“No Man Can Serve Two Masters”: Church and Academy in Tension

So, the Church needs theology.  We’re all agreed on that, hopefully.  And as I argued in the last post, that means not merely listening to its own inchoate voice, but seeking to let that voice be clarified by careful interrogation from theology as a discipline.  We’d go to hell in a handbasket pretty quick if we relied on nothing but experts, but we’d also go to hell in a handbasket pretty quick if we tried to get by without experts.  (Needless to say, “experts” here should not be taken to signify “those who have all the answers,” but merely “those who have learned (or at any rate begun to learn) how to frame the questions.”) 

Having defended the role of theology as a discipline, I will now offer a few thoughts on the deep problems currently afflicting the relationship between this discipline and the Church it is called to serve. 

First, I think that pausing to meditate on this word “discipline” can help us think more clearly about what we’re talking about.  Of course, the term carries academic connotations—we speak of an “academic discipline” of sociology, or applied chemistry, or English literature, or whatever.  And so one might think that when I speak of “theology as a discipline” I’m referring to “theology as an academic department,” theology as part of the university, perhaps with seminaries thought of as sort of hangers-on that can also basically claim to be part of the academy.  But of course, “discipline,” fundamentally, means “training to act in accordance with rules” or “activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training” (to borrow from dictionary.com).  To say that we need theology as a “discipline” is to say that we need theology as a disciplined regimen of reflection, a trained skill of thinking.  That, of course, does not require institutional embodiment, and certainly not in the “academy” (whatever exactly that is), or the university.  


As a discipline, the task of theology represents a distinct (though not necessarily separate) calling from that of pastoral ministry and preaching.  We might be prone to wonder whether (as someone commented on the previous post) our problem started when we began to think that one could be a theologian without being a pastor, and perhaps that was the fault of the university.  After all, all the great early Church Fathers were churchmen—bishops, usually—occupied day in and day out with teaching, preaching, correcting, baptizing, and administration.  (Of course, even this generalization is too broad—think of Jerome.)  But the origin of the theologian-as-such did not come as the product of the universities, since the universities took over the task of theology by and large from the monasteries, which were the institutional context within which the discipline of theology was by and large nourished from the 6th century through the 13th.  Of course, the monastery was not necessarily detached from “church life”—from preaching and pastoral ministry.  There was a great deal of overlap and cross-pollination.  And certainly, the monasteries were a thoroughly liturgical context.  Nonetheless, it was possible to devote one’s life to study of the Scriptures and reflection upon God, without devoting one’s life to active Christian ministry. 

Of course, there are doubtless problems that can arise from this disjunction, but we would be foolish to deny that there are also benefits.  Clearly, when we think about the most important qualities in a good pastor or even a good preacher, rigor of theological reflection is probably not the highest.  Love, compassion, confidence, ability to communicate, perhaps authority—these are all essential qualities, and these are qualities that many a would-be-theologian does not have.  If we required, then, that all our theologians also be, or at the very least, first be, pastors, then we would be inflicting an awful lot of atrocious pastors on the Church.  But of course, many Christians who lack a superabundance of these relational gifts may possess intellectual gifts, or skill in written communication, as well as a passion to uncover the the depths of God’s truth and put it to the service of the Church.   They may be eminently qualified, in short, for the discipline of theology, and we would be unfairly depriving the Church if we insisted that none of these could engage in that discipline unless they were ordained ministers.  And of course, even for those gifted in both, there is the question of time; both tasks are enormously demanding, and there are few who can carry out both with consistent success.  Thus, we should speak of two distinct vocations (though of course it is quite possible that both may coincide in one person): the vocation of the theologian and the vocation of the minister. 

However, these are not simply two parallel occupations; there is a teleological relation.  The theologian is oriented to the service of the minister in a way that the minister is not to the theologian, because the task of theology is fundamentally to serve and build up the Church.  If philosophy is the handmaiden of theology, then theology is the handmaiden of ministry.  Of course, the minister is to serve every member of his flock and support them in all their lawful calllings, so to this extent he is to serve the theologian as well—but contingently.  The essence of the theologian’s task is to build up the Church, and therefore to help equip the minister (though of course also laypeople) in his task.  And this is where the question of institutional arrangement becomes pressing.  


