Volume 38 - Issue 3

Jesus, the Theological Educator

By Keith Ferdinando


Jesus was a theological educator. He was, of course, much more than that, but certainly no less. He taught the twelve, and he taught the crowds. The Gospels frequently call him ‘teacher’ or ‘rabbi’, suggestive of the popular reputation he gained for teaching. Indeed, more than once he identified himself as a teacher, confirming the assessment of others: ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord”, and rightly so, for that is what I am’ (John 13:13; cf. Matt 23:10; 26:18). . . .

Jesus was a theological educator. He was, of course, much more than that, but certainly no less. He taught the twelve, and he taught the crowds. The Gospels frequently call him ‘teacher’ or ‘rabbi’, suggestive of the popular reputation he gained for teaching. Indeed, more than once he identified himself as a teacher, confirming the assessment of others: ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord”, and rightly so, for that is what I am’1 (John 13:13; cf. Matt 23:10; 26:18). It was also the role that Josephus and the Talmud associate particularly with him.2 Moreover, Jesus’ teaching provoked reactions, hostile on the part of the authorities but usually much more positive from the crowd. People came in huge numbers to hear him. They were amazed at his teaching (e.g., Matt 7:28; 13:54; 22:22, 33) and delighted with it. ‘He was the teacher par excellence.’3

What then were the characteristics of his teaching, especially of the twelve? For it is in teaching his disciples, a small group he individually selected for training and to whom he devoted immense time and energy, that we may discern the earliest model of what we might term Christian theological education. It was for those few men a richly varied experience and one which would have an immense impact not only on them but also, as they continued Jesus’ own mission, on the whole of human history. For this reason the manner of Jesus’ teaching—his pedagogy—merits attention from anybody engaged in whatever way in the formation of Christian believers, rather more attention indeed than it has tended to receive.4 ‘Just why leaders of the church over the centuries have made so little attempt to understand and appreciate the teaching techniques and environments used by Jesus will likely remain one of the great mysteries.’5 Moreover, serious consideration of Jesus’ approach is especially important in the case of theological and biblical educators whose purpose is to train the future leadership of God’s people, as Jesus did. The university model of education which emerged early in the last millennium has spread across the globe, and forms of theological education are everywhere increasingly patterned after it. There are advantages no doubt in such an approach but by no means unequivocally so. While it would perhaps be naïve to suggest that Jesus’ model of training should directly transfer to our own hugely different contexts, we nevertheless may gain much from discerning the principles which underlay it and reassessing current values, pedagogies, and structures of theological education in the light of what Jesus did with such indisputably successful effect.6 To that end, this article explores aspects of Jesus’ work as theological educator and then suggests some implications for our practice today.

1. Fishers of Men: The Goal of Theological Education

Jesus’ teaching was focused and purposeful. He summoned and then taught his disciples with a specific end in view, the nature of which emerges early in the narratives of the Synoptic Gospels. He understood his own ministry very much in terms of calling sinners (Mark 2:17), seeking and saving ‘what was lost’ (Luke 19:10), summoning men and women to repentance. And in rather similar terms he expressed the purpose behind his calling of the first of the twelve: ‘“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men”’ (Matt 4:19). The notion of ‘fishing for men’ was not a common one, and Jesus’ use of the metaphor was doubtless inspired simply by the occupation of those he was calling at the time: fishing. Nevertheless, it implies seeking, calling, winning men and women—in short, following the pattern that they would see repeatedly demonstrated in Jesus’ own ministry. Moreover, it sets him apart from the Jewish rabbis of his day who trained disciples not to become fishers of men but to learn and transmit their ‘teaching of the Law’.7 Accordingly, over the next few years he trained them to ‘catch men’ (Luke 5:10) and finally commissioned them at the moment of his own departure: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them . . . and teaching them’ (Matt 28:19–20). The initial summons, therefore, always had that final commissioning in mind: ‘there is a straight line from this commission to the Great Commission.’8 It was an educational programme with a specifically vocational intent. The three years during which they followed, watched, and heard the Lord Jesus Christ were therefore a period of theological apprenticeship whose purpose was the continuation of Jesus’ own mission once he had gone. Jesus trained missionaries, and he did so from the very beginning of his ministry. ‘The initial objective of Jesus’ plan was to enlist men who could bear witness to his life and carry on his work after he returned to the Father.’9

Further, Jesus constantly kept the goal of their training before them. Simply by following him, the purpose for which they had been called was at all times dynamically present in the form of his own ministry. Not only that, but the missionary expeditions on which he sent them (e.g., Luke 9:1–6; 10:1–23) were themselves exercises in ‘fishing for men’ which anticipated the final realisation of their call in the commission they would receive from Jesus between his resurrection and ascension (Matt 28:18–20; Mark 16:15–18; Luke 24:44–49; John 20:19–23; Acts 1:8). Moreover, through such trips Jesus fostered the skills and gifts they would need to fulfil that commission. They learned to fish not only by watching the great fisherman at his work but also by fishing themselves: ‘Adults learn far better when they see and do ministry.’10 And when they returned, they reported and reflected with Jesus on what took place (Luke 10:17–24). The training Jesus gave them constituted by its very nature a continuous and inescapable communication of the purpose for which it was taking place.

