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Seminary dean calls for unity of ‘Odd Couple’ disciplines

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The disciplines of classical and practical theology within seminaries need to work together for the good of the church and the glory of God, Thom Rainer said in an address to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s faculty.

The dean of Southern Seminary’s Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth used the two central characters from the 1970s television sitcom “The Odd Couple” as an analogy. The classical disciplines (biblical and theological studies) are often set at odds from the practical (missions, evangelism and church growth) within theological education, he noted Sept. 25 on the Louisville, Ky., campus.

Rainer’s address painted the classical disciplines as the fuss-budget Felix Unger, who was hyper-neat, proper and fastidious. The practical disciplines could be Unger’s sportswriter roommate, Oscar Madison, who is the quintessential slob.

Rainer said “The Odd Couple” theme fits the relationship of the two disciplines at Southern Seminary specifically and in evangelical educational circles in general: friendly but separate.

Rainer offered a proposal to remove the separation that in turn would help seminaries to better meet the needs of local churches.

The two disciplines are often seen as mutually exclusive for several reasons, but chief among them is a misunderstanding of church growth, Rainer said. Within the formal church growth movement, there are many different views — some negative, but others positive.

However, church growth critics tend to lump all adherents into the same category as Robert Schuller and Norman Vincent Peale, Rainer said.

The man-centered theology of Schuller and Peale has impacted many who are on the periphery of the modern-day church growth movement, Rainer said, but the view taught at Southern Seminary seeks to be God- and Scripture-centered.

“Like those in the discipline of theology, we have viewpoints that cover a wide range of perspectives,” Rainer said.

“What if I castigated the writings of [Southern Seminary President] Dr. [R. Albert] Mohler because both he and [open theist proponent] Clark Pinnock taught in the discipline of theology? What if I accused [Southern Seminary professor] Dr. [Bruce] Ware of open theism because he and open theists write in the same discipline? Such charges would be ludicrous, but the practice is common with some church growth critics.”

He said those uneasy with the church growth movement should become better acquainted with its history. Professors in both disciplines should seek to understand the history of both disciplines overall, he said.

“My vision is much greater than a friendly but separate relationship,” Rainer said. “My vision sees a dynamic and mutually dependent relationship that could produce a synergy never before known in theological education.”

Rainer suggested several areas in which the disciplines could work in concert to help bury the false dichotomy between theology and practice. He challenged Southern Seminary to carry the mantle in bringing a more holistic approach to the two disciplines.

First, Rainer urged the two disciplines to offer students more flexibility within their master of divinity programs that would allow them to take classes within both disciplines.

Southern Seminary has already moved to meet this challenge. The Billy Graham School has asked two Southern worldview professors to design a curriculum within the present master of divinity program that focuses on applied apologetics.

Next, Rainer suggested that the scholars from the two disciplines team up and coauthor written works.

Rainer’s recent book, “Surprising Insights from the Unchurched,” and a work by Southern New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner, “Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ,” were finalists for the 2002 Gold Medallion award presented by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.

“In my book, I almost sound like a theologue as I report that the most successful churches in reaching the unchurched were those churches with sound, clear and convictional doctrine,” Rainer said. “Dr. Schreiner sounds almost like he belongs in the Graham School” because his book argues that the apostle Paul was foremost a missionary.

“What if professors from both the classical and practical disciplines coauthored books, chapters and articles that were theologically informed and also spoke to the cries of the typical churchgoer in their needs in practical ministries?”

Rainer further recommended that Southern Seminary develop a new professional society that marries both disciplines.

“Could Southern Seminary become the birthplace of a new professional organization that weds the practical with the classical?” Rainer asked. “Could we create, for example, the Society for Biblical Growth in the Local Church?

“We in the practical disciplines need to hear from the Tom Schreiners of the evangelical world. And perhaps we in the practical disciplines could make a contribution as well.”

Finally, Rainer challenged professors from both disciplines to regularly take mission trips together. He also urged theology professors to take part in church consultations.

“Frankly, many of the consultants are theologically uninformed,” he said. “And many of the problems in the local church today are biblically and theologically based.”

Southern Seminary, Rainer said, is easily able to lead such a thrust within evangelism because professors and deans within both disciplines have strong camaraderie and mutual respect.

“There is little ‘turfism’ among our deans,” he said. “We work together for the good of the seminary and for the glory of God. Such is another reason this odd couple venture just might work.”

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  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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