Thursday 4 February 2010

Theological education: what is it for?

A while back, I was asked to write a few paragraphs on theological education for some church magazine. So I wrote the following:

Last semester I taught a class on the doctrine of the Trinity: a notoriously difficult and challenging topic! Later in the year, I heard one of the students from that class leading prayer in our morning chapel service. I was really struck by his prayer: it was a kind of meditation on the things we’d been discussing all semester in class. It was an outpouring of thanksgiving to the God who is made known to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

For me, this summed up the whole purpose of theological education: not simply to make students cleverer, but to help them learn better ways to speak to God in prayer, and to one another in witness.

Who is this God who comes to us and meets us in Jesus Christ? That is the basic theological question. Answering this question requires broad knowledge, sharp thinking, scholarly discipline, and a good dose of intellectual creativity. But it also demands much more than that: if we’re really to grapple with the significance of God’s self-witness in Christ, we’ll also need to respond to that witness.

In this way, scholarly discipline becomes a form of discipleship; theology becomes an exercise in prayer. When we think – really think – of all that God has done for us in Christ, our talk about God gives way to thanksgiving, while thanksgiving likewise issues in a joyful witness to others about God’s grace and goodness.

For me, this is why theological education is so exciting and so promising – and why it’s an urgent priority for the church today. What the church really needs is not cleverer or more relevant or more professional ministers, but women and men who know how to pray and how to bear witness. Nothing could be simpler; nothing more demanding. For true prayer and witness spring only from a life that has been formed in the way of discipleship – the way of Jesus Christ.


Jason Goroncy said...

Spot on Ben ... otherwise we should all take our libraries to the paper recyclers as we make our way to a good fishing hole. In fact, there would be little point even in going fishing any more.

Student said...

Thanks for this. I'm in my second year of formal theology study. I argued with God that the only requirement to know Him was to come as a little child; and anyway, the wisdom of men is foolishness with God.

I'm not a young person; I counted the cost (quite a few times) before stepping out of the boat onto the water.

Has my improved knowledge of academic theology improved my prayers? I don't know--I think I've become more brazen and more demanding. And now I have new things to whine about, having learned that conquerers also committed genocide. Same texts I've always loved, but new words.

I often have to leave my study desk and go to prayer, because it seems the academics are out to destroy my was easier before I had all this additional scholarly icing to fatten the meditations.

Thanks for sharing a spiritual teacher's point of view. God's peace to you.

Geri Russell said...

I literally was just pouring over a dense text and thought "what the heck am I doing this for" when your post popped up.

Very timely.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this, Ben. Question: Where do you think such theological education is to be happening these days?

Andrew Esqueda said...

Great post! I think we need to take Jesus seriously when he says, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind...(Lk. 10:27)." We cannot just take part of this statement seriously. It is important that all Christians no matter what their vocation cultivate their mind for Christ.

Fat said...

Cultivate your mind for Christ - I like that Andrew. That means it is more than just learning the words.

"And he did evil, because he prepared not his heart to seek the LORD" KJV 2 Chronicles 12:14

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post Ben. Also, God's peace to Student, you've responded by stepping out of the boat.

kim fabricius said...

So it's not much use in the employment market. (No place to tick "Can you pray/witness?" on the job application.) In fact, it's not much use at all. Which I guess is the point.

More: if you study theology as one subject among other subjects on a curriculum, you are probably not studying theology at all.

roger flyer said...

Kim said:
"So it's not much use in the employment market. (No place to tick "Can you pray/witness?" on the job application.) In fact, it's not much use at all. Which I guess is the point."

Roger said:
Call me unemployable vicar

Derek said...

"help them learn better ways to speak to God in prayer, and to one another in witness"

This insight makes me think of the relationship between theology and the arts in the church today. In a church culture obsessed with relevance (US), the goal is often to be creative, very artistic, and cutting edge, which is understandable. One gift of theology to the church is to fashion the proper grammar/palette with which to beautifully witness to one another & the world around us of the Incarnate Lord.

Anonymous said...

Jesus says," You diligently search the scriptures because you think that by them you have life...."

How true of all of us as we skip along with our church dogmatics and summas, relishing in their brilliance yet refusing to come to Jesus for life.

In the end we find that all of these tasty words become like slop in a pig trough; and even this no longer edifies us.

We must go home to our Father.

Jason Goroncy said...

I'm a little surprised that no one's mentioned Thielicke's A Little Exercise for Young Theologians; so I'll mention it. If you like Ben's post, you'll love Thielicke's little book, and if you've read Little Exercise buy a dozen copies and give them away to folk in your (little) parish.

Andrew Esqueda said...

I will second that, Thielicke's book is great! I think it's a good exercise to read his book every year in order to remind yourself why you do theology.

Erin said...

You mean the money's not reason enough?

Anonymous said...

Theology on its knees.

Tom Bennett said...

What you seem to be saying here is that this education should be changing us? Uh oh...

Angela Shier-Jones said...

Brilliant post Ben.. just wish your final paragraph hadn't been phrased as an either or instead of Both And
What the church really needs is cleverer and more relevant and more professional ministers who really know how to pray and how to bear witness.'

Mark said...

This post makes good food for thought. Now, how about part 2, the flip side of speaking to God and to other people, something on theological education teaching people to listen for God and to other people?

Listening is implicit in prayer, but it would be great to read about it being made more explicit. As for witness, can we as Christian theologians be faithful to God without listening to people who have different stories than our own, including Jewish theologians, Muslim theologians, etc.? (Indeed, some of us share/teach theology classes that include a multitude of faith perspectives.)

