Monday 2 February 2009

Ten virtues for theological students

The ancients understood education as inculturation (παιδεια) into a life of virtue (αρετη). The main point of my recent satirical post was to suggest that theological education should similarly be understood as formation in virtue, rather than (as is too often the case) an inculturation into the vices of academia. In that post, I highlighted ten vices of theological education. And due to the number of emails I’ve received in response (partly from students who felt a little chastened or disillusioned, or that I was being too cynical), I’ve tried here to sketch out a contrasting list of ten virtues. Obviously this isn’t meant as a complete list (much less an autobiographical list!) – it’s just a parallel which makes explicit what was implicit in the earlier post:

1. Patience: In theological education, the process of learning is more important than the specific opinions you might acquire as a result. You can’t learn everything at once; just relax and enjoy the ride.

2. Breadth: In theological education, the connections between disciplines are often more important than the content of any single discipline in isolation. The development of wide-ranging interests – and the capacity to engage in wide-ranging discussions – is more valuable than the selection of any narrow specialisation.

3. Curiosity: One of the goals of theological education is to cultivate a lively sense of curiosity; the student who sticks only to the curriculum will not learn much. So resist the temptation to become too disciplined – and be sure to “waste” plenty of time reading novels, listening to music, and aimlessly enjoying the company of friends.

4. Clarity: In theological discourse, a single lapidary statement is better (and more difficult to achieve) than twenty pages of jargon.

5. Attentiveness: In theological education, even the most brash and opinionated among us are given the opportunity to cultivate a childlike fascination with the views of other people. Without attentive fascination, one’s capacity for surprise is diminished; and the essence of theology is surprise.

6. Love: Theological formation should be driven by a love for truth, not by animosity towards untruth. Truthful theology always involves polemics – but since truth takes form as love, it can never be used as a weapon to wound another person. Where this occurs, truth becomes a falsehood.

7. Friendship: Education is always competitive to some extent; but your peers should be viewed as friends and companions rather than competitors. In theological education, friends are your best unofficial teachers: one often learns more from them than from any of the curricular activities, or any of the professors.

8. Simplicity: The goal of theological education is Christian proclamation. Students sweat and labour for years through difficult texts and languages and ideas – only so that their preaching can one day seem easy and effortless and spontaneous. Preaching is not like mathematics: you do not “show your steps.”

9. Truth: Ambition for the comfort and respectability of a career is a deadly temptation which the theological student must resist. One can serve the idol of career only by compromising the call to speak the truth – that is, by sacrificing one’s entire theological vocation. Theological education is not about garnering academic favour, nor about treading the eggshells of correctness and respectability; it is about loving the truth and speaking the truth faithfully, while “taking no thought for tomorrow” (Matt. 6:34).

10. Prayer: Prayer is the theologian’s most fitting and most distinctive activity. A theologian who does not pray is a grotesque aberration – like a literary scholar who doesn’t read, or a music teacher who cannot play an instrument. Above all else, “the theologian is the one who prays” (St Evagrius).


Anonymous said...


these are very good points, thank you for sharing them!

I think prayer is probably the most vital for any theologian; I only say this because of the centrality this plays in the life of Christ (our life), and without participating in this privileged conversation . . . as you've noted, what's the point?

Anonymous said...

I would add humility.

Anonymous said...

...and provisionality. Theology has lost the dialogue with silence, which is why it is far too often words chasing words floating in an academic vacuum.

For what is meant by the dialogue with silence, see

Anonymous said...

#7 is especially significant, I think. Many who are in PhD programs can tell you that a program without friends to engage with your work, with whom to dialogue -- and who will be your...friends! -- makes a long, difficult road, a despairing and sorrowful one as well. I have learned all too quickly how much I rely on my friends for everything I do -- and what is more, that my friends are no less my neighbors, and I owe them my devotion, my love, and my care...after all, if theology does in fact isolate the theologian in a profound solitude at times (as Barth and Bonhoeffer both argued), it only rises up from that solitude as we are at once lifted up by the congregatio fidelium (a community of friends), and as we move to our neighbors in love. Thanks again for the great post Ben. Peace.

