in our churches, because our seminary professors are not adept enough at their profession as theologians. Our seminary professors lack proficiency in academic theology, because we have a longstanding tradition of conflating the vocation of the theological scholar with that of the pastor, and that tradition inevitably strips away the academic rigour that our seminary professors once had when they were still doctoral students.
If our churches are no longer to be oblivious to their collective calling as pillar and foundation of the truth, our seminaries have to start taking academic theology seriously. We have to respect the vocation of a theologian as no less sacred than that of a pastor. Seminary professors should be pastoral scholars, but they should not be expected to be pastor-scholars, because in the vast majority of cases, those who attempt to be pastor-scholars end up becoming pseudo-pastors and pseudo-scholars who are unfit to train future ministers of the church. Our seminaries may consider hiring research professors, setting up research programs, establishing research funds–all these can be very helpful. Ultimately, however, what matter most are, negatively speaking, our awareness of the dangers of the pragmatist mentality in Chinese culture at large, and, positively, our respect for theology as a science pertinent to every sphere of our human existence.