Trickle-Down Academics: Why Scholarship For the Churches is Often but Not always To the Churches

Academic Ministry works for the Churches
The goal of theology is to produce a product that glorifies God and edifies the churches. The former goal can be effectively accomplished by means of the latter goal. The best theology is to be done for the churches.[1]

As long as churches bear the mark of the “right preaching of the Word,” biblical theology will always have a place in the churches. Pastors must grapple with the issues addressed by biblical theology whether they realize it or not. Theologians should make it their aim to foster a theological dialogue within the church. If biblical theologians can enable their students and members of the local church to think biblically and theologically about their lives and about the world around them, then they have succeeded in this task. As Vanhoozer argues, “to correspond to revelation and to the substance of the gospel, the theologian must not only speak but act.”[2]

Further, the theologian that provides a big picture framework that enables students and church members to read their Bibles better and apply the message of Scripture more faithfully has accomplished the ultimate aim of the biblical theology quest.

When interpreting Scripture, theologians are caught up in a process that extends further than themselves. Obviously, as a reader of small and large portions of the Scriptures, you must find a way to transfer the insight you gain and glean to your students in the classroom and to your fellow church members. Otherwise, the interpretive process will remain woefully incomplete.[3]

Academic Ministry works within the Churches
If theology is for the church, then it only makes sense that theology would also be done from within the context of the church community. Indeed, the interpreter who has a vested interest in the outcome of the theological process is well-positioned to do faithful and informed theology. Ideally, the theology produced by the theological educator will transform him or her into the image of Christ. As they shape their theology, this theology must shape them. As Childs notes, “The true expositor of the Christian Scriptures is the one who awaits in anticipation toward becoming the interpreted rather than the interpreter. The very divine reality which the interpreter strives to grasp, is the very One who grasps the interpreter.”[4]

When theological educators communicate the truth they find in Scripture, they personify “the transformation that is created through encounter with revelation.”[5] Thus, their lives must bear witness to the truth they have found through the interpretive process. In this way, theologians remain tethered to the community of faith and fulfill the ultimate goal of their vocation.

In the discipline of biblical theology in particular, there should never be a gaping chasm between the academy and the church. There is simply no way to compensate for the loss that occurs when the biblical or theological scholar is cut off from the local church. Vocational theologians exist to build up and edify the churches. There should be a natural and organic connection between the classroom and the churches. This crucial task cannot be accomplished if there is an ugly ditch or relational rift between the church and the academy. Theologians should be doing the best theology for the churches and from within the churches. Whether pastors, church members, professors, or students, all of the various participants in Christian ministry and theological education would benefit from meaningful fellowship within the context of a God-centered, Word-saturated, gospel-oriented local church.

Trickle-Down Academics: 
Does for the churches always mean to the churches? 

An important distinction to consider in this particular discussion relates to the audience of any given scholarly study. In short, scholarship for the churches is not always to the churches. In other words, the direct audience of a given study might not immediately be a particular local church or a group of local churches. This particular study or scholarly project, though, can still be for the church.

This observation is simply a recognition of the “trickle down” effect that scholarship has within scholarly communities (both academic and ecclesial). The “general consensus” in a particular area of study often has a wide-ranging and largely unacknowledged influence in teaching and preaching. What is considered “common sense” is either taken for granted or must be consciously argued against in a particular message or scholarly argument. Either way, the general consensus exerts an influence and makes its presence felt on the teaching or preaching moment.

A study of biblical theology that contributes to the field or a sub-discipline within biblical or theological studies may have far-reaching implications for churches, but it may simply need to take a few steps to make its presence felt. When a consensus forms at the highest academic level, this consensus typically is reflected in major journal articles and scholarly monographs. These monographs are then read by those who then typically write books for those who are teaching and training students and pastors. Those individuals are often the ones who write the commentaries and popular level works that are read by those who are ministering in churches. Thus, a broad approach to reading the Scriptures, a hermeneutical principle, a theological position, or an interpretation of a biblical passage that becomes pervasive among the churches often does not have single point of origin.

This scenario highlights the fact that it is often inadequate to pit technical academic work over against popular level writing solely on the basis of audience. For, many times the consensus that an academic work is contributing to or working within will at some point impact or influence the popular level writing or the preaching ministry of the churches. This discussion helps explain how a work that is not intended for a popular audience can nevertheless greatly impact that audience (the churches).

This phenomenon also helps explain why there is sometimes a “gap” when a particular interpretation or theological position is roundly rejected among evangelical scholars but is nevertheless still relatively widespread in evangelical churches. What is sometimes missing are those who have the dual skill-set to access, process, evaluate, and communicate the high-level discussion and then communicate it effectively to a broader audience.

