Theological Education Posts
August 27, 2012 by Jason Hood
In addition to church work, I teach a number of graduate and undergraduate courses in Bible and mission. Many of the obstacles in the classroom are similar to the obstacles in the church. And the greatest obstacle of all is the most basic: the ability to read and describe the text and its contents. As difficult as it can be to (say) understand a text in ancient cultural context or engage application in healthy ways, I’d wager that most evangelical students are far better at application than the simpler task of understanding a text.
Ed Sanders has a great piece (it begins on the bottom of the third page) where he reflects on teaching undergraduates:
My earliest worthwhile perception about how to teach was that people do not understand a text after merely reading it through.
In order to address the problem, Sanders required short descriptive papers, not more than 2 pages, in which students were required to describe the topics that appeared more than twice in a short and relatively simple book like 1 Thessalonians. Students would mock the short assignment, then fail to ace it.
N. B.: students didn’t choose their own topics (we all know they would simply find what they already believe is there, whether it’s prominent or not); they actually had to wrestle with the text, engage in close reading, and find the topics that are actually within the text. Sanders cites 1 Thes 4:3-6, 13-17 as examples of passages that were frequently overlooked, simply because students didn’t understand what they were reading. Those shorter papers were followed by a longer version:
The more ambitious effort was to teach undergraduates how to do original exegetical research and write essays. I would always say that if they could write exegesis papers on the NT they could write explanations of anything, and lots of jobs require reading and writing at a high level. My wife’s job was an example that I often cited.
With rare exceptions the students had no idea of how to read a document, pick a topic, study it in the text (not in a reference book), and write about it….
Having no idea of how to study or write, many students turn to plagiarism, which has always been a plague in the educational system. Since the arrival of the Internet plagiarism has become a catastrophic epidemic. [[JH note: of course, since the advent of Google, it's become far, far easier to catch plagiarism.]] Few students are natively dishonest. [[JH note: I thoroughly disagree! We are all dishonest.]] They just don’t know what to do except to find what someone else has written about their topic and copy it down.
Don’t tell publishers, but I agree wholeheartedly with this observation:
I forbade the reading of secondary literature when writing the term paper. Beginning students will bow to authority and will memorize conclusions without ever studying the subject. And then they’ll plagiarize.
Sanders correctly notes the value of studying the Bible in this way:
Merely describing and classifying evidence are important goals. . . . You can’t [I'd say shouldn’t] have a theory about any topic in the humanities unless you systematically analyze the evidence.
May 7, 2012 by Jason Hood
In a few hours, I’ll enter the classroom to teach Ecclesiastes. I’m well-armed with quotes from Luther and Ellul, literary outlines from A. G. Wright and Phil Long. I’ve mined insights from Craig Bartholomew and Brevard Childs (who compares the relationship between Ecclesiastes and Proverbs to the relationship between James and Romans/Galatians) and Sinclair Ferguson and Peter Kreeft and Pascal. I’m familiar with Michael Fox’s take. I know how Ecclesiastes was used in Jewish tradition (the season of rejoicing in the Feast of Tabernacles). I’m prepared to discuss authorship and date, and I can wax on hebel and the fear of YHWH until Jesus returns.
And yet . . . I’m simply not ready. There’s nothing, not even Revelation, that troubles me like this book. I tremble in my easy chair (a strange image, I know, but it can happen). I wonder at the sheer quantity of insight I’ve missed (what have I missed by not reading Barry Webb’s Five Festal Garments or Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones?!?) I fret over whether or not my students will actually get anything out of this book, or out of my teaching. Some fool will be checking email or FB or John Piper’s blog, and will probably get more out of that than she could out of my lectures. Dang it. A prof in a neighboring classroom will be entirely off topic, regaling the class with his personal life, and probably providing some sort of insight that changes someone’s life.
Meanwhile, I’m stuck with Ecclesiastes, slugging away at The Matrix.
And then I recognize. It’s not about me. It’s about fear, faith, and faithful obedience. I can’t guarantee results, but I can enjoy this moment, this text, these students and these fantastic conversation partners from throughout history. I can fear YHWH, teach his word as best I can, and trust him with the results . . . results that may not be in keeping with my course goals, or even Qohelet’s goals (or is it the narrator?!?) . . . results I may never get to see.
And that’s how I discovered I was ready to teach this book: the moment life imitated art Ecclesiastes.2 Comments
October 10, 2011 by Jason Hood
Larry Hurtado recently stirred up the biblio-blogosphere with what I thought were some rather uncontroversial comments on language competency for biblical studies.
It needs to be said that language competence is only one aspect of the cultural competence necessary for wrestling with biblical texts. You can memorize all the verbal paradigms you want, but one still needs training in (for instance) the functions of honor-shame, kinship and economic structures, conceptions of deity, rhetoric and literary conventions, etc.
