Friday, November 16, 2007

San Francisco Theological Seminary President Disappoints Me.

The Presbytery of Olympia held its November meeting yesterday. There was a pre-Presbytery workshop led by the Reverend Dr. Phil Butin. The Presbytery information packet said that Dr. Butin is a Professor of Theology as well as the President of San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS). The title of the workshop was “The Trinity and Christian Unity.”

Dr. Butin is an engaging communicator. He did a good job of trying to get audience participation—and to minimize the possibility of a few people commandeering the discussion. He did a good job of listening to the comments from the audience.

Dr. Butin’s basic premise is that the Trinity is a unity based of profound diversity so the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can only be a unity based on profound diversity. He said that churches should never separate from the denomination but that they should stay and work to change the denomination. To “prove” the point Dr. Butin used 1 Corinthians 12.

Not once in his entire presentation did Dr. Butin mention that 1 Corinthians 12 is talking about spiritual gifts that are given to believers by the Holy Spirit for the common good. I waited… and waited… and waited… Dr. Butin talked about the importance of “context” early in his presentation. Yet, when basing his whole premise on 1 Corinthians 12 he never once used that passage in its context!! I weep for the PC(USA) if this is how our seminary folks do theology.

Dr. Butin stressed that each church is like a part of the body. He said that the body needs each of those parts and that those parts should not ever leave. Dr. Butin said that there would be differences on how we define Jesus, what it means to be Christian and what individuals believe they are called to believe and do. Dr. Butin was asked if there are any boundaries as to what it means to be a “Christian.” He said that those boundaries do exist but that fallible humans do not have the ability to define what they are. He said that it would be presumptuous for a believer (or group of believers) to say that they know what those limits are and to impose them on the whole body.

One member of the audience brought up the example of cancer in the human body. The audience member said that cancer is made up of cells from within the body that are acting in such a way as to destroy (kill) the whole body. Dr. Butin would not say that there could be cancer in the PCUSA or that the cancer should be removed. His only response was that we should pray.

Here are a few of my concerns with Dr. Butin’s presentation.

  1. His exegesis and hermeneutics were deplorable. He would have failed those classes at most seminaries with the way he interpreted texts during the workshop. Here at Evergreen we are striving to help our people be good students of scripture. We regularly offer a class that spends a lot of time talking about exegesis and hermeneutics. It was troubling to find out that I have a high school student who does exegesis and hermeneutics better than a Professor of Theology and President of a denominational seminary’s president.
  2. Using Paul as a model for staying together at all costs shows a complete lack of scripture. Take a look at Acts 15:36-41. Paul and Barnabas have a disagreement that leads to a split!! Was the disagreement over the person of Jesus? Was the split over Jesus being the only way to God? Was the split over the definition of sin? The answers to these questions is “no.” The split was over whether to take John Mark on the next missionary trip with them. The split was over who should accompany them!! Additionally, Paul tells the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 5) that they should remove a particular person from their “fellowship” for being sexually involved with “his father’s wife.” Paul DID NOT believe that the church (or Christ’s followers) should stay together at all costs.
  3. Dr. Butin would not define the boundaries of what it means to be a Christian. He continually said that it would be presumptuous to say that we can know those boundaries—after all, we are fallible.

There are good, biblical reasons for churches staying together as denominations. It is unfortunate that Dr. Butin used the examples that he did. This is a difficult time for the PCUSA. We need to hear good biblical reasons for staying connected. Churches, sessions and denominational leaders need to know what those reasons are.

There are good, biblical reasons for churches to leave a denomination (remember, denominations are not even mentioned in the Bible). For some reason we tend to think of a denomination as the “Church” – which it isn’t! We need to hear what the Bible teaches about staying connected to “believers” who do and teach those things we have come to call heresy. Churches, sessions and denominational leaders need to know those things and those local churches will follow those scriptural mandates.


At 2:29 PM , Blogger Reyes-Chow said...

Thanks for the post. I hope there is chance for some good debate around the future of our theological institutions as well as our denomination. I just stumbled upon your blog and I am trying to build up my list of PC(USA) bloggers. I have added you to my reader. Blessings, Bruce

At 5:13 PM , Blogger Benjamin P. Glaser said...

Pastor Lance,

I am attending classes at a local Reformed Seminary (RPTS) while I continue my M.Div at Pittsburgh Seminary. I'll let you know what I see as the main differences between the two. (By the way PTS, while being "conservative" has lots of problems on the faculty)

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