Student said...


For me, listening is the most important part of being a witness. Anything else and I become a dogmatic jerk. Jesus was quite a preacher, but he also modeled hearing people's stories (or knowing them telepathically), responding to their needs and questions, even in his preaching. He fed, healed, partied.

As the Dalia Lama has said regarding religions coming together, "There should be more parties and festivals."

I can't speak for "we as theologians" but for me, yes listening to all theologies, dogmas, faiths, cultures is following Jesus.

BTW, I'm thrilled the Dalai Lama is coming to DC. Once again, East meets West and Christianity and Buddhism sit down together. Merton must be grinning.

Amelia KB said...

Thanks Ben,
I agree with all that is in your post, but it makes me wonder... why is it only Candidates for Ordained ministry who get to play with and construct prayers for the morning chapel services? what would happen if we invited some of the lay and private students to also use their broadening theological understandings and vocabulary in the liturgical life of the Centre?
I read Thielicke (Young Theologian) and Wink (Transforming Bible Study) during the same period of my life, so I have to ask the question about Theological education being assumed to be given expression by clergy and only being treated as 'an interest' by laity... rather, I see you modelling the expression of lay engagement and provocation in your own work for the sake of the whole community - how can we get this happening more widely?

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for your comment, Amelia — I couldn't agree more with your concerns. I think the division between ministry candidates and 'private' students is extremely unhealthy. Among other things, it contributes to the misunderstanding of ordination which I've mentioned elsewhere. A single community of disciples, and an educational curriculum for the sake of formation in discipleship — that's what we need.

roger flyer said...

How can we do it?

Unknown said...

Yes, Ben. But Amelia's question and your response only deepens the exigency of my question, I think: Where is it that such theological education is really to be happening these days?

Ben Myers said...

Nate: yes, I'd also love to know the answer to that question! I certainly don't think seminaries have any monopoly here — I agree with Hauerwas that universities sometimes do a better job of providing an environment for confessional theological education. But on the other hand, nothing impresses me more than Bonhoeffer's experiment in Protestant monasticism at the (illegal) Finkenwalde seminary: now that is really a picture of serious theological education!

But anyway, it would be interesting to hear people's impressions of specific institutions along these lines.

Anonymous said...

Ben, I'd be really interested to know why you've answered Amelia's question but haven't commented on Angela's?

Ben Myers said...

Oh, sorry: it's only that I know Amelia personally, so I understood the specific circumstances she was referring to. Plus, I'm really not a "both/and" sort of person (give me a good "either/or" any day!). But I'm sure I'd agree with Angela's basic point — i.e., I wouldn't want for a moment to deprecate the importance of education.

Still, I'm fairly sceptical about the vocational training, psychological dilettantism, and professionalisation of ministers — call me old-fashioned, but I don't really see how all that forms part of "education" (much less part of Christian discipleship: how does one become a professional disciple?).

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ben for your reply. I've been pondering for a bit and so this is why I've taken my time replying. I can see you are writing from a theological educator's viewpoint, whereas my viewpoint would be somewhat different as a member of a congregation. Many people who walk into a church for the first time (or returning after an absence) have had something go terribly wrong in their life and they are looking for...something. If I was that person, I would be looking for a minister with a broad understanding of the "world" and could offer me more than pious platitudes, but real ethics, empathy and understanding. I don't think you learn all those things from a theological textbook. You learn them from life and a broad education. Also, as higher education becomes more common, maybe the congregation will start to ask some curly questions of a minister trained in one discipline. I wouldn't want an unemployable pastor.

roger flyer said...

Anon said-

"...Many people who walk into a church for the first time (or returning after an absence) have had something go terribly wrong in their life and they are looking for...something. If I was that person, I would be looking for a minister with a broad understanding of the "world" and could offer me more than pious platitudes, but real ethics, empathy and understanding..."

Good luck finding this pastor. If are so fortunate, the church will marginalize, tune out, scapegoat or eventually force him or her out.

Not a pretty picture. We do not have healthy congregational models or healthy 'shepherds' in the wings.

An unemployable pastor

Anonymous said...

Thanks Roger Flyer.
I live in hope. btw, I thought the church is already marginalising, tuning out and scapegoating. Maybe we need new navigation.

roger flyer said...

The 'church' (as I've experienced it over the last 30 years) marginalizes, tunes out, scapegoats genuine pastors when they serve in any 'prophetic' capacity; i.e. working to promote healthy systemic change.

Anonymous said...

For just this connection between theology and prayer I have students from each of my systematic theology classes write a collect prayer every Friday. Through it they have to consider how the week's proceedings in class, readings, etc. might be put into the language of prayer. It has, without fail, been a very productive experience for students - and for me who has the privilege of being led in prayer by them.

Anonymous said...

This post reminded me of the famous saying of Evagrius of Pontus (4th C.): "A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian."

Student said...

Prof Ben et al,

When is one considered a theologian? When they have a degree in theology, and/or when they're published?

I tend to think a person is officially a theologian when they have a pertinent degree and are published, out there in the world.

By some definitions I was a theologian in my teens, for I spent hours in self-directed study, memorization, prayer, service. Now some decades later, I'm officially pursuing the degree.

Not that the label is important; it's for curiosity I ask.

dave said...

Well said.

Ondrej from Good Reading said...

Education in general is destined not to simply overload our brains with information, but rather open new perspectives and teach us to listen.

Post a Comment


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.