In today’s world, the theologian occupies an odd position; he has a conflict of interest.  Whereas the carpenter’s task is to serve the architect, and so he relies on the architect for his paycheck, and the architect’s task is to serve the person who wants a new office building, and so he relies on this person for his paycheck, the theologian rarely makes his living off of the Church that he is called to serve.  He works in service of the Church, but he depends on “the academy” for his paycheck.  Whenever such a disjunction happens, it usually spells trouble (consider the current crisis of the healthcare industry, in which the doctor’s task is to serve the patient, but he relies on the insurance companies (or in most countries, the government) for his pay check).  We might think that this is only really a problem if people are being greedy, but this is not the case.  The theologian is rarely trying to get rich; he is just trying to make a living.  But to make a living, he has to please his employer, and his employer, therefore, will in large part set the agenda for what he does.  He may earnestly wish to serve the Church, and yet he has limited time and resources, so he can hardly let the Church set the agenda for his work if the academy is also doing so.  

Of course, “the academy” is a vague bogeyman if there ever was one, but perhaps we all have enough of an idea of what I mean for the following contrast to make some sense.  A theologian in service of the Church will be attentive to the needs of the church of which he finds himself a part, or the churches with which he finds himself connected.  He will ask what their urgent questions are, what serious confusions hamper their grasp of the Gospel and their witness to the world, what errors threaten their faith.  And then he will set himself the task of teaching and writing to answer these questions, clarify these matters of confusion, refute these errors.  He will teach and write in such a way, not necessarily so as to be understood by each and every churchgoer (indeed, how could that be possible), but at least in such a way that his contributions may be mediated to the church as a whole by its leaders and its most thoughtful and engaged members.  He will, moreover, seek to spend enough time immersed in its life and its discussions that he may not only clearly know the questions of its members, but also learn from their own insights and experiences.  How will the theologian engaged in this task fare in the academy?  He may succeed well—many have—but the minefield through which he has to navigate is not one through which the route to success is clear.   

As his paymaster, the academy will expect the theologian to demonstrate his ability to fruitfully engage with the vexing questions that preoccupy the academic discipline, his ability to contribute some new knowledge to their discussion.  The academy will not necessarily think much of his interest in the petty and naive questions that trouble ordinary churchgoers, it will not necessarily think much of his determination to draw on and preserve ancient wisdom, his reticence to say anything novel, or his engagement with un-respectable and unsophisticated interlocutors.  It will expect him to engage with academic secondary literature instead, and the more he is engaging with sources that the ordinary congregant would never so much have heard of, the better.  It will expect him to bring out some new and innovative opinion, rather than simply saying “to the law and to the testimony!”  It will expect him to invest his time in engaging and debating the most prestigious, sophisticated, and up-to-date scholars, not some podunk seminarian.  Attempts to ward off errors facing the church, if these errors lack academic respectability, will be seen as a waste of time.  He will be expected to spend his time attending conferences, reading articles, and writing articles, not chatting with pastors and parishioners, or attending Bible studies.  

The young theologian will find himself particularly lost in this minefield.  An established theologian, one who has secured his living and his reputation, has earned for himself a certain leisure devote himself to issues that are of concern to the Church, not merely the academy; perhaps even more importantly, he will be more able to see the whole big picture, and so to see how questions raised within ordinary congregations relate to questions that matter at the highest levels of academic reflection as well; he will find issues on which he can engage on both levels at once.  For the young theologian, however, who has not yet climbed high enough to see the whole lay of the land, this kind of perspective is difficult.  He must, it often seems, choose which set of questions he will address, and which audience he will address, and he only has the time and resources to address one; after all, he’d rather get through grad school sooner rather than later.  Financially threadbare and without an established reputation, he cannot risk investing time or resources in projects that will not help him climb the academic ladder.  He must consent, only temporarily he hopes, to set aside his larger dreams of serving the Church, and simply do his time in the discipline, closeting himself away in academic journals and academic conferences.  He looks for points of intersection, to be sure, but they are often hard to find, and his imagination is perhaps stultified by the narrow walls of the specialized sub-discipline within which he must work.

Once he has completed this regimen of training, although he may at last now have more leisure to return to the concerns that originally motivated his study of theology, he may find that the passion has been smothered, that he has become so habituated into this way of life that he has by now forgotten how to do theology in service to the Church.  He no longer can speak the language of ordinary Christians; even ministers seem hopelessly naive and provincial.  Engagement no longer seems even possible, much less profitable, and so his paymaster—the academy—wins in the end, and he devotes his life to its service.


This is a bleak tale, to be sure, and I do not pretend to say that this is a universal experience, or that the chasm between church and academy is yet so unbridgeable as this implies.  So much great work is still being done on the intersection between the two, and new ways of bridging them are being thought up all the time by Christian scholars and churchmen.  But we would be foolish not to recognize that we are in a predicament, if not perhaps quite yet a crisis, and some serious thinking by those on both sides of this divide is called for.

In a third post, I hope to at last move around to some possible solutions to this predicament.

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