Next month marks the 499th anniversary of what is typically called the dawn of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31st, 1517 Martin Luther pinned 95 theses to the Wittenberg castle-church door in the hopes of engaging other ecclesiastics in theological debate. The theses were originally written in Latin, the theological lingua franca of the day. His zealous students, however, seeing the value of a wider circulation, took the theses down, translated them into German—the local lingua vulgaris of the day—and rushed them off to this new thing called the “printing press.” From there many copies could be made and disseminated, eventually, all over Europe. The rest is history as they say.
This month also marks the beginning of ITS’s first Master’s degree cohort. As mentioned, those 95 ideas-for-debate were posted to the castle-church door in Wittenburg because that was the place to begin discussions with others. The current “castle-church door” is the blogosphere I suppose. Now I’ll be quick to comment that I certainly make no pretenses to equate what Luther did to what we are doing, nor suggest that we delude ourselves to think our impact will be in any way comparable. But we do hope to engage in, and contribute to, the already ongoing dialogue surrounding theological education and how it is done these days. So with that, here are a mere 9.5 theses.
- Local churches are responsible to raise up church leaders.
- Healthy local churches are the locus of effective gospel ministry.
- The primacy of preaching, necessity of discipleship, and urgency of missions are central to healthy local churches.
- Effective preaching, discipleship and missions all emerge out of biblical and theological groundings expressed within historic confessional traditions.
- The indispensable foundation for all theological inquiry is a recognition of the authority and sufficiency of the Christian Scriptures.
- Hermeneutics, Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, and Philosophy are essential disciplines for theologians.
- Cultural Hermeneutics & Apologetics are necessary for theologians to be effective ministers of the gospel.
- Sufficiently large metropolitan areas need institutions that theologically train the next generation of church leaders who will share these core values.
- The most effective educational methodologies for training such leaders are found in live communities that traverse church and academy. (I’m counting this one as 1.5 because it’s the one that I believe needs to be heard the most!)
Okay, so these are not really all that new in essence. But I do believe that the way a lot of theological education is done these days is not in step with the last point, and therefore undermines many of the others, especially the first three. Local churches are the incubator inside of which the most effective discipleship takes place. When Christ calls sinners to himself he places them inside the communion of saints that transcends time and place. That universal church manifests itself in local communities with a diversity of spiritual gifts whereby sinners can increasingly be conformed into the image of Christ. By God’s grace, some are also called to full-time vocational ministry. Should not the local church play a key role in those persons’ discipleship as well? And should not the sort of theological rigor necessary for life-long fruitful labor be done elbow-to-elbow, face-to-face, eye-to-eye?
It is very difficult, however, for churches to do that alone, and so therefore must work hand-in-hand with each other. But therein lies the rub. Churches are different. Statements of faith are different. Pastors are different. In John 17:21 Jesus prayed that his followers “may all be one” only a few sentences after he also prayed “sanctify them in the truth” (17:17). Well, what happens when convictions of truth prohibit real unity? (That was Luther’s issue after all.) Or better, If I believe my church’s statement of faith is true, how much of it needs to be equally affirmed by those with whom I might work? Or still better, What is the core of the gospel that I can gladly celebrate is being proclaimed in other churches even while I disagree with some of their ecclesial and sacramental practices? That is, as a Baptist myself I want gospel-heralding Lutherans, gospel-heralding Presbyterians, gospel-heralding Anglicans, gospel-heralding Methodists, etc. to excel in their gospel-heralding. I’m not ready to give up the debate about polity and the sacraments, but I am willing to give up the fight over them.
Indianapolis Theological Seminary exists, therefore, to collaborate with local churches to supplement and empower their own efforts in biblical and theological training. The energy necessary to create robust in-class courses taught by credentialed scholars can be shared, while formative church-based internships led by experienced pastors can hammer out denominational distinctives. To be an effective minister of the gospel, pastors need training in the languages, Biblical Theology, Historical Theology, Systematic Theology, History of Philosophy and Apologetics—all of which are best learned within a specific stream of the traditions flowing out of the Reformation in a live context where scholars and students can also enjoy the splash of other traditions flowing nearby. Then incarnationally learned Practical Theology will put the rubber to specific denominational roads.
“Peace by all means; the truth at all costs,” said Luther. Amen! I don’t think Jesus ever intended to hide truth behind a façade of unity. But perhaps we can admit that the sons of the Reformation might have divided a bit more sharply within the larger camp where unity is not only possible but necessary. It’s necessary for a lot of things (not the least of which, our witness); here I’m focusing on that necessity for the theological development of the next generation of church leaders.
Later Luther called the Reformation an “accident” (which is not the same thing as a “mistake”). In his own backyard were too many papal abuses; in speaking up Luther saw himself as a faithful son of the Catholic Church and pastoral guardian of the local people. He wasn’t trying to shoot the first shot of the Reformation, nor trying to break from Rome. But he did see the costly results of bad theology. Today, preaching has become increasingly a-theological (to be mild about it). A new commitment to truth, instilling it into our disciples—some of whom will become church leaders—and announcing it from the pulpit (or blogosphere) are all urgent.
So consider ITS a bit of an experiment. An experiment in truth and unity. An experiment in these 9.5 theses.