Paul Blowers is in his 24th year as Dean E. Walker Professor of Church History at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He chairs the committee of faculty chairpersons overseeing faculty advancement, tenure, and other handbook issues.
Why teach church history in a seminary?
Church history as taught in a seminary is definitely a theological discipline. My aim is to help students interpret their own faith and ministry in light of the historical Christian faith, as tempered by the refiner’s fire of history.
Can you put that in context of this point in history and this religious movement?
That’s a major issue for every one of our schools. The Association of Theological Schools is monitoring trends in all seminaries: declining enrollments, less residential education, more online education. Among schools in the Stone-Campbell
Movement, there is a particularly challenging trend of churches, especially megachurches, drafting people directly into the ministry, often from within the congregation, and often with little or no theological education.
That’s only a variation of a long-term challenge.
Yes, there is a historically grounded tension between the church and the academy. That can be healthy or unhealthy. Seminary and church need to have mutual accountability, and that is not always easy. In much of the 20th century, churches were paying close attention to the seminaries. Today, seminaries must pay really close attention to signals coming from the local churches. For our constituency, the issue is not control, but partnership in ministry and mission.
How do seminaries promote that partnership?
We have discussed this in faculty retreats and tried various initiatives. We offered training through a program called Emmanuel Institutes. Other schools have had similar programs, but pastors with limited time and budget for continuing education have gravitated toward programs offered by agencies like the Willow Creek Association. The megachurch programs can say, “We are doing ministry on the ground. If the seminary can help us, fine. But if the seminary is not going to help us do it . . .”
As a church historian, do you see that pattern impacting the identity of churches in our movement?
For over 20 years I have been studying the Stone-Campbell Movement, both in the U.S. and globally. In the 19th century, Barton W. Stone, Alexander Campbell, and their colleagues defined the movement in the landscape of American denominational traditions: they identified us as a movement toward the recovery of New Testament Christianity with a passion for Christian unity. In the 20th century, as our movement got caught in the fray of denominational and religious culture wars, it became increasingly difficult consistently to define who we are! Even after the churches of Christ split off, and the division took shape between Christian church/churches of Christ, our churches still have identity questions.
What do you see as our biggest questions?
“Who are we?” “Are we Evangelicals?” “Do we want to simply have a place at the table with Evangelical denominations, or do we have a unique perspective on the mission of the church?”
We should strive to articulate our distinctive witness amid the pluralism of American—and global—Christianity.
Where are these questions leading?
The confusion is more acute because younger generations in our churches have less historical consciousness of the Stone-Campbell tradition.
One of my students surveyed websites of Christian churches/churches of Christ to see how they are presenting themselves. They are all over the map. Some churches give strong statements of identity with the Stone-Campbell Movement. Some only nervously hint at a linkage with this heritage. Still others avoid any hint of any heritage at all.
Among leaders and scholars, there is a sense that we need to be building relationships and having responsible communication with various communions. But first we need to understand who we are so we can be true to ourselves in fellowship with the larger Christian community.
Many churches and schools have recently developed “what we believe” statements, a bit of an awkward trend for people with “no creed but Christ.”
Yes, it is a challenge. When Thomas Campbell delivered that phrasing he was simply affirming that we do not expect elaborate theological knowledge before baptism. We accept a person’s belief in Christ and then seek to train him or her for spiritual and doctrinal maturity. We may have dropped the ball regarding ongoing discipleship, so such belief statements help to describe our core beliefs. I fear we have too little theological content and formation in our discipleship of new Christians. Incidentally, Alexander Campbell openly recommended the Apostles’ Creed as a kind of syllabus for discipleship.
Speaking of theology, are there theological trends in seminary-level education that concern you?
As we professors have to deal with real biblical and theological complexities, there is almost always a point of tension related to academic freedom. Professors are usually interviewed carefully and asked to affirm normative Christian beliefs. But in the arena of classroom discussion and student formation, most of us find ourselves challenged to ask difficult questions and to invite deeper thinking on issues of faith. In this case, freedom and accountability must always go hand-in-hand, despite the natural, purposive tension between them.
What is the distinct challenge today?
The seminary has students for only a few years. The primary purpose is to educate them for ministry or missions. Biblical studies need to engage students in theological interpretation and application of both Old and New Testament as Scripture for the church. Critical difficulties need to be addressed without naïveté, but they should not interrupt the continuity of the Bible speaking afresh to the church. Paul gave us a hermeneutical model, interpreting both Testaments in light of who Jesus Christ is. That Christ-centered focus is where our students must inevitably become proficient if they are to serve the churches.
So you would encourage scholarly explorations, but with a “tether” of sound theology in place?
Yes, but then we need to ask, “Who anchors the tether—the seminary or the local churches?” The church and academy may have wide disagreement on the limits of academic freedom. The local church may not appreciate the perspectives of a professor fresh out of a university PhD program. Some latitude is likely to be granted so long as the professor still respects Scripture as God’s Word, and believes that Jesus is the Christ. For most of us who teach in seminaries, we “grow into” our proficiency at balancing critical study and theological edification, be it in biblical studies, church history, or any other area. It takes time to get good at this, and to cultivate the kind of classroom spirituality that encourages intellectual and spiritual growth.
As you comment, my mind is running to numerous instances of the type of confrontation you describe. Has the biblical studies area been the arena most fertile for these conflicts?
Yes, in many places and in many ways over the years. I’d recommend a book I just read, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies.* The author traces a pattern of universities developing critical biblical studies programs in the 1880s to train intellectuals whose primary goal was to hold their own as they engaged other intellectuals in the sciences and humanities. Even today, in the context of university-based biblical studies, it is presumed that the church has no privileged stake. But the church has a major stake in the seminary, which commits to maturing people for Christian ministry.
Our seminary aims to educate people to be excellent theological interpreters, whether the subject is Scripture, history, culture, or theology. The intended outcome is Christian leaders who address cultures in the same way Christ and the apostles met their culture.
So how does that impact academic freedom?
The seminary needs to safeguard academic freedom in the context of academic integrity. Academic freedom sometimes wants no boundaries imposed. Academic integrity considers how any perspective will impact the church’s vision and ministry. Such integrity does not stifle freedom, but it implements a higher standard of responsibility. Church and seminary should seek to be essentially one on this.
What are the challenges for theological education in the next generation?
We have our work cut out for us. The globalization of Christianity is certainly one major factor, moving the geographical center of the church from Global North to Global South, and the philosophical center from left to right. Equipping our students to interpret Scripture to increasingly diverse cultural contexts will demand that professors, students, and churches move out of their comfort zones. This globalization may parallel the church’s first-century movement from Jerusalem to “the uttermost parts of the earth.” The ongoing task of contextualizing the gospel is exciting and fearful at the same time!
*Michael Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Paul Boatman serves as chaplain with Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.