Re: [asa] pastors knowing science

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Wed Aug 12 2009 - 02:18:51 EDT

Hello, Merv.

Yes, it's true that theology can be manipulated to support the right as well
as the left. I agree that the manipulation is bad, whether the
motivation comes from one end of the spectrum or the other. I don't think
that Christianity as such is either right-wing or left-wing; rather, it
confounds all such easy categorizations and presents a more subtle and
complex view of social life in which neither private acquisitiveness nor
statist central control is the determining factor of communal life.

However, the danger of subjugating theology to the "right" (as sometimes
happens in the USA) is only a theoretical problem in Canada, since the
theology of the mainstream churches (along with the media, the courts, the
educational system, and for the most part the federal government), has been
increasingly controlled by the leftist intelligentsia throughout most of the
period from 1968 (hint, hint) to the present.

I agree with you that exploratory Bible studies, led by a competent teacher,
are better than Bible studies with pre-programmed "right answers" to all
questions. The fact that Christian theology has some core doctrines doesn't
imply that the meaning of the Bible has been exhausted, and that there is
nothing left to discover in it. In stressing theological
education, I'm not championing rigid, systematic, cut-and-dried models of
theological discourse in which verses from the Bible are just pigeonholed
into a doctrinal system. (Some forms of Calvinism are, I think, guilty of
this.) I think that a lot is left open in Christian theology. Part of
theological education should be teaching pastors and lay people how to
discover more for themselves. Indeed, I think that lay people would be much
more interested in churchgoing if they could be shown that Biblical and
theological study leave room for personal engagement and discovery. But in
order for a clergyman to profitably lead such open-ended Bible studies, so
that they don't degenerate into the usual relativistic "one personal opinion
is just as good as another" morass, the clergyman must (a) know the original
languages well, and (b) have some experience in interpreting Biblical
narrative (or poetry, as the case may be). So again, a well-trained clergy
is necessary.

I don't understand why that visiting minister was upset that people didn't
have their Bibles open, *studying* them during the service. They might
usefully have them open for reference, to follow the minister's points --
but the service
is not the place to *study* the Bible. If you are studying a text, you're
not listening to the lesson. The time to study the passages in depth is
before or after the sermon or lesson, not during it. The guy should have
been glad that people were paying attention to what he was saying, instead
of gazing down at their Bibles, still reading and thinking about verse 5
when he was already on to
verse 7, and therefore not catching half of his points.

I'm not saying, by the way, that formal Bible studies are the only form of
theological education that churches should use. The minister could give an
old-fashioned lecture (as opposed to a sermon) every Sunday evening, or
every Thursday evening, or whatever, on some theological topic. (Or
theologically educated lay people in the congregation could do the same, on
the minister's request.) Or the minister could use the Sunday sermons to
introduce some of the profound and
beautiful writings of C. S. Lewis, Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, Augustine or
other deep Christian writers. Or the minister could invite a professor from
a local university department of English, Religious Studies, Philosophy,
Medieval Studies, etc., to come in and lead a discussion, or a series of
discussions, on the Christian thought of a major Christian poet, novelist,
playwright, philosopher, etc. (Of course, to employ this last option would
require that the minister have a degree of theological humility, a virtue
often in short supply among clergy, many of whom like to think of themselves
as the local experts on everything.)

However, most ministers are very ill-equipped to lecture on theological
subjects, because their 3-year Divinity degree consists largely of
introductory survey courses (Intro to Old Testament, Intro to New Testament,
Intro to Systematic Theology, the history of the Christian Church crammed
into one semester, etc.), a smattering of Biblical Greek (sometimes only two
semesters, and rarely more than four semesters, including at most two
compulsory Greek exegesis courses), and a ton of courses on church polity,
denominational peculiarities, counselling, psychology, and other more
"touchy feely" subjects. The chances of the average Baptist or Pentecostal
or Methodist or Presbyterian or United minister coming out of an M.Div. with
a firm grip on Milton, or Augustine, or Dante, or Thomas Aquinas, or
Erasmus, or Calvin, or Barth, or Schleiermacher, or Kierkegaard, or Simone
Weil -- in other words, any theologian worth reading in depth -- are
vanishingly small. Most often their theology courses are textbook-driven,
summaries of "views" held by various camps of theology. They have not
studied theology in the old-fashioned and proper way, which is to immerse
oneself, in the quiet of the library, in the writings of a few really good
theologians, whose thought is deep and broad and rigorous. They have
studied theology in the new "democratic" way, where it is deemed important
for clergymen to acquire a passing familiarity with a smattering of the
opinions current among mediocre American seminary professors. It is no
wonder that, with such shallow training, they cannot inspire, cannot teach,
and cannot lead.