When done well, this does not involve a loss of meaning or nuance but rather a shift in the rhetorical situation and the communicative context of a particular writing or teaching scenario. There is an enduring need for this type of scholarly bridging work in evangelical scholarship (in exegetical, biblical-theological, and systematic theology fields). 

This recognition is both a challenge but also an encouragement. We need preachers, teachers, and scholars at every level working in the field of biblical theology who are self-consciously striving to produce careful and faithful work for the churches.

The Universal Academy and the Local Academy
Another helpful angle to approach this relationship between the academic study of the Bible and the churches can borrow from a key distinction in discussions of ecclesiology. When studying the nature of the “church,” an important distinction is the one between the universal church and the local church. The universal church is a way of referring to the people of God in the broadest possible terms both temporally and physically (Eph 1:22-23; 1 Cor 12:28; Col 1:18). The past, present, and future believers in the gospel make up the universal church.

The local church, then, would be a specific gathered group of believers who serve the Lord in a particular place and hold to a particular confession (1 Thess 1:1; 1 Cor 4:17). In the New Testament, the vision of a universal church undergirds the vision of the global reach of the gospel and connects to the cosmic scope of God’s revelation in Christ, while the overwhelming emphasis is on the nature and function of the gathered local church of believers.[6]

This textual pattern within the shape of the New Testament epistles can provide theological guardrails for how we conceptualize the task of teaching, preaching, and “cultural” engagement. Especially in the context of social media, there is an ever-present draw to engage and speak to the “church in America” or “the church” in general (universal church or “generic” church) rather than the nitty-gritty reality of ministering to the actual individuals present within a local church congregation.

A parallel movement can sometimes happen in the evangelical scholarly world, where a scholar’s focus might drift toward speaking to the universal academy (perhaps the “guild at large” or the networking event) rather than the local academy (perhaps the classroom or the follow-up student meeting). These contexts, of course, are not at odds with one another.

Making the distinction, though, perhaps can help a pastor-theologian or a pastoral theologian maintain a set of priorities. The relationship between the academy and the churches might be easier to delineate in practice if there is a clear role for both the local church and the local academy present in a minister or scholar’s vision of their vocation.

While much more could be said along these lines and many examples could be populated, I have found these categories to be a helpful way to begin thinking through this urgent area of concern.

  1. For a sampling of recent theologians considering the role of the “pastor-theologian” in light of the relationship between the academy and the church, see Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015); Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015); and Todd Wilson and Gerald L. Hiestand, eds., Becoming a Pastor Theologian: New Possibilities for Church Leadership (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015).
  2. Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 59. Vanhoozer characterizes the “primary role of the theologian” as bearing “witness, in word and deed, to the meaning and significance of God’s communicative action in Jesus Christ, in order to enable others to understand and participate in it too” (58).
  3. D.A. Carson, “The Role of Exegesis in Systematic Theology,” in Doing Theology in Today’s World, 71, states boldly that if the message of the interpreter is not transferred to the people of God, then “the entire exercise is such a distortion of the purposes of revelation as to approach profanity.”
  4. Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology: A Proposal (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 69. Cf. Childs’s similar comment to this regard: “It might also be refreshing for the pastor to be told that the interaction between the university and the parish is not a one-way street. It may well be that some of the direction for the new biblical theology of the future will come from the experience of pastors on the front lines of the church’s confrontation with the world. It was not by accident that a working pastor in the forgotten Swiss village of Safenwil first discovered what Romans could mean to a congregation before dropping his theological bomb on the scholarly community. Fortunately God still has a way of making use of the Bible which is not synchronized to the publication schedule of the religious press” (Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis, 96).
  5. Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics, 408. Maier observes further that “in passing along the interpretation that has transformed him and made him into a witness, his interpretation itself becomes testimony.”
  6. A particularly instructive example of the relationship between these two senses occurs in 1 Cor 1:1-3, as Paul writes “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (local church) and connects this address to the broader context of believers: “together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” On the pattern of the New Testament’s affirmation of the universal church and emphasis on the local church see Thomas White, “The Universal and Local Church,” in Upon This Rock: A Baptist Understanding of the Church, ed. Jason Duesing, et al (Nashville: B&H, 2010), 208-39; and D. A. Carson, “Why the Local Church is More Important than TGC, White Horse Inn, 9Marks, and Maybe Even ETS,” Themelios 40.1 (2015): 1-9).
Academic Ministry
April 9, 2019


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