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Addressing the embarrassment of theological ignorance

Addressing the embarrassment of theological ignorance

Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, says that the church should be embarrassed at the level of theological ignorance among the laity.

He writes in the National Catholic Reporter:

Almost 20 years ago, in response to what I saw as widespread biblical and theological ignorance among many people in the pews of Christian congregations, I began teaching a series of classes I called “Theology Even the Clergy Can Understand.”

It was a layperson’s examination of the basics of Reformed tradition (read Presbyterian) theology. I tried to cover such tiny subjects as God, Jesus, the Trinity, the Bible and the church.

I’ve been thinking about all of that recently because of some educational work I’ve been asked to consider helping with in my own congregation. In the process, I’ve reaffirmed my belief that we need to be able to articulate our faith in ways that reflect some effort to understand its complexities.

I’m not suggesting that people in the pews need to know how to compare and contrast the many theories of atonement or be able to discuss in detail the differences among amillennialism, premillennialism or postmillennialism.

But I do think it’s important to have read a few theologians or, at minimum, to have heard of them. I once served on a pastor nominating committee on which I was the only one to have even heard of Paul Tillich. It would be like Catholics never having heard of Karl Rahner — just heard the name, not even be able to describe anything about his theology.


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Brother David, I appreciate the comment; but I expect you would agree with me that it isn’t really a case of “either/or.” As one who’s worked in a context of theological education in a very practical context – clinical pastoral education – I’ve encountered too many (mostly but not all Christians) who didn’t have awareness of basic underpinnings of the faiths they claimed. As a corollary, I’ve been concerned often as a supply priest that many congregations don’t make significant effort to offer education in the faith to adults on congregations.

As we look to our future, this needs to be part of our consideration. As we think about fewer full-time clergy and smaller congregations, we need to think about how we’ll maintaining basic education in the faith. I’m not saying that requires clergy, because I know it doesn’t. It does, however, require someone who is educated in the faith to provide some oversight quality control, something that we can infer from our ordination examinations for all orders (if only in promsing continuing study of Scripture, proclaiming by word and example, and by providing a wholesome example). That ought to come to mind with “[continuing] in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship.”

Marshall Scott

Michael Russell

For almost 40 years now Education for Ministry has been teaching laity and clergy theology, with an emphasis on practical theology.

One does not need to have all fancy categories in order to apply what they are learning to their lives.

This fall when EFM rolled out its new curriculum we were told they placed a bulk order for 9,000 copies of all the materials they are using. Were you to add up all the people who have graduated in 40 years, I think you would find a rather delightful multitude of theological thinkers.

David W. Jones

The real embarrassment of the church is not a lack of theological knowledge, but a lack of love. What was that verse about knowledge puffing up, but love building up?


At the same time, we’re living in a culture that increasingly believes “theological ignorance” to be a redundancy. Inasmuch as I wish there were wider awareness of Tillich and Rahner, perhaps it’s best there are other priorities? [I honestly don’t know.]

JC Fisher


Yes, when we see the level of misinformation and error that comes across in the media from people who really should know better, it certainly confirms what Elder Tammeus writes. I wonder if asked, how many people would affirm that the Bible says, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”.

Mary Morrison

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