Why Should Anyone Believe? Apologetics and Theological Education

by Dennis M. Campbell

Dennis M. Campbell is dean of Duke Divinity School and professor of theology at Duke University.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 1-8, 1989, p. . 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.


It may be that the theologically bankrupt Western, liberal, secularized church is incapable of dealing with the matters of mission, gloalization and context from a Christian perspective.

Book Review:

Apologia: Contextualization, Globalization and Mission in Theological Education by Max L. Stackhouse and others (Eerdmans, 237 pp., $14.95 paperback).


Theological education today is characterized by genuine confusion about what should constitute the curriculum of basic degree programs at the graduate-professional level. Though debate about requirements has always me on, it was once largely accepted that the essential elements of study include Scripture, systematic theology, church story, the history of doctrine, and various combinations of practical theology. Usually tightly structured programs study were established by faculties, and the students who completed the prescribed courses were understood to be prepared for ministry. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this state of affairs was the confidence of the faculties, the students and the constituencies that what they were doing in theological education was correct. This confidence led to the replication of such educational programs in various cultural and geographical settings around the world. People were confident that what was appropriate for the theological curriculum in Germany, England or the United States was appropriate, necessary and good in any setting.

That confidence has disappeared. The reasons for this are many and are related to the general intellectual, social and cultural developments of the late 20th century. One can point to the emergence of a variety of critical approaches to religion in general, and to Christianity in particular, which have contributed to the breakdown of certainties: These include historical-critical and other new methods for the study of biblical texts, feminist criticism of Christian history and theology, Marxist analysis of the function of religious communities, black studies pointing to long-obscured realities, sociological and anthropological research in regard to cross-cultural religious life, and examinations of traditional teachings by non-Western scholars. Though it may be obvious, it ought to be noted specifically that the regnant confusion in theological education cannot be separated from the confusion that characterizes Christian theology. Put bluntly, theological education’s problem is a theological problem.

These conditions have spawned an interesting assortment of books and articles on theological education in the past five years. A good many of these publications have been stimulated by encouragement, both intellectual and financial, from the Lilly Endowment. In the early 1980s, Lilly asked James Gustafson to survey what had been written about theological education in the past 30 years. He reported little that was remarkable and lamented that not more of significance had been done. Lilly’s response was to encourage a wide range of consultations, research and reports which have generated some interesting and important work. Apologia: Contextualization, Globalization and Mission in Theological Education, by Max L. Stackhouse with Nantawan Boonprasat-Lewis, J. G. F. Collison, Lamin Sanneh, Leander Harding, Ilse von Loewenclau and Robert W. Pazmiño (Eerdmans, 237 pp., $14.95 paperback) , is a major contribution to this growing literature. The book is the result of a grant from the Association of Theological Schools, funded by the Lilly Endowment, to Andover Newton Theological School.

The first part of the book is a report on research and conversations by Andover Newton faculty members in response to study and dialogue about contemporary theological education. This section is a useful overview of the major issues facing theology and theological education. Though nothing new is here, the discussion of questions of context (liberal, modern, neo-orthodox; ecumenical, realist, biblical) , texts and contexts (matters of biblical interpretation) and the way in which Christian affirmations are appropriately translated into particular settings is stimulating. Certainly it is a valuable account of the way issues which affect all theological education manifest themselves in a specific institutional context.

The second part of the book attends to a wider discussion of theological education. Contemporary proposals and debates are summarized, and attention is given to ecumenical consultations and the complex issues raised by calls for "globalization," a current emphasis of the Association of Theological Schools. A chapter called "Praxis and Solidarity" explores the push of many in the church for a more direct relationship between theological education and specific contexts and "underrepresented constituencies," such as blacks, women, Hispanics, Native Americans and Third World peoples. Chapters in this section are also devoted to a consideration of recent scholarship of importance to theological education, such as that of Robert Schreiter (Constructing Local Theologies) , George Lindbeck (The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age) and Edward Farley (Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education)

The first two-thirds of Apologia offers an accurate picture of the wide array of analyses and proposals which characterize informed discussion of theological education today. The important thing about this book, however, is that it does not stop with analysis but sets forth a constructive proposal. The first two sections, while written by Max Stackhouse, are heavily dependent on the work of other faculty members at Andover Newton or consultants. The third section is clearly Stackhouse’s work and is a very significant contribution. It takes us beyond the somewhat tired proposals for theological education that seem simply to recommend implementing various interest-group agendas. Such proposals lead to what is often a blind celebration of diversity and pluralism, resulting in a do-it-yourself approach to theological education.

