Elite “Theology” and the God of the Humble

“Out of the mouth of babes you have ordained praise” Matt 21:16 (ESV)

This week I preached a sermon on Matthew 11 and have been working on a book on reforming the training of pastors. The thesis of that book is that the many crises of the contemporary Western church are connected by a single thread, which also happens to be the biggest problem with our contemporary institutions for pastoral training, namely, a problem of theology. I don’t mean to say “theology” is the problem without any qualification but that a particular view of theology that is prominent among Evangelicals is a problem. I was once again struck as I worked on this sermon by the disjunction between that theological culture and Jesus’ words.

Jesus gives hope to weak and lowly; Jesus invites those the world conceives of as nothing to come follow him; Jesus used lowly, weak men to be his emissaries; and Jesus exalts the humble, broken, and miserable in his kingdom. In contrast, this theology exalts the intelligent and the powerful, it marginalises the weak, the impoverished, and the child. Jesus promises to reveal himself to children; this theology declares that only academics are fit to speak about God. Explore this with me in this post.

First, consider the sort of theology that is being commended. Someone may object that this theology is a popular trend among academic Christians but is not to be confused with the sort of “theology” pastors are required to have. Someone may say, yes, theology is a highly academic discipline, but pastors aren’t theologians (at least not in this sense). So second, consider that this theology is being urged for pastors and is pitched in such language that pastors cannot be excluded from its purview. Third, contrast this with the New Testament teaching on the knowledge of God, the accessibility of Scripture, and the pastoral role.

1.    An Elite Theology

Among the books I have read recently and from the scholars I have engaged with, it is clear to me that a certain type of theology is gaining a broad following among Evangelicals.1 It’s the sort of theology that John Webster describes as aiming towards universal, necessary truths, a theology that engages with Scripture and the knowledge of God in a rigorously intellectual, philosophically informed, and academic manner, like the Medieval and Reformed Scholastics.2 For the latter, “scholasticism” described a method of engaging with theological topics derived from Scripture, tracing theology topics from their explanatory principles to their effects or vice versa.3 For contemporary Evangelicals, it involves re-appropriating the Early Church for today’s concerns, an endeavour known as ressourcement, and re-articulating the “Classical” model of theism, based largely on the works of Aquinas.4 Theology in this manner is often done in a philosophical register, based on Aquinian and Aristotelian philosophy, and makes a firm distinction between God as he is in himself and God as he is revealed in the economy of salvation. Like the Reformed Scholastic model, the eternal, timeless principles of God in himself are connected with their effects in the economy of salvation. Thus, this theology is not merely the teaching of Scripture, its application or explication, as has been commonly taught by Evangelicals in the 20th century,5, nor is it arranging and explicating the teaching Scripture as in Hodge’s model.6 No, this involves a “second exegesis,” as the teaching of Scripture is brought into engagement with the theological tradition and thought through in deeper level.7 This is a theology that looks through the teaching Scripture, and using the tools of philosophy and historical theology, aims a knowledge of God not available from a simple reading of Scripture, or so seems to be the claim. Listen to the words of prominent author, Craig Carter,

No one can be an expert in everything, but statements about God constitute theology, and theology is a single activity. Anyone who wishes to do theology of any sort—from Old Testament exegesis to systematic theology—needs basic competence in all of the following areas: the history of philosophy and theology, biblical languages, biblical hermeneutics, biblical introduction, the history of biblical interpretation, biblical theology, and dogmatic theology. To ask that it be made easier is to ask the impossible; it cannot be less complicated than it is. Asking that theologians without competencies in all these areas be allowed to do theology is like demanding that a person with only high school biology be allowed to perform surgery. It can be done, but the results will not be pretty.8

