Volume 8 - Issue 2

The relevance of theological education

By David Wenham

Most theological students have doubts at some time about the usefulness of their theological training. Some of these doubts are justified, since most theological courses leave plenty of room for improvement. But some of our doubts reflect a lack of understanding of the purpose and function of theological training.

Some helpful observations on this point are made in an unpublished article (cited here by kind permission of the author) on ‘An Approach to Theological Education’ by Professor David Scholer, formerly of Gordon-Conwell Seminary and now of the Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in the USA. Among the questions he helps to answer are: (1) Would it not be better to be out in the world doing useful work than to spend three or four valuable years in a theological institution cut off from the world? Professor Scholer believes that practical involvement and training are essential ingredients in theological training (and a lack of such Christian involvement is a sure recipe for boredom and dryness in theological studies). But ‘in order to be the kind of person who is a problem solver and a person changer in our world, one needs to prepare. It is my contention that the only way to be an effective leader (in the church) over a long period of time is to have a qualified withdrawal for study and reflection, and that such a withdrawal is neither immoral nor a neglect of Christian responsibility. In fact, it is a fulfilment of it, if one wishes to be a Christian leader. We can think of certain illustrations of this in the Christian tradition: Jesus, of course, would be one of the first to come to our minds; he did not set out to change the world the day he reached manhood. Others would also come to mind: Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Billy Graham and Martin Luther King.’

Professor Scholer suggests that the period of theological training is—or should be—a valuable time of working at one’s own convictions. He cites the expression ‘God has no grandchildren’, and makes the point that anyone who is to minister to others with integrity and authority should have worked out his or her own understanding of basic issues such as why the Bible is an authority, why we should be concerned about social problems, and so on. The minister should not just repeat what he or she has been told by teachers without thinking it through.

(2) A second question that bothers many people concerns the curriculum: much of what we study seems unlikely to be of any use in the pulpit or the real world; so what is the point?

On this it has to be admitted that many theological courses are unbalanced and impractical. But Professor Scholer again has helpful things to say. He argues that the distinctive contribution that the theologically trained member of the church should bring to the church is ‘expertise in the meaning of the very foundation of the life of Christ’s body, namely the Scriptures and their history within the body of Christ’. This means that the study of the Bible and of church history and theology should form the core of theological training, though he hastens to add that such study is not an end in itself, but is for the body of Christ and must therefore be coupled with training in communication and practical theology.

On the study of history in particular, we may not see much point in writing essays on topics such as ‘gnosticism’. But Professor Scholer writes: ‘A knowledge of history can aid us to understand the past, the whys and wherefores of what has happened when other people like ourselves, actual persons who lived with actual problems, faced difficulties. If we can learn how they struggled and how they solved or tried to solve their problems, other things being equal, we ought to be more prepared to face the problems of our future. There is a certain kind of very terrible pride that is exhibited when one disdains history; it assumes that all the wisdom of God and the ages can be immediately comprehensible to one person alone—that nobody else ever had an insight. Experience may be the best teacher, but certainly not my experience alone.’ More than that Professor Scholer argues that grappling with the ideas and problems of the past should help to shape us as people and make us more effective in serving others.

He denies that the accumulation of academic knowledge is necessarily useless, as some suppose. The Christian minister is rightly expected to know the Christian tradition and to answer people’s questions about it, and, although some of the things we study may seem unlikely ever to be of use in preaching and teaching, in fact, if we are to communicate effectively, we need a much wider understanding of our subject than will appear in our sermons (like the space scientist explaining his business to an unscientific audience). For example, to answer a simple question about a new translation of a Bible verse, we may well need at least some grasp of textual criticism.

Not that information is the only or the most important thing we learn in our theological training. Professor Scholer refers to the saying ‘Give me a fish and I eat for a day; teach me to fish, and I eat for a lifetime.’ The most important thing in our theological training is to ‘learn to fish’, i.e. to have a methodology of approach for, and to form the attitudes and perspectives that will help us deal with, the situations we face in a life-time’s ministry.

But still it is possible to complain that theological courses do not do enough in training students for practical ministry. The answer to that is certainly that good courses in practical theology should be included in any course of training for the ministry. But, on the other hand, it is worth realizing that much of the practical training must come (as with a doctor or lawyer) on the job after graduation. It is unrealistic to expect to learn in college all that you can and should learn after leaving college by working in a church situation, preferably under the guidance of a more senior minister.

(3) A third question about theological courses concerns their effect on one’s spiritual life: it has been said that theological seminaries are often spiritual cemeteries. Part of the blame for this lies with theological teachers who are theologically, spiritually and morally confused themselves and who pass their confusion on to their students. But, while Professor Scholer agrees that theological teachers and administrators should do more by example and action to foster Christian community and personal spiritual growth, he argues that Christian community does not just happen; it requires a deliberate effort by everyone in the community not only to achieve good marks, but also to develop good Christian relationships. And so far as personal faith is concerned, we should indeed beware of false teaching that may erode our faith, if we are not critical of it; but we should on the other hand expect a good theological training to challenge things that we have accepted, perhaps unthinkingly, in the past and to refine our Christian understanding. ‘When we do grapple with our personal faith there can come struggle and doubt, shock and dismay. We are tempted to say, as a very dear friend of mine said to me, “I am so glad that I never went to seminary so that my faith is undisturbed.” Undoubtedly a vigorous and vital simplistic faith based on poor or inaccurate biblical, historical and theological grounds is preferable to informed biblical, historical and theological perceptions which, however, lack any vital personal faith. But such an alternative and dichotomy is hardly open to those in the community of theological education. We must have a personal faith with integrity, integrity in matters biblical, historical and theological.’

The challenge to all of us who study theology is not to remain unchanged in our studies (though to remain faithful), but to sift the good and the bad and to work on the academic and spiritual sides of things. ‘Quality theological education means that both the integrity of the academic classroom and the involvement of the personal dimension are needed to make us the men and women of Christ, who are capable persons, intellectually and spiritually, to lead and serve in and for the body of Christ’

Editorial notes

In their planning of the journal the editors and committee of Themelios seek to include articles that address specific issues and problems faced by theological students in their courses. We hope in the coming issues to have a number of survey articles, in which authors will give us a guided-tour of particular key subjects. Professor Stanford Reid contributes the first of these surveys in this issue. If student readers wish to suggest subjects that are important in their courses and with which they would value help in Themelios, their suggestions will be welcomed. It is, of course impossible to cater for the needs of all theological students everywhere; but we hope to do all we can to assist our readers in understanding, defending and proclaiming the Christian faith.

David Wenham

Wycliffe Hall