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When theology isn’t the queen of the sciences

Barton J. Gingerich | The secularization of the university comes with a high cost


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When theology isn’t the queen of the sciences
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If a reader were to pick up a medieval European text, he might find the author contending that theology is “the queen of the sciences.” Science, in this rendering, has to do with any study of a body of knowledge. It did not simply mean the study of the physical or natural world. In this old Christian view, theology is the most important and noble of studies because God is more important than anything. All things were made by Him and for His glory, and, in the course of history, He has redeemed all things through Christ. While other disciplines are worthy of pursuit and while there are different vocations for God’s people, theology at its best seeks to behold the face of God—even as in a mirror, darkly—which far outstrips all other human pursuits. Indeed, all people have their own theological opinions, and theological implications are hard to avoid. All knowledge points to its origin and end.

However, the contemporary reader of such claims may find them deeply quixotic. What is commonly called the university—an institution devoted to the unity of the truth—is actually a multiversity of highly specialized research, isolated disciplines, and secularism. “Secularism” in this context means that Christian claims are but one of many on a smorgasbord of options. Orthodox Christian faith holds no authoritative sway over the university, and the day-to-day life of the school is disengaged from official church governance. To be all-inclusive (especially in a government-sponsored academic context), Christians intent on “doing” theology in the classroom must be relegated to the cordoned-off divinity school or the generic religion department. Education is about career advancement, self-realization, or (hopefully) establishing good citizens. It is not about the formation of saints.

But, as time has gone on, it has become apparent that this state of affairs is anything but neutral. The dominant paradigm for reading texts and analyzing the claims of others is one of deep skepticism. In other words, what an author or person is really after is maliciously hidden or unknowingly repressed. Scholarship means decoding the oppression.

Sadly, this approach has gained traction in some departments of the evangelical Protestant world. Several popular books and podcasts find malicious agendas in the arguments and contentions of conservative Protestants. “You’re just doing theology because you actually need therapy,” some claim. Others contend, “Your theological convictions are simply because of your desire for power and to further your social project.” No real legitimacy is given to theological discourses, reasoning, convictions, and stances. Good theology keeps asking, “What is true?” Those who study theology contend, “This is true.” And a lot of folks respond, “What’s your real motivation for asserting and upholding that?”

Christians intent on “doing” theology in the classroom must be relegated to the cordoned-off divinity school or the generic religion department.

While this conspiratorial skepticism occurs across academic disciplines, it is especially ugly to see self-described Christians berate or ignore other Christians who insist on straightforward readings and applications of the doctrine of man, Biblical ethics, and so forth. Generally speaking, the attacks react against contentions against progressive values, especially regarding sex, pastoral authority, and social order.

It is then insisted that theology must conform to popular contemporary mores or academic fads. It must submissively comply—or else. Similarly, theology must support the all-important pursuit of therapy. Untherapeutic doctrines must be discarded. Of course, many theologians love pressing theology into the service of political and social aims, tossing aside fidelity to doctrine for the sake of boosterism.

And when theology cannot serve as a handmaid to other concerns, it must sit quietly in its own corner. Naturally, academic theologians desire attention and relevance, which are generated elsewhere. Accordingly, they resort to warmed-over academic fads already a decade past their “sell-by” date. How the mighty have fallen.

Simply put, theology today cannot even be itself. It is either dismissed as a disguise for other goals and values (most of which are nefarious when it is orthodox) or pressed into service of some other discipline or forced into irrelevant mind puzzles that make no moral, spiritual demands upon the theologian himself. Of course, those that devote themselves to orthodox dogmatic theology or faithful Biblical studies still flush out what progressive academicians hate and seek to suppress: metaphysics (the study of being) and patriarchy, broadly defined. For, it would seem, what they really hate is the greatest Being and the Father of all. They wouldn’t be the first.


Barton J. Gingerich

The Rev. Barton J. Gingerich is the rector of St. Jude’s Anglican Church (REC) in Richmond, Va. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in history from Patrick Henry College and a Master of Divinity with a concentration in historical theology from Reformed Episcopal Seminary.

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