Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

3/30 2015

The One Sin We Forgot to Confess This Lent

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God-sees-us-as-greatI’ve confessed a lot of sin in the last month. Not because I’ve committed more than usual, but because it’s been in Lent. I worship in chapel at least twice a week and at my church on Sunday mornings. That’s a lot of prayers of confession. I’m more aware than usual of the things I’ve done I ought not to have done, and the things I haven’t done which I ought to have done.

But there’s one sin these prayers haven’t prompted me to confess.

I was reminded of this sin during a conversation with my fifth-grade son. It’s a difficult age. The pressure to fit in and be accepted is great. He told me, in so many words, about his pain at wanting to be wanted by others. And it’s a very small step from feeling not wanted by others, to feeling not worth being wanted. The consequence? Self-rejection.

He didn’t need to tell me that last part. As a pastor, I’d seen it again and again, and I’ve felt it myself. As Henri Nouwen has said, “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life.”

But when are we led to confess that sin? We are often prompted to confess the sin of pride, that supposedly ever-present over-estimation of our worth. Last week, one of those many prayers of confession had us admit that we “are misled by pride, for we see ourselves as great when we are small.”

Unfortunately, too many of us see ourselves as small when God sees us as great—created “a little lower than God” and crowned “with honor and glory,” as Psalm 8 tells us. The sin of self-rejection—the persistent under-valuing of ourselves—prevents us from delighting in God’s very delight in us.

“Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence,” says Nouwen. He knew the damage of self-rejection from experience, as do more people than our prayers of confession would make us think. Lent would be a great time for the church to help us give voice to this sin, tutoring us out of this false view of ourselves.

During this Holy Week many of us will have the chance to sing the hymn, “What Wondrous Love Is This.” The last time I sang it, one verse struck me:

     When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,

     when I was sinking down, sinking down,

     when I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown,

     Christ laid aside his crown for my soul, for my soul,

     Christ laid aside his crown, for my soul.

Many souls are sinking down beneath this false-image of a frowning God. I increasingly believe that if God is frowning, it’s because we’ve been unable to see the smile of God’s delight. Christ laid aside his crown to free our souls from these false images of ourselves and of God, so that we might enter at last the joy of God’s joy in us.

Maybe next Lent (or maybe before then?) we’ll get to confess this overlooked sin. Maybe we’ll be invited to say something like this:

     Smiling God, forgive us

          for not being able to see your delight in us,

               for living lives misled by self-rejection,

                    and for persisting in the illusion that we are nothing.

     Forgive us for treating ourselves and others as if that illusion were reality.

     Cleanse our vision so that we can begin to see ourselves

          as you see us—beloved children, the apple of your eye.

     Set us free to enter into the joy you take in us,

          a joy made flesh in Christ, through whom we pray. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.

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3/27 2015

Rethinking Seminary

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Last year, when I was preparing the address I was to offer at my installation in a faculty chair, I read through a number of similar addresses given by theology professors throughout the centuries. One of the great things about century old institutions like the church or the academy is that we’re standing at the shoulders of generations and generations of predecessors. That can be stifling, but also quite inspiring. And so I wanted to know what previous scholars had said.

Reading these old addresses, I was not even so much struck by what these scholars had said but by what they took themselves to be involved in. In our time and age we tend to think about a seminary as a professional school, that is, a place that fosters professional competencies in our students. We want our students to be able to read and interpret Scripture, understand church history, analyze theological texts, and stay abreast of the latest psychological and sociological insights so that they are well prepared for the tasks that await them after seminary, whether ordained ministry, academic study, or other kinds of service.

But earlier generations would say that there is something deeply incoherent in such an understanding of theological education. In teaching our students to read and interpret Scripture, to understand church history, to analyze theological arguments, we teach them to think about God. We help them to understand God better. But if the aim of a theological school is to produce skilled professionals, then the thinking and speaking about God that we do in the context of our school becomes instrumental. Our gaining knowledge of God is not for the sake of God, but for the sake of our own professional development. In treating God instrumentally, our predecessors would hold, we are failing to do the very thing we set out to do: to speak about God truthfully. To treat God instrumentally is to deny the very being that God is: the one to whom all things are directed, not the one who can be directed at all things.

