Is being biblical and confessional an academic liability?
I teach at an academic institution (Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington DC, but that’s not the point of this post, and all opinions are my own) that prides itself on being both confessional and biblical, and while those two predicates may be popular in certain circles, they are more and more seen as an academic liability. I’m guessing that if I were to go out on the streets and take a poll of what people are looking for in seminary graduate education that neither “biblical” nor “confessional” would make the top 10. I’ll go even further: narrowing the field to Christians with a high view of Scripture, I might still be hard pressed to find biblical and confessional at the top of the list. Maybe biblical, almost definitely not confessional
Why? Because in various ways both ideas are seen as a kind of academic liability. The values of the academy are progress, relevance, development, creativity, freedom of inquiry, cultural engagement, and practical skills. Now I have those values too, but I also believe that being biblical and confessional is the most robust and efficient way of meeting those goals.
Let’s start with biblical. The problem with being principally and thoroughly biblical is obvious: the Bible is outdated and outmoded. It doesn’t address the kinds of challenges and problems that most modern Christians are struggling with. Even in evangelical circles the way we talk about the Bible betrays this attitude: we need to “make the Bible relevant.” The assumption is that it’s not relevant, at least not with some serious redecorating; it has to be made relevant.
That attitude towards the Bible usually arises out of a misunderstanding of what the Bible is. It’s not a theology textbook or a “guidebook for life.” I know that most educated evangelicals wouldn’t speak that simplistically about what the Bible is, but nevertheless that seems to be the operating assumption about how the Bible is useful, even among those with some hermeneutical sophistication. It’s useful in so far as I can mine it for theological truth or apply it in my daily life.
That’s not actually how the Bible talks about itself. It’s certainly useful for “faith and practice,” but that’s neither what the Bible is or why it was given to us. No, the Bible is a witness. It’s living testimony about something that God has done and is doing. In particular, it’s proclamation to the world that God has set his King on the Cosmic Throne, that Jesus has been accounted worthy to open the scroll. It gives us the cosmic meta-narrative, the way in which God saves the world by enthroning Jesus as its Adamic King, for the Jew first and also the Greek. Moreover, it proclaims the King’s invitation to any and all that this is the time to enter His great and glorious kingdom.
If that’s the case, then the Bible is the most relevant thing in all the world. Only here do we find a fully realized history of all things. Only here do we find a cosmic account of salvation. Here we learn how Jesus became King over all things, and how only because of him and his people will the world’s groaning turn to glory. If this is not relevant then literally nothing is relevant; if the biblical story is not true and Christ is not on the throne and his children have not been raised, then all of this is sound and fury signifying nothing.
What about confessional? This too seems to be seen as a liability, especially in the academy. It’s a straitjacket. A fence line. A barrier. A dry Spirit-less orthodoxy. Confessionalism closes down curiosity, inquiry, and communication. Absolutely not! Confessionalism is about standing in the great tradition. It’s about hearing how the Spirit as he has ministered and guided the church for generations before us.
Can you imagine a doctor or a scientist declaring that they wanted to start from scratch? Refusing to learn from the past? You know what we should really question: germ theory. No! They take the knowledge and wisdom they’ve inherited and build upon it. And so do we. We gather with the great cloud of witnesses throughout church history—witnesses that have seen the faith tested by war, by heresy, by upheaval and disease and vain philosophy, witnesses who amidst those tests found the faith to be a shield and guard in every continent, culture, and context—we gather with such saints and we say yes, amen, pass me the baton and let’s finish the race. Confessionalism doesn’t muzzle curiosity, inquiry, and communication; no, it’s the place where all three begin, and in this way the church is always building up and out, rather than endlessly rebuilding and renovating what’s already there.
Both is Good
And both together? Biblical and confessional, in this economy? That’s why I love working for the institution that has called me to service. Some might look at these two ideas and think they are in competition. Should we be biblical or should we be confessional? But “why not both? Both is good!” We are confessional, which means we stand in the great tradition and ask “what’s next.” And we are Biblical, which means that when we ask that question we turn to the Word of Christ, working through the Spirit, and find it both fit and suitable for the building up of the church, for the race that we are called to run.