Anna Blanch said...

Thanks Ben, I will pass this on, just as i did with the link to the other "virtues" post. I enjoyed the satire of the other as much as the seriousness of this one. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these things.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this second list Ben. Love them.

And for the little sermon in #10.

'Theo-logy' does not necessarily have anything to do with 'theo-praxis' (such as prayer); in the halls of competitive scholarly academia or the cloistered office of the pastor.

Tom said...

I would like to add my thanks for this post. It not only makes a helpful contrast to the cynicism of the earlier virtues post, but also fills in some of the gaps in that post. Still I also find it strange to note the omission of humility among the virtues. And two further omission, namely, love for God and neighbor and love of wisdom and knowledge, arguably the most significant virtue in the intellectual. And while I very deeply appreciate the inclusion of prayer on your list, prayer strikes me as an "intellectual practice," more a habitual action that makes for knowledge of all sorts, but especially the knowledge of God.

For some substantial analysis here I would call attention to a work in virtue epistemology by two Christian philosophers, Robert C. Roberts and C. Jay Wood, Virtue Epistemology: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (Oxford, 2007). Theology as an intellectual discipline could well sit at the feet of such philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Karl Barth would probably put astonishment at the very top of the list.

“if anyone should not find himself astonished and filled with wonder when he becomes involved in one way or another with theology, he would be well advised to consider once more, from a certain remoteness and without prejudice, what is involved in this undertaking. The same holds true for anyone who should have accomplished the feat of no longer being astonished, instead of becoming continually more astonished all the time that he concerns himself with this subject. That astonishment should remain or become wholly foreign to him is scarcely conceivable. But should that happen, both and theology would fare better if he devote his time to some other occupation. . .. If such astonishment is lacking, the whole enterprise of even the best theologian would canker at the roots. On the other hand, as long as a poor theologian is capable of astonishment, he is not lost to the fulfillment of his task.” Evangelical Theology—An Introduction, Eerdmans, 1963, pp, 63-64

Anonymous said...

In #5, on "attentiveness", Ben says that "surprise is the essence of theology", which bears at least a family resemblance to Ray's "astonishment". Perhaps astonishment/surprise does warrant a number of its own.

"Attentiveness" reminds me of Simone Weil, the centenary of whose birth is tomorrow (February 3rd). Weil, of course, thought of attendre as "the supreme form of prayer". She also linked it with "patience" - "Humility," she said, "is attentive patience." She also wrote: "The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like the condemned man who is proud of his large cell." Master of the "single lapidary statement" (#4),I suspect she'd like this list.
Bon anniversaire, Simone!

And thanks, Ben.
Btw, I liked the "cynicism" of the earlier post - and its humour. Which, come to think of it, is another essential virtue for theological students (as Barth would certainly agree).

Anonymous said...


thank you for sharing that point on prayer (from Weil).

Prayer rightly understood is humility, it reflects dependence on the 'Father', an attitude of helpless despair, crying out for the 'other' (the LORD) to speak in ways that only He can (I Pet 5:6ff). To say that prayer is an 'academic' exercise or spiritual habit and or discipline, well if only this could be so . . .

Anonymous said...

Great post Ben!

Shane said...

I think you are mistaken to privilege breadth over depth. This is a recipe for producing theological dilettantes who presume to challenge the tradition of the church on the basis of their poor Greek and worse grasp of the history of philosophy. This is not to say no one ought to be interested in overarching systematic projects--merely to point out that one must first have some deep understanding of one particular field as the condition of the possibility of drawing fruitful parallels with others.

