As the title of this post indicates, I have two institutions in mind:
the bride of Christ, which is the Church, and the ivory tower, or the academy. I hope the two adjectives, eternal and temporal, communicate that I don’t see these two institutions as necessarily in opposition. Rather, these two institutions exist on different planes. The Church is eschatological. It endures for eternity. The academy, however, is temporal. There’s nothing wrong with being temporal, but it does suggest implications for the proper aim of our academic study and writing. Allow me to elaborate.
My contention is this: the only proper aim of academic study and writing is the Church, the Eternal Bride. The academy or guild is not a proper aim of academic study and writing. By this I mean that all our labors must have the edification and equipping of the Church as their ultimate goal. The “academy” such as it is, is temporal; it will pass away with the advent of the new heavens and the new earth at the final coming of Jesus. It is the Church, the Bride, the New Jerusalem that passes into the new heavens and the new earth, bringing with it the riches of this earth (see Richard Mouw’s book, When the Kings Come Marching In, for an excellent discussion of what will endure into the eschaton). Thus, work that is directed toward and that edifies the Church will endure through the closing of this age; all else will be destroyed (cf. 1 Cor 3:10–15).
I don’t what to be confused for saying that all writing must have the church as its immediate audience. I’m not speaking here of audience, but of the goal of writing. One’s audience can vary, even if one’s ultimate goal remains the same. Thus, I am not writing against engaging with the academy, nor am I advocating removal from or rejection of the academy. Rather, I am suggesting that we must think clearly about why and how we engage with the academy. The academy is a means, not an end in itself. Genre and audience are different than purpose and goal. There is a legitimate place for writing books and articles that are inaccessible to most members of the Church, but that place exists only insofar as those books and articles edify members of the Church by means of the academy.
What I am suggesting is that the Church sets our agenda as scholars and writers. The needs of the Church determine what issues, conversations, and debates we take up, and those that we pass by. When we enter the academy, we enter it not primarily as “scholars,” but as Christians seeking to serve our Lord by building up and beautifying his Bride. This means that the trends and fads of the academy don’t set our agenda. The academy does not dictate what issues are important or in vogue. The Church does. At times, it might be necessary to “let the dead bury their own dead,” in order to avoid answering a fool according to his folly and so being like him. Our question should not be: Does this contribute to the conversation in the academy? Contributing to the academy is not a legitimate goal in itself. Rather we should ask: Does this edify the Church by means of addressing the academy? This also means that we interact with the academy not from a place of attempted neutrality—to interact with the academy on its own terms—but as Christians for whom the only legitimate place and the only legitimate terms to do anything is in submission to our Lord. We needn’t give offense intentionally, but we mustn’t disguise our allegiance and commitment to Jesus, either. To do academic study properly, is to do it in service to Jesus and his Bride. All else is sinful misuse of our talents. Thus, we enter the academy to edify the Church and to call to repentance those whose goal is not the edification of the Church.
I should also note that all that edifies the Church will endure into the eschaton regardless of the intentions of the humans involved. Thus, work by unbelievers and by believers alike whose motives were unrighteous will endure inasmuch as it benefits the Church, but they will accrue no rewards for their work. Thus, for example, when Israel conquered the land of Canaan, they inherited houses that they did not build and vineyards that they did not plant. The work of unbelievers that serves the people of God endures regardless of intentions.
Furthermore, when considering the work of other professions, it might be difficult to conceive of how they ought to do their work with the “aim” of edifying the church. My audience for this post was specifically biblical scholars and theologians, but we might question how an entomologist, for example (one who studies insects), might have the Church as his “aim”? Would it not be better to say his aim is to glorify God, even if his work has no tangible affect on the Church? To that I would respond by noting that if we accept the totus Christus, then we necessarily believe that everything done for God is done for the church. Perhaps we can say that an entomologist ought to study bugs for the purpose of equipping the church to praise God for his creation and for the purpose of assisting the church in its dominion work (i.e., controlling disease spreading bugs, using bugs to kill other bugs or to aid in agricultural activity, to identify bugs that would be good sources of protein, etc.). Since the church is a polis all these seemingly mundane purposes serve the church as polis. However, I don’t think there is any requirement that a Christian entomologist publish his findings in a Church magazine or lead a Sunday school class on the subject, which was my point above about audience. Likewise, someone can spend their entire career (in theory) engaged only with the academy, without violating my point. However, our controlling purpose should ultimately be not to build the ivory tower but to beautify the bride.
Thanks to Robbie Crouse for some critical feedback and thoughts on this post.