The job of the seminaries is to train the clergy in the best and deepest in
the Christian tradition, from the Bible through the early Patristic writers
up to the modern age. And I don't mean just formal works of theology, but
works of poetry, literature, drama, art, architecture, and music. But then,
that pushes things back -- the seminary professors must know all
this if they are to teach it to the clergy. And for many reasons, the
seminary professors rarely know all these things, or even a significant
number of these things. For one, the "publish or perish" specialist
mentality has permeated the seminaries, so that you can have, say, a Baptist
New Testament professor who has published fifty articles on the grammatical
constructions found in the Gospel of Mark, but who doesn't have a clue about
the Christian character of the music of Bach, knows nothing about the
Christian thought of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, has never read the essays of
Milton or Augustine's City of God, etc. Thus, many divinity professors
these days are shallow specialists, like their university counterparts in
secular religion departments, rather than broad human beings capable of
passing that breadth onto the seminary students. Then there are theological
prejudices. In many American denominations, Christianity is treated as if
it began with the Reformation, all the centuries prior to that being
dismissed (in monumental ignorance) as "Catholic". A professor who,
ignorant of the vast tracts of Christian thought prior to the landing of the
Puritans at Plymouth Rock, thinks that the main issue in Christianity is,
say, dispensationalism versus non-dispensationalism, or "three-point
Calvinism" versus "five-point Calvinism", or disproving the falsehoods of
the Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses, is going to teach a shallow, truncated,
historically misleading and spiritually narrowing understanding of Christian
theology which any European seminary professor would be embarrassed to be
associated with.

I think that if we could get rich and broad and deep seminary programs, and
hence rich and broad and deep clergy emerging from them, the depth of
teaching would eventually produce, in the laity, a taste for such depth, and
by a kind of positive feedback loop, more clergy like that would be demanded
by the laity from the seminaries, which would further improve the
seminaries, etc. And I think that once a significantly improved clergy was
in place in most churches, the quality of clergy statements (and lay
statements) on subjects such as evolution would greatly improve, becoming
more nuanced and less politicized. Broad, rich and deep education makes
people less partisan, more thoughtful, and more willing to listen to
criticism. But as long as both the laity and clergy of so many
congregations, both conservative and liberal, are in such a dismal state of
theological knowledge, it is hard to imagine how evolution or any other
controversial issue can be addressed intelligently and judiciously in
Christian terms.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Merv Bitikofer" <>
To: "Cameron Wybrow" <>; "asa" <>
Sent: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 12:28 AM
Subject: Re: [asa] pastors knowing science