Scholars and laity alike sometimes downplay the need to approach ancient texts through the gateway of ancient culture and ancient perspectives; sometimes such moves serve the interests of ideological concerns, certain kinds of theological interpretation, or literary approaches.
Meir Sternberg, who is no slouch when it comes to literary approaches, blows this notion away:
From the premise that we cannot become people of the past, it does not follow that we cannot approximate to this state by imagination and training–just as we learn the rules of any other cultural game–still less that we must not or do not make the effort.
Indeed the antihistorical argument never goes all the way, usually balking as early as the hurdle of language. Nobody, to the best of my knoweldge, has proposed that we each invent our own biblical Hebrew. But is the language any more or less of a historical datum to be reconstructed that the artistic conventions, the reality-model, the value system?
Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 10.
I owe this quote to V. Philips Long. (And as a bonus fun-fact for SAET’s paid subscribers, my wife’s aunt used to date Phil Long back in Chattanooga.)7 Comments
July 27, 2011 by Gerald Hiestand
The following post is from SAET Fellow Dr. Chris Bruno, soon to be the academic of the Antioch School Hawaii and the minister of Training and Discipleship at Harbor Church. Those interested in following Chris can do so here.
Not long ago, the SAET blog hosted a friendly debate on church-based vs. institutional theological education. While this conversation will no doubt continue, I am excited to see a growing number of churches who are committed to training leaders without having to send them away for 4 years. Throughout my seminary and doctoral studies, we were aiming at being involved with a church-based theological training program in some way, but we not quite sure how that would work out.
But in God’s providence, I recently connected with a group of churches in Hawaii who are launching a church-based theological seminary. My wife and I have been out there twice now and we both feel strongly that God is calling us to partner with them. I will serve as academic dean in the Antioch School Hawaii as well as minister of Training and Discipleship at Harbor Church. Although I will be four thousand miles from Chicago, I plan to continue to be involved in the SAET and hope to contribute to our conversations on ecclesial theology. We are praying that God raises up many pastor-theologians in Hawaii for the sake of the islands and the entire Pacific Rim.
Hawaii is a beautiful place, there’s no denying that. Once you get past the tourist level, there are some pretty significant spiritual needs and opportunities. It is the only state in the union where church attendance is growing faster than the population; therefore, they need pastors with solid training. Beyond this, Hawaii is a strategic location for reaching Asia and Oceania in ways that we could not from the mainland. However, the options for theological education there are very limited. There are basically three options, none of which are ideal:
- Go to a local Bible college, which is fairly expensive with limited options;
- Go to a mainland seminary, which is expensive and usually takes leaders out of their ministries for four to five years; or
- Get an online degree, which means little or no personal contact with teachers and fellow students.
Based on this, Matt Dirks, lead pastor of Harbor Church concluded, “The result is a preponderance of leaders who have no serious theological education, and therefore struggle to accurately communicate the biblical gospel to their churches and communities.” So the need for theological education is severe, and we are excited to serve in this way.
While the pastors in Hawaii are working to fund it through the churches out there, we are also raising a financial and prayer support base on the mainland. However, Hawaii is an expensive place, so we are trusting God to provide the necessary funds for this endeavor. I am spending most of the fall raising funds for this endeavor, so if you would like to hear more, contact me at email@example.com or you can give here.
Al Mohler, the president of my “institutional seminary” recently said, “My hope is that we can put the [seminary] institution out of business. What I want to see is more godly, biblically grounded, gospel-driven local churches begin to prepare pastors, because it’s in the local church where that should primarily take place.” We are excited that God is raising up such a group of churches in Hawaii, and are excited to see how God will use this church-based, theologically-driven seminary in coming years.2 Comments
July 12, 2011 by Jason Hood
Theology is the application of God’s Word to all of life.
The purpose of doctrine is to ensure that those who bear Christ’s name walk in Christ’s way.
Every Christian doctrine ultimately directs us to the love of God and directs us in ways of rightly ordered living.
[The goal of theology is] a saying/doing that demonstrates one’s understanding of what God has done in Jesus Christ. Faith seeks nothing less than a performance understanding.
Theology exists in order to be applied to the day-to-day problems of the Christian church. Every doctrine has its application . . . .
Who would ever imagine that the response to the glory of the incarnation might be to give to the collection for the poor? Who might imagine that the application of the glories of New Testament Christology might be to stop our quarreling and our divisiveness in the Christian ekklesia?
D. A. Carson:
[I]n addition to holding that Christian beliefs are true and consistent, the Christian, to find comfort in them, must learn how to use them. Christian beliefs are not to be stacked in the warehouse of the mind; they are to be handled and applied to the challenges of life and discipleship.
Otherwise they are incapable of bringing comfort and stability, godliness and courage, humility and joy, holiness and faith . . . .