I also want to challenge the assumption that the pastor doesn't have to show his work like a mathematician. I suppose this is the case, insofar as we don't want pastors giving exegesis papers in the pulpit--but sure wouldn't it help if they gave us a bit more in the way of setting out reasons to believe that the claims that they make are actually true. I'm speaking as a layman, here. I hate going to church and hearing the pastor expound a list of theses with no real rationale. This isn't proclamation; it's just listing your own opinions. And it's extremely boring. How can I tell if I think you are right if I don't know how you arrived at the claim? Further, if the preacher just tells me a list of his own conclusions without showing me the principle they come from, then I don't know how to act when a situation occurs that I never heard a sermon about.

Anonymous said...


Don't you think the pastor's 'work' is primarily his relationship with God in prayer and study? I do.
This residual 'shine' will drip upon the congregation over time. At least that is my hope for the pastor as under-shepherd of the flock.

At the end of the day, 'exegesis' might be best left to the academy.

Shane said...


What's the difference between "study" and "exegesis"? What is the pastor studying if not the text? And how is he to study it well, if he does not study it historically and critically?

Further, because I'm a protestant I dislike the suggestion of trickle-down spirituality. You can't be spiritual for me, but you can teach me how to read the text for myself.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

When I saw the inclusion of "curiosity" in your list of "virtues", it reminded me of an important point made by Berkouwer in his book, "A Half Century of Theology - "we are wrestling today with questions put on the agenda a half-century ago commends modesty in our address to today's challenge. But it may also encourage us to accept that challenge with a curiosity aroused by that which is truly new, the gospel of Jesus Christ who makes all things new, the gospel which theology is dedicated to understand and translate for our generation' (p. 9).
Commenting on Berkouwer's words, I wrote, "Modesty and curiosity are important elements in theology's development. Both a willingness to learn from the past and a readiness to face the future are required." ("The Problem of Polarization: An Approach based on the writings of G C Berkouwer", p. 246).
We learn from the past without being locked in the past.
Learning from the past (i.e. always remembering that our great calling is to bring the Good News of Christ to today's world - "The goal of theological education is Christian proclamation") helps us to face the future without getting lost in confusion over the wide diversity of views available to us in today's world.
We face the future with confidence in the Good News of Christ, assured that Christ continues to be relevant to today's world. Thus, we commit ourselves to "loving the truth and speaking the truth faithfully."
Another comment arising from your section on "curiosity": In my own studies of Scripture, I have sought to recognize the importance of thinking one's own thoughts rather than having one's mind so crammed with the words of others that there's not much space left for a developing one's own distinctive emphasis in the exposition of God's Word.
Your point regarding "clarity" reminded me of the words of Ian Pitt-Watson: "The bigger the truth we try to speak the smaller the words we should use, and the shorter the sentences" ("A Kind of Folly: Toward a Practical Theology of Preaching", p. 12). This is a piece of advice I've tried to take in both my spoken and written ministry of God's Word.
"Theological formation should be driven by a love for truth, not by animosity towards untruth." That's a good point - particularly when it is emphasized within the context of maintaining our commitment to "truthful theology."

Anonymous said...


There is more to study than the 'text', yes?

These days, most (almost all) people in the pew or chair or circle in those churches where the 'preacher' holds center stage need MUCH MUCH more back-story than some critical-historical exegesis of the Bible.

What most people never see or hear is a person wholly devoted to relationship--either with God or with people. I think these are more important than the most brilliant sermon given in our churches. and relationship (with God and with other people) takes a great deal of study, prayer and care.

Ortho-praxy must overrule our shouts of ortho-doxy in our ministry to people. I sense you might disagree with this, but of course I don't know what your version of orthodoxy might be.

Shane said...

Hi Roger,

So let me start this off by saying that I am very grateful to those who undertake the difficult work of ministry. Some of my best friends are pastors.

Further, I realize that my own spiritual needs are not normative. But personally, I loath sentimentality and have a strong tendency towards skepticism. So, a clear, analytic expository sermon that teaches me something new about the Bible moves me in a way that no amount of feverish rhetoric or pious devotion on the part of the preacher ever will.

