In a recent meeting, I was privileged to attend, H.B. Charles was interviewed by Dr. Owen Strachan about his life and ministry. The audience was a band of Ph.D. students at Midwestern Seminary, which made for a unique experience: Charles, a gifted preacher and seasoned minister, sharing his insights with a group of budding scholars. In a real way, it was a refreshing picture of our work’s telos as academics who labor for the Church. Charles was an embodiment of why our efforts matter: the Church’s under-shepherd whom we, Lord willing, resource with years of rigorous study. Toward the end of this meeting, one student asked Charles how the academy might serve pastors like Charles. His answer was something along the lines of, “Keep doing what you’re doing. You guys provide air support for us who are in the trenches.” He went on to explain that he leans heavily on the biblical and theological works of evangelical scholars, in order to show him “where the boundaries are.” In other words, Charles was saying that he counts on the hard work of faithful Christian scholars to draw exegetical and dogmatic lines so as to keep him accountable. “I have a lot of friends that help me understand the Scriptures,” he said, “some of them are alive still and some of them are dead.”

Humble Orthodoxy

This answer is a perfect example of the humility that makes Charles a great pastor. Showcased here are the two most important goals for the interpreter of Scripture. First, the interpretation must be accurate. Second, the interpretation must be orthodox. Because of human fallibility and sin, there is no magic bullet to ensure every interpretation succeeds to reach the first goal, but Charles’ humble consideration of extra-biblical resources can at least ensure his interpretation meets the second goal. He labors to be right about the Scriptures, but even if he’s wrong, he wants to make sure he is at least wrong orthodoxilogically (to coin a term). Augustine seems to agree with this strategy of interpretation:

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought… Whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture. Nevertheless… if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistakes quite the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book 1, Ch. 36.40-41).

The idea is the same: if you’re going to be wrong about any given interpretation, at least make sure you’re wrong with right theology.

Reflecting on Charles’ comments, I am struck with the weight of responsibility I take on in pursuit Christian scholarship. Now, the accuracy of “air cover” and “trenches” as a description of scholarship and the pastorate, respectively, is up for debate. (Personally, I think this gives Christian scholarship a bit too much credit and possibly underplays the “air cover” potentiality of the pulpit—I believe the pastor-theologian is the most potent human office in the world, since it is perched at the helm of the local church, the most potent institution in the world.) But the point is well-made: pastors depend on scholars. Scholars resource pastors with academic and theological insights, which they, in turn, distribute to the members of local churches. This positions Christian scholars in a crucial role in “equipping the saints for the work of the ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). Their work is consequential in the lives of Christians they will never meet, by virtue of their influence on those Christians’ pastors. And this weight, I fear, is one that many Christian scholars seldom contemplate. I believe the pastor-theologian is the most potent human office in the world, since it is perched at the helm of the local church, the most potent institution in the world. Click To Tweet

Further, even when scholars recognize this responsibility, they often recognize it only in part. That is, they recognize their role in defining edges and drawing exegetical and dogmatic boundaries for pastors, without recognizing the exegetical and dogmatic boundaries to which they are accountable. The pastor looks to the theologian and exegete to draw lines, yes, but who do the theologian and exegete look to for their boundaries?

Christianity’s Theological Ecosystem

I was struck by this question afresh the week following Charles’ interview described above. At our next meeting, Dr. Strachan gave a lecture on the importance of Christian scholarship, in which he outlined the ecosystem of Christian theology as a whole. Strachan’s point was that theology is distributed to local churches through a particular process. The superstructure Strachan outlined was something like this: at the bottom are textual critics and exegetes, who lay foundational from the text of Scripture itself. At the next level up, we find biblical theologians, who work with the resources the exegetes provide to outline canonical theology, which develops progressively over the span of Scripture. The next level above the biblical theologians are the systematicians (who systematize the findings of the biblical theologians in dogmatic fashion), philosophical theologians (who provide philosophical articulations of systematic teaching to resource Christian thought in the world), and historical theologians (who bring the testimony of Church history to bear on a given theological topic). The pastor-theologian occupies the next level. He plays the role of the generalist, distributing the best of all previous levels to the members of the local church. Such is an outline of “theological transmission” in our world today. Strachan’s charge to me and my fellow Ph.D. students was to recognize our role in this ecosystem and to work faithfully therein.

I believe this superstructure is an accurate description of how theological ideas are transmitted to the pew today. But like any “ecosystem,” it flourishes when there is a lot of cross-pollination. The relationships between these levels are not (or rather, ought not to be) simply those of benefactor and beneficiary as if the exegete stands to benefit the biblical theologian without the biblical theologian having anything significant to offer the exegete. The relationships are symbiotic.

The philosophical theologian should look to the biblical theologian for resources. He should also give the biblical theologian resources. The exegete who labors over the textual variants in the bible has a conception of what the bible is (i.e., the inspired word of God) thanks to the systematician. At the same time, the systematician has textual findings with which to work in articulating dogma thanks to the exegete. This reciprocation works all the way up. The pastor-theologian benefits the flock under his care with biblical wisdom. He is their shepherd. But he is also a sheep; an under-shepherd who stands with fellow sheep under the care of the Great Shepherd of the sheep, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 13:20). And standing right there, the under-shepherd is not only expected to resource his flock, but he is also expected to be resourced by them. He and his Spirit-filled congregation are to “one-another” each other. The lay church member needs the biblical theologian and the exegete. The biblical theologian and exegete also need the lay church member.

The Church: Theology’s Proper Domain

All this to say, while pastors are accountable to the findings of scholars who “define edges,” such scholars cannot define those edges as untethered pontificators. Their work is not to build fences for sheep pins in an open field so that pastors might fill them with their church members; it is rather to identify the fences from within the pin—alongside fellow church members. The responsibility of safeguarding the structural integrity of those fences is a responsibility bequeathed to the entire Church. And it will take the entire Church—scholar and Sunday School teacher alike—to fulfill this responsibility.

To put the matter frankly, the Church’s theological ecosystem doesn’t need the exegetical work of a biblical scholar who isn’t under the submission of a local church pastor, or the dogmatic work of a systematician who is unconcerned with Church history, or the biblical theologian who isn’t conscious of the philosophical presuppositions turning the cogs in his methodology, etc. Such scholars cannot function properly in the theological ecosystem of the Church. Untethered scholarship is dangerous—not only for the scholars themselves but for the countless saints untethered scholarship affects downstream.

My prayer is that the individuals who occupy each role within the Church’s theological ecosystem would not view one another strictly in terms of benefactors and beneficiaries (or worse, as opponents), but as symbiotic partners who are “knit together in love” (Colossians 2:2)—“members of the household of God,” who are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple of the Lord” (Ephesians 2:19-22). Only then can we function properly in this beautiful structure of theological formation.