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The Post-Christian Seminaries of 1970

October 19th, 2023 | 4 min read

By Steven M. Bryan

The cover story for the September 25, 1970 issue of Christianity Today was an article titled “Post- and Pre-Christianity” by Harold O. J. Brown. Brown later found his way to my alma mater, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where, as students, we dubbed him “The Juice.” Judging from the theological rigor of a piece written for what we think of as a popular magazine, the nickname was well-earned! Brown’s essay may be usefully set alongside a recent essay on a similar theme that has plenty of juice of its own. Kevin Vanhoozer (Brown’s one-time and my current colleague) describes the need for pastor-theologians in a post-Christian age. It is perhaps unsurprising that Brown, writing fifty years earlier, did not think that he was living in a post-Christian age, whereas Vanhoozer does. Far more surprising is why the two differ in their diagnoses, and why Vanhoozer’s essay is ultimately more hopeful, even if our cultural moment is, in many respects, more dire.  

Brown began his 1970 essay by noting that it had become “commonplace” for people to describe the world as “post-Christian.” Brown disagreed, but not because he thought the world or the age was still Christian. Rather, he doubted that it ever had been. Just four years before, the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin (a precursor to the Lausanne Congress of 1974) had highlighted the plight of hundreds of millions of people in Asia and Africa and behind the Iron Curtain who had never encountered the Christian faith in a recognizable form.

The same was also true of the nominally Christian countries of Europe and North America. To call nominal Christians or the “mass culture they constitute, ‘post-Christian’” made little sense, “if by that expression we mean that they once were Christians and have abandoned or forgotten what the Christian faith is all about.” Brown contended that the West was not “post-Christian” because to be Christian in name and form alone was never to have been Christian at all.

For Brown, “post-Christian” was an apt description not of the world but of theologians and seminaries! He described the theological landscape as post-Christian “not because there is much reason to think that many [theologians] ever were Christians, but because by their labors they have succeeded in obscuring the figure of Jesus Christ and in removing him far from the gaze of those who seek them, and as a result they would make of biblical Christianity an option available only in the past” (emphasis added). The impact was that “the majority of candidates for the ministry are being trained at institutions… who have closed the door on any kind of straightforward biblical faith....”

Fifty years on, much of what Vanhoozer rightly describes as “post-Christian” is arguably a consequence of the “post-Christian” state of theological education that prevailed when Brown wrote. Still, Vanhoozer appears more hopeful. He surveys the disaster of our post-Christian age and casts “pastor-theologians” as vital “first-responders.” Brown, by contrast, believed that pastors equipped with the seminary education commonly available at the time actively made things worse. They were first responders arriving at a three-alarm blaze with a tanker of gasoline. Brown knew the urgent need of churches for pastor-theologians but despaired of where to find them.

As I read these essays recently, I came away with two major impressions. First, it is instructive to consider what hasn’t changed. Both Brown and Vanhoozer describe their very different cultural moments as “post-Christian” in some respects and “pre-Christian” in others. We may find it surprising to learn that the term “post-Christian” was widely used fifty years ago, but the fact that it was is important: we reach for the language of “post-ness” – post-modern, post-secular, post-liberal, post-Christian – when we don’t know where we are and don’t know what comes next. As Kavin Rowe puts it, such terms “[name] our experience of the fact that we have lost our way and must search again for how to find it.” This is the work of pastor-theologians. They are shepherds skilled for wilderness work, shepherds for sheep who easily lose their way in rough country.

Second, it is remarkable how much has changed, and not all for the worse. Though it was not his point, from Brown’s vantage point in 1970, the disaffection of churches from seminaries was entirely understandable. At the time, few seminaries regarded themselves as “entrusted with the gospel” (the motto of the seminary where I teach). Many were more convinced of the death of God than the resurrection of Christ. Now, thanks be to God, that has changed. In the U.S., robust, theologically orthodox options are available in relative abundance. In many countries of the global South and in many more that once lay behind the Iron Curtain, high-quality evangelical seminaries have emerged to support a well-documented explosion of evangelical Christianity.

There are perhaps many lessons to be learned from this remarkable shift. While I would not want to downplay the need for seminaries to guard the gospel, the larger point is that the options for evangelical theological education are vastly improved over what they were fifty years ago both in the U.S. and around the world. And yet the disaffection of churches from seminaries often continues. Even denominational seminaries can operate in relative isolation from their constituencies. At the same time, many churches have not sent a congregant to seminary in years if ever. The very real pressures that seminaries feel to reduce language and other course requirements often come from churches who don’t see the need or from students who assume the burden of seminary without the financial support of their churches. The devaluing of seminary education by churches means that, in the face of rapid cultural shifts and declining attendance, their first impulse may be to cast about for new ministry models, quick fixes, and “strong” leaders—leaders, that is, whose strength is measured by the fight they bring to a culture they only superficially understand. In short, they won’t know what they don’t know and don’t know where to find it. Pastor-theologians do. They provide a vital link between ordinary Christians and the faith-once-received but now effaced or lost from cultural memory. In the face of the culture’s endless capacity to present ancient rebellions in new forms, they are not so much innovators as curators of the Church’s theological wisdom, accumulated over millennia and conserved and cultivated in seminaries that see the gospel as a sacred trust.          

In our post-Christian, pre-Christian age, churches need leaders prepared as wilderness shepherds and as curators of the Church’s gospel wisdom. Many churches will be tempted to pump up flagging numbers with the sugary caffeination offered by pastor-celebrities and pastor-influencers. My hope is that many will reach instead for more nutrient-rich stuff, for “juice” pressed from partnership between churches and seminaries and served fresh by pastor-theologians.

Steven M. Bryan

Steven M. Bryan is professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

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Education