I almost always find those kinds of services either intolerably saccharine ("Oh how I like Jesus, He's so Cool, How I like Jesus, He's my best pal") or emotionally manipulative in some way ("Jesus wants you to DIE to your sin. If a terrorist put a gun to your head would you DIE FOR HIM? Do you think you could do it? Could you stand up for Jesus knowing that it would get your brains splattered against the wall? Cause that's what it means to really love Jesus!")

The other downside of this tendency to privilege orthopraxy over orthodoxy is that it makes it ok for the pastor to be an idiot, so long as he's a pious idiot. And that's why, in America, a lot of pastors are really worried that Barack Obama is secretly a muslim terrorist and also secretly a huge liberal who is going to make abortion and gay marriage not just permissible but mandatory. (How the conjunction of the two views is supposed to be possible, I will leave to men of greater spiritual depth than myself.)

So let's address the bigger question of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Here's my bold claim, you can't be orthopractical unless you are also orthodox since "doing the right thing" means "doing it consciously, and for the right reason." (It may also be the case that you can't be orthodox without being orthopractical, but that's conceptually a different point.)

To see why this is so, consider a person who does the right thing for the wrong reason. So suppose I give food and medicine to starving villagers in a third-world country, but I do so only insofar as I am trying to convert them, not out of any real love for them per se. Have I done something orthopractical? Obviously not, the action is right, but the motivation's all wrong. You ought to feed the hungry and care for the sick because you love them and because it's the right thing to do, not because you want some more notches on your evangelism belt.

Now what does my claim entail about what the subject-matter of the pastor's study should be? Said another way, what sort of orthodoxy do you need to be orthopractical?

Once again I want to reaffirm the primacy of the biblical text. Church history and theology are also going to be valuable obviously, since these are an extended meditation on the meaning of the biblical text, as seen through the eyes of extremely intelligent people at different times and from different cultures than our own.

Of course there are other things pastors commonly study. Bullshit psychology, bullshit sociology (in the form of John Maxwell-style "leadership" lessons), bullshit science (intelligent designish stuff), bullshit politics (James Dobson). In my experience pastors spend much more time with these sorts of concerns than they ought.

Anonymous said...

Hey Shane-

Thanks for your post. From some of the names you quote, it sounds like you may be an 'adult child of evangelicals'...? I don' think there is a pill for this. Just recovery. 'Hi, my name is ______ and I am a recovering evangelical.'

My point about ortho-praxy has most to do with my conviction that 'pastors' should serve primarily as servant-shepherds, not as 'preachers' or 'professors'. A pastor's primary job is not to exegete with words, but with his/her life. I would argue that this is no small Ben's 10 theological virtues would also contend.

Of course I don't mean to write off the importance of study, exegesis and engagement with biblical texts. But there are bullshit exegeses as well as bullshit sociology, psychology and science, right?
And there is nothing more pompous and frightening than the pastor who has the corner on truth, the man with the real ORTHODOXY.
I could name names, but I won't.

As a former pastor, I can say firsthand that the call to loving, kind, servant pastoral ministry is not only counter-cultural in North American Christendom, it can be grounds for dismissal from ministerial careers.

Shane said...


I'm not a recovering child of evangelicals, but you're in the right vicinity. While there is no pill, I have taken extensive spiritual direction with the Rt. Rev. Jack Daniels, who has always been a great comfort.



Anonymous said...

;) Do you disagree with my stuff?

I like red wine, but a scotch here and there is some strong medicine.

I hope I didn't offend you.

Anonymous said...

Knowing how to kiss one's backside, especially a DS's backside helps immensely. And knowing how to campaign for prize pastorates helps.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for saving the best for last. Prayer is the most important work of the theologian. True theological knowledge evolves from the spirit, that is where the great ineffable resides. This is more than intellectual conversation with the Divine, reading prayers, resting in the everlasting arms...though it is all those too. It is that ineffable place where the senses go silent, and the knowing begins.

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