Theological Malpractice

Theological Malpractice

Written on 08/10/2022
Gary M. Burge

“You should not trust science. The Scriptures make this clear. When Paul was admonishing his young friend Timothy, he wrote, ‘O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called, which some professing have erred concerning the faith.’”

A friend had sent me a link to a large church’s website and encouraged me to listen to the previous week’s sermon. She was thinking about joining. I was only marginally interested and skimmed emails while the video played. But when I heard these lines, I froze. What? What was that? Rewind and replay. There it was.

I have a reasonable acquaintance with the New Testament and had never heard this before. I immediately paused the sermon, opened a Bible software app, and ran a comprehensive search of the Bible in four common translations. Not there. I then ran a Google search and found it in the King James translation of 1611. It was from 1 Timothy 6:20-21, and a quick glance at my Greek New Testament immediately showed me the error. I decided I was listening to a bit of theological malpractice.

The Aims of Theological Education

As dean of the faculty at Calvin Seminary I spend a lot of time thinking about how we shape pastors. Our entire faculty thinks about this. The church counts on us because we are sending newly minted pastors into leadership, and we prefer they avoid malpractice.

There is enormous pressure in the church today to build a curriculum that is contemporary and to produce young leaders who will draw a crowd. Traditionalists will disdain both of these ideas. But both also bear some truth. Each generation requires leaders who can understand the modern landscape and speak to it successfully. And certainly these leaders should be winsome, authentic, honest, and intriguing enough that we listen to them out of interest, not duty. Audiences know when all of these things are at work in a person—and they gravitate to the pastoral leader who has mastered them.

The Great Temptation

However, we live in an era where theological education is on a downswing. Major nondenominational churches are growing, led by men and women who are remarkably talented but have no use for a seminary degree. I have had the privilege of working alongside many of them. They are bright, self-educated, passionate, and always excellent communicators. As one lead pastor told me, the key question in hiring is: Can a person move the room? Has this become the first criterion for pastoral leadership?

When I attend these churches, quite honestly, I enjoy them. They are vibrant, contemporary affairs with dynamic music, fantastic screen work, worship leaders who really lead, and speakers who know how to speak. And promoting these good virtues is what is on an upswing. Large churches like this shop for the great leader/speaker, not the contemplative pastor/theologian. Today the question isn’t “Are you a solid theologian?” The question is “Do you have what it takes to generate growth and vibrancy?”

In their private moments—when they trust me—many of these leaders will share a secret: they all wish they had more academic study in their background.

So here is the catch: How do you build a seminary for the future that anchors students in the solid, time-tested academic preparation of the past? And how do you do this without diluting students’ passion? How do you create an environment where faculty are as energized as students are and where inspiration is a four-course meal served daily? How do you find the courage to throw out old curricula and refurbish what’s left into something new and responsible and vibrant? Will your denomination let you do this? Will the older generations let you do this? What about the senior professors?

Theological Malpractice

I know it is severe to use the words “theological malpractice” about a pastor. But I don’t know what else to call it. One of the largest churches in southern California is led by a person who didn’t go to college. I find his sermons astonishing. The pastor in this online sermon had no theological education either. My friend told me that Jesus didn’t go to seminary, so our pastors shouldn’t either. I’m still stewing over that one.

1 Timothy 6:20 is Paul’s warning to Timothy to avoid what will distract him from the true faith. The Revised Standard Version handles it well. Timothy should avoid the “contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge.” The Greek word here is gnosis (knowledge), which had an important and technical use in Paul’s day. In the 1600s, the Latin word scientia meant “knowledge” and came from scio (to know). This is the origin of our modern word “science.” That modern term, therefore, is not the same as Paul’s word gnosis, but it was the right word 400 years ago when the King James Version was created. Thus the King James Version inadvertently misleads us today.

Should a pastoral leader know this? Is this leader responsible for representing our Scriptures accurately—as accurately as we expect our attorneys, engineers, and doctors to know their respective subjects? This is the dilemma. This online pastor leads an enormous church of 12,000 people and enjoys a tremendous following, but he preaches ill-informed, popular sermons. I hope seminaries like Calvin throughout the continent will reclaim their role of providing essential training for leaders like this.

Gary M. Burge, Ph.D., is dean of the faculty and professor of the New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has served there since 2017 and attends Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some of the most memorable sermons you have heard, for good or ill?
  2. What do you think should be the aims of good theological education?
  3. If you have to choose between solid theological teaching and great inspirational speaking, which would you choose? Why?
  4. How do we equip ourselves to be more careful and discerning of the theology we watch or hear online? How do we get better at identifying “theological malpractice”?