How Seminary Helps Contextualization

October 19, 2011 — 5 Comments

[This post is part of the Ethics of Contextualization series]

Earlier today, Kevin DeYoung posted some thoughts on James Emery White’s book What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary: 25 Lessons for Successful Ministry in Your Church.  What caught my eye however, was that Perry Noble wrote the Foreword. Now, you may remember last week we examined Noble’s contextualization fail and I commented that he seemed to have a zeal that is not according to knowledge. I think, if you’ll follow me through his thoughts in the Foreword, we can validate this claim together.

Noble starts with this with the admission that he is a seminary dropout. I have nothing against anyone who went to seminary and didn’t finish. I do however think Noble’s reasoning for the dropout presents a problem

I could list several reasons why; however, the main one was that I personally did not want to continue to invest hundreds of hours of my time and thousands of dollars into something that in the end would not adequately equip me for what I knew I would be facing in the “real world” known as ministry.

As he goes on, he is exuberant for White’s book, because White has realized that seminary “does provide some value,” but in the end it does not “adequately equip men and women for the ministry.” Because of that, Noble feels that the information in the less than 200 pages book is “more practical and empowering than nearly anything” he experienced in his brief stint in seminary. For a fair assessment of the value of White’s book, go read DeYoung’s post. I think he is charitable both to White and to the seeker sensitive movement and brings out the positives and the negatives of the book.

What concerns me is Perry Noble’s mindset regarding what theological learning is supposed to accomplish. We saw in the last post that Noble is not the best at reasoning soundly when it comes to the ethics of contexualization. I think his admissions about leaving seminary points to the reason why he has this problem.

As Noble recounts his seminary experience, see if you can pick up the scent of where his reasoning gets off course:

Within a few weeks of starting my experience in Christian higher education, we began diving into deep theological concepts such as limited atonement, the trichotomy and dichotomy of the Spirit, and the peccability versus impeccability of Christ.

Just to stop right there, I heard Noble say the line about the question of “the trichotomy and dichotomy of the Spirit” in the Elephant Room conversation and I thought it was just him mis-speaking. There, as here, he is using it as an example of questions that dominate churches and seminaries but not on the minds of lost people. In reality though, this is a question no one is asking since the question is whether a person is a trichotomy or dichotomy, not whether the spirit (or Spirit) is.

But I digress.

Back to the Foreword, where Noble gets to the heart of why he felt seminary failed him:

No one in the church seemed to be obsessed with whether or not Jesus could have sinned; they just knew that their marriage was in deep trouble and wanted help.No one in the church was fascinated with my TULIP acrostic and the way I could present both sides of the argument; they just wanted to understand why in the world God would let their loved one die.The leaders in the church did not care if I knew brilliant theological terms and could lecture them on church history; they just wanted to make sure that I was going to set a realistic budget for my area of ministry and then stay within the framework of that budget for the entirety of the year ahead of me.I said it earlier, but please allow me to restate it again: what I was learning in the classroom and what I was actually experiencing on the front lines of ministry were completely different.

The fact that the seminary classroom and the rigors of ministry are different should be self-evident. But what Noble misses is that seminary is to help you learn how to think theologically, not to just think about theology. Had he learned the former, he would have been better prepared to help people in the church with their problems. You don’t necessarily have to go to seminary to learn how to think theologically, but being in that environment for an extended period of time certainly helps. If you don’t learn it there, you can probably learn it on your own, but only if you realize it does not come naturally and you’ll have to make calculated steps to overcome your deficiency.

Noble seems to have thought the point of seminary was to get answers to complex theological questions and then relay them to the people in your church as needed. This is a skewed view of both the nature of ministry and the purpose of theology.  In seminary, the goal is not to memorize a list of doctrines, the goal is to learn how to think theologically, so that you are then better prepared to be an effective minster of God’s Word to your people.

When he saw that people didn’t care about theology, Noble decided he didn’t need to either. That may sound harsh, but he abandoned a theological education because he thought it was only about getting answers to questions people in his church didn’t have. It is hard to not see that as a genuine disinterest in the subject matter and reorientation of ministry around the felt needs of the people rather than around learning how to faithfully relay God’s word to them.

I am all for seeking to be sensitive to the questions people are asking and connecting to the culture. But I’ve found that I am much more prepared to do that in biblically faithful fashion because I have been trained to think theologically. In other words, unless you’ve been well trained to know how to build a bridge between Christian doctrine and daily life, they are going to seem disconnected. Rather than take Noble’s route and abandon learning how to build bridges, anyone who is concerned about contextualizing the gospel, and doing it soundly, ought to learn how to reason from the Scripture and theology to the lives of people in their church.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

5 responses to How Seminary Helps Contextualization

  1. Just an FYI. As someone who is familiar with White’s writing/teaching, I appreciate De Young’s attenpt at a balanced and generous reading, but he took this particular work of White’s way out of context of his life, teaching, and other writings. Specifically, you should see White’s book “A Mind for God” and “Christ Among the Dragons” which, interestingly, share many of the concerns of this post. White has one foot in the theological/academic world, and one in the church world. Yes, while endorsed by Noble, Mellado and others, he is also supported by such academics as Timothy George, David Dockery and many others. Also, let’s retire the term “seeker church”, please. White himself has a good blog on this at churchandculture.org. It’s a dated term no one really uses anymore – not even Hybels.

    • Thanks for the tip, however, I think your comment might be more at home on DeYoung’s post rather than here. I’ll consider your thoughts about the term “seeker church,” although in this particular post I don’t believe I used that term. I said “seeker sensitive” movement, which whether or not the people in it use the term, is still a useful way to describe their philosophy of ministry. I don’t think either I said anything here to disparage White, and really am not familiar with his work. If I get time in the future, I may interact with his ideas, since according to you, he shares some of my concerns.

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