As students of Wheaton Graduate School now return to campus, I find myself asking this question: Why Theological Education? In what follows, Michael Jensen provides an insightful answer.
1. Theological education – meaning ‘tertiary level academic theological study’ – is under attack, from forces both within and without the church. It is seen by some as too expensive. Other see it as too impractical and too inflexible, in that theological education providers cannot give them the educational setting they would like in an area where online degrees and part-time study is proliferating. It is too academic and therefore too unspiritual in the eyes of some. And it is too slow for impatient young church planters or would-be church leaders who don’t want to waste valuable gospelling years in the study.
2. Why do we need theological education?
a) for the spiritual health of churches, and the Christians in them. Knowledge and learning are not the whole of what it means to grow spiritually in the NT, but they are certainly major components of spiritual health and growth. Paul spends three years teaching the Ephesian elders, for example. Jesus gives the apostles 40 days – Peter’s Acts 2 sermon didn’t come out of nowhere!
b) for effectiveness in mission Once again, being well thought-through and informed is not the be-all and end-all of mission. But it sure helps! Paul is determined to ‘take every thought captive’ for the sake of the gospel of Christ (for example). And if we believe that the gospel applies accross cultures and times then we commit ourselves to the difficult work of contextualization.
3. Who needs theological education?
The short answer: all Christians need to see themselves as learners and in the market for some theological education of whatever kind. And this means that church leaders – pastors, bible study group leaders, lay preachers – are in particular need of a more concentrated level of theological study. It is also the case that those who have particular opportunities to witness in their workplaces would benefit enormously from some higher level theological study – especially teachers and academics, but also many others too.
4. What to avoid in a theological education
a) an institution that majors on flexibility – if an institution is determined to give you what you want and to ask nothing of you, don’t go there. Education in general has become a market, and students have become consumers. This has been a not entirely welcome change – because true education actually asks us to become disciples and to submit to a process of learning from authoritative teachers.
b) an institution that makes sure you don’t meet other students
c) an institution that doesn’t have ministry in view as the goal of theological education – not just professional ministry of course, but the ministry that all Christians share in.
d) an institution that doesn’t care or cares little about academic standards.
5. What to look for in a theological education
a) is the whole Scripture central and authoritative in the institution?
You can’t claim to be studying the knowledge of God if you aren’t taking the Scriptures with utmost seriousness, or if you are prizing other sources.
b) is it theological?
I object to the term ‘bible college’ because the purpose of theological education is not to know the Bible better: it is to know God better. The word ‘theology’ indicates that study of the texts is the means and not the end. It also indicates that there will be a prayerful integration of the curriculum, and that the confessions and creeds of church history will have their place.
c) are the original languages emphasized?
Not every Christian or even every Christian leader needs to learn Greek and Hebrew to have an effective ministry, but I doubt theological study is really serious if it does not ask you to learn at least one of these languages. Given the choice, most people would NOT learn even Greek. Don’t take the easy option – because serious study of the Scripture by someone who would teach God’s people demands the harder path!
d) are Church History and Ethics and Philosophy a part of the course?
These subjects are all auxiliaries to the study of Theology in a way. But without them the theological task is scarcely complete.
e) is community life emphasized?
The nature of theological knowledge is that it is a shared knowledge – learning it on your own is counter to the kind of knowledge it is.
f) is there regular corporate worship and prayer?
Goes without saying.
g) are the practical ministry subjects taught in a theological way?
You aren’t going into theological education to learn secular counselling methods, or bits of pop psychology.
h) is the theological curriculum calibrated for ministry and mission?
I would ask why a theological curriculum does not address itself to the context in which those who are studying it are going to have to work. These days, it is simply not enough to say ‘we teach the theology stuff, you work out how to put it into practice where you are’.
A clue is to ask current or recent students about their studies. If they say ‘it was hard, but it was good’ – then I think you have found a good place. If they say ‘we had a ball’ – I’d be worried. Proper theological education ought to be an uncomfortable exercise – it ought to stretch the student and challenge the student in ways that are sometimes unpleasant!
But having said that: there ought to be a joy in theological education. The knowledge of God ought to be joyful because it is the knowledge of God – the God of all mercies. There ought to be many many a glimpse of his glory in the experience of theological education!