An Old Argument: Academic Theologian vs Discipleship and Bonhoeffer

We Christians seems to be in many pendulum debates amongst each other that have no clear resolution, but this is one of them I hear more than others at times. Those who are deeply involved in discipleship speak about the evils of seminary or staying in a continued state of theological study. Those in higher education (seminary specially) talk about how we are raising a generation or two now that know nothing about their own faith. To me, Jesus is the ultimate example. He was a discipling theologian. He could go toe to toe with the smartest theological minds of his time (see Luke 20:19-40), and he could raise up the “lowly” of his day to become incredible disciples for Christ (see a fisherman named John and a few others).

To me, it has never been an either-or. It has always been both, even if I stink more at one than the other (or quite possibly at both), I think the true follower has to look at the example Christ gives us where both knowledge and discipleship are equally important in the Christians life. We live in an interesting time in history due to the technological advances we have, and this is perhaps widening the gap between theology and discipleship. It has never been easier to be able to get into higher education if you are called to do so, although the work isn’t any easier once you get in there. You also no longer really need that piece of paper that says you know what you are talking about (CT on Why People Aren’t Going to Seminary), to be a good leader or pastor, just ask Perry Noble, and you certainly don’t need a seminary degree to be great at discipleship.

I say all this, because last night I was trudging through the Bonhoeffer biography late last night, and came across Bonhoeffer’s statements on this very subject from way back in the 1940’s. In Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, he said:

Bonhoeffer had in mind a kind of monastic community, where one aimed to live in the way Jesus commanded his followers to live in his Sermon on the Mount, where one lived not merely as a theological student, but as a disciple of Christ. (Read more at location 5056)

Bonhoeffer saw that a large part of the problem was Lutheran theological education, which produced not disciples of Christ, but out-of-touch theologians and clerics whose ability to live the Christian life—and to help others live that life—was not much in evidence. (Read more at location 5065)

I called it a pendulum debate because throughout time it has swung back and forth with the landscape of history. I’m sure someone, somewhere, has a great chart of church history and the rate of seminarians to discipleship, but just common sense tells you it swings back and forth. I don’t know that much about Bonhoeffer yet, but the more I learn about him, the more I understand that he, in at least some respects, got it right. Most couldn’t argue that he wasn’t a great theologian, but he was also a man devoted to discipleship.

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