2. Following Jesus: The Model of Theological Education

Jesus called his disciples to follow him. In the Jewish culture of his day the disciple invariably took the initiative and attached himself to his preferred teacher, but Jesus was exceptional in calling the disciples he wanted.11 Implicit in becoming a disciple of Jesus and learning from him was a radical act of commitment to him which implied a renunciation of ‘status and prestige, possessions and security.’12 It became tangible as the first of the disciples responded to Jesus’ call, leaving boat, nets, and family. The notion of ‘following’ a teacher was also a distinctive one, for the metaphor was not used at the time of those who learned from a rabbi.13 It implied many things, among them that Jesus’ disciples would indeed physically journey with him, submitting to his leadership, applying themselves to his teaching, and learning from his ministry which was to become theirs. ‘Learning occurred as they responded to Jesus’ needs, modelled themselves on his way of life, assisted in his public teaching and ministry to the crowds and received private tuition as a group.’14

Accordingly, Jesus trained his disciples first of all by having them accompany him and observe his own life and ministry. Indeed, his character and lifestyle were to be central to their training. In rabbinic schools ‘the primary task was to learn the Torah.’15 For Jesus’ disciples the primary task was to learn him. ‘Knowledge was not communicated by the Master in terms of laws and dogmas, but in the living personality of One who walked among them.’16 His explicit intention was for them to become like him: ‘A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher’ (Luke 6:40). Accordingly, Jesus’ pedagogy was highly relational, reflective of the fundamentally relational nature of the truth which he incarnated in his own person. Far from pursuing the detachment sometimes characteristic of scholars who ‘relate better to books than to people in the midst of life’,17 he lived in constant contact with his students. In their turn they followed him, not only in the sense that they heard and learned his words, but also in that they would imitate his life. They watched him teach and preach and pray. They were present when he healed the sick, raised the dead, and liberated the demonized. They listened in as opposition and insults confronted him, and they heard how he responded. They saw how he related to family, friends, enquirers, authorities, and adversaries. They witnessed his attitude towards hypocrites, the poor and rich, the broken and abandoned of society, notorious sinners and tax collectors despised for their collaboration with Rome. They accompanied him when he ate, when he journeyed, when he slept. They observed him hungry, thirsty, exhausted, exultant, indignant, and distressed. There is a striking transparency, indeed a vulnerability, in the way he lived before them; and every moment of the years they spent with him was part of their training as he came under their constant scrutiny.

Moreover, Jesus explicitly pointed to his own values and priorities as the focus of that specific discipleship which he aimed to instil. This is especially evident at perhaps the most crucial moment of the training of the twelve, when they articulated an explicit awareness of Jesus’ messianic identity. In each of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus specifically raises the question of his identity with his disciples, apparently in ‘privacy from the crowds’18 (Matt 16:13–17; Mark 8:27–30; Luke 9:18–20). Peter’s confession of Jesus’ messianic status was immediately followed by Jesus’ explanation of his role as Messiah: ‘that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life’ (Matt 16:21). Thus, once they understood who Jesus was, the disciples needed to learn what he had come to do. That lesson was of immense relevance to their own future because as disciples of the Christ, if his mission was one of suffering, then following him meant that they must embrace the same: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Matt 16:24). Following meant suffering, for the Christ they followed was a suffering Christ: ‘the call to be a disciple becomes a call to follow Jesus in the way of the cross . . . a challenge to have one’s whole existence determined by and patterned after a crucified messiah.’19 Or in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘When God calls a man he bids him come and die.’20 Indeed, it ran diametrically counter to the expectations of peace and security fostered in Jewish rabbinic schools.21 The theological education of a follower of Jesus would mean knowing ‘the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings’ (Phil 3:10).

The same principle occurs at numerous points in the Gospels and beyond. When Jesus wanted to teach the disciples about service, he took the servant’s place and washed their feet, a powerfully emotive gesture in a society where ‘disciples were expected to serve their master.’22 By reversing accepted roles and serving his followers in the humblest fashion, Jesus ‘radically departed from the tradition’ and taught an unforgettable lesson, reinforced verbally, that they should follow his example in serving (John 13:14–15). He taught the value of children by allowing them to be brought to him for blessing and taking them in his arms, while rebuking the disciples when they had other plans. Again, the act was arresting because it repudiated accepted cultural norms where ‘children were held in little regard’ and listening to them was ‘a waste of time.’23 Examples could be multiplied: Jesus demonstrated dependence on God through his prayer life and evident disregard for material security (Luke 9:58), confidence in and submission to God’s Word by constantly referring to Scripture (e.g., Matt 4:1–11), compassion by ministering to crowds and individuals (Matt 9:36), obedient faith as he walked steadily to Jerusalem (Mark 10:32), and the extravagance of God’s grace in the welcome accorded to the outcasts and despised of society (Matt 9:10–13). In all these ways, he trained his disciples by his own life and example.

It is significant that in the epistles Jesus’ own life and ministry continue to be a focus of discipleship. The teaching of future disciples in new situations and contexts still centred on following Jesus, although his presence was now mediated through the Spirit and his illumination of the oral and, later, literary traditions of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Paul’s writings, for example, often allude or explicitly refer to Jesus’ life or words.24 Paul told the Philippian Christians that the sacrificial, servant attitude of Christ Jesus should characterise their relationships with one another (Phil 2:5–11); he sought to stir the Corinthians to generosity by reminding them of ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor 8:9); he taught Ephesian husbands to love their wives as ‘Christ loved the church’ (Eph 5:25); he invoked the ‘meekness and gentleness of Christ’ as a guiding principle of his own ministry (2 Cor 10:1); and he called on disputing church factions to recognise that Christ ‘did not please himself’ (Rom 15:3). Hays points out that in most such examples, Paul’s exhortation focused particularly on Jesus’ death on the cross, ‘an act of loving, self-sacrificial obedience that becomes paradigmatic for the obedience of all who are in Christ.’25 In this Paul echoes Jesus’ teaching that following him would mean taking up the cross; and indeed, he seeks himself to imitate Christ by pursuing conformity to his death and encourages his readers to imitate him as he thus imitates Christ (e.g., Phil 3:17; 1 Thess 1:6).26

