The Theologian and the “Section Man” (Or, Franny and Zooey Go to Seminary)

franny and zooeyContinuing my foray into literature, I’ve begun reading Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (mostly because it’s on the shelf, Alan Noble is a Salinger fan, and I don’t feel like picking up Cormac McCarthy yet). Of course, this is a huge change of pace from Austen. It’s a different air we’re breathing–much smokier and angst-ridden. As a college pastor only a few years out of school myself, in some ways it’s all a bit too familiar. All the same, I’ve found it illuminating and enjoyable. But not in phony way.

One particular interchange early on between the young couple, Franny and Kane, got me thinking about the nature of theology; or rather, the character of the theology student. Kane is telling Franny about some critical literature paper he’s thinking of getting published. He’s obviously very proud of it, while at the same time trying to act cool, detached, and dismissive about the whole thing, and it provokes Franny’s ire. Later on in the chapter we learn that Franny’s become sick of all the “ego”, all the self-aggrandizing attached to the pursuit of a name through petty accomplishments in the world she knows. Upon seeing Kane caught up in the same sort of preening, ecocentric concerns, she responds by saying that he’s acting just like a “section man.”

When pressed on it, she explains further:

“Well, I don’t know what they are around here, but where I come from, a section man’s a person that takes over a class when the professor isn’t there or is busy having a nervous breakdown or is at the dentist or something. He’s usually a graduate student or something. Anyway, if it’s a course in Russian Literature, say, he comes in, in his little button-down-collar shirt and striped tie, and starts knocking Tur-genev for about a half hour. Then, when he’s finished, when he’s completely ruined Turgenev for you, he starts talking about Stendhal or somebody he wrote his thesis for his M.A. on. Where I go, the English Department has about ten little section men running around ruining things for people, and they’re all so brilliant they can hardly open their mouths—pardon the contradiction. I mean if you get into an argument with them, all they do is get this terribly benign expression on their—” –Franny and Zooey, pg. 14

Most of us who’ve spent time in a couple of discussion sections run by a fresh grad student can probably recognize the picture. Or even if you’ve been to seminary for that matter. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my philosophy TAs and my time in seminary, but this sort of thing can happen. It’s a particularly good picture of the way that “knowledge puffs up.”

Which brings me to the point. As I was reading this, I couldn’t help but reflect on the practice of theology and think to myself, “Theologians, we are not to be ‘section men.'”

You see, while everyone is a theologian of sorts, there are others–pastors, and theology students, usually–who become “theologians” in the technical sense. They set aside time in their lives, to study, grow, and become experts, knowledgable in their fields. They become familiar with the names, the history of theological discussion, the important categories, and so forth, that go along with that. As you might expect, in the course of things they develop opinions, convictions, passions, likes, and dislikes just as other men and women do. Expertise in any field will produce that and that’s fine.

We should be sure, though, that we do not turn in a “section men”, or “section women.” Theology students pursue these activities and specialized knowledge in order to know, love, serve and worship God, as well as to equip and prepare the church to know, love, serve, and worship God.

But this is not for our own name or prestige as an expert.

For various reasons, it’s all too tempting to enjoy being consulted as the expert in a given area. Some of us derive our justification by approval as an “expert” or a theologian rather than simply as a child of God. Others find it tempting to take pleasure in being “in the know” about these things, the inner circle of the wise, and quashing the opinions of the theologically unwashed. There is a sort of individual who loves crushing pop theology, not because of a love of truth, or because its destructive of souls, but because they love crushing things and this is the way they know how. This is not being a theologian, but rather a “section man.”

It’s not for nothing the old theologians used to say theology was impossible without prayer. Attempting to study theology without prayer is a contradictory endeavor. It’s attempting to learn and say something about the God upon whom all existence depends, all the while acting like you’ve arrived on your own steam. This can only lead to pride, self-justification, and other such folly.

Pastors, theology students, and others of the general species homo theologicus, heed that counsel. Theology is only to be studied with prayer, otherwise, you may just look up from your textbooks one of these days and see a section man staring back at you in the mirror.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Things My Mom Taught Me About Theology — What That Means For Your Kid

This is not my mom, but since she would probably not like any photo I picked of her, I'm giving you one of John Calvin instead.

