A number of members in my congregation are currently undertaking theological education at several of the excellent Bible colleges around the country. I think this is wonderful: after all, what could be a greater topic of study than God himself? Scholars, professors and academics can all assist us in understanding the Scriptures and thereby come to a fuller knowledge of God and his Son.
However, from time to time, I have noticed that those from the academy give the impression that the Bible belongs to them—that they have a special claim on it and that they have a special claim to understand it, due to their great learning, general smartness, or a PhD they completed at some point in the past. They are, at this point, deeply mistaken.
The Bible is not their book. It does not belong in an ivory tower. Nor do you require some special learning to unlock its meaning. The word of God was not written for the elites. It is not the property of the clergy, professors or the academy. God’s word is—as it has ever been—a word for his people. It belongs to the church. The word of God forms the people of God, and by this same word, they are made “wise for salvation” (2 Tim 3:15), they are equipped to live the Christian life (2 Tim 3:16), and they are established and secured in the faith (1 Pet 1:23). God’s word is the lifeblood of the church, and whenever a church loses it, it can no longer be considered a Christian church.
The Scriptures are God’s words written to his people about his Son. The Bible belongs to the church, for the church is the household of God, the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).
If you happen to find yourself a professor of the Scriptures, then you better be sure you belong to the church too—otherwise you have no business reading the Scriptures. It is not addressed to you; go return it to your local church. In fact, if you are not part of the people of God, you really don’t have any hope of comprehending it at all. For what hope do the spiritually dead have in understanding the living and enduring word of God? Their eyes are veiled to its message (2 Cor 4:3-4). The role of the academy is to serve the church in her understanding of the word of God. And to the extent that it does this, it has value.
Should we then close all of our theological colleges and direct our funding elsewhere? Quite the contrary: we need our most able teachers to be training the next generation of ministers, missionaries and church leaders. Theological institutions need to be funded and resourced for this important role. We should take very seriously the appointment of college faculty. We need to be looking for men and women who are exemplary in their Christian life, who have a great love for Christ and the word of God, who are deeply rooted in the local church and who themselves have pastoral experience.
So for those who aspire to theological training and the academy, are you firstly willing and able to teach the Bible in your church? Does the church believe you are gifted for this task? Or does theological lecturing appeal because you don’t really like people, are unable to converse with them and enjoy hearing the sound of your own voice? There are those for whom their particular gifts and temperament mean they are most suited to theological education and the training of Christian leaders, but they must first be tried and tested in the local congregation. Ask any theological student who their favourite lecturers are and you can be certain that they are those who also excel at pastoral ministry.
Theological institutions have an important role to play in the growth of the kingdom of God. They will be training and preparing men and women for a lifetime of teaching, service and leadership. But they must never lose sight of the goal for which they exist: the service of the church. When the goal becomes publishing papers in reputable journals, increasing enrolments or garnering respect in the academic world (all of which are noble pursuits), the forest has been lost for the trees. It will not be the local theological college that Christ will wed on the last day. Nor will the greatest academic library endure into eternity. It will be the community of the faithful who will endure with their Lord—the creation who were the very reason God spoke in the first place.