Famine for the Word

Volume 30, Issue 4, May 2024

by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/Teacher Southern View Chapel

From general observation to suffocating surveys, theological drift and biblical illiteracy have come to be recognized as the norm in much of the evangelical, even conservative church. As a result, there is clearly a famine in the land regarding understanding and applying biblical truth. The blame for this demise are many: the busyness of modern life, social media influence, the diminishing ability to concentrate, the hesitancy by many to read the Bible, let alone study it, and a culture of entertainment, to name a few. However, in this article, and in the next few to come, we will examine the role pastors have and are playing in this back peddling from the truth, and what can be done to right the ship (if I can mix metaphors).

Historical Perspective

It could be argued correctly that the pastors of local churches have historically been theologians. That is, among their duties as pastors is the teaching of biblical truth (exegesis) and sound doctrine. While few of the apostles, church planters, and pastors in the New Testament era would have called themselves theologians, and with rare exception (e.g. Paul) most did not have advanced theological training nor had formally studied the Scriptures, all were called to proclaim not only the gospel but “sound words” handed down by Christ (2 Timothy 1:13-14) and the apostolical teachings (Matthew 28:20; Acts 2:42). It would be difficult to improve on the clarity of Paul’s injunction to Timothy, in his pastoral role at Ephesus, as found in 2 Timothy 2:2: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

The above texts hardly exhaust the emphasis on theology found in the final three letters written by Paul, often called the Pastoral Epistles. For example, “doctrine” is specifically mentioned and emphasized in 1 Timothy 1:3; 4:1, 6; 6:1, 3; 2 Timothy 4:3; Titus 1:4, 9, 13, 14; 2:1, 5, 7, 10, and the importance of truth is stated in 1 Timothy 2:4, 7; 3:15; 6:5; 2 Timothy 2:15, 18, 25; 3:7; and 4:7. Add in the synonym “the faith,” (1 Timothy 1:2; 3:9, 13; 4:1; 5:8; 6:10, 21; 2 Timothy 2:18; 3:8; 4:7; Titus 1:1, 13; 3:15) and there are at least 36 references to theology in these epistles alone.

The importance of truth is highlighted by the ever present danger of doctrinal deception. After all, we are warned in virtually every New Testament book about false teachers and the possibility of apostasy. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he cautioned often of this potential, stating that some have gone astray from the truth (2:18); repentance is needed to come to the knowledge of the truth (2:25); others never come to the knowledge of the truth (3:7); some are opposed to the truth (3:8); and warning is given of those who will turn away from the truth and turn to myths (4:3-4).

To this sampling of theological prominence from the Pastoral Epistles could be added a multitude of similar texts throughout the New Testament, including Ephesians 4:11 where pastors, as teachers, are considered one of the gifts the Lord provided for His church in order to equip the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ (v. 12). From the New Testament witness, we learn of the vital function of Scriptural instruction, modeled by the local church elders and pastors. And undeniably, this pattern was continued by the early Church Fathers. 

The post-apostolic church leaders were not seminary professors or academics; they were usually pastors who shepherded local assemblies of God’s people. Irenaeus (130-202) is well-known today for his polemical work Against Heresies. Athanasius (296-373) led the charge for Trinitarian truth during the time of the Nicene Council. John Chrysostom (347-407) was renown for his excellent expositions and, of course, Augustine (354-430), who shaped much of Christian theology (some for good and some not so much) was the outstanding cleric-theologian of the early church. Some have traced the fading of theological emphasis among pastors as well as laymen to the rise and influence of Constantine (274-337) who made Christianity the state religion in 330. On the related subject of Catechesis, J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett wrote, “as entire communities became nominally Christian, and Jewish opposition subsided and Gnostic groups ran out of steam, the adult catechumenate shrank to vanishing point, and catechizing for practical purposes ceased. Lay ignorance of the faith during the Dark and Middle Ages was melancholy legacy of this decline.”[1]

The monastic movement of the Middle Ages found most theological expression flowing from the minds of monks such as Benedict (480-550), the Venerable Bede (673-735), Gregory the Great (540-604), and Anselm (1033-1109). While some significant advancement in theology can be found in their writings, the rise of asceticism, mysticism, and tradition led to serious errors that were embraced by the emerging Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy. Further hampering encouragement for pastors to pursue theology was the rise of the university in the 13th century, as serious theological engagement and teaching shifted largely from the pulpit to the academy. Scholars, such as Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) began to dominate the theological front lines as pastors turned their attention to other shepherding duties. In time, a university education was all but required for those entering pastoral ministry.

Some pastors certainly continued to offer important doctrinal contributions, but increasingly scholarship became localized in the universities. The combination of the monastic movement, the rise of the universities, and the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchical lock on Scripture and doctrine, eventually left the layman in the dark. In addition, few non-clerical people had access to personal copies of the Bibles and were reliant on the Church to inform them of biblical truth. The Pope, the magisterium, and the university scholars were seen as the repository of doctrine, while the local church busied itself administering the sacraments and dispensing Rome’s theology. Pastors in this environment had little need for Bible or theological study.

The Reformation changed all of this with its insistence on Sola Scriptura and perspicuity, which taught that normal Christians armed with the Word of God could understand what they read. This reversal of ideology also led to a boom in pastors returning to the study and proclamation of Scripture and theology. Gerald Heistand and Todd Wilson write,

The Reformation seems to have funneled Protestant theologians away from the universities and back into the churches in a way that represented a reversal of the previous era. During the two hundred years following the Reformation, clerical theologians within Protestantism emerged as a robust body of leading theologians, every bit the intellectual and theological equals of their university counterparts.[2]

While scholastic theologians such as Melanchthon, Tyndale, and Luther were plentiful, a number of pastors held their own theologically such as Zwingli, Cranmer, Knox, and, of course, John Calvin. The Puritans, who viewed pastors as physicians of the souls, built on the foundation of the Reformers. Anyone who has read the writings and sermons of Puritan pastors, such as John Owens, Richard Sibbes, Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, and Thomas Watson, cannot miss the robust theological nature of their ministries. This legacy extended to the American Puritans such as Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards in the early 18th century.