Above all, many of us have not adequately reflected on the cross. We have been used to thinking of the cross as the means of our salvation; we have not thought much about what it means to take up our cross and die daily, or to fill up the sufferings of Christ.
[Update: On Facebook my friend Brian Parks pointed out similar thoughts at TGC's blog from Dane, on doctrine in the life of Francis Schaeffer.]0 Comments
July 5, 2011 by Jason Hood
A reader posts a question in the comments: What is the point of serious, prolonged study?
Auburn Seminary, a mainline institution in New York City, did a lengthy study of seminary graduates from across the spectrum of Jewish and Christian belief. Among other points, they found that regardless of one’s religious persuasion, the traditional academic disciplines–Bible and theology–were ranked one and two, respectively, by every group. Whether mainline protestant, evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Jewish, those two items were rated the “most important areas of study for professional life and work.”
(I know that Justin Barnard and Matt Lee Anderson, among others, will not be surprised that Roman Catholics ranked Ethics #3; I find it surprising and interesting that mainline pastors marked preaching significantly higher than others.)
One of the implications of this study, I think, is that serious engagement with sacred text and the theology it produces matters–and not just in seminary.
I’d also add a second point. I think I speak for Gerald and SAET in general when I say that such study can be an act of worship. Not just in leading us to worship (although sometimes it does this). Worship involves actively giving our bodies and minds to God (Rom 12:1-2), not so that they will be unused or empty, but so that they will be full of him and his word. “Thinking God’s thoughts after him” is an act of worship.
This morning I spent two hours teaching/discussing Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Job with some young believers. Among other things, we were able to engage the way in which Wisdom literature points to Jesus, as well as a biblical perspective on sex, sovereignty, and suffering. In a world saturated by sex, suffering, and human and demonic pretense to sovereignty, I can think of few better things to do than to prepare myself and others to discern God’s message in those areas.
I can’t study in the same way as Gerald, but a regular diet of study–even after completing my doctoral work–prepares me to wrestle with those questions and many others.6 Comments
May 14, 2011 by Gerald Hiestand
Many thanks to Spencer MaCuaish and Jonathan Pennington for contributing to our conversation on theological education. I’m not certain how much farther we’ve advanced the discussion, but the principle issues are nonetheless relatively clear, to wit…
Spencer and Eternity Bible College represent a growing number of evangelicals who are concerned about the nagging bifurcation between theology and praxis that has longed plagued the academy. This is not a new critique, and is one that surfaced nearly as soon as the seminaries were founded. Thus church-based theological education does not represent a new critique, but a new solution. And it is right to observe that the ability of the “local church” to provide such a solution is relative to the recent upsurge in large churches. (Note that Spencer redefined the term “local church” for our debate to include a consortium of churches). The material and intellectual resources of a church like Cornerstone or Bethlehem Baptist make possible in our contemporary context what was otherwise impossible in days gone by. Those familiar with the SAET will know that I give serious legitimacy to the questions that church-based theological education is trying to answer.
For his part, Jonathan represents, first and foremost, the concern of the researcher and scholar. And while he makes clear throughout his essays that praxis is a vital part of theological education, Jonathan’s emphasis on “pure research” shifts the concern away from education (i.e., ministry training) to theological construction. In other words, I understand his main concern not to be a student’s inability to learn within a church-based model, but rather a teacher’s inability to engage in the sort of critical research and scholarship that necessarily under girds the entire educational enterprise. This, I believe, is a legitimate concern. The depth of scholarship, learning and intellectual capacity found in a place like SBTS or TEDS, etc., cannot be matched by even a large local church. And should a consortium of churches ban together to form a school of theological education with enough depth to facilitate the sort of research and scholarship Jonathan is arguing for, it would, I suspect, become unrecognizable from a traditional seminary. But I’m not as confident as Jonathan that seminaries can really get after the sort of ministry training Spencer is concerned about. Being put through the paces as a pastoral intern or associate pastor is light years away from the sort of “practical” training a seminary can offer.
So is the local church the best place for theological education? My answer is yes and no (how’s that for diplomacy?). There are some things the academy is best suited for, such as concentrated study under a wide breadth of gifted scholars and theologians. And there are other things that the local church is best suited for — ministry training and the application of theology. But — and here’s a significant but — while I agree with this division of labor, the whole enterprise is currently undercut by the reigning (and faulty!) assumption that the best place to do theological scholarship is in the academy by academic theologians, exclusively.
