The Significance of Theological Education

SIMPLY STATED, theological education is education that one receives in the discipline of theology. Here, “theology” doesn’t merely refer to Systematic Theology or Dogmatic Theology; it is that avenue or field of study that has as its objective a clear understanding of the Christian faith. It may be defined as the discipline that aims at an appropriate understanding, interpretation, defense, and application of the Christian faith in the world. Thus, it is the Christian faith that lies at the heart of theological education.

Graham Cheesman defines theological education as “the training of men and women to know and serve God”.1 He distinguishes it from Christian education in that its specific objective is the training of individuals for Christian service and leadership.

Christian Education is generally seen as for all and takes place generally in the church. Theological Education is not for all, usually results in special service and leadership and usually takes place in a college or in a Theological Education programme centred beyond the church. Sunday School teaching, Bible study evening meetings and so on are Christian Education. Belfast Bible College, Ministry Training Colleges, TEE and Seminaries are Theological Education.2

A trained minister, thus, is understood to be one who has received some requisite level of theological education that includes both academic understanding and practical ministerial training. An untrained minister is one who is untrained and unskilled in the interpretation of Scriptures as well as has not been tested and proved in the area of ministry. Now, while God can use anyone, the Scripture instructs us to seek those who are excellent in word and deed and are filled with faith and the Spirit. A trained theologian is one who has received a higher level of theological training necessary for authoritative critic and judgment on theological trends and movements. An untrained interpreter who is unskilled and inexperienced in the Word will only lead to twisting and misinterpretation of the Word. An intellectual who lacks faith and the Spirit may indulge in skeptic and anti-faith acts.

For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Heb 5:13-14)

These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1Co 2:13-14 NKJ)

…our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. (2Pe 3:15-16 NKJ)

A bishop then must …able to teach; (1Ti 3:2 NKJ)

…holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless. (1Ti 3:9-10 NKJ)

But you, beloved, remember the words which were spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ: how they told you that there would be mockers in the last time who would walk according to their own ungodly lusts. These are sensual persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit. (Jud 1:17-19 NKJ)


DISCUSS: Is there a relationship between lack of education and heretic teachings? Is there a relationship between bad education and heretic teachings?


Models and Forms

We may observe at least four models of theological education:

  1. The Teacher or Academy Model. This is that in which students get educated under a particular teacher. Examples are the House of Hillel, Gamaliel, and in modern times, students who wish to join a particular course given by a certain teacher in a University.
  2. The University Model. This is that in which students go to a particular college or seminary or University which is, usually, considered to be “recognized” by some Board or Association. Examples are Serampore, SHIAATS.
  3. The Church Model. This is that in which students go to a particular college or seminary recommended by the church they belong to. Some churches have their own training systems. Examples are SABC, SIBS, CITS.
  4. The Mission Base Model. These are Mission training centers that are usually short-term to three years of duration and include mission-field tailored curriculum. Examples are the DTS’s of YWAM and the like.

There are two forms of training, the formal and the informal. The Seminary is an example of formal education. Formal education is goal-oriented, systematic, and rigorous. Informal education is random and spontaneous. While it is well possible to come into possession of knowledge and skills informally, and in fact, much of experience and response-research and learning come to us in an informal way, formal education preliminarily under tutors is more advantageous as it is more specific, tailored, and time-saving. However, unless the curriculum is properly designed, the results may be far from being advantageous. For instance, cramming and rote-learning are not the ideals of true education.

I began to realise that my theological education had required me to learn too much too soon. Its pressurized approach had left too little time to think through and evaluate views the teachers had expressed or to work out how and where to put them into practice in an effective way. I began to explore non-formal and informal ways of doing this combined with elements of a more traditional approach.3


DISCUSS: Do students profit more from formal education or from informal education? How much of what one learns in formal schools does one retain? Is the time-limit (credit hours) for each subject sufficient for every student alike?
How do the four models intersect?


Pre-Learning

Theological colleges usually have a pre-requirement of a minimum 10+2 for entry into the BTh program. The rationale is nothing but the objective to keep in tandem with the secular requirements for UG and PG education. Of course, seeing that a student only has uniform education until matriculation, following which he has to choose from a variety of tracks at the Pre-University (10+1+1) level, the reasonable baseline for entry into theological education remains to be matriculation.


DISCUSS: The secular have the Humanities, Commerce, and Science tracks. While the last two can easily switch to Humanities, the former can’t to any of the latter ones. Does theology fall under humanities or is it a more professional study?


However, the present system has a time-form as well (10+2+3); therefore, BTh continues to adhere to the formal definition of UG. But, there are also open methods of entry into the program. For instance, Serampore, SABC, and CITS have the Mature Candidate entry system, though the age-limit set is usually arbitrary, though usually not below 21 years of age.

