Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

Is Your Theology Pastoral or Pilpul?

Is Your Theology Pastoral or Pilpul?

When you walk through the front door of our home you’ll be confronted by my theological library. There you’ll find—if I do say so myself—some outstanding works: Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics; a decent number of NSBTs; Michael Horton’s Covenant Theology Collection; numerous works by D. A. Carson; and, of course, The Institutes. But for many people all of those books sounds about as relevant for living the Christian life as shelves lined with books about ancient Mesopotamia and medieval art.

This is because of at least two things. Firstly, it’s often difficult to make the connections between technical theology and living out my faith. Secondly, too much theological writing is unconcerned with its implications for the Christian life. My focus in this article will be the latter.

Many believers struggle to see the value of reading doctrine because those writing it aren’t working hard enough to demonstrate its significance or pastoral value. The notions of ivory towers and abstract academics didn’t simply materialise. They’re the result of too much theology being written for the academy, rather than the church. And all of this is superbly illustrated by a passage from Chaim Potok’s The Chosen.

Pilpul in Chaim Potok’s ‘The Chosen’

As any blurb online will tell you, The Chosen is a beautiful story about friendship. But it also offers a profound picture of the intersection between Hasidic Judaism and Zionism in the years after World War 2. At one point in the novel the protagonist’s father, David Malter, delivers a brief history of Hasidism, which is a more mystical branch of Judaism. Part of that history illustrates the reasons for the patchy relationship between theological writing and the church.

To quote from The Chosen: “By the eighteenth century, [the Polish Jewry] had become a degraded people. Jewish scholarship was dead. In its place came empty discussions about matters that had no practical connexion with the desperate needs of the masses of Jews. Pilpul, these discussions are called—empty, non-sensical arguments over minute points of the Talmud that have no relation at all to the world. Jewish scholars became interested in showing other Jewish scholars how much they knew, how many texts they could manipulate. They were not in the least bit interested in teaching the masses of Jews, in communicating their knowledge and uplifting their people. And so there grew up a great wall between the scholars and the people.”

Elsewhere I’ve written on some of the trappings of theological studies, such ambition and pride. But David Malter highlights the destructive lure of sterile intellectualism. This is when theologians are engaged in lively dialogue, rigorously pursuing publication, and attending various conferences. Only, as Malter says, despite appearances such theology may nevertheless be “dead.”

A Crisis in Christian Theology

In my opinion, his description of Jewish theologians in the 18th century isn’t wide of the mark in describing the contemporary state of much theological effort. Furthermore, this explains the circumspect approach many Christians take to theology. Though more could be said, I’m going to focus on three aspects of Malter’s critique, applying them to Christian theology, under the three headings below.

1. Pedantic and Impractical

Firstly, Malter notes that the study of Talmud among Jewish scholars had devolved into “empty, non-sensical arguments over minute details.” These, he continues, “have no relation at all to the world.” They were nothing more than “empty discussions about matters that had no practical connexion with the desperate needs of the masses of Jews.” Their large-scale scholarly enterprise was impractical, despite all its precision. However voluminous it was nevertheless empty. Poring over the same texts as the Jewish masses, their work was so pedantic that it remained impenetrable to laypeople.

Returning to the shelves of my own theological library, the same could probably be said about many of the larger—as well as some of the smaller—works there. That Christian theologians have published an awesome amount of books is painfully evident. By scholarly, academic standards these works certainly cut the mustard. But aren’t many guilty of David Malter’s assessment? Fixated on minute details. Full of citations, quotes, and detailed footnotes only simultaneously empty in terms of their value for the people sitting in the pews.

2. Written for the Academy

Secondly, their scholarship, according to David Malter, was increasingly aimed at other scholars. As he puts it, “Jewish scholars became interested in showing other Jewish scholars how much they knew, how many texts they could manipulate.” Its audience was exclusively the academy, so to speak; its ambition was the demonstration of technical study and methodological mastery.

Much Christian theology runs the same risk, creating a kind of academic echo chamber. Of course, there are levels of learning and technical aspects of theology that will inevitably exclude some, a problem compounded by functional illiteracy and social media. However, it’s worth making an important distinction here, alluded to but not spelt out by Malter. Christian theology should always have one eye on the church, instead of fixing both firmly on the academy. Thus even in the writing of detailed dogmatics, one needn’t forget vast majority of the Christians. You only need to read Bavinck’s Wonderful Works of God or Calvin’s Institutes for examples of this. This brings us to one final point.

3. No Interest in the Church

Finally, Malter says that Jewish theologians became uninterested in teaching the masses, “in communicating their knowledge and uplifting their people.” In many ways this is an obverse to the previous point. For simultaneously with their commitment to impressing and engaging other scholars, the scholars forget their people. A people who were in great need.

When writing one must choose an audience. No piece can be all things to all people. I know this all too well, having been roundly criticised for aiming my writing at a learned few, over simplifying complex matters, and everything in-between. And as I’ve already noted above, explicitly addressing one audiences means excluding others. Of course. Only, this brings me to the point of my article that might upset the most. Should Christian theologians be excused for ignoring the church? Personally, I don’t think so.

As Helmut Thielicke writes, in his Little Exercise for Young Theologians: “Living dogmatics never allows its problems to be self-originated as by a virgin birth, but it is always being fertilised, achieving its productive impulse through the questions of the time. It exists in living tension.”

Theologians Exist for the Church

In conclusion, let’s return to that quote from The Chosen. The result of what David Malter calls Pilpul is simple. “There grew up a great wall between the scholars and the people.”

Too much theological work relies on the assumption of a trickle down effect. This assumption says that work done in the rarified realms will eventually find its way down to the earthly ones. But I remain unconvinced of that. If there exists a wall between Christian scholarship and those filling our churches then it’s time to ask some hard questions about what we’re writing and who we’re writing for.

I’ll give the last word to Herman Bavinck, writing in the first volume of his Reformed Dogmatics. “The individual believer who puts his mind to the pursuit of dogmatic studies will only produce lasting benefit from his labours if he does not isolate himself, either in the past or from his surroundings, but instead takes his place both historically and contemporarily in the full communion of the saints.”

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