Honest Theology

Many years ago I took a course on the theology of missions.   It was in the opening lecture of that course that the professor, a very wise and seasoned missionary practitioner turned scholar, said, “missions is what keeps theology honest.”  It is an insight which, I think, is self-illuminating for anyone who has actually taught in a Seminary.  The point, of course, is that theological reflection has a tendency to drift towards the safe harbor of theoretical abstractions rather than stay out on the rough sea of real life application.  This overly theoretical theologizing is sometimes called disdainfully, “ivory tower” theology.  Bolaji Idowu, the Nigerian scholar, calls it “book theology” as opposed to a “living” theology about the living God in meaningful interaction with the His creation.  This is not a criticism of the vital role theologians play in articulating and defending historic Christian doctrines.  It is simply acknowledging that theological reflection must always serve the church.  Theology cannot exist in some hermetically sealed vacuum, blissfully ignorant of the real and difficult cultural and contextual particularities of our world.  Thus, one of the great ways that missions has served the theological community is by forcing theologians to address real challenges and answer many new questions which we might otherwise find more comfortable to simply ignore.  Thankfully, the missionary community keeps bringing these thorny, sticky issues to the theological table.  It is this great service of missionaries to theologians which is the basis for this wise professor saying that “missions is what keeps theology honest.”

The World is IN my Parish

It is not uncommon to hear complaints about the lack of connectivity between ministerial preparation and the actual ministry settings our students our entering.  For example, David Tracy laments what he calls the “three great separations of modern Western culture,” all of which have served to separate the task of theological education from actual ministry contexts.  According to Tracy, these three “fatal” separations are the “separation of feeling and thought, the separation of form and content, and the separation of theory and practice” (1998, 325).  However, postmodernism and globalization have created complex new forms of connectivity in which to reflect on the training for and context of ministry.  Christian ministry has never occurred in a vacuum, but the forces of globalization have created a situation in which every local context is today informed by the larger global context.  Globalization has been summarized as a complex connectivity whereby local events and social relationships are influenced and shaped by distant events (Tomlinson 1999, 2).  This complex connectivity has influenced every sphere of life, including politics, social relationships, economics, technology, science, culture, and religion.  Today, even if you are the pastor of a small church in Kansas, you still cannot think about your ministry apart from the larger global context.  Indeed, part of the power of globalization is our increased awareness of complex connectivity.

We live in a world of iPods, instant messages, YouTube, chat rooms, MySpace, and Facebook.  Such a world has produced a new kind of global connectivity that is very different from the metanarratives of modernism, which produced a single grand canopy of meaning.  The church and the message of the gospel are often reduced to just another message among thousands that might give meaning to a person’s personal narrative.  They can no longer pretend to be a normative claim for the world.

Globalization has also brought the world into a new kind of connectivity that our parent’s generation could hardly have imagined.  Dramatic new forces of migration, especially since 1965, have brought thousands of new peoples into the Western world.  Many of these ethnic groups represent the fastest-growing Christian groups in the West.

John Wesley said, “The world is my parish.”  Today we must amend that by saying, “The world is in my parish.”  The challenge for theological education is to learn how to teach for this kind of ministry.

Scholars on Fire

Have you ever read something that you knew the minute you read it, you would never forget it.  I had that experience almost thirty years ago.  I read a statement in Christianity Today which I have never forgotten.  It was a letter to the editor.  Apparently, in a previous edition of Christianity Today, an article had appeared concerning some of the liberal scholars’ latest doubts about the authority of the N.T. and the historical Jesus.  The statement which riveted my attention was found the following month on the editorial page.  Some dear saint had written in a reply to Christianity Today. He was clearly upset with all of these so-called “findings” of enlightened liberal scholarship.  In his letter to the editor he shared that he was just a simple believer.  He remarked, I don’t know any Greek or any Hebrew or any of that stuff, he exclaimed, but I know these liberal scholars are dead wrong.  And it was then that he made his riveting statement which I’ve never forgotten.  He said, and I quote, “To these scholars, I’m probably just a simple-minded fool, but I’d rather be a fool on fire, than a scholar on ice“!  I’d rather be a fool on fire for Jesus than a scholar on ice!  I think many of us can appreciate and feel his angst.  But his choice is a tough one isn’t it… a fool on fire, or a scholar on ice… it’s like being given the choice to live in Hiroshima in Aug. of 1945,  or on the Titanic’s maiden voyage in 1912.

