Karam Forum 2017 opened with a rich, challenging lecture from Kevin Vanhoozer on “Learning Christ.” Vanhoozer argued that over the last two centuries, theological education has been structured according to implicitly secular understandings of academic knowledge. Biblical interpretation, he said, is not merely a pursuit of academic knowledge but is, at bottom, a form of discipleship to Christ; and discipleship to Christ is a form of biblical interpretation. This observation has far-reaching implications for reform of the theological academy.
Vanhoozer’s talk was followed by a provocative panel discussion featuring Larry Ward of Abundant Life Church, Lisa Slayton of the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation, Rudy Estrada of LABI College and Will Messenger of the Theology of Work Project. The panel was moderated, and occasionally immoderated, by Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary.
Vanhoozer began by sharing his experience as a doctoral student and a young academic, when he strove to overcome limited understandings of what it meant to read the Bible by drawing on the work of philosophers in the field of hermeneutics. Gradually, he realized that even these efforts to give the Bible more of a voice were not enough, because he was drawing on secular philosophies of hermeneutics. Special revelation requires a special hermeneutic, taking seriously the real nature of the Bible as the supernatural word of God along with its (just as real) human and historical character.
Something parallel to this, he argued, has happened to theological education itself. Under the influence of figures like Friedrich Schleiermacher, the theological academy has treated theological knowledge as the mere accumulation of information for technical and professional use, looking to the model of the 19th century German research university. This has hindered the formative power of theological knowledge to transform individuals and communities. The whole enterprise of interpreting the Bible goes wrong unless it is undertaken as a journey of discipleship that seeks to form and reform who we are and what we do in light of the Bible.
One side effect of reconstructing the theological academy in the image of the 19th century German research university has been deep divisions between the various disciplines of theological knowledge. Systematic theology, biblical studies, Christian history and practical theology operate with such different methods, goals and presuppositions that an integrated body of theological knowledge – “putting Humpty Dumpty back together again” – often seems out of reach.
Vanhoozer offered reflections on how the theological disciplines can orient their scholarship around biblical interpretation as discipleship, and thus strive for a theological integration that will help people practice discipleship as biblical interpretation.
During the panel discussion, participants stressed the challenges Christians face in living their daily lives as expressions of biblical interpretation, and how theological education can help. Slayton said that she has to spend most of her time “doing deep discipleship” with people, because too many church members and even pastors “have never been discipled” – a wakeup call for the seminary. Ward stressed the essential importance of vocation to give people direction in their decision-making, and called for more integration between the theological academy and the local church. Messenger, after beginning with “Kevin had me at hello!”, discussed how to train people to read the Bible as saints – saints with very diverse roles in life. Estrada pointed to Acts 15 modeling the role of Christian community in wrestling with puzzling theological challenges arising from cultural life.
It was a rich evening to begin our provocative time together at Karam Forum!
The conversation will continue at Karam Forum 2018, Jan. 4-5 in Los Angeles, featuring Andy Crouch, Brian Fikkert, Mako Fujimura and many more. Register to join us at www.karamforum.org.