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Creating a Respect for Theology

by James Daane

Dr. James Daane is professor of theology and ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. This article appeared in the Christian Century February 2-9, 1977, p. 89. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


To keep theology and piety together, one must have some of each. Most students come to the seminary with a fair share of the latter but very little of the former. Few students have a consciously held theology, or even a theological awareness. They often come from evangelical churches that do not live out of a theological tradition. The evangelical sermons they hear sound so much alike that it is not possible to detect whether one is sitting in a Methodist, Presbyterian or Episcopal pew. From such churches come students with no theological brand. They come marked more by idiosyncracies of piety than by distinctive theological traditions. For many a seminary, therefore, the task of keeping theology and piety together means that the student must first be taught some theology.

Colleges -- even religious ones -- do little to bridge this gap. Gone, for the most part, are the days when a college education prepared a student for seminary with undergraduate courses stressing religion, history and philosophy. Many students come to seminary armed with a major in economics, business or physical education and, if especially blessed by providence, with a minor in the history of thought, via a survey course. This usually means that they enroll in seminary with little awareness of and considerable aversion to conceptual thinking. Before a seminary can show how the intellectual life is related to practical piety, it must first impart a theology and create a respect for it. This is no easy task when church and college have contributed so little.

I

The wind has now largely gone out of the sails of the spirited enactment in the 1960s of Christianity in the streets and the marketplaces of life. The concern over the public significance of the Christian faith faded largely because it lacked the staying power that derives only from a deep theological commitment. When the going got tough, the activists lost heart, for they were not sustained by a deep conviction that God willed the changes they sought. Though the activism has been abandoned, the theological inadequacy persists and shows itself in the current hand-holding, heart-baring, soul-sharing, happiness-oriented, relational, interpersonal piety that so largely characterizes Christian spirituality in the present decade.

In this nontheological, anti-intellectual climate, we must make a conscious and deliberate attempt to create an authentic theological mind shaped by genuinely theological concerns. In my judgment, Fuller Seminary is succeeding to a modest but perceptible degree in creating within many of its students a new sense of the value of theology and a recognition of the corrective and supportive role it provides for personal piety in both public and private spheres.

But the student must be given an authentic theology, one that can indeed be an influence upon the pulpit and the whole life of the church. A theology that cannot be preached is worthless, surely not worth the students costly tuition. Much theology in both liberal and conservative seminaries is abstract and unpreachable. It may provide material for more new books by professors and project the authors into instant but short-lived fame; but it hurts more than helps those who are to minister to the churches, because such theological intellectualism cannot be translated into the language of pulpit and worship and into the decision-making that must take place in the life of the churches.

II

Such speculative, abstract theological efforts, therefore, are of no earthly use. There is plenty of this kind of theological intellectualism that passes for authentic theology and theological training in both evangelical and liberal seminaries. Happily, this kind of seminary tends to go out of business. Churches are still looking for ministers who, in pulpit and congregational life, work out of the kind of perception and conviction that spring from a conscious theological commitment. Authentic theology must serve the church by shaping the church’s leadership.

A seminary’s peculiar task is more to impart an authentic theology than to foster piety. By "authentic theology" I mean not merely systematic theology but also biblical theology, both Old and New Testaments, and a theology of worship and of preaching. Such a theology will, in turn, be a shaper and corrective, a resource for authentic piety.

A seminary is surely obliged to keep theology and ethics, learning and piety, the salvific and social-political concerns together. Technical strategies and deliberate planning will be helpful. Hence, at Fuller Seminary we insist on in-field training. It is in on-the-job training that theology meets life and that theological training is both achieved and measured.

We experiment in team teaching: a practical and a more theoretical professor in a single classroom teach a single course. Sometimes this means that a practical-department professor helps teach theology; sometimes it means that a professor in the theology department teaches homiletics. The goal of such experimentation is to keep the more theoretical professor honest to the needs of the seminary student and the needs of the church. We repeatedly remind one another that whatever our department or specialty, we all work toward producing the same end product: a better seminary graduate for the Christian ministry. Professors tend to forget that seminaries exist for the church, just as ministers live for their congregations.

But such direct efforts and devised strategies are, if the truth be told, only partially successful. Far more effective in keeping theological learning and Christian practice together is the constant recognition that all theological learning and all seminary training exist for the sake of the church. This recognition keeps theology and seminary training directed toward the place where the church lives. Theology is always kerygmatic and homiletical. Where it is not, it is parasitical, living off the church for its own ends. Where this truth is perceived, theology and piety, the academic and the practical, will not have to be put together. They need to be put together only when they have first been torn asunder -- for they are both inextricable responses elicited by the divine Word.


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