But his statement reveals an assumption that is all too often made in Christian circles.  The idea is that devotion to God often leads to a warm heart and an empty head.  The life of the mind is suspect and we should avoid scholarship in the interest of devotion to Christ and personal salvation:   Better to be a fool on fire, than a scholar on ice.  We forget that God has called us to something greater, something which transcends these kinds of classic divides and tensions.

Brothers and sisters, welcome to Asbury Theological Seminary – where scholarship is on fire… where the life of the mind enlarges the heart… and the devoted heart helps us capture the mind of Christ.   Welcome to Asbury Theological Seminary where the phrase “the mind and heart go hand in hand” is not just a slogan, but a description of who we are.  Welcome to the world of John Wesley where sound learning and vital piety are wedded in a nuptial embrace.  Welcome to scholarship on fire!

Someday, if you earn the privilege of earning a graduate degree from Asbury, you will be a thinking, thoughtful reflective Christian, with a heart on fire for Jesus Christ!   Indeed, this rare, but blessed bond of head and heart is precisely what God has called you and me to be.  You are not being called at Asbury seminary to check your brain at the door… you are not being called to give up your devotion to Jesus.. your love of Jesus… your desire to spread the good news….  To spread scriptural holiness throughout the world….  To be educated…   You’re not being called to keep the two in balance….  We’ re not talking about balance… but a  marriage… that was Wesley’s genius… the marriage of heart of head… Having, to use his words, “hearts aflame with the love of God” and a having “the mind of Christ.”  Your intellect and your affections are knit together in a holy matrimony with Jesus Christ.  Any man who gets up and reads Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ in the morning and the Greek New Testament in the afternoon and still be at the brickyards to preach at dusk is my kind of man, how about you?

This is an excerpt from a message given by Dr. Tennent at the Fall ’09 New Student Orientation.  Click here to listen to the entire message.

Academic Excellence at Asbury Theological Seminary

“What does academic excellence mean at Asbury Theological Seminary?” If I were giving simply a technical definition, I would remind us that “academic” is usually seen as something primarily hypothetical or theoretical, and that “excellence” has from the time of the Greek poets been associated with hard work and with that which is eminently good.

But as worthy as those concepts are in a secular setting, when we seek a definition at Asbury, we mean something far more central to life itself. We recognize that we are persons created in the image of the triune God, and our first call is to him; his glory is paramount to everything we are and do. As persons created in God’s image, we are body, mind, and spirit. These are not separate parts glued together in some mysterious way; rather they are ways of describing the totality of our being as created by God.

John Wesley spoke of “sound learning and vital piety,” forever conjoining mind and heart. The cultivation of “academic excellence” requires that the “head descends into the heart.” Then “head and heart go hand in hand.” In other words, academic excellence occurs when the whole person is developed as fully as possible to the glory of God. The kind and magnitude of our gifts and graces may vary according to the Spirit’s endowment. But excellence requires devoting time, energy, and discipline to cultivating those gifts, always in the interest of the Giver for the sake of those he created.

At Asbury Theological Seminary we seek to engage the finest faculty-scholars possible within the Wesleyan tradition to research, write, and teach future leaders of the Church. Faculty members are devoted to the search for truth, in particular orthodoxy grounded in scripture and the tradition of the Church. But our faculty-scholars also offer their hearts, which are committed to bearing witness to the truth they serve by the lives they lead. In so doing we anticipate being “a community called to prepare theologically educated, sanctified, Spirit-filled men and women” who when they have completed their education at Asbury, go forth “to evangelize and to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world through the love of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit and to the glory of God the Father.”

Tennent Response:
The pressing need to address both academic excellence and spiritual formation has become almost axiomatic in the academic circles of evangelical Christianity. However, what makes Asbury unique is not an attempt to “balance” the head and the heart, but rather, as Provost Andrews has pointed out, to see how the two are holistically related one to another. Rather than an attempt to balance two separate, discreet, values the article reminds us that it is more like a holy matrimony where two become one, rather than two separate elements which must be kept in some kind of balanced tension with the other. The famous “Asbury experience” which I have heard so many alumni speak of, captures this holy union quite well. As the next President of Asbury, I am committed to making certain that a whole new generation of Asbury graduates are sent forth with “sound learning and vital piety,” conjoining mind and heart in a way which will form and shape them for a lifetime of ministry.