> [Warning for John: this response is tangential to the subject heading,
> and is just a spin-off from Cameron's post. If you find that disturbing;
> don't read it.]
> I give a hearty 'amen' to nearly everything you say, below, Cameron,
> except that the well-deserved harsh tones you deliver to all those
> "leftists" are equally deserved by the "rightists" who also have been
> known to warp theology to meet their own social agendas; we have such
> things as the prosperity gospel or nationalistic "Christianity" to show
> for it now, and some of the leftist error can be understood (not
> justified) as reactionary in that regard. I love the quote attributed to
> Martin Luther, to the effect: After a drunk man fall off his horse to the
> right, he remounts and then falls off the left side.
> --Merv
> p.s. We had the interesting (& somewhat stressful) experience this Sunday
> of listening to a visitor chastise our congregation during the open
> sharing time that we had "never, ever once opened the Bible and studied
> any scripture" during the entire service which was a sore disappointment
> for him. He expressed his convictions rather passionately and at some
> length (or so it felt ---I was the worship leader at the time), but our
> congregation took it in stride and didn't get too riled up over it. He
> knows he's still welcome back. [technically we did have Scripture orally
> presented, though it wasn't explicitly labeled as such ---and in our own
> defense, the service was a necessarily unusual format on that Sunday
> morning.]. But we will probably never satisfy him as being a "Bible"
> church since we don't do extensive Bible study on Sunday mornings. (And
> yet your chastisement still hits home for me, Cameron, that we don't have
> any current active Bible study for the men in our church; though I would
> love that. I should start one.) I doubt that our church's friendly but
> passionately critical visitor would be interested in the same kind of
> Bible study I am, though. Typically those who are most engaged in such
> studies want the affirmation type of studies where a leader successfully
> fends off any attacks and triumphantly presents the correct understanding
> to the masses. Those who would rather attend a study that involves messy
> wrestling with Scripture and open-ended possibilities left dangling --they
> don't draw the same crowds. There may be a parallel in that for YECism
> vs. deeper pursuits, and the apparent popularity of YEC thinking in our
> country.
> p.p.s. seen in a recent Pontius Puddle Cartoon
> Pontius [a frog] is asked: "How was your Sunday school class this
> morning?"
> His reply: "It was great! I refuted one false claim, debunked three
> flimsy conjectures, and annihilated two entire belief systems!"
> Listener exclaims: "Wow --I had no idea Sunday school was such a contact
> sport!"
> p.p.p.s. So can I pretend there is a new rule that rambling is allowed
> after 11pm?
> ---okay, I'm done now. Thanks for your indulgence if anybody read this
> far.
> Cameron Wybrow wrote:
>> John:
>> Perhaps it is because we are coming from different social and political
>> backgrounds that we disagree over this. Canada, religiously and socially
>> speaking, is much more like your "Blue States" than your "Red States".
>> The threat to real Christianity in Canada is not, and never has been,
>> Bible Belt literalism. Literalism, YEC and such things are a circus
>> sideshow in Canadian Christianity. The threat here since about 1925 has
>> been a gradual watering-down of the contents of Christianity until it is
>> a just a thin veneer of sentiment covering a view of the world which is
>> fundamentally indistinguishable from that of secular humanism.
>> Thus, I find myself saying, in opposition to you, that "for ministry
>> leaders to be effective", it is not belief in evolution, but basic
>> Christian theology that they have to profess. That is, they must state
>> what they take Christianity to be, and defend their statement on the
>> basis of educated Biblical interpretation, deep familiarity with the
>> writings of the Church Fathers and later theological tradition, and
>> whatever else has been central to being Christian over the history of the
>> faith. Yes, they must also be able to relate the Bible and the tradition
>> to contemporary times as well, but you can't relate X to contemporary
>> times if you yourself are barely cognizant of what X is. And a few
>> survey courses and a smattering of Greek in a three-year seminary program
>> that is mostly pop psychology and social work is not going to make a
>> young minister cognizant of what Christianity is. A clergyman must be
>> *immersed* in Christian tradition until he or she eats, drinks and
>> breathes it, looks at all of life through its lens. Only in that way can
>> a clergyman hope to be effective.
>> The only churches that are growing in Canada are the sectarian
>> Pentecostal and evangelical ones; the mainstream churches are all dying.
>> And the overwhelming reason for the success of the first group is that
>> its preachers and teachers appear to believe something firmly, to have a
>> definite teaching that they do not apologize for, in a world where
>> everything seems to be coming apart and people are looking for spiritual,
>> social and moral stability. The mainstream churches (outside of the
>> Roman Church, on issues such as abortion) seem to pander to whatever is
>> the ruling opinion of the day, whether that be on the question of
>> feminism, global warming, same-sex marriage, etc. Their public
>> statements are thus treated with derision and contempt, not only by
>> "fundamentalists", but by the more intelligent of the non-churchgoing
>> agnostics, who recognize sycophantic spinelessness when they see it.
>> Also, it is in the more fundamentalist and evangelical churches that the
>> Bible itself is taken most seriously. Bible studies in such churches are
>> standard, and are heavily attended. In the mainstream churches, Bible
>> studies are almost unheard of, or where they exist, are curiosities for a
>> few keeners rather than a core part of Christian life, and the only
>> examples that many churchgoers get of Biblical interpretation are in the
>> insipid liberal homilies delivered by the priests or ministers, which
>> usually wrench a few words of the Biblical text out of context in order
>> to support some left-wing social cause.
>> If a Christian clergyman makes some errors in his scientific remarks
>> about evolution, churchgoers can adjust to that; they know that ministers
>> aren't trained in science and therefore know to take their remarks about
>> science with a grain of salt. But they *expect* ministers to be experts
>> in Christian theology, and therefore won't realize the need for
>> skepticism when the minister talks about such matters. They assume that
>> the minister has spent years studying theology and knows what he is
>> talking about. Sadly, this is rarely the case. When it comes to
>> theological matters, the typical minister these days is a borderline
>> quack. Obviously there are exceptions, such as our own George Murphy;
>> but George Murphys are as rare in the pulpit as unbiased articles about
>> intelligent design are in the New York Times or the New Republic.
>> The first duty of seminaries, a duty which most of them have shamefully
>> failed to carry out, is to make sure that their graduates are firmly
>> grounded in the Bible and theological study. The philological and
>> theological requirements within seminaries should be upped, not
>> continually lowered as they have been for thirty or forty years now, and
>> seminaries should demand much stronger background in the basic humanities
>> (history, literature, philosophy, and languages) from the people that
>> they admit. An M.Div. should be as intellectually tough as an M.B.A. or
>> or a Law degree or a Master's in any serious academic subject, instead of
>> being what it is in most places now, which is essentially a second B.A.
>> for a motley crew of students whose first B.A. could have been in
>> literally anything and therefore has often not prepared them for
>> graduate-level work in theology.
>> If someone has very little interest in theology and wishes to become a
>> minister only because he or she "just wants to help people", he or she
>> should do a degree in social work, not divinity. There is plenty of
>> valuable work in the wider world and within some church settings (as
>> assistant pastors in charge of special programs) for Christian social
>> workers. But the *head* minister or priest of a congregation has a
>> theology to defend and articulate, and cannot do this without serious
>> theological training. Equipped to speak with some authority for
>> Christian theology, the minister may then have something intelligent to
>> say about the relationship of Christian theology to evolutionary thought.
>> Without such theological knowledge, the minister's remarks about
>> evolution will be mere dilettantism, and of no value to anyone.
>> Cameron.

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Received on Wed Aug 12 02:20:22 2009

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