In his Exegetical Fallacies, D. A. Carson presents the parable of Ernest Christian. Ernest, who represents the typical new seminary student, experiences the unpleasant phenomena of “distanciation.” Distanciation refers to the act of distancing oneself from a matter for the purpose of looking at it more objectively. For many students this is a new–and disturbing–way to approach the Bible. Carson presents his parable thusly:
“Ernest Christian was converted as a high school senior. He went to college and studied computer science; but he also worked hard at his church and enjoyed effective ministry in the local Inter-Varsity group. His prayer times were warm and frequent. Despite occasional dearth, he often felt when he read his Bible as if the Lord were speaking to him directly. Still, there was so much of the Bible that he did not understand. As he began to reach the settled conviction that he should pursue fulltime Christian ministry, his local congregation confirmed him in his sense of gifts and calling. Deeply aware of his limitations, he headed off to seminary with all the eagerness of a new recruit. After Ernest has been six months at seminary, the picture is very different. Ernest is spending many hours a day memorizing Greek morphology and learning the details of the itinerary of Paul’s second missionary journey. Ernest has also begun to write exegetical papers; but by the time he has finished his lexical study, his syntactical diagram, his survey of critical opinions, and his evaluation of conflicting evidence, somehow the Bible does not feel as alive to him as it once did. Ernest is troubled by this; he finds it more difficult to pray and witness than he did before he came to seminary. He is not sure why this is so: he does not sense the fault to be in the lecturers, most of whom seem to be godly, knowledgeable, and mature believers. More time elapses. Ernest Christian may do one of several things. He may retreat into a defensive pietism that boisterously denounces the arid intellectualism he sees all around him; or he may be sucked into the vortex of a kind of intellectual commitment that squeezes out worship, prayer, witness, and meditative reading of Scripture; or he may stagger along until he is rescued by graduation and returns to the real world.
But is there a better way? And are such experiences a necessary component of seminary life? The answer is yes on both scores. Such experiences are necessary: they are caused by distanciation. Yet understanding the process can enable us to handle it better than would otherwise be the case. Whenever we try to understand the thought of a text (or of another person, for that matter), if we are to understand it critically— that is, not in some arbitrary fashion, but with sound reasons, and as the author meant it in the first place— we must first of all grasp the nature and degree of the differences that separate our understanding from the understanding of the text. Only then can we profitably fuse our horizon of understanding with the horizon of understanding of the text— that is, only then can we begin to shape our thoughts by the thoughts of the text so that we truly understand them. Failure to go through the distanciation before the fusion usually means there has been no real fusion: the interpreter thinks he knows what the text means, but all too often he or she has simply imposed his own thoughts onto the text. It follows that if an institution is teaching you to think critically (as I have used that term), you will necessarily face some dislocation and disturbing distanciation. A lesser institution may not be quite so upsetting: students are simply encouraged to learn, but not to evaluate.
Distanciation is difficult, and can be costly. But I cannot too strongly emphasize that it is not an end in itself. Its proper correlative is the fusion of horizons of understanding. Provided that part of the task of interpretation is nurtured along with distanciation, distanciation will not prove destructive. Indeed, the Christian life, faith, and thought that emerge from this doublebarreled process will be more robust, more spiritually alert, more discerning, more biblical, and more critical than it could otherwise have been. But some of the steps along the way are dangerous: work hard at integrating your entire Christian walk and commitment, and the topic of this study will prove beneficial. Fail to work hard at such integration and you invite spiritual shipwreck.” (D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 23-24)
Carson is right. Distanciation is both dangerous and necessary. And I don’t know of a course in which it happens more than in Systematic Theology. My prayer is that my students, after having critically evaluated their preconceived notions, will finish their studies with a more spiritually robust and mature faith.