Modern Times

Sadly, the emphasis on pastoral theological study, writing, and preaching waned in America in the post-Edwardian era. The First Great Awakening was steeped in rich doctrinal preaching, but the Second Great Awakening during the early and middle portions of the 19th century was far more pragmatic in nature. The leading light during this time was Charles Finney who taught that the human will was free to receive Christ, and it was the preachers’ duty to find the right means to attract people to the gospel. With this philosophy, pragmatic methods began to dominate theology; and pastors, those who wanted to be successful, became masters of techniques (called “new means” at the time) that tended to draw the masses. As Owen Strachan writes, “The Puritan sermons with fifty subheadings were out; the freewheeling pulpiteer, master of the homespun story, was in.”[3] Why would a pastor who truly wanted multitudes to come to Christ or who wanted to build a large church major on theology that few cared about, when rousing sermons and emotional methods attracted the crowds. Given this scenario, it is no wonder that pastors increasingly preached light-weight, enthusiastic sermons and left the theological heavy-lifting to the seminaries and scholars.

Moving into the 20th century, Strachan claims that “theology had become a specialist’s discipline [while] pastoring was now a practical profession, more concerned with meeting immediate personal needs than with formulating, timeless truths.”[4] With the steady march of revivalism, church growth, and pragmatism in the 20th and 21st centuries, the concept of the pastor who fulfilled the role of careful theologian seems to have become a relic of the past. Yet, on a positive note, recently there has been renewed interest in the pastor as scholar and the scholar as pastor, as is reflected in John Piper and D. A. Carson’s book by that title.[5]

Recent Trends

With this growing emphasis in mind, let’s turn our attention to some trends and efforts in recent years to correct this imbalance, beginning with a united effort by three well-known authors, who have attempted to pull back the curtain on evangelicalism’s theological anemia.

In the early 1990s, David Wells, Mark Noll, and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. received “a grant from the Pew Charitable Trust to write a trio of books on the decline of evangelical theology and on ways it might rebound.”[6] Mark Noll wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind; Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., wrote Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, and David Wells actually authored a series of five books, the first No Place for Truth and the last, The Courage to be Protestant. Wells’ work was ultimately the most insightful and had the greatest impact on evangelicalism. Renewing the Evangelical Mission by Richard Lints was written in Well’s honor. In this volume, twelve different authors from a wide range of evangelical thought and tradition contributed scholarly essays related to the themes Wells addresses, including Os Guinness, Mark Noll, Michael Horton, J. I. Packer, and Cornelius Plantinga.

In Plantinga’s chapter entitled “Renewal of Evangelical Theology,” he accused American evangelicals, as far back as 1995, of failing to sustain a serious intellectual life, which resulted in them becoming remarkably more secular as they accepted the worldview of the culture. Plantinga believes the church is reaping some of what the Second Great Awakening, with its anti-theological, anti-intellectual emphasis, sowed, as well as some of what the baby boomers with their rejection of authority and tradition have woven into the culture. As ministers adapted the spirit of their age, they increasingly read “not theology but Leadership magazine, which is in the habit of citing not Scripture but psychologists and business managers.”[7]

Four decades ago, a Gallup poll revealed the diminishing knowledge of doctrine and Scripture and concluded that “we are having a revival of feelings but not the knowledge of God. The church today is more guided by feelings than by convictions. We value enthusiasm more than informed commitment.”[8] At about the same time, David Wells was teaching a seminary class. Questioning his students’ interest in theology, he opened the course that semester with what he thought was a rousing speech to motivate the students to embrace theological studies. Thinking he had succeeded, he nevertheless was surrounded after class by several students who proved he had failed. Wells writes the following:

That day, an obviously agitated student who had come forward told me how grateful he was for what I had said. It was as if I had been reading his mind. He told me that he was one of those I had described who felt petrified by the prospect of having to take this course. As a matter of fact, he said, he had had a mighty struggle with his conscience about it. Was it right to spend so much money on a course of study that was so irrelevant to his desire to minister to people in the Church? He plainly intended no insult. As a matter of fact, this confession, which I rather think he had not intended to blurt out, had begun as a compliment. That was the day I decided that I had to write this book.”[9]

The book was No Place for Truth,and Wells would go on to write five volumes in a series calling evangelical leaders to the importance of theology in the Christian life.

In our next article we will examine further what has been the effect of this theological neglect.


[1] Richard Lints, ed. Renewing the Evangelical Mission (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 112-113. J. I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett, The Return to Catechesis, defined as “The integrated, or orderly—you could say, systematic — teaching of the truths that Christians do and must live by, coupled with instruction on the way to live by them.”

[2] Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, The Pastor Theologian, Resurrecting and Ancient Vision (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 37-38.

[3] Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian, Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 88.

[4] Ibid., 89.

[5] John Piper and D. A. Carson, The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor, Reflections on Life and Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).

[6] Richard Lints, 189.

[7] Ibid., 198.

[8] As quoted in J. P. Moreland, Love God with All Your Mind, The Role of Reason (Colorado Springs: NavPress Publishing Group, 1997), 19.

[9] David Wells, No Place for Truth, Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 3-4.

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