In all cases, some form of pre-learning is expected in order for the candidate to enter into the theological study program. Now, it is important to understand that the spectrum of pre-learning cannot just be limited to the academic. For instance, there will be a background difference between a person who grew up in a Christian family and one who is has only recently come to know Christ. Yet, the differences are not only limited to this. Consequently, the fresher class will always have a plethora of differences posing one big challenge for the theological teacher. It is only gradually that these begin to fall into place with each other as they begin to tune to a single faith. However, it is not impossible to agree upon a basic requirement. Therefore, the primary filter or screening must involve such instruments that can evaluate where to place the candidate at, either in the Pre-theological slot or in the theological program itself.


DISCUSS: What are some concepts and skills that a candidate must certainly have before joining a theological class at the undergraduate level?


Jesus picked His disciples from a variety of professions and backgrounds. Peter, James, and John were fishermen, Matthew was a tax collector, and Simon was a zealot. It will be interesting to see what curriculum Jesus used for training His disciples. One good study in this regard is the Training of the Twelve (1871) by A.B. Bruce. Jesus fulfilled His mission by giving them the words that the Father committed to Him. Of course, they were not able to fully understand all His teachings until His resurrection, after which again He taught them till His ascension. Then, He sent the Holy Spirit who helped them remember the teachings of Christ and today the Church is built upon Christ the Cornerstone and the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. Paul was not trained with the Twelve, but he received training under Gamaliel and he received revelation from God to help him lay the doctrinal foundation for the church.


DISCUSS: How is Theological Education today similar and different from the training of the Twelve? How did pre-learning help Paul in his understanding of God’s purposes? What is the role of revelation? How was it that most of other Pharisees couldn’t accept Christ’s teachings?


The Goal

The goal is not mere information, but wisdom. More than an academic venture, theological education is engagement in learning spiritual wisdom given to us through the revelation of God so “that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2Ti 3:17)

The Apostles, in Acts 15, sent out letters to churches with the important ruling that circumcision was not essential to salvation, for so it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to them. However, this ruling was not without a theological rationale. Paul wrote Galatians, Romans, and Colossians to explain our relation to the Law and freedom in the Spirit. He gave powerful arguments in support. The leading of the Spirit is not opposed to right theological thinking, explanation, and clarification. In fact, the Spirit authored the theological texts of the New Testament. Be encouraged to study theology in order to rightly divide the word of truth and be a skilled worker of Christ approved by God. And, let’s be cautious never to think we have arrived. Let’s keep on learning from the Spirit of truth.

Spiritual Development

Theological education is not so much about dry academic knowledge as much as it is about stewardship of the mysteries of God. This stewardship is not a mere job, but definitive of a disciple of Christ. Theological knowledge involves personal obligation towards Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God. We are called to be a witnesses. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. Knowledge bereft of devotion and spiritual living is useless. It is not possible to educate one to be spiritual. The hunger and thirst for God lies at the foundation of theological education. One yearns to learn in order to be able to serve well and pursue after righteousness and peace. The Seminary* should be a fellowship that discourages shallow Christian living and encourages deep communion of saints and the Holy Spirit in faith, prayer, exhortation, enthusiasm, serving, vision, and mission. It is not just an academic institution. It is like the inner circle of Christ. It is a family. Spirituality cannot develop in a strict atmosphere of legalism and ritualism. It cannot exist in an environment of godless criticism and proud skepticism. The Seminary is a faith-community. A College may have professors, but a true Seminary (carrying the specific ideal of ministerial training) has servants of God who have a clear call for the ministry of teaching. Discipline, as in a family, is an important aspect of formation. Chastisement for wrong and reward for good is integral to discipline. Jesus rebuked His disciples when they were wrong; but, He also rejoice with them when He saw them in tune with God and encouraged them and prayed for them. Work should possess the enthusiasm of serving in the community. Study should be interactive and engaging. Corporate prayer and worship should be full of life and the overflowing of the Spirit in wisdom and power. Mutual respect and love in Christ must be the thread of relationship. The teachers and authority must exemplify desire to serve rather than demand respect and service. The environment should be free of all praise of humans, human institutions, culture, money; instead, it should be an environment of only grace, only faith, only Scripture, and promptness to serve. The Seminary doesn’t make one a servant of God. The Seminary is a place where men and women called to serve God receive learning in the Scriptures that equips them for every good work. Therefore, a degree in theology is not merely an academic or professional degree, but is meant to recognize that the person who has completed a course of study has also exhibited sincerity, commitment, resolve, Christian character, servant-attitude, faith, Spirit-filled life, and ability to rightly divide and minister the word of truth. The student’s goal, however, must be the approval of God rather than the approval of man (2Tim.2:15).

NOTES


1Theological Education – An Introduction to the Ideas, Theologicaleducation.org
2Ibid
3Banks, R., Reenvisioning Theological Education, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999, p2 as cited by Abraham Folayan, “An Examination of Alternative Methods of Delivery of Theological Education; a view from Malawi”. http://www.theologicaleducation.org

*Seminary. origin late Middle English (denoting a seed plot): from Latin seminarium ‘seed plot,’ neuter of seminarius ‘of seed,’ from semen ‘seed.’ (New Oxford American Dictionary). The seminary was thought to be a place where a seed that is sown finds a fertile soil to grow. Such is the communion of the saints of God.

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