Anna Goldsworthy, an accomplished pianist, mourns here in The Monthly about the rapidly disappearing art of listening. Regarding classical music, she observes that "American figures suggest that the average age of attendance at a symphony concert in 1937 was 30. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has reported that the largest proportion of attendees at classical music concerts in 2009–10 was the cohort aged 65–74."
There is an intriguing quote in the essay by musicologist Lawrence Kramer that, "All music trains the ear to hear it properly, but classical music trains the ear to hear with a peculiar acuity. It wants to be explored, not just heard … it trains both the body’s ear and the mind’s to hearken, to attend closely, to listen deeply, as one wants to listen to something not to be missed.”
I find much the same phenomenon that she bemoans with respect to classical music is unfortunately occurring throughout the church with regard to theology. Peruse any "best-seller" list of Christian books and you usually find motivational books and biographies. If there are any theological books, they are almost always what I refer to as "cotton candy theology" - i.e., flashy and imparting a short-lived sugar high, but short on nutritional value. Cotton-candy theology tends to eclipse the magnificent, life-changing, absolute, transcendent truth of Scripture. From Cotton-candy's perspective, Scripture is usually either (a) granite that is only superficially scratched, or worse yet (b) malleable with endless subjectivity and relativism.
In short supply on almost all best-seller lists is what I refer to as "classical" theology - i.e., such works as ...
- Grudem's or Pannenburg's Systematic Theology
- Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion
- Athanasius's On the Incarnation
- Pascal's Pensees
- the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture
- Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica
- NT Wright's monumental Resurrection of the Son of God
- the Westminster Confession of Faith
- William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith
- JP Moreland's Love God With All Your Mind
Just as there is no shortage of classical musicians but an appreciative audience trained to listen, so there is no shortage of contemporary theologians producing "classical" works worth plowing through - i.e., authors such Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Doug Groothuis, Tim Keller, NT Wright, William Lane Craig, JP Moreland, RC Sproul, etc. The problem is dwindling readership for their works, and the fruit is an increasingly stunted church with respect to classical theology.
Read the following extract from "On The Incarnation" by Athanasius from the 4th century A.D. and compare it to the depth of most contemporary writings ...
For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us. He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father's Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law to be repealed before it was fulfilled. He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way. No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire. (On The Incarnation, Chapter 2, The Divine Dilemma and its Solution in the Incarnation, 8)
If you find that short excerpt "above your head", I fear you are in the majority. "Classical" theology that is akin in depth to something like Paul's exposition in either Romans or Galatians, trains the mind to "listen" deeply. It helps open our spirit to the great unchanging transcendent truth of Scripture. Just as the music aficionado must train his/her ear to classical music in order to understand and appreciate it, the same is true for the Christian. Grasping the deep transcendent truths of Scripture does not happen automatically at conversion. Training of the mind and discipline is required - indeed, that is part of what sanctification is all about. Even giftedness in Biblical teaching is no guarantee - i.e., consider the situation of Apollos in the early church as recorded in Scripture (Acts 18:24-26).
As the Monergism web site observes,
".... theology is not just an interest or hobby that we can add to our list of favorite activities and diversions. It pertains to the whole of our lives, and must shape and inform our thoughts and activities in every sphere of our existence. Without the knowledge of God, the knowledge of ourselves becomes distorted and futile, and any meaning and ultimate satisfaction becomes utterly impossible."
RC Sproul insightfully states,
"More than just a mental grasp of the content of biblical theology is needed, for spiritual maturity only comes as we receive the Word in our hearts and allow it to transform us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Only the Spirit can give us the willingness and the ability to respond to divine revelation in this manner. Still, because spiritual maturity requires theological study, there can be no growth without it. Consequently, no believer can bifurcate absolutely the work of the professional theologian from the task of the layperson." (emphasis is mine)
He goes on to hit the nail on the head with this conclusion,
".. the real question is not whether or not we are going to be theologians but whether or not we are going to be sound theologians."
Clinton E. Arnold, Professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology, comments here in his noteworthy research paper entitled "Early Church Catechesis And New Christians Classes In Contemporary Evangelicalism" on his conviction of the superficiality of the training/teaching for most new believers today. Definitely worth reading in entirety, here are some excerpts ...
I had also been doing some reading in the Church fathers about how new Christians’ classes were conducted in the early church and came away deeply convicted about the superficiality of what we were doing. There was such a rigorous plan and commitment by church leaders in the first four centuries to ground new believers in their Christian lives ....
The time is fortuitous for a re-exploration of the early church practice of training new believers—a practice they called the catechumenate, derived from the Greek word katechein, meaning “to teach” or “instruct" ...
Perhaps the most significant motive for the shift away from the apostolic practice of baptizing immediately after profession of faith to a time after substantive training, mentoring, and preparation had to do with “the concern the ministers of baptism had from the very beginning for the sincerity of the conversion of the candidates ....
When we begin to examine the sources of the early Christian catechumenate, we discover that it often took place over a three-year span. The Apostolic Tradition reflects the practice of instructing them for a span of three years: “let the catechumens hear the Word for three years”. A three-year period is also attested in the Apostolic Constitutions and the Testamentum Domini. Clement of Alexandria also alludes to a three-year catechumenate (Stromata ...
Part of the motivation and concern for a lengthy process was rooted in a desire to foster solid spiritual formation and to protect these new believers against sin, heresy, and apostasy (emphasis is mine) ...
By contrast, many evangelical churches today place a minimal emphasis on the training of new believers, especially when compared to the prominence and importance of the catechumenate in the ancient church. Some churches find it adequate to have a four-week members’ class prior to baptism and the acquisition of church membership. Others may have a six or eight-week new Christians’ class. How many contemporary evangelical churches, however, have a plan for training new believers over a two or three-year span? ...
As we consider the lives and writings of the most well-known church leaders in the first four centuries, it is amazing how many of them devoted themselves to the task of teaching new believers ...
There are four key features from the catechumenate of the early church:
- Immersion in the Word of God.
- Teach them the central doctrines of the faith.
- Spiritual and moral formation.
- Deliverance ministry
Dr. Arnold speaks with wisdom born from years of study and reflection; his conclusions are proven by time. The church in the early 21st century ignores him to our loss. Personally ... the more I learn, the more I realize just how very little I actually know. It's quite humbling.