He is not alone in this, consider the popular books by Matthew Barrett, James Dolezal, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer.9 Notice, first, how they dismiss theologians who practice a theology of Biblical exposition as “compromised,” tricked into playing the Modernist agenda by not following the tradition closely enough, “ashamed of historic orthodoxy as though it is somehow outdated.”10 In essence, their theology “can be nothing less than a depredation of [God’s] fullness of life and existential absoluteness,” with “idolatrous implications.”11 This “relational theism” is tantamount to “monopolytheism.”12 According to Carter, Dolezal is too “unfailingly polite” to make an accusation of “heresy,” though it would seem that title would be apt.13 Many of our recent theologians are, it seems, simply not smart enough or learned enough to do this theology, such as Bruce Ware, J. I. Packer, John Frame.14 They are not only complicit in the modern, liberal project as its “conservative wing,” playing by its rules “without understanding what game they are playing or what its rules actually are”; they are “well-meaning but confused.”15 This academic heavy lifting isn’t optional; it cannot be made any easier.8

In response to this, you may suggest that the authors quoted above are not speaking of the sort of theology intended when they speak of “pastor-theologians” or when they say that pastors need to be theological and preach doctrine. However, when we look closely, this is exactly what they mean.

2.    Pastor-Theologians

Pastors don’t know God in a different way than this, which would allow them to avoid all this labour. They don’t have a different “theology.” It is clear that this theology is the theology commended for pastors.

Craig Carter states that this sort of theology is necessary to make “statements about God.” Surely pastors make statements about God! For that matter, everyone in our congregation ought to be comfortable making statements about God. According to Carter, this sort of theology is necessary to do so. But he is not the only one identify theology of this sort with the pastoral vocation.

In a Gospel Coalition article, Doug Sweeney writes that we need pastors whose ministry of the Word “is profound and systematic,” and seminaries are essential for this, for only there can you find “a rich and varied menu of specialized studies in fields related to Christian ministry—ancient languages and history, church history, philosophy, psychology, hermeneutics, intercultural studies, and so on.” Education is not necessary “to maintain the status quo” (which Sweeney is not happy with), “but to reform and improve the church one needs to understand its problems and have access to the tools by which we can solve them” (namely, those just given above). Reformation, after all, “is usually led by intellectuals.” If we aren’t sure about the sort of theology he has in mind, “systematic theology, insofar as it is distinguished from biblical, historical, philosophical, psychological, and intercultural theology, is the work of generalists, people who synthesize the findings of those in the other scholarly disciplines and neither have nor require a methodology of their own.”16

The structure of our many seminaries testifies to this concern. At Regent College and Moore Theological College, to pick the two schools I have attended recently, the theology taught was the sort that Carter, Dolezal, and Sweeney are arguing for, historically and philosophically informed, interdisciplinary, and intellectually rigorous systematic theology. At Moore College, this is presented as part of the curriculum necessary to minister in local Anglican churches; at Regent College, this is part of the curriculum for training lay Christians to live and think Christianly in their workplaces and churches. Thus, at least some seminaries reinforce the claim I have made above, that this sort of theology is necessary for pastoral ministry.

Thus far, we have seen that the “theology” urged by many in contemporary Evangelical circles is a rigorously intellectual discipline that requires immense learning and great ability. This theology is not reserved for the halls of academia alone, for it is urged upon pastors as well. The question now facing us is how this theology holds up when compared with the Biblical teaching on pastoral ministry, the knowledge of God, and the Bible.

3.    The God of the Weak

To make statements about God, to speak truthfully about him, someone apparently needs to be well educated in a modern institute of higher education, with a good grasp of a range of disciplines. Such theology is necessary to read the Bible accurately, so good, true biblical exegesis requires someone to have this same education. As exegetes of Scripture and teachers of God and his ways, pastors must, therefore, be highly educated in modern institutions with a strong grasp on a broad range of disciplines.  Such are the doctrines of the many Evangelicals, or so it would appear. The knowledge of God is, apparently, the privileged possession of the elites of Western society, who have access to and the money to afford—not to mention the intellectual ability to engage in—the sort of study required to do this theology. Similarly, the right interpretation of Scripture is theirs also. So also pastoral ministry—long live the pastor-theologians! Except this appears to be the exact opposite of the biblical teaching. It is so far from the Bible’s teaching that it is hard to actually argue against it without recourse to the claim, “just read the Bible!” However, I will refrain from doing so. Let me attempt to illustrate how the Bible teaches the opposite.