Therefore, these older scholars do not talk about theological education as a form of professional formation. They talk about it as spiritual and ecclesial formation. “What is the goal of the theological education?” asked Gisbertus Voetius, a 17th century Dutch theologian, in his installation lecture. “It is the contemplation of salvation, of the virtues… And of piety [the goal of which is] the common worship of God.” In other words, these scholars think about theological education not as a preparation for a professional career, but for a way of life.

It strikes me that these earlier generations of theological educators were right. They would be right theologically, if they were to charge the “seminary as professional school” paradigm with incoherence in using God instrumentally. But they would also be right in an oddly more pragmatic sense. We all know how theological education is in turmoil these days. Our enrollment numbers are falling; and the number of our students that expects to go into regular parish ministry is shrinking. The idea that they have clearly defined professional futures no longer matches reality. At the same time, I believe there are significant groups in our churches who never grace the seminary with their presence exactly because they are not interested in a professional ecclesial career, but who might be very interested in high level theological education if differently conceived. Think of retiring Baby Boomers who are looking for meaningful use of their time and talents, or young professionals who are looking for a better understanding of discipleship in a post-Christendom society.

What if we therefore think about a theological institution not so much as a professional school, but as a place where the church sets aside and fosters an academic community? An academic community invited to a common life? A common life shaped by theological reflection, which in turn draws us deeper in knowing, loving, and worshipping God? An academic community which is educational in that it invites students to join in, to walk with us, to participate in our common life, and as such to be formed in the habits of reflection, and knowing, and loving, and worship – be it for the time of a three-year M.Div. or other degree program, for continuing education or a doctorate in ministry, or maybe just for a class or two or three?

Conceiving of a seminary in this way would demand some real re-thinking of what we’re doing. It would maybe ask us to think, as our predecessors, of theological education not so much as preparation for a profession, but for a way of life. But sometimes, the future lies in the past.

The Rev. Dr. Edwin Chr. van Driel was installed into the Directors’ Bicentennial Associate Professor of Theology Chair in May 2014. Over the coming months, he’ll share additional insights from his installation address. You can also read more about his thoughts on the future of the Church and his other research interests on his faculty website. Professor van Driel teaches in the MDiv and DMin programs.

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3/18 2015

Theological Significance of Biblical Languages

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theological significance of biblical languagesI am a lover of words. I enjoy the cacophony of sound as each syllable is poured from my lips and building bridges from each word like bricks. Being a word smith has led me on many adventures through the tumultuous shifting waters of linguistics. Yet, even with all the joy I procure from unearthing lyrical discoveries in peeling back layers of semantics, I have been no stranger to the question, as I’m staring at the Greek or Hebrew text before me, of

“For what exactly do I need this again?”

Many an argument can and has been made that languages should be cut from the curriculum of those preparing for ministry. How is parsing Greek participle phrases going to help me balance the church budget? How are Hebrew paradigms going to help me fill the church on Sunday morning? How is muddling my way through these ancient languages going to help my congregation embody justice and peace in this world?

Those and many others like them are valid questions. What does a seemingly obscure scholastic endeavor have to do with the practicality of church?

To answer this quandary, I turn to Acts 6: 1-7. In this portion of the narrative, widows, a vulnerable people group, were being neglected. When the complaint is brought before the 12, the 12 gather the entire community and say, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.”[1]

Now this can be seen as the 12 shirking hard labor, refusing to roll up their sleeves and get to the real nitty gritty. However, that is not the case. What the 12 saw as the cause for the brokenness in their community was the lack of the gospel. This is the same dilemma the Church faces today.

And how can we fully understand the gospel without being able to hold hands with the language in which the gospel was first understood? As reformer and theologian Martin Luther puts it,

“…we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained….If through our neglect we let the languages go (which God forbid!), we shall not only lose the gospel, but the time will come when we shall be unable either to speak or write a correct Latin or German.”[2]

The theological significance then of learning biblical languages is nestled in deep partnership with the mission and ministry of the Church – sharing the good news of great joy to all.

[1] Acts 6: 2-4, NRSV.

[2] Martin Luther, “The Importance of Biblical Languages”, To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools, (1524). http://faculty.tfc.edu/juncker/GRK453LutherOnLanguages.pdf

Rebecca Dix is a senior MDiv student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. After graduating this summer, she plans to return to PTS for her master of theology degree and feels called to pastoral ministry and the arts.

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