The one group Jesus most condemned was the Pharisees, and he did so particularly in terms of a single dominant accusation: hypocrisy. He reacted to those who presumed to teach others while their lives contradicted what they taught and thereby undermined it—who failed to ‘practise what they preach’ (Matt 23:2–3). The same problem can show up today among those theological students and scholars for whom a largely academic approach to their subject may too easily coincide with a failure to integrate it with their own lives. David Clark has highlighted the problem: ‘A seductive temptation for me—and for religious professionals generally—is to think that I am mature in Christ because I am knowledgeable about theology or skilled in ministry.’27 A theological education focused primarily on the merely cognitive without addressing character, attitudes, ambitions and priorities will tend to produce Pharisees. In contrast, there was a transformational dynamic in Jesus’ theological education, which flowed from the total consistency and transparency of his life. The disciples’ learning was not simply a cognitive process, but a reorientation of life, values, and character, through experiencing the life of Christ quite as much as through hearing his words. ‘The teachings of Christ suggest relatively little emphasis on testing of knowledge. He screens people not on what they know but on what they do.’28 As an educator Jesus offered not just intellectual understanding but incarnated in his own life the vision he taught.

After they had themselves been transformed by following Jesus, the disciples were in turn sent to make disciples. ‘The missionary activity of the disciples as fishers of people is based upon following Jesus.’29 They too were visibly and tangibly to demonstrate the reality they had experienced and now taught. Nor was this confined to the twelve alone. The same principle becomes explicit when Paul urges the Corinthians to imitate him: ‘Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ’ (1 Cor 11:1; cf. 4:16). Indeed, Paul defended his ministry by highlighting not only the content of his teaching but also the character of his life (1 Thess 2:1–12; Acts 20:18–35). In brief, teachers always model: their lives communicate to their students, whether intentionally or not, and thereby shape their students’ character one way or another. The effectiveness of theological educators depends in large measure on the teaching carried out through their lives; it is about the silent language of a godly character. Faithful, seriously Christian, theological education is at heart a demonstration of Christ and not just endless words about him. It is about being more than talking, as Paul expressed to Timothy: ‘You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings . . .’ (2 Tim 3:10–11). Students must see as well as hear if transformation, as opposed to mere cognitive input and the creation of an ‘intellectual meritocracy’, is to take place.30 Men and women will not be effectively ‘fished’ and discipled, unless those engaged in the task embody something of the reality which they are seeking to communicate, as Jesus did.

3. Learning from Jesus: The Means of Theological Education

Teachers do, nevertheless, use words. Jesus taught verbally, and all four Gospels emphasise that and give significant space to his teaching. Some of his teaching was more formal in nature. Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount portrays Jesus sitting down to teach, the ‘correct posture for formal teaching,’31 with his disciples sitting around him. Meanwhile, the crowd, somewhat in the background, listened in with amazement (Matt 5:1–2; 7:28–29). It also seems likely he crafted some of his sayings for easy memorization by his disciples. ‘Learning through memorization was a basic pedagogical method in first-century Judaism . . . as well as in antiquity as a whole.’32 Stylistic devices like repetition, parallelism, rhythm, alliteration, assonance, symmetry, suggest Jesus too designed his discourses ‘for easy memorization.’33 So, for example, speaking of the beatitudes (Matt 5:3–10), France notes that the ‘finely balanced structure of these eight sayings is one of the best examples of the way Jesus designed his teaching for easy memorization.’34 Such an approach implies the importance Jesus attached to the essential body of theological and ethical content he wanted his followers to grasp, and it helped to assure its faithful transmission to subsequent generations.

Jesus’ teaching, however, is not always of this sort but is often informal, occasional, dialogical in nature. He cultivated an atmosphere which expected and welcomed questions, discussion, and debate. His purpose was not simply to impart content in structured monologues, although he undoubtedly communicated truth which his followers needed to grasp. Much more than that, he wanted to engage their intelligence and have them wrestle with the issues which arose in the course of ministry. ‘With him the learned atmosphere of the school . . . is wholly lacking, with its stage-by-stage build-up of teaching . . . .’35

Accordingly there were innumerable and well-known occasions on which some event or dispute or question became a moment of spontaneous education and enlightenment. When Jesus’ disciples tried to prevent children from being brought to him, Jesus’ reaction not only affirmed their value but at the same time illuminated the nature of the kingdom of God (Mark 10:13–16). The Gospels refer to the disciples’ apparently frequent disputes about relative positions of status and power, even during the last supper (Mark 9:33–37; 10:35–45; Luke 22:24–30). On each occasion Jesus rebuked the attitudes that lay at the heart of the quarrel, but also turned the moment to advantage by teaching about power and service and especially drawing attention to the character of his own mission as the paradigm of true discipleship: ‘For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45).

Questions brought to Jesus invariably led to teaching. When an expert in the law asked Jesus how he might inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25), Jesus’ initial response (to obey the two great commands) prompted the follow-up question: ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus seized the opportunity to tell a story that confronted the corrosive ethnic animosity between Jews and Samaritans. And typically, having responded to the questions brought to him, Jesus then addressed his questioner with one of his own: ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’36 Similarly, Peter’s question, ‘how many times shall I forgive . . . ?’ (Matt 18:21), prompted a parable in which Jesus rooted his answer in the infinite grace of God. And again, when Pharisees raised the contested issue of marriage and divorce, Jesus took them back to the origin of marriage as recounted in Genesis and drew out the implications of the narrative. Responding to further questioning, he dealt with the regulation of divorce in the Mosaic law and, finally, responded to his disciples’ stunned retort: ‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry’ (Matt 19:10).