First, the Bible indicates that everyone knows God and that even babies are capable of making true statements about God. In Romans 1, we are told that the invisible attributes and power of God are known to unbelievers, though they hold this truth in an unrighteous manner (applying to the creature what is apt only of the creator).17 Then, in Matthew 21:16, Jesus commends the praises rendered unto him by young children, God having ordained praise—true words about him—from their mouths. God has revealed the understanding of his kingdom not to “the wise and intelligent”—indeed, he has hidden it from such as these (Matt 11:25). No, God has revealed these things “to infants” (Matt 11:25).18 According to Jesus his kingdom belongs to children and those who, like them, come humbly to God (Matt 18:3-6; 19:14).

I, for one, struggle to reconcile the sort of childlike humility commended by Christ and the claim that speaking truthfully about God requires great intellectual feats and the social standing sufficient to attain such feats. As Paul says, “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is God’s power, for it is written, ‘I destroy the wisdom of the wise, and thwart the understanding of the intelligent’” (1 Cor 1:18-19). In contrast to the experts of the law and the debaters (1 Cor 1:20), God has chosen “the foolish things of the world to put the wise to shame,” “the weak of the world to put the strong to shame,” and “the insignificant and despised God has chosen, those who were nothing, in order to nullify those who were something” (1 Cor 1:26-28). The result? “No living thing will have a boast before God” (1 Cor 1:29). God is not known as one who exalts the intelligent and well-off, the elites; no, he is the God who “opposes the proud” (1 Pet 5:5); he “puts down one and exalts another” (Ps 75:7). God has a pattern of exalting the lowly, oppressed and nothings of the world, simultaneously bringing low the rich and accomplished (who are often considered very negatively). This is seen, for example, across the book of Samuel, given programmatically in Hannah’s song (1 Sam 2:1-11) and witnessed in the contrasting fates of Saul and David. David, certainly not a scholar, meditated on the Law and, by the Holy Spirit, uttered many statements about God in the form of Psalms. In Ezekiel 34, God will seek the lost, bring back those who have wandered, bind up the wounds of the injured, strengthen the weak, but he will “destroy the fat and the strong” (Ezek 34:16). When the Holy Spirit is poured out, God declares, “your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18, ESV). Surely “prophecy” will involve statements about God, is faithfulness, promises, character, and past, present, or future deeds.

Second, the Bible is given to and expected to be understood by men and women of all ages, with no qualification about their academic achievement. Parents are to teach God’s words and the meaning of the signs and symbols he has delivered to their children (Deut 6:6-9, 20-25). Young men are to meditate on God’s word and the commandments therein (Psalm 119:9-16). Joshua, whom we are not told was educated, was told to meditate on the Law continually; surely he understood it (Josh 1:8-9). The Proverbs are a word from a parent to their child, installing in them Godly wisdom. The word of God, according to the Psalmist, is a light for our path (Psalm 119:105), and “the unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:130; 19:7). Timothy was taught the word from childhood (2 Tim 3:15). There is nothing in Scripture that would suggest God intended it to be text that requires an academic degree or level of understanding to unfold. It presupposes throughout that men and women, young or old, come to the Scriptures to receive their most important education. The Bible is the presupposition of understanding.

Third, those God actually chose as his instruments were not the best and brightest, the intellectually accomplished, but almost entirely were the opposite. In the Old Testament, Moses complained about his lack of eloquence and insufficiency to lead the people and be God’s spokesman (Exod 4:10-17). In the New Testament, none of the twelve Apostles are identified as learned or exceptionally intelligent; instead, Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fisherman, and Matthew was a tax collector. Paul, Luke, and Apollos where intelligent and good with words, yet Paul at least puts no stock on his accomplishments (Gal 1:11-14; Phil 3:7-11). God never states that he expects the leaders of his churches to be any different. He expects them to be able to teach, but judging from the Apostles’ examples, even fisherman may be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:1-2; 2 Tim 2:24; Titus 1:9). There is simply no warrant in Scripture to require intelligence and academic accomplishment of a pastor, let alone as the precondition of “making statements about God.”

