THEOLOGY: ATHENS OR JERUSALEM?
by Bob Wheeler
One of the most serious problems facing the church today is the quality of preaching we hear. Too often sermons are dull, lifeless, and often boring. The exegesis is often poor, the delivery flat, and the practical application trivial. And the result, sadly, are congregations that are biblically illiterate and spiritually immature.
The problem can at least partially be traced back to the way our pastors are trained. Most pastors today receive an academic training in a seminary or Bible college. “The professor walks into the classroom, delivers his lecture, and leaves. If the course happens to be systematic theology, the professor will state definitions, marshal proof texts, and attack opposing points of view. The students take notes, hopefully pass the final, and that is the end of it. Then when the pastor finally arrives in the pulpit of a local church he is not quite sure of what to do with what he had been taught in the classroom. If he has an intellectual bent of mind, he might try to repeat what he had heard in the classroom. The congregation struggles to stay awake through the sermon in dreary anticipation of the closing hymn. Or if the pastor is more practically minded he might decide that what he had been taught in the classroom was irrelevant – no one is interested in dry, abstruse points of theology. And so he moves on to something more practical and relevant – marriage, child-rearing, or personal finance. But the congregation comes away knowing little about God.
Part of the problem, I say, is the way theology is taught in the classroom. It is an academic approach. And I use the word “academic” purposefully, for this approach can be traced back to an institution by that name, the “Academy” in ancient Athens founded by the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato was a seminal figure in the history of Western thought, and his approach to knowledge has very much influenced the way educational institutions operate, even today.
What set the Greeks apart from other ancient peoples is that the Greeks were struck by the rational order of the universe. They struggled to explain, however, what the source of that rational order was. Plato’s attempted solution to the problem was to posit the existence of an abstract world of ideas, of which the physical world is an imperfect copy. Thus the true philosopher was to turn his attention from the constantly changing physical world to the eternal world of abstract ideas.
But that eternal world of abstract ideas was impersonal. One could form a mental conception of it, and even be devoted to it as a matter of principle; but one could never form a personal relationship with it. It is, at the bottom of it, lifeless and inanimate.
Greek thought, however, was far in advance of anything else in the ancient world. The Romans soon came to admire and emulate it, and from there is came to have a profound influence on Western thought. To one extent or other it came to represent the educational ideal of colleges, universities and seminaries ever since.
Unfortunately it came to have an influence, not altogether good, on Christian theology as well. Charles Hodge, for example, the famous 19th Century Princeton theologian, begins his monumental Systematic Theology by asserting that theology is a science in which the task of the theologian is to collect the facts of Scripture and arrange them in logical order. He does allow that “The Scriptures teach not only the truth, but what are the effects of the truth on the heart and conscience, when applied with saving power by the Holy Ghost” (Vol. I, p. 11). But in the remaining 2,249 pages of his opus magnum he scarcely mentions these “effects of the truth on the heart and conscience” at all.*
When we turn to the Scriptures themselves, however, a whole different view of things emerges. In Psalm 139, for example, when David contemplates God’s omniscience and omnipresence, he does not just define the terms and attack opposing points of view. Rather, the psalm takes the form of a prayer addressed to God himself, and David states the issue in strikingly personal terms:
“O Lord, You have searched me and known me.”
(Ps. 139:1; NKJV).
And in the end the discussion comes down to moral and practical concerns:
“Try me, and know my anxieties;
And see if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.”
The difference between Athens and Jerusalem, then, comes down to our view of ultimate reality, our worldview. For Plato it was the “form” (idea) of the good. For David it was the true and living God, who is both personal and infinite. And the world that God created has a real, concrete existence. Ideas we can contemplate with cold objectivity; but we are personally accountable to the living God.
We are called in Scripture to love God, to worship Him and obey Him. Thus any theology that does not lead us to do that misses the whole point of what is revealed to us in Scripture. And any academic institution that fails in this regard is worse than useless – it is downright criminal.
The academic world typically lays stress on objectivity. And truth, real truth, is indeed objective. But it is also subjective as well. We are not just merely to contemplate the bare fact of God’s existence; we are to respond to it personally. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4,5). This does not mean that we are free to create our own “personal truth.” Man does not create reality; he must adapt to the reality created for him by God. But we must appropriate the truth as our own and act upon it. God is neither pleased nor honored with dead orthodoxy. What He wants is a genuine, heart-felt piety!
*At Princeton Seminary the limitations of the classroom instruction were partially offset by the famous “Sabbath Afternoon Conference,” a weekly discussion about the practical aspects of religion. It was that which typically left the deepest impression upon the students.