All of these interactions demonstrate that Jesus’ teaching was repeatedly rooted in reality—in the lives and questions of his own disciples and of their society. ‘Almost anything could become grist to Jesus’ mill.’37 Its relevance was immediately apparent to those who listened because far from being mere classroom theory it emerged directly out of the concerns of life and human relationships.

Sometimes Jesus created rather than responded to the teachable moment. He not only responded to questions but also asked them. When Peter raised the issue of the temple tax, he asked, ‘What do you think, Simon? . . . From whom do the kings of the earth collect duties and taxes—from their own sons or from others?’ (Matt 17:25); in the face of challenges to his own identity and role during the week leading to his death, he asked his opponents, ‘What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?’ (Matt 22:42); in answer to those scandalised when he declared the sins of a paralytic man forgiven, he said, ‘Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up and walk”?’ (Mark 2:9); and in one of the many debates about his use of the Sabbath, he challenged his critics to say whether it was lawful on the Sabbath ‘to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?’ (Luke 6:9). The list could go on, but the point is that Jesus sought constantly to engage the minds of his hearers. He knew that endless talking is not the same as effective teaching and did not simply give lectures. Instead he raised questions, provoking reflection, challenging assumptions and prejudices, with the purpose of stimulating a serious response to truth. As Blocher says, he strove repeatedly to open the minds of his listeners and seized or created opportunities to do so.38

The same is visible in the didactic style most characteristic of Jesus’ teaching. Although he was not the only person to use parables in first-century Palestine, the evidence suggests that he used them much more than anybody before him. Their roots are found in the māšāl, a Hebrew term which embraces not only parables as commonly understood, such as that told by the prophet Nathan following David’s adultery and subsequent murder of Uriah (2 Sam 12:1–4), but also proverbs, riddles, and figures of speech. Indeed, a ‘māšal is any dark saying intended to stimulate thought,’ including ‘a taunt, a prophetic oracle or a byword.’39 So Jesus used antitheses, paradoxes, hyperbole, metaphor, and, indeed, humour. These were ‘utterances aimed to tease the imagination and to fill the mind with ideas which no propositions could exhaust.’40

Jesus’ parables were deftly crafted and subtle stories to which he obviously gave careful attention.41 ‘These were not blurted out ad hoc but show every indication . . . of being very deliberate and condensed formations.’42 A central feature, however, is that they teased and tantalised. They spoke of everyday, well-known realities—a sower sowing, a merchant trading, fishermen hauling in their catch, a traveller attacked by brigands, labourers waiting for work in the marketplace, and so on. While the ultimate purpose of using parables, however, was to illuminate truth, there is more than that going on, and the deeper meanings could not be simply read off the surface. Jesus communicated his message in a way that was culturally familiar, but also deliberately enigmatic, puzzling, and for many hearers essentially opaque. He obliged those of his hearers (as well as later readers) who wanted to understand his message to engage deeply with what he said. They had to make a mental and spiritual effort to penetrate the surface and grasp the deeper levels of meaning; indeed, they had in a sense to become part of the story and find their own place within it. Only through such a profound engagement did real understanding become possible. Such a requirement also meant that ‘those on the outside’ stayed there, entertained perhaps, but strangers to the secrets of the kingdom being transmitted—‘ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding’ (Mark 4:11–12).

Modern research into the human brain suggests that educational approaches similar to Jesus’ informal, questioning, challenging approach are the most effective for bringing about real learning. When students remain passive in a programme of study, simply listening or reading with little interaction, then serious learning is much less likely to take place, and most of what is taught is quickly forgotten. It is when they are engaged—asking and answering questions, discussing issues and arguing a case—that their brain cells fire into life. ‘Just as muscles improve with exercise, the brain seems to improve with use.’43 In the course of Jesus’ teaching, he engaged his disciples actively and thus fostered profound and long-term learning including the capacity to reason biblically and theologically. Moreover, learning is more likely to take place when people see the relevance of what is taught. ‘Students learn best not in an abstract or remote environment, but in the actual experiential context in which the knowledge must be applied.’44 Given that Jesus’ teaching took place in response to the real situations he faced, the disciples could immediately recognise its relevance. They were not engaged in a theoretical or abstract exercise; on the contrary, Jesus taught them through encountering real people and problems. ‘Jesus structured their lives and activities in such a way that they were constantly being challenged to question and learn from a multiplicity of informal situations.’45

There are clear implications for theological education. Jesus communicated to his disciples a body of truth to grasp and transmit, in large part by means of memorization. His teaching undoubtedly had a cognitive content, transmitted by somewhat formal methods. He did more, though, than just that. He also enabled them to learn through the situations they encountered and participation in a constant flow of questions, debates, and challenges. They learned from observing Jesus’ own ministry, participating in it, and afterwards reflecting on and discussing what had taken place. They also learned from their own mistakes and wrong reactions and from the rebukes and corrections they received (e.g., Mark 9:14–29). Implicit in the whole process was making connexions between the mission to which Jesus had called them and the realities of their world. The schooling process characteristic of so much of contemporary theological education might well try to approximate more closely the richly diverse approach of the master theological educator. Or to put it another way, ‘Why do we assume that what we do in three years of formal instruction in seminaries is in some way more appropriate than what Jesus did in three years on the road, in villages, and through discourse coupled with reflection on real experience?’46

4. The Community of Jesus: The Context of Theological Education

Jesus taught a community of disciples and not a mere group of individual learners. Indeed he called them in order that they should become members of a community with himself.47 He also structured them (and was clearly their leader) but without any repressive discipline or stifling rules.48 This communal dimension was an intentional and not just an incidental element of the disciples’ training as fishers of men: ‘the discipling relationships that were formed between Jesus and others in the Gospels were rarely one-to-one encounters.’49 The very teaching posture which Jesus adopted, seated with his disciples sitting around him as in the synagogue, suggests a community debating and learning together rather than a lecture hall of isolated and largely passive individuals.50 We see them ‘[w]alking together, eating together, and sitting together, always accompanied by talking together in a dialogic manner.’51

Of course, each of the disciples learned individually from Jesus, but their learning took place in the context of their mutual relationships and their interactions with one another. They were a mixed group—fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot, and so on—who had not chosen one another. Only the call of Jesus united them, and as they followed him they were obliged to learn to live and work with those from whom they might have kept their distance, whether for personal, social, economic, or political reasons. The fellowship no doubt widened their horizons, as well as moulding their characters as they rubbed up against one another. It was an enriching experience and a preparation for the realities of their future ministries which would embrace men and women of every ethnicity and social class.

