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How mainline seminary education undermines orthodox perspectives

by Ryan Travis

March 22, 2007

As I approach the end of my first year of study at what most would regard a typical mainline Protestant seminary, I am increasingly concerned about the future well-being of the church. Many courses designed for the theological and spiritual formation of future pastors employ texts and resources that articulate views that significantly deviate from the historically confessed faith. Below are three different ways some courses I have taken undermine orthodox perspectives.

I. They exclude or marginalize orthodox voices.

Perhaps the easiest way to undermine orthodox perspectives simply is to ignore or outnumber them. Orthodox authors routinely are excluded from course syllabi or, when they are included, make up an extremely small portion of reading assignments. For example, out of 20 readings in a course packet for "Transforming Seminary Education," a required "introduction to theology" course, only one text could be said to have come from an orthodox theologian. And that one reading--a brief passage from Augustine's "Confessions"--was used only to describe the art of spiritual narrative.

In "Faith Seeking Understanding," a second required theology course for first-year students, texts that implored the use of feminine language for God and that repudiated the doctrine of the atonement were left unanswered. The orthodox perspectives on those issues were simply left out of reading assignments.

II. They equivocate on theological terms.

Another way orthodox perspectives are undermined is by the use of orthodox language in unorthodox ways. The rationale seems to be that if it sounds orthodox, then it must be orthodox. Because the authors rarely announce they have redefined familiar terms, the most unorthodox ideas may initially sound reasonable.

Texts published in 2003, in Edward Farley's "Practicing Gospel: Unconventional Thoughts on the Church's Ministry," and used to introduce the topic of redemption read, "Redemption can liberate the human being from every level of evil: systematic oppression, skewed personal relations, and the loss of individual freedom." It says nothing about deliverance from sin, death, the devil, and hell. Farley continues, "This transformation does not happen by way of an external causality--for instance, by magic. God does not redemptively transform human beings in the way the fairy godmother turns a pumpkin into a carriage." Neither from reading the text would one be able to conclude that God does it with a cross, nails, and sinless Messiah. Despite saying "it is God who saves," the author describes redemption entirely in terms of human feelings and social activity.

"Incarnation" is described as "God's magnificence, preeminence, and God's 'Godness' [being] manifest in and through and with the earth and all its creatures" in Sallie McFague's, 2001 "Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril." The text continues, "divine incarnation is not limited to Jesus: Each creature is a microcosm of divine incarnation . . . If incarnation were limited to Jesus, it would not only be a surd [WordAlone editor: a voiceless sound] (and hence, absurd) [WA editor: so clearly untrue as to be laughable], but paltry in comparison to God's embodiment of all creation."

III. They portray the Gospel as a socio-political movement.

After orthodox voices have been excluded from the conversation and their terms have been redefined, they are further undermined by the portrayal of the Gospel as a socially constructed political movement. Under this postmodernist revision, the Gospel is an ever-changing narrative that has been edited repeatedly by dominant social forces to address their own political objectives and to re-order society.

Anything we confess about Jesus Christ--and even Scripture itself--is considered more a social construct reflecting human biases and ambitions than objective testimony about (or revelation from) an absolute, eternal Truth. Accordingly, our Confessions can--and must--be re-interpreted to better reflect contemporary values and experiences, some authors insist.

For example, Christians have always confessed Jesus died on the cross to atone for sin. Delores Williams in "Black Women's Surrogacy Experience Challenges Christian Notions of Redemption," in her 1991 contribution to "After Patriarchy," however, declares the doctrine is merely the "use [of] the language and sociopolitical thought of the time to render Christian principles understandable." In fact, she argues, "there is nothing of God in the blood on the cross" and we should "use the language and thought of liberation to liberate redemption from the cross and to liberate the cross from the 'sacred aura' put around it by existing patriarchal responses . . ."

Using similar arguments, texts further urge students to design parish education resources that inspire political activism, to use female images for God because masculine language is exclusive and oppressive and to realize that Christianity is one of many equally valid religions that are pleasing to God. Even sin must be re-evaluated because dominant social forces have labeled what threatens their power "sinful" and thereby reveal a bias we may dislike today.

Not every course excludes orthodox voices, and professors generally tolerate orthodox views even if they do not personally hold them. One professor even confided in me great disappointment at postmodern revisions of the faith so prevalent on campus. My colleagues at other mainline seminaries have informed me they experience similar bias in their theology courses, leading me to conclude such postmodern revision is widespread. Let us pray for the future of the church and for seminarians struggling to remain faithful to the historic Confessions.

[Editor's note: Ryan Travis is a first-year master of divinity student at Louisville Seminary, an institution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), that is in full-communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He is a member of Lutheran CORE.]