One in a series of "President's Perspectives" in which Dr. Richard J. Mouw discusses Fuller's core values.
In 1990, the Vatican issued a document with the title Ex Corde Ecclesiae.
It caused quite a stir among Catholic academics in the United States,
because it was widely interpreted as an effort by Rome to reverse some
of the more progressive theological trends put into motion in American
Catholicism in the wake of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.
As the popular saying goes, I don’t have a dog in
that fight—although I admit that I watch the contestants continue to go
at it with much interest! But I do heartily endorse the title chosen by
the Pope and his advisors. Ex corde ecclesia means “from the heart of
the Church,” a phrase that points to the fact that Christian
institutions of higher education have their origins in the Church’s
desire to honor God in the area of learning—as evidenced in the fact
that many of the great universities of the world were established by the
Church. For all who still share that original vision, the all-important
question in Christian higher education must be: How do we teach and
write and search for truth in a way that is in sync with the heartbeat
of the body of Jesus Christ?
That is a question that I hope will continue to be
foremost in the life of Fuller Seminary. Theological education is not a
free-wheeling enterprise, guided only by a commitment to “academic
freedom.” It is a vital part of the mission of the Church, which means
that it must be an expression of hearts and minds that have a passionate
commitment to the gospel. It must be directed toward seeking the lost
and building up the Christian community for a mature and faithful
commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
There are many people in the Christian world who
wonder these days why we need seminaries at all. We evangelicals in
particular have a long history of asking whether formal theological
education is necessary for effective ministry. And the question extends
even more broadly when we think about Fuller’s unique three-school
composition. If whether pastors need to go to seminary is a good
question, then it certainly also makes sense to wonder about the
benefits of a theological education for missionaries and therapists.
I try not to be too defensive in responding to such
questions. They are not simply wrongheaded. People who ask them are
often guided by some good instincts. For example, questioning the value
of formal theological education is often motivated by a deep commitment
to effective ministry. We know that theological education has often had
the effect of dampening spiritual ardor. Theological schools have
sometimes fostered an intellectual and professional elitism that is out
of touch with the spiritual concerns of ordinary Christians. When
evangelicals have questioned the need for formal theological education,
it has often been out of devotion to a high, rather than a low, view of
the ministerial calling.
But in the final analysis, these instincts, healthy
as they are, do not serve us well when they oppose formal theological
education as such. Seminaries should, when they are functioning in a
healthy manner, take seriously the obligation to equip men and women to
engage effectively in the practices of ministry. We construe that
equipping broadly at Fuller. It focuses not only on such standard
practices as preaching, evangelism, teaching worship, and
administration, but also on youth and family ministries, cross-cultural
communication, interreligious dialogue, church planting, working for
peace and justice, understanding popular culture, spiritual
formation—and much, much more.
But all of that must be grounded in the basics: the
careful study of the Scriptures, a grounding in the teachings of the
Church through the ages, the fundamentals of systematic theology. To
serve the Church effectively also requires a devotion to the cultivation
of the Christian mind.
There is a story that made the rounds a few years
ago about a meeting that supposedly took place between French and
American management leaders. In talking about different approaches to
business practices, the French tended to be rather philosophical and the
Americans quite pragmatic. The difference in their approaches surfaced
dramatically in one particular exchange. While one of the Americans
outlined a certain management approach, one of the French delegates grew
increasingly irritated and finally interrupted: “That may work in
practice,” he exclaimed, “but it will never work in theory!” There is an
important lesson in that comment. It is not enough to focus on what
“works” in our efforts to serve the Kingdom. Some things may “work” in a
worldly sense that are nonetheless displeasing to the Lord. Godly
practice must be grounded in godly thinking.
That does not mean that no one can serve the Lord
effectively unless he or she has a lot of education. I have known too
many not-well-educated believers who are dedicated and effective
servants of the gospel. The Lord raises up talented leaders who have not
memorized the Greek alphabet and who have never read even a page about
the theological debates that led to the Council of Nicea. Their capacity
for talented ministry is much like the skilled pianist who seems just
to “get” it without having to take a lot of formal lessons. Rather than
deny this reality, those of us engaged in theological education should
be studying the lives of such people, to see how we can promote in more
systematic and structured ways the kind of devotion to Jesus that seems
to come so “naturally” to them.
I am glad, however, that folks like that can serve,
and draw strength from, a larger Christian community that takes
theological education seriously. The formal study of theology is not
enough to promote effective ministry—that is an important evangelical
lesson. But effective ministry will not survive long without serious
attention to the issues that make for good theological education.
But the reverse is also true. Seminaries exist to serve the mission of the people of God in the world.
The heart of the Church is the source of our life-blood in our scholarship and teaching.
And the nurturing of this vital connection between
seminary and church is especially important today. Indeed it is urgent.
The church is changing. And it needs to change, because the larger
culture is changing. We process information in new ways. We communicate
with each other in ways that were unimaginable even a decade ago. We
live in a world in which the realities of other religions—and of many
tribes and tongues and nations—shape our daily experiences.
A changing world requires a church that is open to new patterns of serving the cause of the gospel.
And this in turn requires seminaries to find new
ways to equip leaders for “the manifold ministries of Christ and his
Church.” But it is always necessary to add this: There are some things
that do not change. God’s truth endures to all generations. The curse
that afflicted God’s creation because of the rebellion of our first
parents in the Garden still plagues us. We still need a Savior.
The message of sovereign grace offered to all
because of Calvary is still the best news in the world. That message
expresses the heart of God. Because of that, it also expresses the heart
of the Church. And for us at Fuller Seminary, it means that all we do
must get its direction and inspiration ex corde ecclesiae.