Bags of Stones

There is an interesting passage in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it. If you have never read this short story, you should. It takes about an hour to read and it is a masterwork of flowing prose; the words seem to almost fall off the page. Aspiring writers should certainly read this story for an example of powerful writing, but I would also recommend that non-writers read it to get a sense of how much popular literature has degraded since Irving wrote his story in 1820. I especially enjoy the first 30 pages or so, where Irving brilliantly describes what life was like in the small colonial villages of early America.

As Irving carefully sets the stage for his readers—ensuring they are well-acquainted with Sleepy Hollow, a small community near the village of Tarry Town in the state of New York—he describes the geography, history, and legends of the area. When he moves in to introduce us to the townsfolk of Sleepy Hollow, Irving makes this statement about the prominence of the schoolmaster in early New England towns:

The schoolmaster is generally a man of some importance in the female circle of a rural neighborhood; being considered a kind of idle, gentlemanlike personage, of vastly superior taste and accomplishments to the rough country swains, and, indeed, inferior in learning only to the parson.

The matter-of-fact way that Irving expresses the place of the schoolmaster is what catches my attention. Irving states, almost as an afterthought, that the parson (the pastor) was known to be the most educated person in the town. What I find to be so particularly striking about this is how far we have drifted from this understanding in our own modern towns. Even though it is probably still true, to some degree, that the pastor of the local church is one of the most educated men in the town, how many of our neighbors and fellow-citizens would ever state this or even acknowledge it? The modern church pastor is not generally recognized for his wisdom and learning, even though seminary training remains one of, if not the most, comprehensive and diverse graduate-level educations available.

So what of this modern view of the pastor, and by implication, the church which he pastors? Does this mean that most citizens in any given town are missing out on the rich wisdom and practical advice available to them from their local church leader? Hardly. While the modern pastor may have education oozing out of his ears, he almost never has any practical use for it. Modern seminaries are no better at educating future pastors than these same future pastors are at educating their flocks. R.J. Rushdoony compared seminary education to a “bag of stones” that seminarians are given to feed their congregations:

The seminary, thus, will endlessly analyze the theories of the adherents of the Graf-Wellhausen myth. Instead of teaching the Bible, it will be dealing with “problems” in terms of critical analysis. It will grant moral validity to the enemy’s objections and objectives. The student majoring in either Old or New Testament will know much about the enemy has to say, but he can leave seminary and be unable, in an ordination examination, to name four minor prophets, spell Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Habakkuk, name the Ten Commandments, or do other like elementary things. (These are actual illustrations, from examinations.) It stands to reason that he cannot summarize the main points of Romans, I Corinthians, Haggai, or Jeremiah. He can, however, discuss ably the Graf-Wellhausen theory, so that, as a pastor, he has a good bag of stones to feed Christ’s flock.

If the student is a theology major, it is unlikely that he will leave the seminary with a full reading of any great theologian. He may be “Reformed,” but it is unlikely that he will have read Calvin’s Institutes. A course in Calvin, the church fathers, Luther, Van Til, or any other like thinker is very unlikely. But he will get courses on the current theological idiot of the covenant-breaker’s church. After all, must he not have a box-full of serpents for Christ’s flock? [1]

Rushdoony’s observation, made in 1979, is all the more valid today. Very few pastors have any idea of what a biblical worldview entails. They were given stones, not bread, in their seminary educations. They spent years studying the minutiae of theological discourse, only to discover that almost zero of what they learned is actually applicable or usable in ministering to their congregations. The lack of a biblical worldview at the pastoral level is basically a guarantee that one will be lacking at the congregational level. “A pupil is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). Our pastors need to be educated in a biblical worldview as badly as our congregations. As Chuck Colson points out, this is reaching crisis-level proportions. Pupils, as well as their teachers, need to be re-educated in biblical thinking and application. This is where we must begin. We are similar in our situation to the original audience of the Epistle to the Hebrews, except that we must be taught for the first time, not again. “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food” (Hebrews 5:12).

Notes:
[1] Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Necessity for Systematic Theology (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1979), 70-71.

[js-disqus]