And here’s where the SAET vision comes into play. My concern with seminary training is not that it is too focused on the intellect, or that it’s divorced from hands on ministry training. My concern is that not enough of the theology being taught to seminarians is sufficiently sensitive to ecclesial concerns. I don’t care how many Sunday School classes a professor teaches, or if he serves as an elder in his local church, there is no getting around the fact that one’s principal vocation significantly influences his theology and drives his scholarship. The life of a full-time vocational pastor necessarily takes a person into challenges and responsibilities that most lay leaders can’t fully appreciate. And it is out of this particular place of joy and pain and responsibility that an ecclesial theologian has something to offer wider evangelical theology that often eludes academic theologians. In short, social location matters. I’ve written at length about that elsewhere, so I won’t bang the drum again here. But my challenge to Jonathan and other professors is to not think they can do from the vocation of professor all that needs to be done in servicing the theological needs of the church. My vision for the SAET back in the early days was “50% in twenty years” — that in twenty years, fifty percent of the theology texts (systematic theologies, biblical theologies, theological commentaries, etc.) used in the seminaries would be texts written by pastors. I am, as of late, less optimistic this is a realistic timeline. But I still think it’s a worthy goal.
Thus the goal of the SAET is not to replace the seminary, but rather to get more theologians to catch a vision for the ecclesial theologian — that particular theologian whose primary vocation is the pastorate, and who has the intellectual and theological skills to make serious contributions to professional evangelical theological discourse. This is not to say, however, that we have no need of academic theologians and scholars. Quite the opposite. Just as academic theologians are limited by their social location, so too are ecclesial theologians. We pastors simply do not have the same time and freedom for research and writing that typically attends most academic positions. (One theology prof who attends our church has 32 weeks a year for writing and research. That’s simply beyond the reach of a pastor.) And so pastors are dependent upon the work of gifted, ecclesially sensitive academic scholars to help provide guild specific credibility and depth to our work. But having said that, pastors who have the natural intellectual gifting, who give themselves to study, who have access to good libraries, and who are in a local church context that gives them space to construct theology, have a unique capacity to make significant, ecclesially sensitive theological contributions to evangelical theology.
Regarding ministry training… Candidly, I usually don’t recommend that prospective pastors pursue an MDiv. Better to do a robust MA in theology or biblical exegesis and then get your ministry training in a theologically substantive local church. I’d like to see us return to something akin to the “Schools of the Prophets” common in 18th century Congregational New England. Back in Edwards’ day prospective pastors would do two to four years of theological training in a college and then apprentice under a pastor for another few years or so, until they were able to find their own pastorate. Pastors were the principle theologians of the church back in those days, and so an apprenticeship provided ongoing training not only in practical ministry skills, but in theology as well. Pastors would tutor their apprentices in exegesis (Greek and Hebrew), as well as church history and theology. Beyond this, the apprentices would “make the rounds” with the pastor, seeing firsthand the relationship between theology and praxis, as well as learning the basic practical skills needed in the pastorate (e.g., how to do a wedding, homiletics, funerals, etc.).
In sum, contemporary seminary education is at its best when it is leaning into concentrated theological study. It is getting out of its depth when it tries to do in-house what is better done in the church. And finally, the pastoral vocation needs to once again be seen as a theological vocation, and — as a community — pastors need to start making distinctly ecclesial contributions to wider evangelical theology.
Again, thanks to Jonathan and Spencer for their contributions to this debate. May our Lord give the church wisdom as we all seek to best serve her needs!8 Comments
May 11, 2011 by Gerald Hiestand
The following essay is a guest post by Jonathan Pennington, Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — and the final post in our debate on theological education.
I am thankful for this opportunity to not only present my arguments but also to dialogue with my brother with whom I share so much in common. In reading his position on the best practice for theological education my sense is that he has not addressed the main concerns I have raised and that he is often functioning with unhelpful dichotomies and overstatements.
With regard to him not addressing my main concerns I can say first of all that I realize in writing his own position before reading mine that he may not have considered some of the issues I have raised. This is no fault of his own and I look forward to his responses to my written position. But regarding his position as stated I am concerned that it does consist of a series of overstatements and false dichotomies and that this is typical of those who are now championing a church-based theological training.
For example, we can examine the statement that “proper theological education must include application of the truths learned. In light of this, we must ask if there is any better arena for applying theological truth than the context of the local church.” This is certainly true. But we must ask what confessional person involved in theological training does not see the great value and necessity of applying the truth in the local church? No confessional person is wanting anything less. Maybe some hardened, post-Bultmannian unbelieving scholars may belittle the value of church application, but I know of no believing scholars or schools who do so. This statement does not address the real issue at all. While the church is the ultimate and most important place to apply theological learning this speaks not at all to the question of the role of more academic environs as part of this training. Moreover, this statement assumes what is patently not the case – that seminary and divinity school students are not involved in applying their learning in churches. Again, my experience is that this is indeed what is happening by and large.