In consequence, there were occasional disputes and angry words, but that too gave Jesus opportunities for teaching and correction. Indeed, the constant communal living brought an inescapable reality to their learning experience. Continuous exposure to one another made concealment of their real motives and attitudes difficult (although Judas evidently managed to conceal his), which may have brought out the worst in them but, for that very reason, also forced them to confront negative attitudes and reactions. For example, this element came to the fore when they argued over their relative positions in Jesus’ entourage (e.g., Mark 9:33). Similarly, when Jesus rebuked James and John for proposing to call down fire on an unreceptive Samaritan village, all the disciples heard the suggestion and the response (Luke 9:52–56). Moreover, they discussed among themselves what they saw and heard. When Peter responded to Jesus’ enquiry about the disciples’ understanding of his identity—‘“But what about you [plural]?” he asked. “Who do you [plural] say I am?”’ (Matt 16:15)—he seems to have been voicing the conviction of the group as a whole rather than just his own opinion. Indeed, after the earlier calming of the storm, the disciples were already pondering the issue together: ‘“What kind of man is this? Even the wind and waves obey him!”’ (Matt 8:27). As they lived and worked together, serving one another as well as Jesus, so too they learned from one another. Indeed, the most fruitful learning experiences are invariably collaborative: iron sharpens iron.

However, there was something much more profound taking place than the mere advantages of a group learning experience. At the deepest level reality is relational and so communal, for the ultimate reality is that of the creator God himself who exists eternally in a Trinitarian communion of the deepest love and fellowship. In calling the disciples, Jesus was bringing them into fellowship with the Father through himself and at the same time with one another. He was recreating human communion, fractured as a result of primeval alienation from the Creator, by restoring fellowship with God in whom all true relationship is grounded. This comes to vivid expression in Jesus’ prayer for his present and future disciples: ‘that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (John 17:21). He prays for their unity, a unity that arises from the fact that they are ‘in us’, Father and Son. The restoration of community, vertically with God and, thereby, horizontally with one another, was at the heart of his mission, incarnated first in the fellowship of the twelve and, beyond them, in a renewed people of God of which they were firstfruits. Moreover, through that unity, the conviction of the truth of the gospel was to be brought home to a warring world. It is striking how successful Jesus was in forging unity from such a disparate band of men. Although they all abandoned him at the moment of his arrest, trial, and execution, they nevertheless stayed together rather than dispersing. They may have hidden themselves in a locked room, but they hid themselves together. Christian theological education is about the creation of the people of God through an ever deepening appropriation of the great story of the gospel—the whole counsel of God; it is concerned with ‘nurture into a distinct community’52—and not simply with the cognitive development of isolated individuals. And as they continued in ministry after the ascension, the NT indicates that maintaining the community of God’s people was of the utmost importance to those who had followed Jesus.

The theological education that Jesus engaged in was thus carried out both through and for community. Community (and the relationships implicit in that concept) was an absolutely fundamental value in Jesus’ approach to formation and one that should be recognised in any enterprise of Christian theological education. Such an approach challenges the highly problematic individualistic mentality and values of most models of Western schooling, now spread throughout the world, with their emphasis on personal achievement and the consequent divisive competition for individual prizes on the part of both scholars and students. ‘Perhaps the greatest drawback of the church-school dichotomy is that theological education takes on the individualistic mentality of Western culture, rather than the community model of Scripture.’53 Such a community emphasis also raises a question mark over the implications of distance learning, which tends to isolate learners from one another as well as retaining a heavy emphasis on the cognitive dimension of education to the exclusion of more or less everything else.

5. Reflecting on Contemporary Practice in Theological Education

The style of Jesus’ teaching, his educational approach, was obviously rich and varied. Banks refers to ‘the forethought and preparation, flexibility and spontaneity, versatility and directness, instruction and participation, verbal and nonverbal character of the teaching that occurred’ in just one section of Mark’s gospel.54 There is a breadth and depth in the ‘theological education’ he carried out which make it far richer than the few preceding paragraphs can possibly suggest, embracing as it does not only the mind, but also character, relationships, ministry, the whole of life. Its distinctive features—the dynamic and informal didactic approach, communal character, missional goal, and, most important of all, the transparent integrity of Jesus’ own life at its very heart—must surely challenge our own often rather anaemic efforts in Christian training. Nor are these just isolated features of a random, ad hoc pedagogy; they constitute an integrated, holistic approach. The purpose for which he calls the disciples—fishing for men—shapes the methods he uses to train them as well as the communal context in which the training takes place while Jesus himself embodies all that he seeks to foster in his followers. The contrast with the often remarked fragmentation of contemporary theological education is noticeable.

