Purely Academic?

I like crossword puzzles.  I do a couple (or more) each day.  That doesn’t mean I’ve mastered them.  Usually I don’t get far on Thursday’s NY Times crossword in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Recently I came across a clue and answer that made me stop and think about academics, theology and preaching.  The clue was “Purely Academic.”  The answer was four letters – going across.  I had to get the four words going down to come up with the answer.  What was it?  Moot.

I checked on line at Dictionary.com and sure enough the definition given “moot” was: of little or no practical value or meaning; purely academic.

But is anything purely academic?

It may sound impractical, but one significant reason people were to go to college was simply to learn.  It didn’t always have to be for some other purpose, like say, getting a job or social networking (which, of course, were also reasons to go to school).  You learned to think and you learned stuff because that activity was a good thing to do.  In a way, this harkens back to Alasdair McIntyre’s idea of a practice whereby goods internal to an activity are realized by the doing the activity, utilizing standards of excellence appropriate to that activity.  These goods then extend beyond the practice into other areas of life (After Virtue, [University of Notre Dame, 1984]: 187).

So in college I studied philosophy, not because I wanted to become a philosopher, but because it helped to develop certain ways of thinking through material.  It gave me more within my cognitive system on which to reflect.  In doing so, I gained virtues such as persistence and discipline.  A professor held me to a certain level of excellence which cultivated honesty and integrity (not to cheat on the test just so that my GPA was higher), virtues that were valuable at home, as a citizen or in my vocation.  The same could be said about theology or calculus.

Ah, calculus was a different story.  At one time I was studying to go to medical school.  Calculus was a required course.  Once the numbers disappeared and all that was left were letters and abstract formulas, then I was mathematically lost.  During that class, calculus seemed purely academic – to me.

But I had a high school friend who was a whiz at math.  He tutored me through the semester.  I passed the course because of him.  So now, as I look back, it wasn’t purely academic after all.  I learned the importance of someone else’s help.  Receiving assistance gratefully is a virtue as well, and it was cultivated by studying calculus.

Another reason why nothing is purely academic is that sooner or later someone will be able to apply that knowledge and do something with it.  My calculus teacher tried valiantly to show his students the value of these mathematical mysteries in real life situations.  It didn’t help me do the problems or take the test, but I could see how someone else could use them and come up with data that would build a house or launch a space shuttle.  Or take Einstein’s famous formula.  I’m not sure just what E=Mc2 is all about.  I know it’s important.  I know a great deal of scientific work has been influenced by that equation.  And so it became eminently practical as those with the skills to understand it and give it concrete expression in human life put it to use.

Now for a brief application of this crossword puzzle generated musings.

One theological doctrine that is often winked at or had eyes rolled as being purely academic is the three genera of Christ:  Idiomaticum, Maiestaticum, Apotelsematicum.  Pieper uses 160 pages in Vol. II of his Christian Dogmatics to explain them.  They are difficult to understand and seem to probe into the mysteries of who Christ is and what he did to a depth that is moot.  But not so.  To learn of the deep mysteries of our faith is good.  To learn persistence and a certain way of thinking theologically is good.  And, finally, I’m thankful for those scholars who not only understand these theological truths but also show me how important they are for my faith.  For example, David Maxwell, who is on the faculty at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, has written a five page summary of the three genera that makes them visually understandable (Christology Illustratedhttps://concordiatheology.org/2011/01/christology-illustrated-from-the-ct-vault/).  He then concludes with this practical summary.

This emphasis on Christ’s unity is critically important for soteriology.  If it was not the Lord of Glory who was crucified (genus idiomaticum), we are still in our sins.  If the body of Christ cannot give life and the blood of Jesus cannot purify from sin (genus maiestaticum) then the Lord’s Supper is of no benefit to us.  All of Christ’s actions are divine and human (genus apotelesmaticum) because God’s plan of salvation is to send his Son to become man for our salvation.

In a way, such learning and applying is what a pastor is to do when preaching.  You study the original languages, commentaries and theological resources when working with a text.  You are filling yourself up with God’s Word and that is a good thing to do.  You are continuing to develop virtues such as diligence, faithfulness and integrity.  The time comes, however, when you stand in front of the congregation.  It is not time just to regurgitate your “academic” findings.  You also find out that it has much practical value for your life and the faith and life of your hearers.  Your preaching task is to integrate that study, your experience, the preaching context, the people you are proclaiming this word to and other realities into a Word from God that brings Jesus to them in a beneficial, even practical, manner.

Nothing is purely academic.  If I had my druthers, I would have put in “good” or “used” in that four letter spot in that crossword puzzle.  But then, of course, it would have messed up the words around it – and that wouldn’t have been practical at all.

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1 Comment

  1. Don Ray January 31, 2011

    Love it! Indeed, “academic theology” remains eminently practical.

    I am continually reminded of a Pauline phrase, “the teaching that accords to godliness”–any notion we can or should emphasize orthodoxy over orthopraxy is simply ludicrous; right learning leads to right living, and the two remain inextricably bound…something that we overly pragmatic American church leaders would do well to remember before sharing cross words (pun intended) with “underperforming” churches.

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