Stackhouse gets to the heart of the issue: he recognizes that the problem with contemporary theological education is theological. It is not that we have failed to be global, or that we have failed to take adequate account of the setting, or of the oppressed, but that we are not sure that religion is ultimately significant, that Christianity is ultimately true, and that the proclamation of the gospel is critically important for everyone everywhere. Stackhouse examines the fundamental issue raised by a careful analysis of the literature considered in the first two sections. He acknowledges that theological education is in trouble because we do not know why we are engaged in the enterprise. If we are only engaged in an academic exercise, or in training people for human enrichment or for social, political or economic renewal, then we ought to come clean and give it all up. The only thing that makes theological education significant is that it is about ultimate truth and its transforming power for individuals and communities. The moral importance of Christianity follows from its truth claims; otherwise its ethical judgments have no power. Stackhouse is convinced that "theological education must, above all, center its life on the question of what is objectively true and just in religious matters." He is not willing to let theological educators relinquish the task of making a compelling claim for the intellectual coherence and ultimate truth of Christianity.

The prime agenda for theological education, therefore, is theological. This means, in the first place, that faculties need to concentrate on the theological grounding of all that they do, and provide an account of Christian claims that is reasonable and accessible to real human beings in real settings. This new apologetic task is not unlike other apologetic tasks undertaken by Christianity in other periods, especially at the time the biblical tradition encountered the Greco-Roman world in the first centuries of the Christian era, from Paul to Augustine, and at the time of the transition from the Middle Ages to the dawn of modernity, including the great reformations of Europe and the Americas. Stackhouse sees a "third great moment" now upon us when theologians must attend specifically to the apologetic task.

"Christianity faces again the old question in the presence of new pluralism: Why should anyone believe it?"

Stackhouse offers some suggestions concerning Christian doctrine and practice. He explores four doctrines the affirmation of which define ‘boundaries" of Christian faith: sin and salvation, biblical revelation, the Trinity, Christology, and then describes the ethical outgrowth of accepting these doctrines: piety, polity, policy and program. In each case he provides theological reflection and concludes with reference to theological education. Although these chapters do not exhaust the topics, they do chart directions for future work by serious theologians.

Stackhouse states his thesis about theological education with admirable clarity: "The vocation of Christian theological education is to prepare women and men to be theologians and ethicists in residence and in mission among the peoples of God in the multiple contexts around the globe." This gets him beyond the tedious and unfruitful debates about whether theological education is in the first place theoretical or professional, academic or practical, of the school or of the church. Theological education is in the first place theological, and by this he means that it is concerned with the reality and truth of God in Jesus Christ.

This approach allows Stackhouse to deal with matters of mission, globalization and context from a Christian perspective. He is not lost in a fog of confusion about whether Christianity makes a difference and therefore whether it should be proclaimed at all. Because of this he is able to take seriously the global and the contextual issues. The irony seems to be that only if we are first clear theologically about the truth and cogency of Christianity are we able to encounter with clarity and sympathy the world’s range of peoples and contexts. To do its job, theological education must know what it is proclaiming and why.

It may be that the theologically bankrupt Western, liberal, secularized church is incapable of dealing with these matters. Indeed, it is here that global, contextual and mission sensitivity is most critical. We must not lay on the Third World our contemporary problems of faith, which emaciate our theology. It could be that Stackhouse’s "third great moment must await work on Christian doctrine by Third World theologians.