Accessibility: I don’t think that word means what you think it means

There has been a bit of chat on twitter about Systematic Theologies. It all started with a thread taking a pop at Grudem. I don’t think Grudem’s Systematic Theology is without its flaws and some of those criticisms may stick, but I think there is more in there that has been helpful than not. I have had more than a few conversations with people whereby they told me they read the book ‘Systematic Theology’ and, when I asked them which one, they stared at me blankly and confessed they thought Grudem’s was the only one. Though that has been said of those in New Frontiers with a wry smile, my experience of that conversation has been with those involved in either UCCF or FIEC churches of one sort of another (or both).

But the discussion on twitter moved away from pelting (or defending) Grudem and started to ask which Systematic Theologies might be better. That led to other questions. But one particularly stood out: which is the most accessible? It stood out, not because it’s a bad question – it is a good one to ask – but rather because of the answers. Apparently, Herman Bavinck’s 4-volume Reformed Dogmatics and John Calvin’s 2-volume Institutes of the Christian Religion were both hailed as contenders.

Now, I like Calvin and Bavinck. But the idea that either one of them is genuinely accessible leads me to conclude one of two things. Either, people simply do not know what the word ‘accessible’ actually means or they do not know any normal people and these genuinely are the most accessible systematic theologies for everybody they know. But I would invite anybody who believes Bavinck is truly accessible to come to Oldham and offer his 4-volumes to a new(ish) believer in my church, leave them with the set for 6-months or more, and come back and see how well that went. As far as accessibility goes, to quote Inigo Montoya:

But the problem goes well beyond systematic theologies. It extends to Christian books in general. I remember one pastor friend asking for some Christian book recommendations. I was impressed by his honesty – considering he was from a background that would usually consider this admission heresy – when he insisted not something by a Puritan because, no matter how easy some claim them to be, he found them extremely difficult to read. When most of us reckon it unhelpful to fling a KJV at people who speak 21st Century, I don’t quite know why more than a few of us seem to think that same language is absolutely fine if it’s got ‘Puritan Paperback’ written on the spine. That isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of helpful things in those books, but if we are genuinely claiming that books written in 17th century English are properly accessible to the average Christian or modern readers, we really need to ask ourselves whether we have understood the meaning of the word.

But the problem doesn’t end there. Much of what passes for ‘accessible’ isn’t really as accessible as we seem to think. We all insist that we want to make our sermons accessible and yet, to listen to a lot of them, I’m not sure we mean the same thing when we use that word. Of course, accessibility (to some degree) is in the eye of the beholder. But I can benchmark accessibility by certain folk in my church. If the guys in my church who have no formal education, who aren’t big readers, who haven’t had a lifetime of listening to sermons can understand what has been said and can engage with it, then I consider the sermon reasonably accessible. If our guys who may have more education but who have English as a Second Language (and whose English may not be great yet) can engage with it, that’s another helpful marker. Our conversations in the week, and our discussions at home group, usually tell me whether it is the case or not.

But what often passes as accessible preaching isn’t what would be deemed accessible in my church. And I can only guess that is because, typically, the people we use to benchmark our accessibility in our churches are not a helpful measure. Either the people we think of as needing our preaching to be accessible are not typical of people in our communities or they are typical of our communities but our area happens not to have many people for whom our style and approach is entirely alien. The question we rarely ask when it comes to accessibility is, accessible to whom? What is accessible to a theology graduate is not as accessible to a chemistry graduate. What is accessible to the chemistry graduate might not be accessible to the non-graduate. What is accessible to the non-graduate with a strong habit of reading and study is not necessarily so accessible to the non-graduate who doesn’t have that same inclination to reading and study. What is accessible to any of those people might be considerably less accessible to people operating in a second or third language. Who, exactly, are we aiming our accessibility at?

We could multiply this question to loads of what we do as churches. We all claim we want to be accessible, but when the answer to the question of accessibility is Bavinck’s 4-volume Reformed Dogmatics, I can’t help but think we have misunderstood the question. As Adrian Reynolds aptly put it: