Cultural Gap between Theologian and the Institution

In an article titled, ‘Crisis of Faith Statement‘ from Christianity Today, the issue of a certain tension between theologians or biblical scholars and the theological institution or bible colleges was highlighted. Apparently some professors or lecturers of certain theological colleges were having some tough times manoeuvring between freedom of academic expression and adhering to the faith statement of the institution they serve. One example is Michael Pahl, whose new book had caused him his job.

After reading Pahl’s basic perspectives on the Genesis Creation account, one could not help but to be more certain that his dismissal is not merely due a disagreement of a certain ‘faith statement’. It is bigger that that. Others have bemoaned over the issue, citing the problems as ‘narrowness defined by institutional power and a quest for absolute conformity on everything.‘ However, it appears to me that there are deeper issues here.

Firstly, there is an intellectual gap between the  institution’s decision makers, stakeholders or policy makers and the theologian(s). For example, anyone who has been actively doing serious biblical or theological studies in the past twenty years would find Pahl’s basic perspectives on the  creation narration in Genesis agreeable. In particularly, when he mentioned that the Bible was not written to fit into our modern, scientific worldview. This is crucial – one cannot ignore the vast cultural gap between those in the past and us now. Language and literary forms have changed. The biblical writers and us live in very different times and cultures. Furthermore, once the above are acknowledged, it is also clear that in the cause of history, different people (including the Roman Catholics!) have had different ways of interpreting the biblical texts at different stages – mostly influenced if not dictated by the challenges or needs of their times. However, regardless of whether the policy or decision makers are aware of these differences, as long as they do not wish to take into consideration the aspect of cultural difference in the interpretation of the biblical account, there will be a gap. The result – faith is reduced to a statement and all that they will do is to refer to it. Often, such ‘theological position’ is said to be the backbone or core beliefs which determines the identity of the institution. So it is not surprising that when one infringe the ‘identity’ one should be questioned of his loyalty to the institution. This is reasonable and acceptable. So this is not the problem. The problem is, do we notice that there is actually a cultural gap in between and what do we do with it?

Secondly, it seems that the Conservatives are still reacting to the Liberals. Certain Christians are still fighting an old war. Some simply defined Fundamental Christianity as a reaction to Liberal Christianity. If so then both are the products of an age which we now call ‘the modern age’. In the modern age people believe that they can, with their own scientific method, know the truth. This confidence was in turn a result of the Enlightenment, which call humanity to replace reason and their own ability to make life and the world better, and embark on a truth-finding project. Man replaced God as the centre in all areas of life – even in religion! So there emerged the liberals who exercised the very criticism methodology which was employed in science with the Bible – not to help with the interpretation of it per se (that’s exegesis!) but to approach the scriptures with a certain modernist assumptions. Did God create the world in six days? If so what are the evident? How can we trust the source of Genesis? So as the liberals, with, their fondness of reason, asked these questions, others have reacted to it. Fundamental Christians, in their quest to protect the church and the truth rose and defended them against the onslaught of the liberals. They have done so with many means, and theological institutions are among them. And in order to guard their institution against the liberals many of these colleges or universities developed a faith statement which outlines their beliefs, distinguishing themselves from the liberals. This is especially true in the America. If we are careful enough we will also find that the Fundamentalists were also using modernist methods to counter the liberals – logical arguments, apologetics which utilises evidences, etc.

Our interest here is not to comment on the tension between the two camps but to note that as a result of modernism and its reaction from the church, we have institutions which has statements which are fighting an old war and live in an old world with its old culture. As a result, the theologian finds himself or herself having to face not just a set of rules but a certain cultural gap between them and the institution.


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