Theological Fidelity: An Interview with David Garner
by David Garner
Tabletalk: How did God call you to become a seminary professor, and how does that calling serve the local church?
David Garner: Some have enjoyed a deep sense of call since childhood; others have longed for certain vocations or ministry destinations, and found their steps markedly (and not always easily) redirected. Irrespective of anecdotes, calling consists of more than personal intuitions. The Lord uses the church’s “objective” voice to issue and confirm calling.
For me, this objective voice boomed loudly. While serving in pastoral ministry and parachurch ministry, strong exhortations came repeatedly from leaders in Christ’s church: “Pursue further education so that you can use your gifts more effectively.” God paved the way for PhD studies, which eventually facilitated my current dual call at Westminster Theological Seminary and Proclamation Presbyterian Church.
The church is Christ’s bride for whom He died. There is no more critical entity on earth. Alongside my pastoral ministry, teaching students state-side and abroad has kept me close to the church, because as a “seed bed” (the original meaning of seminary), the seminary prepares servants of Christ’s church. I teach students in the seminary context because of its churchly focus and value.
TT: It’s often the case throughout history that men have founded seminaries on biblical faithfulness, but then over time those seminaries became apostate. What are some of the reasons for this phenomenon, and how can laypeople help keep this from happening?
DG: Please pray for seminaries and their professors. For the theologian, personal renown dresses as a scantily clad mistress with mischievous lures. History evidences how a scholar’s overconfidence and inordinate desire to be known derail his soul from Scriptural authority and theological fidelity. Innovative methods and provocative conclusions secure public recognition, but at exhorbitant cost. When getting noticed trumps faithfulness, disaster inescapably ensues. Many faithful institutions have crumbled beneath the weight of academic egos.
How should the church respond? Boldly and unrelentingly. God’s people must not tolerate godless and contortionistic conclusions proffered by even the most winsome and persuasive academic personalities. If a teacher even subtly opposes the faith, rather than stroking his self-image by blog posts and book sales, the church should call him to repentance (and not buy his books).
TT: What does it mean for a pastor to be a pastor-theologian?
DG: Dwelling in God’s world and proclaiming God’s Word, the pastor’s task remains exhaustively theological—transcendent yet timely, urgent yet enduring, informative yet exhortative, and sober yet joyful.
Teaching the greatest truths in the universe captivates my soul with awe and joy. The pastor’s study offers sanctified turf, where he ponders the deep things of God, worships the God of these deep things, and then formulates worshipful contemplations into words. Stepping into the pulpit or behind the lectern, he heralds the message of the King.
While not everyone possesses equal intellectual or communication gifts, each pastor bears the responsibility of delivering God’s Word to God’s people. Even the Apostle Paul declared, “Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge” (2 Cor. 11:6a). Every minister must operate self-consciously, deliberately, carefully, and delightedly as a theologian of the highest order.
An additional point ensues. Theological contemplation is never private domain. The preacher doesn’t function autonomously; in fact, his work is, in a very important sense, shared and uncreative. As a contemporary spokesman, the preacher preaches the historic deposit of faith, following thousands who have gone before him with a view to the untold thousands that will follow. Theological fidelity celebrates orthodox, zealous faith in the past and the future.
TT: What are some practical ways church leaders can encourage laypeople in their congregations to study theology?
DG: Due to the blessing of education and the accessibility of digital and print materials, congregation members can study Scripture in ways unprecedented in earlier generations. This privileged task bears a double edge. Accessibility and opportunity create accountability. With vast resources at our fingertips, should not this generation of believers imbibe the deep things of God and evidence unrivaled love and obedience to the Lord Jesus?
As church leaders, we must read and then recommend certain readings energetically and discerningly. We can vet and stock church libraries and encourage church reading groups. We can commend resources when teaching or preaching and pen our own theological and pastoral reflections for our congregations, aiming to whet their appetites.
Further, we should aid our congregations in cultivating biblically contoured minds and hearts. We should pray with the Apostle Paul “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Eph. 1:17). As part of this call to spiritual recalibration, we should expound how theology speaks into all spheres of life. Christ’s lordship is comprehensive (Eph. 1:15–23), and God’s people must come to know, love, and delight in this precious, poignant, and piercing reality.
TT: Many individuals feel they shouldn’t study theology because the Bible itself contains all the theology we need. How would you respond to such a sentiment?
DG: In one important sense, such thinking is true. Scripture is the final voice on all things: it speaks authoritatively, clearly, and sufficiently. But the Bible is not a handbook on theology and is not organized thematically. Scripture speaks directly in its specific wording, but it also speaks authoritatively in what it teaches by “good and necessary consequence” (WCF 1.6). Biblical authority operates in what it affirms and denies, and faithful theology serves the church by articulating what exactly Scripture teaches. The faithful Christian should ever ruminate upon, relish, and retell the treasures of God’s Word.
TT: What is the “Insider Movement”?
DG: An “Insider Movement” (IM) is a contemporary missions phenomenon, where nationals of another religion are encouraged to maintain their current identities, cultures, and religions while professing Jesus Christ. Insider Movements include self-professing “Buddhist followers of Christ” and “Messianic Muslims.”
Such movements are common in certain parts of Asia and Africa. Fueled by Western missionaries and church dollars, they’ve led many who are entangled in false religions to believe that they can—and even must—retain their former identities and practices and follow Jesus as well.
TT: What are the problems with the Insider Movement, and what is the solution?
DG: A number of theological and practical problemssurface.In the name of cultural diversity and local autonomy, IM advocates insist that Jesus is not concerned with religion, but only with the heart. This false dichotomy leads to confusion about the meaning of Christ’s lordship, the relevance of faith in Him, the nature of discipleship, the marks of the church, and the unity of the true church of Jesus Christ worldwide. At worst, it perpetuates idolatry, leading many to false faith in a false version of Christ.
Beyond its theological errors, IM has created countless practical problems. In some Muslim contexts, for example, Muslims do not know whether Insiders are Christians or Muslims. Even Muslim leaders perceive the incongruity and cry foul over the claims of a “Muslim Christ follower.” Further, from what I have witnessed, most children of IM-ers marry those of their former(?) religion, making the IM version of Christianity not only theologically schizophrenic and syncretistic, but also short-lived.
The only antidote to IM error is the proclamation of the pure gospel in its full scope and glory (Gal. 1:1–9).
TT: What are a few practical ways the church can help new christians—especially those in other countries—deal with the social and economic difficulties that may attend their newfound faith in Christ?
DG: God’s people have never been strangers to social and financial trouble. The bonds of gospel joy join frequently with the bonds of gospel suffering. While the church in one region can and even should provide financial assistance to the church in another region (2 Cor. 9), the greatest ministry gift remains diligent prayer and mutual exhortations to faith and faithfulness.
Contentment derives not from bounty or even need, but from the soul-lessons of Christ’s abundant provision in all circumstances (Phil. 4:12). Regular intercession, in this important way, transcends attempted, and frequently inadequate, intervention.
Dr. David B. Garner is associate professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, assistant pastor of teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Philadelphia, and adjunct professor at Geneva College. He is author of How Can I Know For Sure? and editor of Did God Really Say?: Affirming the Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture. Dr. Garner formerly served as director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), before accepting the call to serve as professor and pastor.