This is not my mom, but since she would probably not like any photo I picked of her, I’m giving you one of John Calvin instead.

On a whim last week I stopped to try and think about who, out of the various books, pastors, and theologians I’ve been shaped by, has most shaped me theologically. I started rifling through the names–Calvin, Vanhoozer, Horton, Wright, Barth, Newbigin, Kreeft, Lewis, Kierkegaard–and came up with a surprising answer: my mother, Arliett. This is no joke, or even my attempt at a heart-warming post about dear old mom (who really isn’t old anyways), it’s just a practical point. For all the Calvin or Vanhoozer or Horton I quote, the deepest roots of my theological instincts can probably be traced back to my mom’s early instruction in the faith.

I’ll be straight with you and say Mom doesn’t have what most would consider formal theological training. She was raised in a Catholic school and got saved in a Calvary Chapel Bible study a couple of years before I was born. There was no seminary and I don’t recall us owning a single systematic theology text in the home before I bought mine in seminary. Mom learned what she knew from a lot of Bible studies, personal reading, and a lot of hours listening to sermon tapes from Bible teachers. Still, she learned enough to be recognized by the leadership and was eventually asked to be a bible study leader in the women’s groups at our churches.

Her first aim though, besides knowing and loving Jesus herself, was that my sister and I would know him too.  For the first few years of my life in church, she was my Sunday School teacher using the flannel-graphs, telling us the stories, and teaching us from the Word of God. When she had a major surgery related to a tumor when I was in Jr. High, she told us afterwards, that her one prayer was that she would live so she could make sure and encourage us in our faith until we were adults. And honestly, I can attest she did not let up–ever. Whether it was playing hundreds of hours of sermons in the car, buying us teenage devotionals, making sure we were in Bible studies, or praying for us in moms’ groups, we had a full-time spiritual cheerleader and gadfly in my mom.

So what exactly did my mom teach me that’s still with me today? Plenty, but I think I’ll limit it to 5 key points:

  1. The Trinity is Non-Negotiable – Back when I was a kid we had Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons walking door to door a lot in our neighborhood. My mom was aware of this and told us one key question we should always ask when someone came around trying to talk about Jesus was “Do you believe in the Trinity?” If they didn’t, just tell them you do and don’t continue the conversation. While maybe not the best example of ecumenical dialogue, she wasn’t much interested in it at that point, but rather with the spiritual health of her children. She never mentioned Arianism, tri-theism, modalism, or the difference between the economic and immanent Trinity, but she did teach us very clearly that Christians confess a Triune God who is wonderfully Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Anything else is not the God of Jesus Christ.
  2. Is it in the Bible? – Next, she taught us the importance of the Bible. Her and my dad both would read the Bible to us at night, (although she preferred my dad to do the reading before bed because she didn’t want us picking up her Honduran spanish accent in our English). In that, and a million other ways, she was always telling us that the Bible was where the truth of God was found. We weren’t fundamentalists rejecting all other books (my parents took me to the library a lot), but the bottom-line was, for faith and morals, if it wasn’t in the Bible, then it wasn’t binding on us for salvation, and should probably be avoided. Now, of late I’ve come to a more appreciative view of the weight of tradition, creeds, councils, etc., but that basic instinct to strive to trust the Word of God above all other words came through the words of my mother.
  3. We Have a Story-Shaped Gospel – This one’s kinda simple. Like I mentioned above, my mom taught us Sunday School. I learned a lot of Bible stories at her knee. Also, I don’t know if it was my dad or my mom who made the decision to use the sweet comic-book-style Picture Bible when we were kids, but that was a great move. From a very early age I had the inarticulate sense that the Bible was not just a collection of disembodied truths, but a series of stories telling the spiritual history of all the generations of believers that came before, leading up to the saving actions of Jesus Christ. Long before I read Hans Frei, my mom taught me about story.
  4. Balance – Another theological instinct bequeathed to me by my mom was a sense for balance. I’ve never been a fan of extreme positions or false dichotomies. For instance, I’ve always been peeved at those who try to pit a Christus Victor angle against the penal substitutionary angle or vice versa, in the atonement discussion when they’re both fully compatible with each other and found in scripture. (Col. 2:14-15) The one issue that I remember my mom giving me a sense of balance about when I was a kid was regarding spiritual gifts. We were at a decent Assembly of God church for a couple of years because they had a good kids program, but when I came home asking why I didn’t have the gift of tongues in the 3rd grade, my parents decided it was time to roll out. She made a point to tell me that yes, the ‘charismatic gifts’ like tongues and prophecy were real (not cessationism), but they were always to be used in proper order, and they weren’t necessarily for everybody (charismaniacs). We all have different gifts. Again, I’m pretty sure she’d never read Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians, but she taught me to handle the Word in a way that wasn’t reactionary or ‘enthusiastic’, but calmly responsible.
  5. Humility – Finally, my mom strove to teach me humility. I can’t tell you how often she would talk to me about Solomon’s humility in asking for wisdom. In a hundred different ways she warned me against pride in thinking I knew more than I did, simply because I usually knew a little more than the rest of my friends. This continued from the time I was a small child until I was in high school, and then in college, and on into grad school, and–you get the picture. For natural born sinners, humility before the Word of God and the God who is beyond fathoming is a lesson that can never be taught too early or too much.