We may also consider the statement, “traditional formal academic training centers do not possess adequate means of enabling students to apply what they are learning, nor do they have a mechanism to assess the application component of education.” Again, this argument falls flat because it presents the situation inaccurately and fails to see the value of the division of labor. My experience in seminary environments is that assessment of students’ practical ministry does indeed occur precisely through involving local pastors in the evaluation process. That is, most if not all seminaries require practical ministry components as part of their degree programs and these are mostly managed through and evaluated by local church pastors. Additionally, ‘formal academic training centers’ are never trying to replace the church or provide all the necessary training. There is a conscious division of labor with the academic training occurring only where it can at this high level – in a formal environment – while partnering with the local churches which provide aspects of application that the formal training cannot.
My dialogue partner recognizes this in a subsequent paragraph and acknowledges that many schools do split up the efforts between the academy and the church. But he dismisses this model as ‘disjointed’ and rejects it as deficient because supposedly it is somehow self-contradictory. But it is not clear to me how this model serves to “minimize both the academy and the church.” Rather, it seems to value both for their good and distinct and mutually-beneficial roles. And the assertion that academic training is teaching orthopraxy “while engaging students exclusively [italics mine] at an intellectual level” simply does not correspond with experience. Maybe my interlocutor went to such a school where the professors were robotic, application-devoid conveyors of information, but then I can only say that I am sorry that he had this odd experience which is not like any seminary I know of. If he is instead critiquing formal academic training such as in a PhD program in a ‘secular’ university then what he is describing may be true, but now the argument has changed. We are discussing here intentionally theological-pastoral training, not the realm of general academic study of the Bible in the secular world.
Finally, it is important to note that my dialogue partner is by his own confession envisioning an idealistic situation where a gifted scholar could function as a scholar completely within the church environment. While I think this kind of church and academic integration is indeed happening with most confessional scholars more than my interlocutor implies, we must acknowledge that we do not live in an ideal world where time and resources are unlimited. Rather, the fact is that division of labor is a necessity and that division entails and often requires separate environs and skill-sets that cannot be obtained by collapsing everything into the church. With his admission that he is arguing for an ideal situation that is likely unobtainable I am left confused as to how much ‘orthopractic’ help really comes from his arguments.
I hope that we may continue this dialogue and learn from each other’s positions. It seems to me still that my own position provides a model large enough to accommodate the concerns that we share while the other position provides an unrealistic situation that will only hinder the theological strength of the church in future generations. While we must continue to be vigilant that all of our academic theological study and training be done under the Lordship of Christ, we must not pursue this in a way that will prove to be self-defeating and theologically shallow.3 Comments
May 10, 2011 by Gerald Hiestand
The following essay is a guest post from Spencer MacCuish. Below he responds to Jonathan Pennington and is the third exchange in our Theological Education debate.
There are so many avenues in this debate that are begging to be journeyed, but to walk down these roads would do little to further the discussion at hand. So, I will reserve the critical comments to some of Pennington’s key arguments.
Pennington is arguing that the church needs “traditional educational institutions.” There is a significant burden upon him here to define what he means by “traditional.” Clearly, during the vast majority of its history the church has functioned without these “traditional” institutions. So unless he’s willing to concede that the church has been failing until the modern age, he can’t say that the church has always needed these “traditional educational institutions” in every context. This makes his argument a cultural argument; perhaps his proposition should be more clearly stated: in our current Western setting in the 21st century, the church needs these institutions to drive theological and ministerial training. This proposition is certainly worth addressing, but we might ask why we need these institutions today when the church has functioned without them for so much of its history.
One of the primary arguments in Pennington’s paper is that these institutions provide the benefits of “pure research” to the broader church body. Insofar as he argues for the value of pure research, I would absolutely agree. But when he goes on to argue that there must be an institution to support such research, he does not provide much rationale as to why this must be the academy rather than the church.
Pennington assumes the church is so focused on practical matters that it cannot do pure research, and therefore it never considers opening new doors of understanding. This may be true in some cases, but he must acknowledge the possibility of the converse being true: that the practical concerns of the church lead us to be innovative, force us to do detailed exegesis, and thereby open new doors of possibility. It is also true that there do need to be resources set aside for people to do pure research, and I would agree that there does need to be an institution to support such work. But I contend that this institution is the church. For if the institution is the academy, the danger is that the academy will simply become concerned with what is best for the preservation and advancement of traditional educational institutions.
Pennington is making the case that independent academic institutions are needed in order for pure research to continue. Is this because the church is incapable of producing such depth of scholarship? Or is it because we have wholesale bought into the current academic model and allowed the academy to pillage the bride of Christ and leave her in a rather anemic state? If our current models push all of the skilled theologians and ministry-trainers to leave the church for the academy, then we should not be surprised to find superior research in the academies. But this is not due to a defect inherent in the church. Instead, it is the result of our compartmentalized model.