No doubt our cultural and historical distance from first-century Palestine makes a simple transfer of Jesus’ approach to our own varied situations problematic. But the way in which he prepared ‘fishers of men’ must surely raise questions as to what we are about in theological education—and that the more so if we believe we should be following him in this as in other respects—and challenge us to a radical review of the values and principles underlying our practice. Where, indeed, might all this lead us? Our multiple and diverse contexts admit perhaps of no simple answers to the many questions we could raise, but it is nevertheless worth considering some possible implications of Jesus’ pedagogy for our own practice of theological education.

1. Jesus’ call of the earliest disciples focused from the beginning on outcomes: they were to become ‘fishers of men’. Any programme of theological education intentionally modelled on that of Christ will, therefore, be essentially missionary or missional in purpose and character. The programme as a whole as well as every individual course and dissertation topic will be designed and critically evaluated in terms of that specific purpose. Indeed, not only the explicit curriculum but the hidden and null curricula will also be deliberately and consciously shaped to reflect that single outcome above all else.

For many institutions this may require a quite drastic reshaping—even ‘breaking’—of tradition if the formation offered is faithfully to reflect the dynamic vision of the Lord Jesus Christ and the sort of ‘theological education’ he carried out. Simply tinkering with isolated elements of the programme will not do since the problem lies frequently ‘in the fundamental design or paradigm of learning in the institution,’55 which too often reflects the dominantly cognitive approach characteristic of the tertiary education exported by the West.56

Among other things this certainly means that the practical dimension of theological formation should not be the understaffed, underfunded, and largely neglected appendix to the ‘real’ academic work of schools as often seems the case. Skills are learnt by practice ‘in the field’ rather than by instruction in the classroom: learning about ministry is not the same as learning to do ministry. Training involves helping students to develop and put their gifts to use.

This is not to minimise the value of the academic dimension of programmes of theological education, including advanced postgraduate and postdoctoral theological study and research. The education Jesus gave his disciples certainly had cognitive content. It does mean, however, that all such study will be intentionally undertaken with a view, at some point present or future, directly or indirectly, to the actual making of disciples—the fishing of men. The seriously Christian scholar or student should be able to justify his or her work from such a perspective. In terms of Jesus’ own agenda, academic theological study pursued simply for the intellectual diversion of the student or, worse still, the establishment of his or her reputation within the academy, must be judged an unjustifiable cerebral indulgence—an extravagance in terms of time, energy, and money. The pursuit of answers to obscure questions—questions which nobody is asking nor need ask and the answers to which will not assist the people of God in their engagement in God’s own mission—has no place in authentically Christian theological education. The vital issue—and the filter through which, both in whole and in part, programmes of Christian theological education must pass—is that of their usefulness to God’s mission as carried on by his people.57 Missiology ‘is at the very centre of the entire theological education enterprise.’58

2. A logical entailment of the preceding point is that the place and ‘measurement’ of the purely academic and cognitive in theological education should be reassessed, especially in relation to other necessary outcomes. Certainly Jesus communicated a body of knowledge to his disciples, and as they listened to him and joined in argument and debate, they learned also to think biblically and theologically—perhaps much more so than many of those who have undergone theological education since. He did not, however, assess their fitness for ministry by the quality of their term papers or their performance in examinations whether written or oral.59 In consequence, Peter and John remained ‘unschooled, ordinary men’ (Acts 4:13), but they had apparently become quite skilled in the task Jesus had called them to do.

Their example leads, indeed, to the issue of theological students obliged to do academic work in which many are not particularly competent and which may often contribute little to their preparation for ministry, while even the most academically capable will quickly forget much of what they ‘learn’. And in any case, the brilliance or otherwise of the grades achieved is unlikely to have any significant long-term impact on students’ actual ministries: more than anything else it is the quality of the person’s relationship with Christ and of the life which flows from that relationship which will make the difference, and that is an area largely neglected and unevaluated in probably most programmes of theological education.

Henri Nouwen suggests that there is in fact an inherent absurdity in this whole dimension of theological education with its apparatus of credits, examinations, due-by dates, and the like:

As teachers, we have become insensitive to the ridiculous situation in which adult men and women feel that they ‘owe’ us a paper of at least twenty pages. We have lost our sense of surprise when men and women who are taking courses about the questions of life and death, anxiously ask how much is ‘required’. Instead of spending a number of free years searching for the value and meaning of our human existence with the help of others who expressed their own experiences in word or writing, most students are constantly trying to ‘earn’ credits, degrees and awards, willing to sacrifice even their own growth.60

3. Such a reorientation of teaching priorities as this might suggest, implies in turn a reevaluation of the criteria used for teacher selection. Teachers tend to pursue the replication in their students of the qualities for which they were appointed as teachers. Consequently a more or less exclusive focus on academic criteria for staff appointments apparently implies that the purpose of the training is primarily to develop students’ cognitive skills. While such a goal is by no means inappropriate, in the light of our discussion it is scarcely adequate. An holistic approach to theological formation necessarily requires staff who model all the outcomes desired to the widest extent possible, not least the possession of relational gifts, a rich and varied pedagogical competence, and, most important of all, a profound and evident love of Christ and active commitment to his worldwide mission. They will care about students and their growth into Christlikeness more than they care about books, academic papers, and international conferences. Indeed, professional research scholars may not always be the best equipped to train fishers of men. Jesus himself did not belong to the intellectual elite of his day; Paul perhaps did, but the visible priority of his life was to know and declare Christ crucified with all that that entailed (1 Cor 2:1–2; Phil 3:7–11). Every theological educator brings a unique blend of gifts to the task; the point is that academic ‘excellence’ is only one of many possible talents and not the most crucial.

