Why does the church and the average congregant need the work of the theologian? And how might the theologian seek to bless the church in general? Ideally, scholars in general seek to understand the truth about reality. The Christian scholar, in particular, pursues understanding about God and His creation through a disciplined exercise of intellect with the goal of sharing insight with the Christian community and world to the glory of God. The Christian theologian approaches this task with a specific goal. As John Webster reminded us, “Theology is a comprehensive science, a science of everything. But it is not a science of everything about everything, but rather a science of God and all other things under the aspect of createdness.” How is this “comprehensive science” to come into contact with the Church organic, as both an object of study—the Church is the creature of God—but also as an object of the theologian’s service, order to the ultimate service of the Triune God. The theologian’s work, here concretely understood as written texts, takes different forms depending on the intended audience and purpose. Therefore, one must understand the various levels of scholarship and how they relate before explaining its relation to the church.
Levels of Theological Writing
- High Academic Scholarship – Highly technical works targeted at other scholars in academic journals and specific monographs published with libraries in mind.
- Academic Scholarship – Academic monographs targeted at other scholars, yet accessible to pastors and college-educated lay people, not widely circulated.
- Semi-popular – Works addressed mainly to educated lay audiences focusing on specific subjects, which mediate, synthesize, and apply the Academic Scholarship by weaving it into a more accessible format or narrative.
- Popular – Works for a more general audience, which is less fine-grained and nuanced than the above. Likely lacking academic citation and geared more heavily to application.
- Devotional/Practical – Short accessible writing seeking practical discipleship with the widest possible audience in mind, such as Bible Studies, pamphlets, etc.
These levels should function such that one level seeks to summarize, synthesize, and apply the work of the higher level(s) to a specific context or question. For an example, taken from one of my research areas.
Level 1: A journal article on how Ulrich Zwingli’s preaching before 1525 effect the composition of his Commentary on True and False Religion?
Level 2: Monograph on Zwingli’s theology of preaching and how it developed through his life.
Level 3: A accessible biography of Zwingli focusing on his main contributions to theology.
Level 4: A short treatment of Zwingli placed among many other Christian thinkers, his main contribution being the rejection of all idolatry.
Level 5: Application that one should be careful not to fall into idolatry, which is putting anything on the same level as God.
Popular and Devotional/Practical works likely exert the most significant effect on the life of the congregation along with the semi-popular works’ influence on ministry leaders. While the higher levels of scholarship are important for the long-term health of the Church and the general quest of scholarship, the theologian who seeks to impact the life of the church today must also give attention to these lower levels, possibly in concert with pastors or other on-the-ground ministry leaders.
The goal of Christian scholarship regarding the average Christian should be the empowerment of discerning independence. The model is not that the theological establishment seeks to make laity dependent upon it, as some sort of clerisy. We are not to be like the world and rule over it (Matt 20:25). Rather scholarship’s end is to serve the good of the people so that they can function more fully as responsible Christians within society, vocation, family, and community. Therefore, theological education of the laity should furnish the foundations of basic orthodoxy and the Christian worldview, the tools for discernment and wisdom, and help foster the internal life of the believer. The scholar can contribute to this through various means: books, pastoral education, conferences, social media, adult education materials, etc.
Through these various avenues, the scholar can connect the local congregation to the great Christian tradition. By bringing to bear the ideas of the great thinkers of church history. The scholar facilitates the communion of saints, as the gifts of wisdom, which the Lord has given throughout the ages, enliven this people once more. The mothers and fathers of the faith have much to teach us by bringing perspectives that are disentangled from our own cultural context. They thereby offer a view outside of our culture and yet from inside the people of God. These voices from the past root the church today deeper into its own identity as the body of Christ across time–into the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic witness.
As our Lord has said, there will be wolves in the fold as well as a world that seeks to corrupt (e.g., Matt. 7:15; Matt. 13:22). The calling for defense is as great today as ever. For if we believe that falsehood is as harmful as Scripture takes it to be, the methodical and biblically-informed scholar will expose errors and demonstrate their detrimental consequences. The scholar can expose the unexamined biases, sins, and unbiblical frameworks/worldviews/social imaginaries/trends of the people and the world and bring the full light of the Word of God to bear so that Christ’s beauty might shine through His imperfect body on earth.
It would be a mistake to think of this function as mere “heresy hunting.” While the Church must name and reject outright false teaching, she must also guard against the more subtle errors of faddishness, imbalance, and simple omission. The culture’s desire for newness and innovation often calls the tune to the Church, or at least the publishers. All these must be carefully sifted through a proper biblical understanding and their good extoled while unhelpful or harmful aspects are corrected, so that the whole counsel of God might be proclaimed and lived within the church.
The scholar must also bring to light, as much as one is able and the Spirit permits, the unexamined sins of our churches and people. For example, Sean Lucas’s history of the PCA, For a Continuing Church, offers a bracing model. Lucas shows that the narrative of the PCA’s foundation that focused on its zeal for doctrinal purity and evangelism has overlooked the deeper, sordid racism that also contributed. Scholarship can prod, in a loving Spirit-dependent way, the church to truly examine their lives individually and the congregation corporately to see where we have allowed the world, the flesh, or the devil to reign in Christ’s stead. However, the correction of error is merely the shadow of another function of faithful scholarship’s service to the Church. By clearly delineating the boundaries the scholar can offer a clearer picture of the right doctrine and indicate areas of liberty and conscience.
In addition to connecting us with the Church’s past and guiding us in the present, Christian scholarship gives us a path to the future by analyzing the issues and opportunities of the age and producing kindling for faithful wisdom and discernment for the church. This prepares for and propels the church forward in its task of semper reformanda. Many churches think and act in the short term. The leadership and the congregation’s thinking might not extend beyond the next weekly service or perhaps beyond the fiscal year. The scholar, through his/her analysis of the signs of the times and knowledge of the past, can function prophetically by calling the church to a deeper faithfulness that seeks to engage in the longer-term health of the local church and her members.
Christian Scholarship, if it is to rightly bear the name, must be a servant of the Church organic. Its highest goal is to build up the faithful so that they might live fully into obedience to Christ and in service of His Kingdom. Christian theologians must take up this call for the body of Christ, of which they are a member, and they must know their place within it. They are not the brain, which plans and controls the body’s movements and knows its purpose. No, this role is Christ’s alone as the Head. The Christian scholar functions perhaps like the immune system, fighting off disease, or the inner ear, orienting the body to new terrain. Whatever metaphor we might choose, scholarship as part of the body exists to further the mission of the organic whole. The Church benefits from Christian scholarship by gaining a better grasp on God’s word and world so that the truth of Christ might be defended and explained, that the avenue for faithful action will be more clearly discerned, and that the heart of the individual will be shaped towards love of God.
Dr. K.J. Drake is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology and Academic Dean at Indianapolis Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Flesh of the Word: The extra Calvinisticum from Zwingli to Early Orthodoxy.
 John Webster, “What Makes Theology Theological” in God without Measure Vol 1, 214-215.