Conclusion

Knowledge of God, in the Bible, is something ever human possesses. Though we hold this truth in an unrighteous manner, God through Scripture is willing and able to correct this error. Men and women, young and old, can know God and can proclaim their faith in praise and adoration. Parents are to teach their children God’s words so that they might know him. Knowledge of God is for everyone, so it is not surprising that the teachers whom God chooses for himself are not special or unique other than the fact that God called them. The apostles were good fishermen, not scholars, and Paul was a persecutor of Christ’s church—distinguished by his sin, not his positive achievements. We may conclude that whatever theology pastors possess, and I certainly want to maintain that they should know theology—they should know God and know his word and be able to teach others about him from his word—whatever theology pastors possess is not the “theology” of contemporary Evangelicalism.

This article is part of the Training Initiative, read more here or find related posts here.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

  1. “Evangelicals” as a label is perhaps unhelpful, for the breadth of its coverage makes it difficult to track trends. Many people call themselves “Evangelicals” who do not even regularly attend church; among those who trust in Jesus and regularly participate in a local church, there is a wide range of theological beliefs. Many under the Evangelical banner would disavow the need for an educated pastorate, especially among the Pentecostal denominations and related churches (though some Pentecostal denominations now require ordained clergy to be theologically trained). However, among the Reformed Evangelicals, those who would associate with mainline Reformed denominations (Presbyterians, Anglicans, Reformed Churches, etc.) or Reformed Baptist denominations, as well as independents who would align with the traditions of the Reformed churches, there is a clear trend in theology. I deduce from the outcome of the 2017 JETS that either Reformed Evangelicalism is a large group within Evangelicalism or that the sort of theology I am discussing is bigger than Reformed Evangelicalism; I am not in a place to determine which is correct. []
  2. John Webster, “What Makes Theology Theological?,” in God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, vol. I of T&T Clark Theology (London ; New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016). []
  3. Richard A. Muller and Richard A. Muller, Prolegomena to Theology, 2. ed., Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics : The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 / Richard A. Muller Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2003). []
  4. On ressourcement, Hans Boersma, Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 2, https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199229642.001.0001; Patricia Kelly, Ressourcement Theology: A Sourcebook (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020), 1; D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition (Evangelical Ressourcement): The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Baker Books, 2005), 10.. For the “Classical Theist” endeavour, see James E. Dolezal, God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011); James E. Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Grand Rapids, Mic: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017); Matthew Barrett, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019); Steven J. Duby, Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account, T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology volume 30 (London ; New York: Bloomsbury, 2016); Steven J. Duby, Jesus and the God of Classical Theism: Biblical Christology in Light of the Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2022); Craig A. Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021). []
  5. John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1987); John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2013); Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Academic, 2020); Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013). []
  6. “If natural science be concerned with the facts and laws of nature, theology is concerned with the facts and the principles of the Bible. If the object of the one be to arrange and systematize the facts of the external world, and to ascertain the laws by which they are determined; the object of the other is to systematize the facts of the Bible, and ascertain the principles or general truths which those facts involve. And as the order in which the facts of nature are arranged cannot be determined arbitrarily, but by the nature of the facts themselves, so it is with the facts of the Bible.” Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Oak Harbor, Wash: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), Vol. 1, pg. 18. []
  7. Carter, Contemplating God, 31–44, 270. []
  8. Carter, Contemplating God, 324. [] []
  9. In addition to the books cited above, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, 1st ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005); Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine 18 (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). []
  10. Carter, Contemplating God, 306, quoted in  J. Alexander Rutherford, “Of Metaphysics and Theology,” JETS 66.4 (2023): 729. []
  11. Dolezal, All That Is in God, 6–7, quoted in J. Alexander Rutherford, “Of Metaphysics and Theology,” JETS 66.4 (2023): 729. []
  12. Barrett, None Greater, 43–45. []
  13. Carter, Contemplating God, 326. []
  14. Carter, Contemplating God, 298; Dolezal, All That Is in God, 21–35, 71–73. []
  15. Carter, Contemplating God, 324–26, 330–31. []
  16. Douglas A Sweeney, “A Call and Agenda for Pastor-Theologians,” blog, The Gospel Coalition, 16 June 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/a-call-and-agenda-for-pastor-theologians/. []
  17. See the discussion of this passage in J. Alexander Rutherford, The Trinity and the Bible: How All Scripture Testifies to One God in Three Persons, Teleioteti Technical Studies 3 (Campbell River, BC: Teleioteti, 2022). []
  18. My translations []

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