Ivory Tower Theology

A man named Wheeler MacPherson has just written a post critical of my blog. It was a very interesting post in many ways, and therefore I thought I would interact with it a bit. He raises some very important points about the nature of the church, the nature of theology, and what pastors need to be doing.

He first relates an experience he had while waiting for a congregation to exit the church premises. It was a megachurch that rated three policemen to help with the traffic jam. In rather cynical tones, he relates how they couldn’t possibly be expected to delay their egress from the church on behalf of other people. While waiting for the traffic to lighten up, he reminisces about work as a younger man, and how carefree that life seemed. He realizes that he is just as content now, and asks the reason for it. His words are that “I realized that its genesis is tied to the church building. I am no longer a slave to churchianity, and this fact made me, deep down in the true place, more carefree than a beardless bony boy with a lungful of cheap Mexican weed.” One wonders what he means by “churchianity” at this point, whether that includes all forms of organized Christianity, or only some that really seem to get under his skin. More on that later. The next paragraph needs to be quoted in full, as it is rather important:

On his now-defunct blog, a friend of mine wrote recently with power and precision about the absolute foolishness of elevating the bible to a paper idol, and about how a dearth of the Holy Spirit leaves men to “search the Scriptures” without inward or divine understanding. This is an important observation for this desert age. Christians make fun of pagans for chanting prefabricated prayers at their dumb deities, but it’s been my observation that almost all Christians do the exact same thing with their bibles. They force themselves to sit and choke down a portion of Scripture on a semi-regular basis, and yet this diet never seems to nourish them, never seems to make their muscles grow, never seems to bring the glow of spiritual health to their spiritual cheeks. Christians chirp to each other their favorite verses (almost always lifted out of context and appropriated in the most grossly inappropriate ways) and remain utterly ignorant of what those verses actually mean. They can’t be bothered with the heavy lifting. Instead, they prefer to farm out the actual learning and insight to the paid professionals – and why not? After all, they pay their pulpiteers quite handsomely to churn out their little talks.

What Wheeler says here is something I also have noticed, and I like it almost as much as he does! I would describe it this way: Christians reading the Bible always to confirm their own ideas, and never allowing the Bible to challenge what they believe, or how they live. Their conception of the Christian life is determined entirely by what they learned in Sunday School 50 years ago, and the Bible hasn’t changed their thinking on anything during that whole time. This is probably not the only scenario in which people’s thinking becomes reified, but it is a very common one.

What follows is a sustained critique of the general content of my blog. I will try to concentrate on the substantive points that he makes, and ignore the rhetoric, which is quite strong. The first point he makes is that I identify myself as a “reverend,” when Jesus tells his followers not to give themselves titles. He tries to preempt any kind of a response by saying that if I were to defend myself on this point, I would be “explaining away” the text. I would respond by making a few points about titles. Firstly, Jesus does not condemn all titles, or else He wouldn’t have allowed the disciples to call themselves “apostles” later on in the epistles. Also, what about elders and deacons? It seems to me that Wheeler has absolutized one text and has not seen it in the context of the rest of Scripture. When Jesus ridicules those who arrogate titles to themselves, He is telling us several things: 1. that we should not give ourselves titles; 2. that no title should ever be used as a way of puffing ourselves up by means of pride. Jesus says nothing in those contexts about using titles that other people have given us. If He did, then He would directly contradict Himself when He gave the title “apostle” to the twelve apostles! Jesus gave the titles to the apostles. In my case, I did not give myself the title “reverend.” It was given to me by the denomination in which I serve when I was ordained. Furthermore, the only reason I mention the title in the page is so that people will know something of my background as a minister of the gospel as an ordained minister in the church. I certainly do not intend to use that title as a way of self-aggrandizement.

Still less am I defining myself by that title, contrary to his assertions. It is a formal title. When I introduce myself in person to someone, I do not use that title. I just say “I’m Lane Keister.” Wheeler is therefore reading into my page what is not there.

Next, he quotes something from a blog post I wrote last year, paraphrasing someone else’s comments (!). He attributes the quotation to me, when the thought is not actually mine. It is Joel Beeke’s thought, somewhat paraphrased by me. What follows this quotation in his post is something I am frankly mystified by. I don’t know what he means when he accuses the church as a whole of racism. Nor do I understand his reference to my graduating from a seminary that celebrates MLK Jr. Day. Maybe I’m just dense, but I don’t follow his point here.

The next point he makes is basically the “ivory tower” accusation: that this blog exists to debate irrelevant, unimportant theological points, and does not address what is really important in life. He says, “Real enemies and real lessons to be learned, real challenges that require real effort on the part of men who face real, individual dangers every real day.” It would be nice for him to give us some examples of what he is talking about. It must be pointed out here also that he can’t see my day-to-day ministry. He can’t see me counseling people with marriage problems, or drug problems, or depression, or anger management (all of which are present in the church I serve). He can’t see me visiting the sick in the hospital, or the elderly in their nursing homes. And so he makes the assumption that because this is a blog about theology, that therefore it is an example of unrealistic, ivory-tower theology, and that I’ve effectively got my head buried in the sand.

This brings us to the definition of theology, which I think is a very important point in the discussion. Is theology relevant to our lives or not? I follow the Puritan definitions here and claim unequivocally that theology is always relevant to our lives. The problem here is that Wheeler has a much narrower definition of theology and what is relevant than I do. He seems to be defining what is relevant as what is practical, and by that he (probably) means something that will help with the “real enemies and real lessons…real challenges.” Let me ask him this question: has he ever stopped to think about what kind of impact a proper appreciation of the Lord’s Supper could have on his spiritual growth? Or has he ever stopped to think that the proper understanding of justification can lift infinite weights off of people’s souls? Has he stopped to think that even the doctrine of the Trinity (often considered the least relevant doctrine of all) is actually the most relevant according to Jesus in John 17 and according to Paul in Ephesians 1, that it is the Trinity as Trinity that accomplishes our salvation and applies it to us? The problem here is not that my definition of theology is too ivory-tower, but that his definition of “relevant” is way too narrow. If the Bible talks about it, then it is relevant. Period. I like to talk about the Bible and what it means. I do this on the blog all the time. That is the heavy lifting he is in fact talking about without realizing it.

I suspect that Wheeler has been hurt by the institutional church greatly some time in his past. I know many people like this. My heart goes out to them, because I know exactly how ugly the church can be. It has been quite ugly to me, in fact, and on many occasions. The church has warts and blemishes all over the place. However, Revelation 21-22 invites us to look at the church as she will be in all eternity: like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. This is the true church. Here is a question for Wheeler: does he believe that we can truly love Jesus Christ and not love the bride that He loves so much, and gave Himself for?