4. Moreover, in terms of pedagogy theological educators would do well to build flexibility into their courses and escape somewhat the straitjacket of schedules and the need to ‘cover the material’. As Jesus readily responded to the issues and problems that arose in the course of his ministry, so teachers might set their notes aside from time to time in order to address theologically and pastorally the questions that preoccupy their students and societies. They might indeed periodically set their classrooms aside and take to the road with their students, entering more fully into their own lived experience. A dynamic approach of this sort profits from the fact that student interest is already engaged and reflects not only the flow of Jesus’ own ministry and teaching but also the occasional nature of each of Paul’s epistles. In so doing the teacher would be responding to questions people were really asking and connecting timeless truth to contemporary realities.

5. The individualism of Western education and its global offspring—along with the accompanying pedagogy—is so often reflected even in the layout of the traditional classroom; these days it is even more evident as learners sit isolated and alone, each engrossed by an impersonal computer screen. The great purpose for which theological education exists, however, is that men and women who have been ‘fished’ should be baptised and integrated into Christ’s body, so becoming functioning members of a community in the midst of which God himself dwells. Such an outcome demands that theological formation intentionally embrace and actively pursue community, which means not only teaching a course on ecclesiology, important as that undoubtedly is, but seeking to live together as a people of God. The ICETE Manifesto on the Renewal of Evangelical Theological Education suggests merely a few of the directions this might take:

it is biblically incumbent on us that our programmes function as deliberately nurtured Christian educational communities, sustained by those modes of community that are biblically commended and culturally appropriate. To this end it is not merely decorative but biblically essential that the whole educational body—staff and students—not only learns together, but plays and eats and cares and worships and works together.61

6. In conclusion, we might consider whether the widespread university model of theological education with its predominantly cognitive and individualistic emphases is really adapted to the primary missional purpose for which Christian theological education should exist. Unquestionably there is a place in the church for the scholar and researcher,62 and the university ethos and structure may in some respects provide a suitable setting for such a vocation. But most of those being trained in theological schools are not called to the life of academe. Perhaps then, as well as wrestling with the scholastic structures actually in place in order to bend them to the purpose Jesus had in view, we might seriously ask ourselves whether more radical, even iconoclastic, approaches are needed. Indeed, we might warily ponder the implications of Linda Cannell’s challenging observation:

Jesus chose not to found a school (even though schools existed in the ancient world) or to establish a structured curriculum leading to a degree. Further, even after their three years of education at Jesus’ side, Peter and John were still identified as ignorant and untrained, but nonetheless feared and honored and able to turn their world upside down (Acts 4).63

[1] Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved worldwide.

[2] H. Blocher, ‘Jésus Educateur’, in Ichthus 128 (1985): 3, referring to Ant. 18.3 and Sanh. 43a.

[3] D. Macleod, ‘The Christology of Wolfhart Pannenberg’, Them 25:2 (2000): 41.

[4] Blocher (‘Jésus Educateur’, 3–4) notes that Jesus’ pedagogy has been strangely neglected: ‘Les travaux consacrés à son enseignement s’intéressent davantage au contenu de sa doctrine, qu’aux méthodes et principes éducatifs’ (‘The works devoted to his teaching are more concerned with the content of his doctrine than with the educational methods and principles’ [my translation]).

[5] T. Ward and S. F. Rowen, ‘The Significance of the Extension Seminary’, Evangelical Missions Quarterly 9:1 (1972): 17–27. See also, however, Joe Carter and John Coleman, How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009); Robert H. Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings (2d ed.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994).

[6] Blocher (‘Jésus Educateur’, 4) notes, ‘en se proposant comme notre Modèle [au cours d’un épisode très pédagogique, Jn 13,15], il n’a pas exclu cet aspect de son œuvre’ (‘in offering himself as our model (during a very pedagogical episode, Jn 13:15), he did not exclude this aspect of his work’ [my translation]).

[7] R. A. Guelich, Mark 1–8:26 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 2002), 51.

[8] D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in Matthew–Mark (2d ed.; Expositor’s Bible Commentary 9; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 148.

[9] R. E. Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Revell, 2010), 21.

[10] P. R. Gupta and S. G. Lingenfelter, Breaking Tradition to Accomplish Vision: Training Leaders for a Church-Planting Movement (Winona Lake: BMH, 2006), 38.

[11] J. Kapolyo, ‘Matthew’, in Africa Bible Commentary (ed. T. Adeyemo; Nairobi: WordAlive, 2006), 1117.

[12] E. J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission: Volume One, Jesus and the Twelve (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 275.

[13] M. Hengel, The Charismatic Leader and His Followers (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 51–52; cited in Guelich, Mark 1:1–8:26, 51.

[14] S. W. Collinson, Making Disciples: The Significance of Jesus’ Methods for Today’s Church (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2004), 32.

[15] Collinson, Making Disciples, 48.

[16] Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism, 34.

[17] B. Hill, quoted by M. Griffiths, ‘Theological Education Need Not Be Irrelevant’, in Vox Evangelica 20 (1990): 12. T. Ward, ‘Evaluating Metaphors of Education’, in With an Eye on the Future: Development and Mission in the 21st Century (ed. D. Elmer and L. McKinney; Monrovia, CA: MARC, 2006), 51, refers to seminaries that produce ‘intellectual wizards and relational dwarfs.’

[18] J. Nolland, Luke 1:1–9:20 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 2002), 452. There is some ambiguity in the text as according to Mark Jesus’ teaching about discipleship as cross-bearing is addressed to the crowds (Mark 8:34).

[19] Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 482.

[20] D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London: SCM, 2001), 44.

[21] Collinson, Making Disciples, 51.

[22] Ibid., 36.

[23] C. A. Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 2002), 61.

[24] See, for example, F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), ch. 11, ‘Paul and the Historical Jesus’, 95–112, and David Wenham, Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).

[25] R. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 27.

[26] Ibid., 31.

[27] David K. Clark, To Know and Love God: Method for Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 239.