Pennington goes on to argue from both Moses and the book of Acts that there should be a division of labor and thus makes an attempt to build a case for independent academies being the best option for theological training. This argument clearly demonstrates how his presuppositions have clouded the issue. Clearly the issue in Acts is a division of labor within the church, appointing some to serve so that others may devote themselves to prayer and teaching the Word, rather than an attempt to start institutions independent of the church. I suggest that Pennington’s view on this issue stems from the current model rather than the biblical model.
He also argues, mistakenly in my estimation, that the traditional academy is the best place for diversity to be displayed. While that may sound nice, the implication of such a view actually weakens the church and allows for the church to continue in a pattern that is less than God intended. Simply stated, this argument seems contrary to God’s design for the church, for the church is designed to reflect a unity of all people—all races, classes, backgrounds, etc. Should we start a new institution to replace a function of the church every time the church begins to fail in accomplishing its mission, or should we labor to reform the church so that we reflect broader diversity while still remaining unified?
Pennington raises an important question: Why can’t both church-based training and “traditional” independent academies co-exist? He claims that by embracing one rather than both we are creating a “house divided.” I don’t believe this adequately frames the issue. Perhaps the house is already divided. Accepting two approaches to accomplishing the same goal is not necessarily the same thing as unity. Perhaps the best way to bring unity to the house is to bring the scholars back home to the church. Scholars should be using the gifts they’re using now and doing the research they’re doing now; we’re simply pointing out that they should be doing these things in the context of the church. We’re actually seeking to unify that which is currently divided.
In his paper, Pennington states that “traditional institutions” are needed in order to provide an environment in which reform can happen. The irony here is obvious: how can he both embrace tradition and also expect that tradition to be the platform for reform? Perhaps the reform that is now needed is the reform of the very institutions he is embracing. Perhaps he needs to acknowledge his minimalist view of the church, and strive for an idealism whereby scholars do their work in the context of the church. Dr. Pennington must gain a larger view of what the church should be doing, and what the church could do if given the chance.2 Comments
May 9, 2011 by Gerald Hiestand
Theological Education Debate: The Value of Educational Institutions and ‘Pure Research’ for Ministry Training, Jonathan T. Pennington
The following essay is a guest post by Jonathan Pennington, Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — and the second essay in our debate on theological education.
I am a churchman from first to last. This means that all that I do in scholarship is ultimately for the building up of the Church universal. In this sense it makes no difference whether I am preparing to teach Old Testament survey to middle school children or writing a paper on the details of Greek voice for SBL. All of this labor is undertaken with the conscious goal of increasing our knowledge so that faith in Christ might spread and deepen. As one who consciously stands in the great tradition of orthodoxy my gifts and calling are constrained and guided by this ultimate end. My understanding of Holy Scripture calls for this, and my hermeneutical commitments (which may be described as ‘theological’ and ‘confessional’) guide me to understand the goal of study to be personal transformation.
Thus, I suspect that I share much in terms of commitments and values with my dialogue partner in the present discussion. We are both committed to learning and teaching that has its ultimate goal in edification; neither of us sees value in knowledge for only knowledge’s sake, and certainly not knowledge for the sake of merely perpetuating educational institutions. This shared commitment gives us a solid platform from which we can launch a fruitful discussion about the place and means of such learning. My contention is that while the Church necessarily plays a crucial role in theological education, we also need this training to occur in more traditional teaching and research institutions.
There are several reasons why I believe the Church needs traditional educational institutions to drive theological and ministerial training:
The Necessity and Benefit of ‘Pure Research’
‘Pure research’ is a term widely used to refer to the exploration of ideas and paradigms of thought within a field of study. It is paired and contrasted with ‘applied research,’ which focuses on production and the practical outcome of ideas. Within the traditional seminary there is always a department or set of courses that are considered ‘practical’ or ‘applied ministry’. This is good and necessary. But all would agree that we cannot have only ‘applied’ classes without also some background in content and theory and structure that feeds and informs this practical ministry focus. Thus, a class that focuses on careful exposition of Scripture in a sermon will be greatly influenced (hopefully!) by an understanding of the original languages of the biblical texts. But for this to happen there must be many hours and months put into understanding those languages well – hours and months that at the time do not seem very practical and beneficial! There is a necessary trust factor that must be at work; the students must trust that the professors will eventually get them to a place where the pain of learning the Aorist Middle Imperative forms is worth it in reading Holy Scripture, or that understanding how Christians in the past have responded to a situation may help us wrestle with the same today. The point is that someone needs to do such ‘pure research’ into Greek grammar and church history so that it is understood and can be taught as the basis for ‘practical ministry’. We need searching and researching that continually returns to the heart of issues and unearths new thoughts, directions, and connections.
