“Dude, you’re not going to cemetery, I mean ‘seminary,’ are you?”
I was a part of the “Jesus Movement” of Southern California in the 1970’s. We saw remarkable and historic events – we literally baptized thousands of new converts in the Pacific Ocean at Pirates Cove in Newport Beach, started churches with thousands of members in storefronts and strip malls all across the Los Angeles and Orange County landscape, and on a personal note, I was privileged to serve as an associate pastor at one of the largest “Jesus People” churches in the Los Angeles basin even hosting members of Bob Dylan’s band to our church on one occasion.
Academia, and in particular, formal theological training seemed, well, unnecessary to those of us who had found Jesus, not as a religion, but in a relationship. I recall one afternoon when my “Jesus freak” senior pastor confronted me about my university studies. “Jesus will probably return before you even graduate, so why are you wasting your time studying?” I replied that, at least to the best of my abilities, I was following God’s direction in my life by completing my university studies. (He eventually hired me after I graduated, but probably never did understand why I had wasted four years of my life studying ‘man’s wisdom.’)
So, fast-forwarding 30 years, I was a bit taken back by the retired Air Force Colonel’s question after church a few weeks ago. “Why did you, a “Jesus Movement” guy eventually go to seminary?”
Almost without hesitation, which bothered me a little (had I anticipated this question?), I replied, “two reasons – the poor ways in which we handled the Scriptures and the lack of humility we had toward Church history.”
German theologians, about 100 years ago, developed a rather benign German phrase into a theological pillar. Sitz im Leben means literally, ‘setting in life.’ But beyond that, what it implies is, if you don’t know what a particular portion of Scripture meant to the audience to whom it was originally written, then you really don’t have a ‘right’ to assume you know what its meaning is for us today.
Back ‘in the day’ during the Jesus Movement, we looked at the local and world news as opportunities to figure out just when the Lord would return ‘with a shout and the trumpet of God’ and rapture the Church up to heaven, leaving everyone else to sort things out while the world went to hell in a hand basket. Of course one of our real gems was to discover that the USSR, the Soviet Union was indeed, the Gog and Magog of Old Testament prophecy, just waiting for its opportunity to swoop down and destroy Israel. Henry Kissinger just might be the anti-Christ, though we pretty much knew it would probably be Spain’s prince Juan Carlos. We had it all figured out.
Years later, after the Soviets’ collapse and Kissinger’s apparent inability to rise to the position of anti-Christ, I realized that, just perhaps, these assumptions weren’t using the best hermeneutical tools and possibly did not reflect what the original readers of the Scripture might have envisioned.
That desire – to handle the Word of God with integrity, thus interpreting and applying it with honesty and sobriety – led me to pursue cemetery, I mean seminary studies.
In today’s post-modern world, followers of Christ aren’t as infatuated with eschatology, but I still see the make-it-up-as-you-go approach to interpreting Scripture. One of my stuffy theologian-type professors once wrote on the board, “Scripture cannot mean to us what it could never have meant to the original hearers.” Those words have stayed with me through fads, pendulums of popular theology, and current affairs.
Learning how to discover, at least in part, the original context, or sitz im leben of a passage is one of the reasons I pursued theology.
Humility and Church History
I was a Vineyard pastor. We had discovered how the ‘signs and wonders’ recorded in the New Testament were also active today and how the Church could begin to ‘move’ in the supernatural realm. My first overseas trip was to England in 1988. We were presenting a conference on ‘Signs and Wonders and Church Growth’ at an Anglican church just outside Cambridge England.
The afternoon before our conference began, I took a walk by myself through the historic Cambridge University district, trying to clear the jet lag from my brain. I wandered past an unremarkable, but quaint Anglican Church with a sign in front, “Open Communion Service for all Baptized Christians – 1:30 p.m.” It was 1:25 p.m., so I decided, ‘what the heck?’ and went inside.
I was ushered through the stately gothic sanctuary into a smaller nave, which I soon learned was part of the original structure – a Norman church structure built in the 700’s. There were about 20 of us for the service. The robed priest began using a short-form for the Eucharist that we all found in our prayer books. Within a few minutes after reciting some Psalms, a confessional prayer, hearing the Gospel reading and a prayer from the Old Testament, I found myself at the communion rail, kneeling and receiving the bread and the cup of wine and suddenly encountering a powerful sense of God’s presence.
It hit me – followers of Christ had knelt here for thirteen hundred years, humbly receiving grace and forgiveness through the wine and the bread – and I had just shown up to the party. While I wasn’t ready to reject the powerful move of the Holy Spirit I had seen in recent years, I also realized that our ‘movement’ had hardly been the first to experience the presence of God and, just maybe, I had a bit of arrogance mixed in with my genuine passion and enthusiasm.
That’s the second reason I decided to pursue theology.
When I graduated with my first seminary degree, my wife threw a small dinner party for me with several pastor friends and their wives. I’ll never forget the card that one dear friend, a Baptist pastor in our city, gave to me that night. In it he wrote, “it is by no means necessary that every one in ministry be a theologian – but it is necessary that a few of us are!”