An Education, Part II: Orthodox Degree Holders

I owe the loyal readers of Church of the Malcontent a big high-five (or a hug, but I know how some of you guys are about large amounts of physical contact…) Yesterday, after only three days, August beat out the months of February and April in terms of unique views. This is a pretty sweet landmark, and it’s putting August on track to be the highest viewed month in the history of the blog (though we’ve got 136 views until then, so spread the word!) And now back to your regularly scheduled programming:

So it turns out I’m really terrible at delivering on two-post promises. If you paid careful attention to the blog over the eight months that it’s been around, I’ve actually been postponing a second part of my very first post, wherein I flesh out more fully my understanding of what it means to be a malcontent. Then there’s the two part series on ecclesiology. Not to mention the most recent promise of a second post about clergy and education. Tonight, I’m delivering on my first ever actual second installment. Be excited.

So, when I last left you, we had been discussing the necessity of the educated clergy, from the standpoint of preparation. (The direct link is here, though you could totally just scroll down, if you’re on the homepage). Today, we’ll be addressing the need for education from the standpoint of Orthodoxy (the regular kind, not the specific Greek kind).

The Hindus have a concept called Parampara, which means uninterrupted succession. Essentially, if you convert to Hinduism and join an ashram, your guru will be able to trace his teaching lineage, his authority, back at least four teachers, and generally more. Supposedly, AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, can trace his Parampara all the way back to Krishna and Brahma. (Buddhists engage in this practice also. They call it lineage.)

We Christians have a similar concept called Apostolic Succession, and we’ve been fighting over it since the Reformation. Because it is that important. For us, it has a similar meaning as it does for the Buddhists and Hindus: a teacher’s authority in part depends on being assured that he or she has been properly educated by experts in the faith (though that’s a simple understanding of the doctrine; I don’t have the space or the time for a more nuanced approach). It represents a religious pedigree, if you will, and often times it can be one of the quickest ways to assess the Orthodoxy and competence of a member of the clergy.

I almost used the word ‘judge’ in the preceding paragraph, instead of the word ‘assess,’ largely because neither word is quite right. I don’t make judgments on your salvation or zeal based on your education; neither can I make assessments about your teaching methods or writing styles based on degree alone. What degrees can tell me, however, and this only generally, is how much I can trust you to speak authoritatively from the Apostolic witness of the Christian church. They’re called credentials, and the academic world relies on them all the time.

Just by browsing your CV I can often attain a whole plethora of information. I can discover where you’ve studied (which can lend itself to doctrinal/denominational affiliations), if you’ve grown significantly in any direction since beginning your study (i.e. uber-conservative school as an undergrad, uber-liberal seminary track, or vice versa), who your studied under (and what biases you may have absorbed from them), what kinds of culture you’re used to (small, college town or large urban environment), what you might have super-specialized knowledge about (based on dissertations or thesis writings), and if you know anyone I know who might also be able to vouch for you.

Essentially, your having academic credentials allows me to properly vet you in under five minutes, which can be crucial to me if I’m reading your book or reviewing you for a job or deciding if I will sit under your teaching. I don’t want to spend four or five chapters reading your manuscript only to find out in chapter six a hefty chunk of information I could have learned from a CV or résumé. It’s a time saver. Alternatively, if I know you have a degree from a reputable school/program, I don’t have to spend as much time painstakingly wading through your work to watch for errors or bad logic or common misapplications of facts. I can make the general assumption that someone with an advanced degree in their field knows what they’re talking about. This very situation happened to Wes just a few days ago. He was reading A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren when McLaren suddenly revealed he possessed no formal theological training. Wes, dismayed, knew that he was now resigned to reading all the more carefully to make sure McLaren didn’t make any of the mistakes generally not associated with seminary-trained clergy (confusion of dates, poorly founded causal arguments, a lack of a nuanced understanding of scripture, and a general disregard for the way things are done in the field).

Clergy have always been highly educated people. In fact, it was only very recently in the history of the western university (within the last two hundred years or so) that the university became a place of secular study. Some of the oldest and best Western universities (Harvard, Oxford, Bologna, Edinburgh, etc.) were founded, at least in part, for the education of ministers and the teaching of canon law. Many of the faculty of the first universities were clergymen, and clergy (or those educated by them) have been involved in many of the greatest movements in Western philosophy and science.

For some reason, modernism and individualism have made us forget this storied past. A Modernist understanding of authority insists that the only authority a person has is his or her own, and yet the church has always understood a lineage of sorts. Polycarp of Smyrna, for example, was afforded great weight be his peers because he claimed to be a disciple of John. Holding to the tradition that has been passed down to us, without being beholden to it, is an important aspect of our Christian history.

Let me conclude with a warning. This post is not a rule, nor even really a principle. It is often the way things go, but it is an easy system to beat. Liberal seminaries can produce very conservative students, and vice versa, though it is often unlikely a PhD program will produce a student who doesn’t share some beliefs with his or her alma mater. Clergy can have grown since the awarding of their last degree, or had a significant falling out with their advisor or mentor. What I mean to provide in this post is my general way of understanding these things, and to remind us of the Apostolic Tradition we have forgotten that we possess.

I’m also not saying everyone has to go to seminary or pursue a PhD because it will be easier for me to put them in a box that way. That’s not what I’m trying to say at all. What I am trying to communicate is that a high level of education is consistent with the Christian tradition and is useful to other ministers (and laity) when determining the quality or depth of your teaching while pressed for time or lacking firsthand knowledge. Just as a wise student will generally ignore the ranting of a high school dropout in a field he’s never studied before, so must the Christian be able to determine what is good and orthodox teaching, and what can be left behind.

So if we are able, let us further our education to the best of our abilities. Not only will we put in the hours to become experts in our chosen fields, but we’ll establish our place in the chain of Apostolic succession. Backed by that great cloud of witnesses, we will be able to more accurately articulate our Christian faith to a church that desperately needs it.

  1. It is popular opinion, Aaron, within the Protestant Church especially, that the apostolic tradition does not matter, that through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the laity of the church or “high school dropouts” (the uneducated) have the same authority as the clergy. We call this, as you know, the Priesthood of the Believer. I think a little bit of real-world practicality is just what people need to see. As you said, people trust educated people for practical reasons, so education is valuable to all religious leaders.

    Anyway, good post. I like this series :).

      • aaroncarr72
      • August 5th, 2010

      Theology is not decided by popular opinion.

      Wes has some great thoughts on the Priesthood of the Believer that I hope he publishes soon. It deals more or less with the issues you’ve raised in your comment. So look for that one in a couple of days (hopefully).

  2. A piece by 17th century english poet John Dryden that goes nicely with your post (as you will be able to tell, he was the cousin of J. Swift):

    The book thus put in every vulgar hand,
    Which each presum’d he best could understand,
    The common rule was made the common prey,
    And at the mercy of the rabble lay.
    The tender page with horny fists was gall’d,
    And he was gifted most that loudest bawl’d:
    The spirit gave the doctoral degree,
    And every member of a company
    Was of his trade and of the Bible free.
    Plain truths enough for needful use they found,
    But men would still be itching to expound:
    Each was ambitious of th’obscurest place,
    No measure ta’en from knowledge, all from grace.
    Study and pains were now no more their care;
    Texts were explained by fasting and by prayer:
    This was the fruit of private spirit brought,
    Occasion’d by great zeal and little thought.

    — Religio Laici 822-38 (1682)

  1. August 9th, 2010

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