Theology (or the Bible) seems so complicated when we study it in class. Wasn't all this supposed to be for everyone, and not just for an intellectual elite? Can these details be so important, when learning them is such hard work, and when most of the church isn't aware of them?
I rarely hear this objection when I am teaching details of Christian doctrine that are dear to my students (such as the substitutionary theory of atonement, or the divinity of Jesus, or the trustworthiness of Scripture). I hear it much more often when I am teaching something unfamiliar (such as other theories of the atonement, or the humanity of Jesus), or something unpopular (such as Calvin's doctrine of predestination). Churches expend enormous energy teaching and learning miniscule details about doctrines they consider essential. No one seems fatigued, because affirmation of what we already think is rarely as fatiguing as being challenged!
Unfortunately, churchgoers tend to be ignorant about matters much more basic than the details of our doctrine and biblical studies classes. Many believe God is a controlling tyrant just waiting for an excuse to send us to hell, or a doddering and clueless old man, or a warm, fuzzy milquetoast who will always let us get away with our sins, or a distant force with no personal presence in their world, or a spirit somehow manipulated by the sacraments as if they were magic, or an obsessive bean-counter adding up or good and bad deeds to see which outweighs which, or ... or ... or....
The church's ignorance of its own scriptures and confessions energized the Reformers to transform the roles of Scripture in Protestant worship, doctrine, and life. It also energized the Catholic Church to do the same in this century. Why shouldn't that be our answer today, rather than intellectual defeatism?
Ironically, many of the issues that do energize conservative churches are about marginal issues such as the historicity of the Genesis creation narrative or the precise chronology of the last days. (These dominate in my FAQs because these are the most frequently asked questions, not because they are the most important ones.) I know that the historicity of the creation stories of Genesis is a side issue because (1) basically healthy churches exist that teach the literal truth of Genesis, and (2) basically healthy churches exist that don't. The details of creation are secondary to Christian doctrine; the acknowledgement of God as creator is primary, and I believe it to the core of my being. Some churches disagree over whether some of the details are secondary. But if they are right that the faith is fatally compromised when literal readings of Scripture are rejected, then why are there healthy churches that read Scripture literarily rather than literally?
I think a "naive" reading of Scripture can produce a fundamentally accurate vision of God's kingdom. The toughest part of learning unfamiliar details is that for a while, a critical appreciation of Scripture seems to take away people's naive trust of Scripture. They are disoriented not when they find new things, but when they find things they did not expect to see. Nevertheless, I teach the unexpected things of the Christian faith in the confident hope that students' shock will soon enough be replaced by a new appreciation for the Bible's trustworthiness that accommodates everything I've been telling you. Paul Ricouer speaks of a 'second naivete' that we should strive for: A trust in the Bible's truth that comes after a recognition of the Bible's historical and literary complexity. It is rather like the adult faith that replaces childish faith.
Is this a possession only of an elite? Shouldn't the entire church be able to enjoy it? And my answer is: Yes and no.
No: I will never possess the thorough knowledge of Scripture of either (1) those brothers and sisters who just swim in the Bible's world, and have it woven into the fabric of their lives more tightly than it seems I ever will (e.g., the worship leader at my local church); and (2) those brothers and sisters for whom studying the Bible is a vocation (e.g., Old Testament and New Testament professors). My calling is simply different. I will gain a share of their knowledge, but only a share; and my faithful response is both to desire a greater share and to accept the share God gives me (Eph. 4:7).
Yes: Yet God has appointed in the church teachers (1 Cor. 12:28). Teachers (rich and poor, formally and informally educated) are gifted so that they can share what they have with those who do not have it. My calling as a teacher is not to keep acquiring knowledge for my own sake, but to acquire it that I might share it with those for whom it is intended. And all the body's members, even (especially) the "poor," the "weak," the "lowly," the "uneducated," are empowered with the Spirit's gifts so that they can strengthen each other, and also strengthen us who are so easily tempted into trusting in our own strength. The Church relies on its teachers, as it relies on all of its fellow-workers.
This means that if the Church suffers from biblical illiteracy and misguided interpretation (and as I've said, literalism only a minor problem here!), then the failure is on the part of the teachers, not God, and certainly not the people themselves.
My frustration with defeatist churches is that they have failed to trust in their own gifts. Many churches hide these things from their people, not because the gifts aren't there to teach them, but because they would prefer to shelter them in a kind of perpetual preadolescence. Other local churches, and schools like this one, are working like crazy to grow people's faith into maturity. Students of Church history, doctrine, and Bible are a fortunate few. Would that all God's people were truly taught (cf. Num. 11:27)! Then theological education would not only cease to be elitist, but would empower the poor as it is intended to do (cf. Luke 6:20-26)!
Some schools offer elite educational experiences, but I don't think that teaching the Christian faith, even in considerable academic detail, is therefore an elitist experience. I teach the same stuff in my local church that I teach at school. I don't shelter them any more than I shelter you. In fact I shelter them even less, because a church setting is a better rather than worse setting to explore these wonderful questions. It is that context of mutual accountability and intimacy in which the Christian life centers.