What Does this Have to Do with You? As I mentioned earlier, I’m not just trying to write a heart-warming post about my mother, or my childhood. My point in ripping through all of those truths my mom taught me is to encourage parents to understand their primary role in the spiritual education of their children. I didn’t learn those very important lessons in seminary, but in the home.

I say this as someone who works in student ministries. I know about the wonderful programs, Sunday School teachers, directors, studies, and lessons that can be used to help shape the spiritual life of your child. The plain fact of the matter is that, at best, we get your kids for about an hour or two a week while you have them for the rest of it; there is simply no competition.

You need to realize that your child’s spiritual life is not the church’s responsibility, but yours. We are there to help you do your job as a parent. See, your primary job as a parent is not to make sure that your kid gets on the right sports team, or the right college, or has a “successful life”, or is even “happy”. Your primary job is, by implicit example and explicit instruction, to point your child to Christ in all that you do.

If you feel overwhelmed by the idea of being responsible for the spiritual well-being of your child hear me say three words of encouragement:

  1. First, good for you–it is a big deal and from my experience in student ministries not enough parents care about it beyond wondering why we haven’t speed-sanctified their child for them. A little urgency isn’t a bad thing.
  2. Second, calm down–you are not responsible for converting them, as that is work of the Holy Spirit, but pointing them to Christ. Too much urgency will make you crazy.
  3. Third, take heart–you are not alone in this. You have the promise of Jesus that he will be with you until the end of the age as you go out to fulfill the Great Commission even unto the ends of your own backyard. (Matt 28)

Soli Deo Gloria

Some resources for newly-inspired, but lost parents:
1. The Jesus Story-Book Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones
2. Big Truths for Young Hearts by Bruce Ware
3. The Good News We Almost Forgot by Kevin DeYoung (More for parents who feel shaky about theology)

5 Ingredients to Being A Good Theologian


St. Augustine — patron saint of theologians, sore eyes, and brewers. No wonder the Reformed love him.

As a part of my reading during this Lenten season I’ve chosen to finally hunker down with Thomas Weinandy’s Does God Suffer?–a theological defense of the doctrine of God’s impassibility. God’s wired me to worship through my engagement with systematic theology, so I figure deep meditation on the issue of God’s immutable nature in light of the reality of sin, suffering, and the cross are just the ticket. Only two chapters in I can see why Kevin Vanhoozer listed it as one of 5 of the best books on the doctrine of God for theological students to engage with. He is nothing if not a model for Christian scholarly engagement.

Using primarily the words of its best advocates, Weinandy first reconstructs one of the strongest presentations in favor of passibility I’ve read yet. I even started to doubt my own newfound impassibilism (which is saying something after the amount Moltmann that I’ve read.) Thankfully he moves on to make a stunning case for the traditional doctrine. Still, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this level of fairness, honestly, and intellectual integrity in a theological teacher.

