There’s been a flurry of articles online recently about the plusses and minuses of theological education.
I want to share a few thoughts here about the positives of formal theological education and why I recommend it. There’s a temptation to see training as primarily academic and therefore irrelevant to the day to day life of ministry. There’s probably a whole wider discussion to be had about the assumption that academic and practical must be diametrically opposed but I will limit myself to a few comments here:
I studied at Oak Hill Theological College on the Theological and Pastoral Studies programme. I was there for 4 years as I studied for the MTh qualification.
Here are some of the ways it helped:
Biblical Studies. This included overviews of Biblical books looking at authorship, historical and cultural context, textual critical issues. Now, when I stand up to preach on a Sunday, I am not going to be talking about rhetorical or source criticism. However, as I prepare to preach:
– I am alert to some of the challenges that there may be against confidence in the Bible. Whilst most people who seek to attack the truthfulness and reliability of the Bible will not have studied these issues at a technical level, popular attacks are rooted in such arguments. So, first of all, it helps me apologetically and alerts me to where and when I need to show Scripture’s reliability.
– I can recognise where certain commentators are coming from in their arguments and explanations. I read others with my eyes wide open.
– I am also alert to some of the “speed-bumps” in the text. Often whilst we don’t agree with some scholars’ conclusions about why those intriguing and challenging features are present, what they have helpfully done is slowed us down in our reading and got us thinking carefully.
Biblical Languages. Similar to point three above but in a more positive way, one of the best things you and I can do as we prepare to teach God’s Word is slow down. We try and do this proactively not just for ourselves but with the congregation on a Sunday evening as we push them to look closely at the text. What does it actually say, not just what do I think it says.
Alongside this, we studied Exegesis and Hermeneutics. Again, one of the primary benefits of this is that it stops us from rushing things through. I remember one of the major learning points was not to rush to the commentaries. These teaching resources are brilliant once, and only once you have spent a lot of time in the text yourself.
Part of the slowing down was also the discipline of looking at things without immediately thinking “how will I preach this?” It is good to be stepping back a little and hearing God speak to you and teach you without the sense of hand to mouth existence.
Bible handling matters because the authority that elders have to lead in the church is Scripture. It is a teaching authority. Bible handling matters because the tool that we have for giving wise pastoral counsel is Scripture.
Over 4 years we spent a lot of time looking at Church History. Why does Church history matter? How is that relevant to ministry? Well, here are two examples:
– Responding to controversy and false teaching. Often the questions, challenges and errors we face are not new. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims are not coming up with anything that the early church leaders like Athanasius and Augustine dealt with when they deny the Trinity. Similarly, much false teaching has its roots in Gnosticism. Just last week on our Union course we saw fascinating links between the things within Catholicism that the reformation challenged and contemporary challenges from prosperity teaching to secularism.
– Pastorally. My third-year dissertation looked at the abolition of the Slave Trade. I was looking at events and arguments from 200 years ago but they were doubly relevant to today. First of all, a lot of the arguments about how we view issues including marriage roles, men and women in the church and homosexual relations are linked to hermeneutical models based on an understanding of the abolitionists’ arguments. Secondly, we live in a society where not only are there great examples of injustice, not only do Christians find themselves in a long term, lonely battle against a hostile culture but we see many specific examples of modern day slavery.
So, all that academic stuff is deeply relevant to pastoral ministry now and I’ve not even mentioned the specifically practical modules. However good seminaries will include modules on apologetics, pastoral care, leadership, mission and crossing cultures, worship etc. Oak Hill included communications workshops in their programme. I additionally had the opportunity to focus my fourth-year dissertation on the question of marriage and work a vitally important pastoral issue that will no doubt take up much of your time pastorally.
As I have mentioned so often before, I appreciate that people care about my ministry enough to ensure that I was properly equipped for the long-haul. My desire is to see every potential pastor and planter properly equipped.
Not everyone can find the time and finances to move away from home to study at one of the few campuses in the UK and a campus based academic course may not be the best learning method for all. However, I hope that this will not prevent people from receiving good quality theological training to the same level that I benefited from.
That’s one of the key reasons why we partnered with Union School of Theology to provide a Learning Community where people can train for ministry in context. You can find out more about how we are encouraging theological training especially for Urban Ministry here.
 I am a strong advocate of theological education in context and of a strong vocational dimension to it. However, I would still insist that those serious about long term ministry need to commit to 3-4 years (Full time equivalent) of training.