by Rodney Holloman
Recently, after attending my first Theological Symposium outside of graduate school, a friend asked me why I chose to go and participate. I simply replied that as a member of our Commission for Theological Integrity, I needed to be there. The Symposium was academically challenging and the exchange of ideas with others was quite enjoyable. After some back and forth, he then prodded further in simple candor with, “Why did you waste your time?” His questions were not mean spirited or intended to be derogatory. They simply revealed a prevalent thought among some (or many?) preachers and full-time Christian workers: “Why go to the bother of doing all that hard work that doesn’t have an immediate payoff?”
A few weeks later, I was having lunch with a dear missionary who was updating me on the work in his area. After asking about some of the other pastors in his area that I knew, he sadly replied that he was unsure how committed to biblical orthodoxy they were now. He stated that a current “trendy” author’s books were being translated into their language and that the books were wreaking doctrinal havoc among the younger ministers.
As I parsed these events and the well-intentioned question of my brother, my mind thought back to a decade of training young men and women for the ministry. This decade included teaching two semesters of Systematic Theology every year that (among other things) emphasized the importance of “thinking hard” about important subjects. Part of the passion of my life and ministry has been to equip others and inspire them to want to equip others as well. I wondered if we really should encourage critical thinking displayed through accurate writing or only ask for rote memorization of basic facts. Is the challenge of engagement and hard scholastic work only for a bygone era of the church?
So, my question remains, is there really a necessity of doing the hard work of reading, analyzing, critiquing, interacting, and writing regarding subjects with little “commercial” value that will only appeal to a few who make the time to engage? Emphatically, yes! I offer the following foundations for your consideration.
There are biblical reasons to stretch, grow, read, and study not only those with whom we agree, but also those with whom we disagree. 2 Timothy 2:15 entreats us to study and reminds us of the negative implication “so that we won’t be ashamed.” Later in 4:13, Paul requests the “books and the parchments.” Addressing the learned crowd on Mars Hill, he quoted one of their poets, demonstrating at the very least, his outside reading. Repeatedly he warned of the Judaizers, showing at least some familiarity with their false doctrine. The beloved apostle would go to great lengths to strengthen the church’s resolve against Gnosticism in all its forms in John’s first epistle.
Again, Paul writing to Titus in chapter 1:9-16 commands him to hold fast the faithful word in order to exhort and to convince the ἀντιλέγοντας, or literally the “anti-speakers.” These contradictors must be answered, but they cannot be answered if we are not engaged with what they are speaking. We cannot answer if we are not studying. Peter reminds us in 1 Peter 3:15 that we are to be “ready to give every man an answer of the hope that lies within us.” The Bible commissions us to study, to reason, to do the hard work of polemics and apologetics.
One American seminary famously advertises that if you attend their school, you won’t major in “Old Dead German Apostates.” I love the snap of that ad and appreciate its intent. To wit, many may think that examining the ideas and writings of the past has no value in the present or that they serve no purpose in a local context. Truly, this thinking frightens me the most.
Over and over again, we see that when the church and its scholar pastors did not boldly confront error or choose to lead in its proclamation of truth, there were devastating consequences. J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism published almost 100 years ago set forth in shocking detail our current situation and need:
The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.” Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight .
Historically, we are always learning from the past, always beholden to the future. We cannot drop the baton of furious learning, critical interaction, and academic scholarship. We are to study, think, and write not only because of the lessons of the past, but because the future generations depend upon it.
 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 1–2. (Emphasis Mine)