Weinandy then moves in the next chapter to sketch his own understanding of the theological enterprise. In it he lays out 5 “ingredients that help foster and encourage the theological enterprise, and so help define the task of the theologian.” (pg. 27)

So according to Weinandy, what makes for a good theologian?:

  1. Theologians Reason About Faith – “First within the very nature of Christian revelation is the principle that faith seeks understanding…Christian theologians, their reason guided by faith and the light of the Holy Spirit, clarify, and advance what has been revealed by God, written in the scriptures, and believed by their fellow Christians.” (pg. 28) The theologian is to use the reason he’s been given, in submission to the Holy Spirit in order to elucidate what has already been revealed in such a way that it can edify and bless the community.  It is both an exercise of faith and reason, in precisely that order. It is reasoning about what we have accepted by way of God’s revelation–thinking more deeply about what we have believed in God’s testimony about himself. 
  2. Theologians Calm Down and Make a Case – “Second, Christian theology also wishes to defend, by reasoned argument, what has been revealed against those who question, distort, or attack it.” (pg. 28) There is a real place for reasoned ‘polemics’, or persuasive argument. Weinandy goes on to say that this shouldn’t be done with an attitude that assumes any and all questioning is made in bad faith or with hostility, or that doesn’t recognize the benefits of theological controversy. We would not have the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian definitions if the theologians of the Church were not forced to think more deeply on the mystery of Christ because of the doctrinal controversies in those early centuries. The point is, theologians make a case.
  3. Theologians Connect the Dots – “Third, Christian theology also wishes to demonstrate the inter-relationship between the various truths of faith.” (pg. 29) Weindandy gives the example of the relationship between the Father and the Son. In thinking through what it means for Jesus to be the eternal Son of the Father, the Church had to think through a bit more clearly what it meant to be a “Son” and what it meant to be a “Father.” Or, for that matter, what we mean by the idea of a person at all. No doctrine can be examined abstracted from the whole, but must be set within the full body of Christian doctrine otherwise it loses its proper shape. In other words, it’s not a bad thing for theologians to be “systematic” about things.
  4. Theologians Don’t Fly Solo – “Fourth, the work of individual theologians is not done in isolation. Theologians work within an historical context and within the Christian community.” (pg. 29) All good theologians stand on the shoulders of those who have come before them. Wanna make sure you’re a crappy theologian who runs into heresy? Do whatever it takes to remain ignorant of Christian history and the history of doctrine; never read or consider the teachers of the church in other times or places who have wrestled with the subject matter you’re studying. For the rest of us, we need to understand that neglecting the studies and advances in understanding that the Church has made over the centuries in our theological reflection is like trying to reinvent the wheel instead of trying to make it smoother. That is not to say that in certain times and places, the church can’t make advances in our understanding of doctrine (for instance the 4th century on the Trinity, or the 5th on the person of Christ, or the 16th on justification, or even now on the doctrine of impassibility) it is to say that it’s unwise to try and fly solo theologically.
  5. Theologians Worship – “Fifth, personal prayer and communal worship likewise foster theological understanding. Liturgy is a living expression of what is believed and so through participation in it one grows in an understanding of the faith.” (pp. 29-30) As the old expression goes, lex orandi, lex credendi, (the law of prayer is the law of belief). Weinandy points to the fact that in the past liturgical practices, the concrete worship of the church, shaped and gave the raw material of theological explanation. This was certainly the case in Basil the Great’s arguments about the full divinity of the Holy Spirit in the 5th century. Beyond this, we can’t begin to think we’re truly speaking of God, reasoning about the faith, if our own faith isn’t growing through a worshipful encounter with the Triune God. If theologians are not worshippers, not personally involved with the God they’re speaking of, then they’re trying to approach the task from some sort of neutral, 3rd-person perspective, describing the faith in the way a sociologist or ethnographer would. That might make for some interesting texts in religious studies, but not good theology.

There’s more to be said about the task of the theologians. I’m sure many of you have your own suggestions (feel free to suggest some in the comments.) Still, for those aspiring theologians among us, these are a good place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria