Twenty-Five Theses on Theological Education in North America and Beyond

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Twenty-Five Theses on Theological Education in North America and Beyond












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Twenty-Five Theses on Theological Education in North America and Beyond

In Martin Luther’s day, a list of proposed theses would be posted somewhere in public (like the church door) so that they could be read ahead of a debate.  Day in and day out, I am involved with discussions or debates about theological education—its curriculum, its costs, its goals, its modes of delivery, etc.  These theses, then, represent views I have come to ‘after the debate’.  And yet, most points below are highly controversial and, I expect, too challenging to implement given the present structures and commitments of educational institutions in North America.  My hope, then, is that my points offer alternatives for those developing theological training elsewhere in the world.  My appeal is: Please do not duplicate the model of theological education that dominates the scene in North America.  Yet, even in North America, I expect that these theses will someday become relevant due to the issues being faced—financial, pedagogical, technological, ecclesiastical, ministry and missional issues.
1.      Theological education must be about more than academic learning.  Education needs to be understood as: information, use of tools, development of skills, the formation of character, spiritual growth, personal maturity, and community inclusion.  (Pedagogy.) 
2.      The seminary should train first for the needs of constituencies (denominations, missions, ministries), not first for the individual seeking theological education.  Seminaries should identify the denominations, in particular, with which they will work in a certain region of the country.  (Ecclesiology.)
3.      Those constituencies should be involved in the formation process—it is not something to expect from the seminary alone.  They might, for example, pick up the training in ministerial fields from the seminary.  They might also contribute faculty, who could be bi-vocational (such as pastor-teachers, missionary-teachers).  (Ecclesiology, pedagogy, finances.)
4.      Students from independent, non-denominational, local churches can fit into the theological education developed with constituencies in mind, but theological education should not be, in the first place, for an individual student.  Moreover, having more than one constituency (e.g., a denomination) represented is a strength as ‘iron sharpens iron’ in the academic process.  This is a vote for the multi-denominational, Evangelical seminary/institution/educational program.  (Ecclesiology.)
5.      The default level for training people for ministry, including pastoral ministry, should not be the master’s level.  Sufficient theological and ministerial training can be gained at the bachelor’s level.  (Pedagogy, ministry.)
6.      The demise of Bible colleges has left the American Church with various problems: the length of study and the high cost of study to train for ministry.  A 4-year degree in any field plus a 3-year Master of Divinity degree is unnecessary and costly in time and money.  (Finances, pedagogy.)
7.      Moreover, the emphasis in the master’s degree is not what churches need most.  Masters degrees are heavy on the academics and weak on other issues.  Trying to make a ministry course a master’s level course puts undue pressure to be academic on what is really a preparation for ministry.  (Pedagogy, ministry.)
8.      Christian colleges and universities in America should abandon the John Dewey pragmatism that underlies American education, which resulted in the liberal arts undergraduate degree.  General education courses to ‘fill out’ or ‘broaden’ a student are not as important as is claimed.  Far too much time and money is wasted on these courses, and the European model of higher education is superior in this area.  If students need to be broadened in their education, this should take place at the high school level and in other ways in the culture, not by paying thousands of dollars to get two English courses, one social studies course, a chemistry course, and so forth at the college level.  So, Christian colleges and universities should focus their degrees and reduce the B.A. from a four-year to a three-year time period.  (Pedagogy.)
9.      Christian colleges and universities in America should offer a three-year B.Div. degree that is equivalent to the seminary curriculum in many ways.  This could replace the religion or Bible major in the liberal arts degree and the Bible college degree.  This is already what is done in the UK, for example.  This would move students more quickly into active ministry and cut the cost of theological education by thousands and thousands of dollars.  Imagine having four more years of productive ministry and being far better off financially as one undertakes pastoral ministry.  (Pedagogy, finances.)
10.  Seminaries should work more closely with these colleges rather than remain independent.  The cost of duplicating libraries, classrooms, dormitories, and the waste of taking courses in a religion major and then again in a MA at seminary cannot be justified.  (Pedagogy, finances.)
11.  Denominations—sometimes on their own and sometimes in conjunction with others—might develop their own certificates of 10 courses (which would be one year full-time but could be completed part-time) that provide a foundation for theological education.  These would be an extension of local Christian high schools and very much like community/technical colleges.  This proposal would affect Christian colleges, which would be able to receive students with 1 or 2 years of study already.  In turn, the cost of Christian colleges would decrease (and Christian educational institutions must stop thinking that the way to remain viable financially is to increase their student body and offerings of various studies).  (Ecclesiology, pedagogy, finances.)
12.  These programs would be bridges to Christian colleges or seminaries, where a higher level of academic work in Bible, theology, Church history, and ethics would be studied.  Study at this level—at the college/seminary—would be either one or two years.  (Pedagogy.)
13.  The denominational ‘technical colleges’ should then receive the graduates back for ministerial training.  Ministry courses would become reflective practice courses guided by mentors in the denominations.  (Ecclesiology, pedagogy, ministry, mission.)
14.  These technical colleges would offer life-long learning to persons in ministry.  Courses could be anything from short seminars to full courses.  Cooperation with colleges and seminaries might often be pursued—the key is flexibility to meet the needs on the ground, rather than teaching to a particular curriculum.  (Ecclesiology, pedagogy, ministry, mission.)
15.  Theological education should be contextual.  The idea that diversity is good in itself needs to be questioned.  Some celebrate having a global classroom, using online resources.  Some celebrate having diverse ecclesiastical groups in the same learning experience.  There are times where these things are good, but this is not an absolute value (as Western culture believes) and needs to be explained as a learning goal for a particular course of study.  In general, it is better to teach a course with a more homogenous group because this will allow a deeper engagement with the subject matter, including its application to a particular context (theological tradition, denomination, cultural context, etc.).  (Pedagogy, ministry.)
16.  The idea that North American seminaries should seek international students is, for the most part, seriously flawed.  If by this is meant relocating persons intercontinentally, this has proven to be seriously mistaken in many cases as students find themselves attached to the North American culture.  (Their children, e.g., become Americanized, and it is difficult to return to, e.g., their African context.)  Moreover, the discussion of theology and the Church is different for different contexts: a North American education is inferior for the African, Asian, European, or South American student.  (It may be transferable for the British, Irish, Australian, or New Zealand student—but they have their own, fine seminaries/colleges.)  (Pedagogy, finances.)
17.  Systematic theology should be replaced with historical theology.  Theology is only diminished and distorted if it is understood as the arrangement of convictions, like Platonic ideals.  The study of theology should not be a study of the ideas (beliefs) of theology apart from the context of (a) Scripture, (b) the Church’s history, and (c) particular, contemporary contexts of the global Church.  (Pedagogy.)
18.  The theological curriculum needs at least four courses in historical theology (a contextual approach to theology): patristics, Reformation, post-Reformation, and the Evangelical movement.  (Pedagogy.)
19.  The theological curriculum needs a course on missions so that students can locate their own ministry and missions in the context of the Church’s mission.  Too many ministers, after their theological education, understand ministry as (a) maintaining orthodox teaching and (b) giving pastoral guidance to current situations while (c) remaining somewhat clueless as to their role, and their churches’ roles, in doing the mission of the Church.  Besides, being Evangelical means, among other things, participating in a missional movement that goes beyond the boundaries of the institutional Church.  Such a course is primarily a course in the history of missions.  (The practice of missions can be pursued in the proposed technical colleges of the denominations.)  (Pedagogy, missions.)
20.  The social sciences have been given too much emphasis in the seminary curriculum.  Pastoral care has become clinical counselling, guided by psychology.  Missions has become cross-cultural studies, guided by anthropology.  Ministerial studies has become leadership studies, guided by sociology.  (The situation is even worse in non-Evangelical seminaries, where a socio-political agenda overtakes theology.)  The antidote to this is to offer a Biblical and historical theological curriculum.  (Pedagogy, ministry, missions.)
21.  Evangelical theological education needs to recover its understanding of Evangelicalism.  Two of the main problems facing Evangelicalism today are its ecclesiology and its understanding of itself as a movement.  Evangelicalism is an important movement defined by its history and existing alongside the institutional Church.  These overlap, but they are not the same.  The demise of the mainline denominations and the growth of independent, non-denominational, local churches has resulted in an ecclesial crisis in the West.  This, in turn, has affected the health of Evangelicalism as a movement.  A somewhat positive development has been the establishment of Evangelical denominations, but this has diminished Evangelicalism as a movement alongside the institutional Church.  Moreover, Evangelicalism as a movement is made up of different ecclesiologies and, at the same time, has focussed less on ecclesiology and more on individual salvation and faith. All this has contributed to an ecclesial crisis and a weakened understanding of Evangelicalism as a movement that is broader than an ecclesiastical tradition and works beyond its boundaries (as, e.g., in missions).  (Ecclesiology, pedagogy.)
22.  Biblical languages are essential for a proper theological education.  Study of the Biblical languages gives students access to all the theological discourse and various tools of theology.  It also locates theological education in the Biblical text—not in a collection of ideas or a contemporary situation.  The primary role of the seminary graduate is to teach the Scriptures, and Biblical languages are foundational to that task.  All the original apostles knew Greek and Hebrew, of course, and were deeply steeped in a knowledge of the Scriptures.  This should remain one of our goals for theological education for ministry as well.  (Pedagogy.)
23.  The post-Christian culture of the West requires more than the one obligatory ethics course in the standard theological curriculum.  Ministerial training has much to do with teaching ministers how to train pagans to live Godly lives.  This is both a matter of training individuals to live righteously and training communities to be the people of God’s Kingdom over against the world.  Being the Church is not primarily about offering a Sunday morning worship service but about living as a Christian community.  Christian ethics is both personal ethics and ecclesial ethics.  (Pedagogy, ministry, missions, ecclesiology.)
24.  Online education should be a part of contemporary, theological education, but the latter should not be reduced to or limited to independent study in online courses.  (Online education has become a way to make money for colleges and seminaries: the savings is not passed on to the students (who pay the same prices for courses) but helps the institutions meet their growing costs.  This argument is compelling for administrators, who typically do not worry about the implications for pedagogy.)  Nor are online forums an answer to the need for more than online lectures (whether synchronous or asynchronous), reading, and assignments.  Theological education has to be more personal since it involves so much more.  (Pedagogy, finances.)
25.  One way to accomplish a more personal and interactive theological education is through expansion of tutorials.  In classrooms, students often sit quietly, listening either to the professor or to the three or four students who always ask questions and engage in dialogue.  In online courses, students either do the same in Zoom/Skype classes or work fairly independently from their homes.  Tutorials, whether in the professor’s office or in small groups on Zoom/Skype, will improve this.  The old Cambridge and Oxford approach to the bachelor’s level education that is based on the tutorial model will work well for both on campus and online teaching.  The use of forums for interaction is very inadequate.  (Pedagogy.)

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