I would imagine that my interlocutors would agree with this. But if so, then we must go one step further and realize that for this kind of training to occur there must be an institution that supports it. The initially-seemingly-impractical work of learning the nooks and crannies of Greek Verbal Aspect or the understanding of covenant in Second Temple Judaism or the Presbyterian response to slavery in the 1840’s, etc. must be done by someone. And this requires resources of time and money that are invested in gifted and called individuals who can dedicate themselves to pure research. Every corporation and field of knowledge understands this. The only way that a culture can continue to train its next generation in practical knowledge is through the support of pure research, that which provides not only a framework for the practical knowledge but also frequently opens new doors of understanding and stimulates fresh growth and reformation.
The Great Danger in Losing Pure Research
The negative corollary to the preceding is that if and when we devalue or lose the pure research component to our training we run aground our health and witness and depth. Imagine with me a world of copies of copies of copies. Whether it be of actual texts or more broadly of ideas, when one only has copies of copies of copies quality and clarity are always eventually lost. We may think of this analogy with regards to the rendering of Holy Scripture into English. As our language and culture change over decades and centuries there is always a need to produce new and meaningful translations of the Scriptures. But imagine if this could only be done from some current English translation. (I’ll let the reader decide which one!) The continual re-production of the Bible based on this English translation would inevitably get farther and farther from the intent and nuance of the original. Translation itself is necessarily transformation. How much more when there is no returning to the source but only copies of copies of copies. This is why it is necessary for each generation to continually return to the original and reproduce its truth into the current parlance. This is not only a reference to the translation of the Bible but to the whole work of theology itself. (One may consult the work of John Frame who observes that theology is essentially the practice of reading and applying the Bible today.)
Therefore, once again, we must consciously (and financially) support the ongoing work of pure researchers, those gifted with the ability to go back to the sources and lead us anew in each generation. I do not mean by this that these ‘pure researchers’ are themselves impractical nor that they only write and teach others their findings. Rather, they have the time and resources available to them to do research themselves and to help others learn these same skills and practices, at least in part.
As I often describe it to my students, we professors are pushing them to greater depth in understanding and practice, leading them to dig deep wells of understanding so that for the rest of their lives they may have a deep resource from which to draw. Without a depth of knowledge and skill their ministries will prove eventually to be shallow or like a plant without much root, and thereby subject to every wind of cultural fad or the scorching sun of burnout. Of course, one can gain a certain depth of knowledge and skill without formal education (a good example is C.J. Mahaney), but this is the exception that proves the rule – it is not the normal and productive way – and those who have gained this have generally done so through self-reading of others who did have training.
Thus, again, we need the dedicated resources and time that the educational institution provides for pure researches to plumb the depths themselves and teach others to do so as well, even if not to the same level of expertise. And if we devalue this or lose it we will be adrift in a world of cheap and shallow reproductions.
The Goodness of the Division of Labor
Another argument for the continued support of the educational institution in ministry training is that we should recognize that this set up is merely an extension of the wisdom of the division of labor. We read in Israel’s history that a time came when Moses finally realized – somewhat reluctantly it seems – that he could not do everything, that there needed to be a dividing up of roles and responsibilities to those gifted and called in different ways and a sharing of the burden at hand. Luke describes for us in Acts the same type of situation. We see that early on in the Church’s history there was the need to appoint some to serving and administrating so that others could dedicate themselves to teaching.
The result of this for most of Christianity has been a group of leaders called and gifted and set apart for ministry purpose. As the Church developed this naturally advanced into schools of ministry training, first within the church and eventually within the earliest universities (which were nearly all started as divinity schools). This in itself is not a problem. It is a natural and valuable extension of the division of labor. As our knowledge and our history continue to expand – along with the complexity of our witness to our world – it is good and reasonable to have some dedicated to the teaching of the teachers. A problem does arise if these teachers lose their own connection to the Church. But when this happens this is not the fault of the inevitable division of labor but of sin. We should not destroy the benefit of the division out of reaction to some of its poor practice any more than we should abolish the idea of paid ministers because of the failure of some to be good stewards of this gift.
The Healthy Effects of Broader Exposure and Dialogue
One important advantage of an educational institution over a purely church-based training is that it is provides the opportunity for continual dialogue with those who do not think precisely like us and who have broader and different experiences than our own. In a church setting this can happen to some degree, but not as it does in an educational setting which is the bringing together of scholars and students from a broader swath of the world population than most churches do. Even large churches inevitably end up having a certain personality and appealing to and reinforcing certain views and attitudes; the staff of a church need to have a fairly high degree of overlap in ministry philosophy and approach.
This is true also for educational institutions, of course, but there is much more potential and capacity for diversity within bounds. Indeed, schools which are too myopic and provincial are the same ones which end up hindering research and exploration to their own detriment. But generally the ethos of most schools allows for some degree of diversity, even if not consciously sought, by virtue of there being a variety of backgrounds and experiences represented in both the professors and the students. Churches, being a different kind of organization, even if consciously seeking to be ‘diverse,’ are much more homogenous in population, socio-economic status, doctrine, and practice. There is nothing wrong with this; God does not seem to be overly anxious about different denominations or cultural forms of Christianity.
