Mary is so very excited because today she will begin her first seminary class focused exclusively on scripture. In fact, she gets to spend a whole semester delving into her favorite book, Ephesians. Mary has only come to believe in the great truths of the good news about Jesus Christ within the last few years. Nonetheless, the impact scripture has had upon her understanding and the beautiful changes it has produced in her life have convinced her that this good news can transform anyone, just as she has been so wonderfully transformed.
Mary has a good grasp on the scriptures as she has spent considerable time in them. Ephesians has been especially helpful, yet she has questions. What does it mean that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world? What exactly are these other powers, authorities, and dominions? How are we to understand the recurring motif of light/darkness? So she waits in anticipation for the professor to arrive and open up the scriptures in ways she has heretofore not considered.
The professor walks into the room. With cold calculation and stern appearance he begins without a prayer, “What are the first questions we must ask as we begin to think about Ephesians?” This question must be rhetorical Mary thinks, because he accepts no response but continues, “Who and when. Who wrote Ephesians and when was Ephesians written? This is where we must start.”
This startles Mary. It had never occurred to her to ask, “Who wrote Ephesians?” In fact she had simply assumed that Paul had written Ephesians since it clearly states as much. Now she begins to wonder. As the professor delineates the reasons for and against Pauline authorship Mary concludes that this class will not be as she had assumed. Nonetheless, she listens intently…after all this is a biblical scholar.
Most Christians who have received training in some form of the historical critical method will probably be able to relate an experience similar to Mary’s. I once heard a professor say that it took him tens years after he graduated seminary before he could worshipfully approach scripture again. The problem was not a lack of desire to approach scripture in such a manner, but the simple fact that the ‘questions’ would not allow for such an approach. They kept creeping up and would not let him be.
I realize that dichotomies are dangerous; even so it seems to me that there are two types of people that walk out of these classes. On the one hand there are those who accept what they are given and are caught…hook, line, and sinker. On the other hand, there are those who struggle to keep some semblance of the faith they came in with and in fact they succeed. But let it be known, no one comes out unscathed. Once the cat is out of the bag, it is near impossible to contain it without getting scratched.
My experience was one of repulsion and sheer shock. Like Mary I came in expecting to be encouraged and given insight into the scriptures in such a way that I would be enabled to encourage and give insight to others. Let me be clear, I did receive encouragement and insight, but at a cost. My experience both in undergrad and seminary was one of intense spiritual struggle. I would assert that I came out of that experience with strength of faith that would not have been possible otherwise. However, I have seen many others come out of that experience full of questions, simply skeptical, or worse…faithless. Some have become stronger and some have left the faith as something so historically conditioned as to have no transcendent truth value. And of course there are those who no longer believe, but they still fill a pulpit because they do not know what else to do or they believe that not-believing is appropriate and hope in some way they can help those poor believing sheep.
Upon reflection, there are a number of reasons why I came out from this ‘training’ with a stronger faith instead on no faith. First (and probably most important), I came to believe in the great truths of the gospel during a period in my life when I was purely empty, hopeless, and miserable. That being the case, when I finally sat down to read the scriptures I was open. I was so ‘hungry’ that I did not approach the scriptures with any critical stance in place. I simply let the scriptures speak to me and did not assume that I had any better ideas. Immediately, I began to pray and seek. I wanted hope so bad that I was willing to submit to what I was reading and to the One the scriptures concerned. Of course, looking back the submission was not complete, but it was enough.
Having approached the scriptures in this manner made all the difference in the world. My life changed and I found a hope and peace I had never imagined, much less experienced. This experience itself was invaluable. My father often says that the individual with the experience will always have it over the one with the argument. For example, I can explain to you the value and importance of true friendship, but you will not know what I speak of until you have the experience of true friendship yourself. All of this to say, when I entered bible classes and the professors began to undercut the clear statements I had found in scripture, they were always competing with an experience I could not deny.
The second thing that was so important concerns the philosophical training I was receiving. I was developing certain skills and habits that allowed me to ‘see’ unspoken assumptions, implications, and inconsistencies. I was critical enough to not simply accept all I was told without investigating the claims for myself. Some of this developing critical attitude had to do with my age (I was 30 when I returned to school, so some of my professors were close to my age) and I knew that just because these individuals had Ph.D.’s did not mean they were right. Be that as it may, without the training in logic and critical thinking that I had in place, I am not sure I would have been able to navigate all that I was being offered.
So why do I believe this discussion is important? At the risk of being reductionistic, it is my assertion that virtually all of the problems and difficulties that the mainline denominations are experiencing can be traced back to how scripture is treated and understood.
I hear people complain that the numbers of the mainline denominations are rapidly declining. Of course the numbers are declining. We are training people to fill the pulpits who in increasing numbers do not believe the very things they are asked to expound. The effect is inversely proportional. If the number of unbelieving leaders increases, then the number of listeners seeking believing leaders decreases. People may not be able to clearly identify what is wrong with what they are hearing, but they can sense it. The faith is not something that can be played with for those who truly seek. Seekers will leave anemic faith offerings for the gospel that does not return empty.
In the next few posts (I have no idea how many) I will 1) explain what I find wrong with the way scriptures are taught in mainline seminaries, 2) offer a seminary model that neither ignores the critical positions out there nor assumes a feigned naiveté, and 3) offer a ‘call to arms’ aimed at those sitting in the pews…the power is yours: exercise it or die.