[28] T. Ward, ‘Servants, Leaders and Tyrants’, in With an Eye on the Future: Development and Mission in the 21st Century (ed. D. Elmer and L. McKinney; Monrovia, CA: MARC, 2006), 40.

[29] Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 1:274.

[30] Ward, ‘Servants, Leaders and Tyrants’, 29.

[31] R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary (Nottingham: IVP, 1985), 113. France notes similar descriptions of the teaching posture in Matt 13:2; 23:2; 24:3; 26:55; Luke 4:20. See also D. A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 2002), 86.

[32] R. Riesner, ‘Teacher’, DJG, 810. See also C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Leicester: IVP, 1987), 25–28; and Collinson, Making Disciples, 69.

[33] Hagner, Matthew, xlviii. Hagner continues, ‘It is estimated that 80 percent of Jesus’ sayings are in the form of parallelismus membrorum (Riesner), often of the antithetical variety.’ See also pp. 104, 127, 156.

[34] France, Matthew, 113.

[35] Hengel, quoted by R. Banks, Reenvisioning Theological Education: Exploring a Missional Alternative to Current Models (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 106.

[36] Similarly, see Matt 19:1–12.

[37] Banks, Reenvisioning Theological Education, 106.

[38] Blocher, ‘Jésus Educateur, 7: ‘. . . il accorde un soin particulier à l’éveil et à l’ouverture de leur esprit. Il saisit ou crée les occasions . . .’ (‘he gives particular care to the awakening and the opening of their mind. He seizes or creates opportunities . . .’ [my translation]).

[39] K. R. Snodgrass, ‘Parable’, DJG, 593.

[40] Macleod, ‘The Christology of Wolfhart Pannenberg’, 41.

[41] On parables generally, see J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (London: SCM, 1963); C. L. Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables (Leicester: Apollos, 1990); C. L. Blomberg, Preaching the Parables: From Responsible Interpretation to Powerful Proclamation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004); K. Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

[42] R. Riesner, ‘Teacher’, DJG, 809.

[43] D. A. Sousa, How the Brain Learns (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2006), 78. See also, J. E.
Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2002); P. Wolfe, Brain Matters: Translating Research into Classroom Practice (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2001). I am very grateful to Dr Duane Elmer for drawing my attention to this literature and for many other insights into theological education.

[44] Ward and Rowen, ‘The Significance of the Extension Seminary’, 17–27.

[45] Collinson, Making Disciples, 55.

[46] L. Cannell, Theological Education Matters: Leadership Education for the Church (Newburgh, IN: EDCOT, 2006), 55.

[47] Banks, Reenvisioning Theological Education, 99.

[48] Blocher, ‘Jésus Educateur’, 5.

[49] Collinson, Making Disciples, 102.

[50] See France, Matthew, 113 in n. 31 above.

[51] T. Ward, ‘Foreword’, in Cannell, Theological Education Matters, 15.

[52] The phrase comes from W. Brueggemann, ‘Passion and Perspective: Two Dimensions of Education in the Bible’, in Theology Today 42 (1985): 173.

[53] Yau-Man Siew, ‘Theological Education in Asia: An Indigenous Agenda for Renewal’, in With an Eye on the Future (ed. Elmer and McKinney), 61.

[54] Banks, Reenvisioning Theological Education, 105.

[55] Gupta and Lingenfelter, Breaking Tradition to Accomplish Vision, 25. While not denying the importance of formal theological education, Gupta and Lingenfelter describe the way in which leadership of the Hindustan Bible Institute (HBI) in India acted decisively to draw that institution back to its original missional purpose by reversing the movement towards a university paradigm of education which they had embarked on.

[56] J. Frame, ‘Proposal for a New Seminary’, Journal of Pastoral Practice 2:1 (1978): 10–17, takes a particularly radical approach to the question: ‘I propose first that we dump the academic model once and for all—degrees, accreditation, tenure, the works.’ He argues that the ‘academic machinery’ cannot measure what really matters, that it distracts from the proper purpose of theological education, and that it conveys a false impression of how the knowledge of God is really attained. Cited 11 August 2012. Online:

[57] An expression of this concern is found in the ‘Beirut Benchmarks’, drawn up by the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE) in March 2010, which affirm that doctoral studies should be ‘missional’, and include ‘missional impact’ as one of seven qualities which should be expected of doctoral students within evangelical theological institutions. For the document see, accessed 03/03/2012.

[58] S. F. Rowen, ‘Missiology and the Coherence of Theological Education’, in With an Eye on the Future (ed. Elmer and McKinney), 99.

[59] F. A. Hayek’s remark raises an interesting question about our contemporary obsession with academic ‘results’: ‘Often that is treated as important which happens to be accessible to measurement.’ Cited in Rory Sutherland, ‘Why I’m hiring graduates with thirds this year’, Spectator, 6 July 2013.

[60] H. Nouwen, Reaching Out (London: Fount, 1976), 59. (I am grateful to Dr Graham Cheesman for sending me his unpublished paper, ‘A Conversation with Henri Nouwen about Theological Education’, which contained part of this quotation, and for commenting on my own article.) See also Frame, ‘Proposal for a New Seminary,’ in n. 56 above.

[61] The quotation comes from the brief but substantial document, ICETE Manifesto on the Renewal of Evangelical Theological Education, first adopted by the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education in 1983. N.p. [cited 11 May 2012]. Online:

[62] See, for example, A. F. Walls, ‘World Christianity, Theological Education and Scholarship’, Transformation 28 (2011): 235–40.

[63] Cannell, Theological Education Matters, 212.

Keith Ferdinando

Keith Ferdinando is lecturer and principal at the Faculté de Théologie Evangélique au Rwanda, and theological education consultant with Africa Inland Mission International.

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