Challenges to Theological Education: Moving from “Jerusalem” to “Athens”

Friday, May 8th, 2009

Every year thousands of Christians make their way on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. There is something awe-inspiring about walking where Jesus walked and seeing places from the Bible come alive in fresh ways. To re-trace the steps of Jesus from the Praetorium where he was falsely condemned and scourged, to the traditional site of the crucifixion outside the city gate is an unforgettable experience.

Many Christians also re-trace the footsteps of the Apostle Paul. In the Spring of 1999, Julie and I had the privilege of traveling through Turkey and Greece, re-tracing the footsteps of Paul’s great missionary journeys. After our visit to Ephesus, we traveled north and crossed over from Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) into Greece just as Paul had done in the first century. We visited such familiar sites as Philippi, Thessalonica and Corinth. However, one of the highlights of the trip was the visit to Athens, Greece, the traditional seat of learning and philosophical speculation of the ancient world. This is the birthplace of Plato and the home of Plato’s Academy, regarded by many as the first institution of higher education in the western world.

The Apostle Paul’s time in Athens is recorded in Acts 17. Paul stood on Mars Hill and saw idols and various objects of worship, including an altar with the inscription: “To an Unknown God.” From this impressive rock out-cropping you can look out and see the imposing Acropolis of Athens upon which stand the ruins of the Greek Parthenon. Built in the 5th century B.C., it was dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena. The Apostle Paul stood on that spot with its impressive view of the Parthenon and, according to Acts 17, declared, “What you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you!” In 1999, I stood on top of Mars Hill and wondered what it must have been like to hear this amazing proclamation from the Apostle Paul and hear how he used the “Unknown God” as his starting point to proclaim the gospel to the Athenian skeptics gathered at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34).

Tertullian (160-220) once famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”[1] For Tertullian, “Jerusalem” represented a culture with the revelation of God’s word at the center. “Athens” represented a culture of human speculations, skepticism and instability. Tertullian understood profoundly that Divine self-disclosure powerfully trumps all other knowledge and discourse. Unlike some of the other early apologists, Tertullian wasn’t particularly interested in the insights of the secular philosophers. For him, “Jerusalem” represented a society framed by revelation and, therefore, theological and cultural stability. “Jerusalem” represented a congregation of the faithful gathered to hear God’s Word, and the centrality of the pulpit. In contrast, “Athens” represented dialogue and speculation. “Athens” was the place of religious pluralism, philosophical speculation and dismissive skepticism.

Jerusalem and Athens are symbolic of one of the key shifts in theological education today. Like Tertullian, many of us would prefer to proclaim the gospel – symbolically speaking – from the security and stability of the Temple Mount of Jerusalem. Many of us yearn for a time to return when God’s word was more widely acknowledged and respected. We remember a day when our culture enjoyed far greater stability. However, most all of us realize that we can no longer prepare ministers with this as our primary paradigm. Instead, we are called to be faithful to the gospel in the midst of the raucous, pluralistic, experimental, skeptical environment of “Mars Hill of Athens.” The Apostle Paul proclaimed the gospel not from the Temple Mount of Jerusalem, but from Mars Hill of Athens. Traditionally, Seminary education prepared men and women to occupy places of cultural and religious stability. Graduates were sent to communities where a large percentage of the people either attended church or gave assent to the broad contours of the Christian world-view. Many of the ethical parameters of the Judeo-Christian world-view were widely embraced. Today, this kind of Christendom arrangement has collapsed. We are no longer in Jerusalem. We are in Athens. We are no longer on the Temple Mount, but on Mars Hill. This means that we must prepare men and women for a different kind of engagement in the western world. Our society represents a more profoundly missional context than anything we have previously imagined. Seminaries which have specialized in preparing pastors and teachers, need to also prepare evangelists and church planters. We need a more robust theological and missional training for our students than ever before.

What would happen if you were to travel across our country for an entire year and listen to dozens of sermons from a wide array of denominations? You would experience many sermons which require an enormous amount of good-will from the congregation. In other words, the sermons are prepared in a way which assumes faith and many of the most troublesome questions go unanswered or unaddressed. There would be an extraordinary amount of bland moralizing, cute stories and a few funny jokes. You would meet a lot of nice people. What would be exceptional would be a clear, well thought-out exposition of Scripture and a robust explanation of the Christian gospel which was faithfully applied to genuine cultural challenges or issues of the day. The reason for this is largely because seminaries have trained pastors to inhabit “Jerusalem,” not “Athens.” To borrow a familiar phrase, we are accustomed to “preaching to the choir,” i.e. preaching to the already convinced. However, “Athens” will not put up with bland moralizing, cute stories and a few funny jokes. Athens requires men and women who are well trained in the Christian gospel, as well as fully acquainted with the idolatrous dynamics of contemporary culture, which are, by the way, active both inside and outside the church. We need to be fully aware of where people are culturally, but also where they should be culturally. It requires a solid and nuanced biblical, historical and theological education to equip students to navigate ministry in the midst of such widespread cultural disorder. This is, of course, just one of a number of challenges to theological education today. I am confident that Asbury Theological Seminary is poised to meet this challenge –and to meet it well. John Wesley remains one of the most able examples of someone with deep biblical and theological moorings, a sensitive pastor’s heart, and a ministry which was culturally engaged. May Asbury build on this heritage in our own time as we prepare ministers of the gospel for the 21st century!

[1] Tertullian, , De Praescriptione Haereticorum 7.9.

Comments

  • Ana says:

    Everyone in Athens was glad about this. Thank you so much.

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