But the point is that a good educational institution allows for and promotes a greater depth of dialogue and broader exposure of ideas than a local church can or does or should. A school that is still confessional in bounds but with a healthy diversity among the faculty provides a great strength and protection against the Church’s many blind spots. One negative bit of evidence for this is that, quite the opposite, the seminaries and colleges that are tied into and controlled by a local congregation, usually by a strong pastor personality, tend to be very narrow and not dialogical, thereby hindering the inherent benefit of a school. I would imagine there are exceptions, but this seems to be the normal way of things. Most of my readers can likely think of several current examples. Much healthier is to have an educational institution not controlled (consciously or unconsciously) by a local congregation or personality so that the benefits of dialogue and ‘iron sharpening iron’ can occur.
Some Reflections on the Current State
This last point leads to a few reflections on our current state and why we are even having this dialogue today. I am disconcerted and nonplussed when I see a trend observable in some who are seeking to justify church-based ministry training by criticizing traditional educational institutions. This is a typical sign of sophomoric understanding manifested here as the need to justify one’s own views on the basis of rejection and criticism of something else. It is destruction, not construction. This kind of reactionary approach tends to blind one to the good aspects of what is being rejected and to produce a myopic and lop-sided perspective, one built more on rhetoric than wisdom.
Why not value both church-based training and educational institutions in mutual support? Why not see that both educational institutions and church-based programs offer important perspectives and strengths in our overall goal? We need both. If my friends who are promoting church-based programs only want to come alongside the seminaries and offer some constructive criticism to the seminaries to remember their confessional calling and provide some additional training then I say, ‘Great!’ There is no need to be in competition. But if instead there is a rejection of educational institutions or a casting of suspicion upon the traditional seminary then I can only say this is terribly short-sighted, self-defeating, and cuts the Church off from one of its great assets. This is a house dividing against itself.
While I share deeply the concern to not divorce theological training from the local church, it seems to me a straw man argument to suggest this is what is happening for the most part. That is, I don’t know of any professor in any department in any confessional school who is not in some way involved in church ministry. There likely are some, but they would certainly be the exception that proves the rule. Seminary professors are nearly always leaders, preachers, Sunday School teachers, elders, and deacons in the church. And what seminary student stops going to church or serving there during his or her theological training? Again, maybe there are some, but I don’t know any and if I did, I know those students would be going against the pattern and desire and ethos of their seminary! Therefore, unhelpful is the rhetoric without substance of a statement such as this one from one new Bible college’s website – “Students [should] be taught by practitioners. Ivory tower theologians tend to produce ivory tower theologians.”
I would also note the irony that people who have outside degrees (indeed, degrees at all) are the ones who are generally hired to teach in these in-house church programs. This is all fine and good, but it gives the lie to the rhetoric that all we need is in-house training. That is, even those who would promote this inherently by their own education recognize the benefit of – even need – for outside training, gained at educational institutions with pure researchers. Those who are called and hired to teach in in-church programs are hired typically because they are the ones who have had the opportunity to learn and hone skills and knowledge in a place dedicated to doing just that. If church-based programs could accomplish this then there would be no need to hire those with outside training. This is not to say that one necessarily needs an advanced degree to be able to teach within the Church – especially in many parts of the world where this is rarely available – but it does show the inherently understood value of such training.
Related, I may ask a telling question – If those who are teaching at church-based training programs were offered a teaching post at a confessional seminary that afforded them both time to study, research, and write and the opportunity to teach those preparing for ministry, all the while, of course, still being involved in their local church, would they take such a position? Some may not, as a matter of principle. But I suspect that many would avail themselves of such a great opportunity. If so, then it is apparent that this is not a matter of right or wrong or of some inherent superiority of the local church as the place for theological education. Rather, there is recognition that there is great value in the division of labor and the opportunity for pure research to be given to some who are called and gifted to this end. This suggests that any rhetoric concerning the superiority of or exclusivity for church-based training should cease.
To conclude I want to reiterate that I share what I suppose to be the main concern of my interlocutors in this discussion, namely, that purely academic study of Scripture and theology can end up being detrimental to itself and the Church. As Kierkegaard wryly noted, whoever is reading the Bible with ten open commentaries is probably just writing the eleventh, but this is to read the Scriptures contra naturam. Rather, we are to read it hear the voice of God and be transformed. So true! The study of Scripture and theology must have as its goal doxology else it is against its own nature. But the solution is not a reactionary collapsing of the different and mutually beneficial avenues of theological education –the church and the seminary/divinity school – into one and to put this all onto the local church. To do so is short-sighted and only directs the Church of the next generation into an un-rooted and regrettable shallowness. The church and the seminary should continue their mutually symbiotic and mutually edifying relationship.