Questioning Theological Education

To start this post, let me begin with several qualifications: First, I think that theological education has some serious meditation to do concerning its task. Second, I think the overall model / approach upon which we’ve built is flawed. Third, I am excited about virtually anything that seeks to think creatively about this. In comes Mike Breen. Mike Breen, who I know little about but have heard good things, posted this back in November. It is a wholesale engagement with the kinds of worries I have. In light of that, let me again state some qualifications: First, I know nothing about this other than this post. Second, if I saw this right when I graduated seminary I probably would have called him up and said, “Sign me up and tell me what to do.” Third, I have some doubts about some of the statistics in the video, but for the purpose of this discussion lets assume they are true.

Now, qualifications aside, I was left frustrated by this post. But why? Why would I be frustrated by someone who is, for all practical purposes, hitting all of my sweet-spots? I actually found myself asking this exact question at times. Let me try and point to some issues I think are inherent to this project (keeping in mind how limited my knowledge of it is).

First, it is built on over-simplification. The “Christendom” versus “post-Christendom” divide is helpful for sermons but not for academic discourse. Things are just not so simple. Furthermore, keeping in mind my ignorance of their overall plan, this seems steeped in the present evangelical culture. In other words, based on how evangelicals are intuitively thinking about things, their overall approach makes perfect sense. That worries me. This feels no different than the megachurch mentality they oppose. In light of that claim, note the inherent pragmatism to the message. We have statistics, we have an action plan, and we can use Jesus as the model. But is this right? It strikes me that it is not. Again, over-simplification seems to govern the day (maybe this was just for the sake of the video?) Also, in light of their allergy to the megachurches and the “business” model (again, no complaints here), it seems to me that they have not dug deep enough to the pragmatist idolatry that fueled the errors they worry about. In other words, they could be trying to build on the same broken foundation (even as they claim they are doing the opposite in their video).

Following the present culture, it strikes me that we have another case of Jesus vs. Paul (and by Paul I mean the rest of the NT). As a side note, if you haven’t noticed this phenomena, watch for it. It is pervasive. I think it gained popularity through the emergent church conversation, particularly the more radical ends, but it is a view that is becoming “normal.” Notice how quickly we can just say: “Well Jesus did it this way, therefore this must be a model.” There is a pragmatism and a lack of a robust biblical vision (or so it strikes me).

Second, I was struck by the odd feeling that I would have loved this earlier in my life, but now I am left with much hesitancy. Why? First, I think that my earlier point about pragmatism is again wielding its head. The seminary grads I talk to almost all want pragmatic ways to fix things. I tend to hand them Eugene Peterson. In other words, starting from what seminary grads want doesn’t necessarily lead us anywhere. I am again struck by how similar this seems to be to the megachurch movement these guys reject. I grew up at Willow Creek, and it feels the same to me. We start with statistics, move to what makes intuive sense, and then build a common-sensical model based on New Testament narratives. Is this just the same old evangelical game? The fact that high-up on the list of “to-dos” to get this thing going was developing a savvy video strikes me that the answer would be: “Yes.”

Third, I was struck by how much I disliked the terms “character” and “compentence.” Both strike me as inherently secular. As an advocate of the spiritual formation conversation, I quiver when I see terms like this. Maybe there is much more depth to them than strike me at first glance? I don’t know. To me, this again feels American (or Western would probably be more adequate). It thinks of education in terms of trade schools. Furthermore, there was a tinge of that classic evangelical inclination that there was the Acts 2 church that lasted for a generation and then everything has gone 100% wrong ever since. Therefore, what we need to do is to just recover that church. I don’t know if that is there (it is certainly ubiquitous in the evangelicalism I grew up in), but if nothing else, some form of that inclination is still floating around. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of theological depth in a discussion of theological education.

Fourth, other than reference to the importance of the missio Dei (whose importance is not questioned here), there really isn’t any focus on how thinking Christianly is at the heart of our participation in the mission of God. 1 Corinthians would be helpful here. Again, with the last point, it seems like the mission Dei was picked up at random with no other theological structures in place. And maybe it is here that my real frustration lies. Rather than theology I find common-sensicalism.

Fifth, is the problem the model of education, or is the problem our ideal of education? Both, no doubt, have their problems, but which is more central? I would point to the total lack of theological education over the last generation, where theology itself was seen as an end rather than an aid to meeting Christ in the scriptures (see Stephen Holmes’ post for some excellent thoughts on this). Rather than a wholesale rejection of the model, why don’t we start asking new questions about how that model can be more faithful to the call of the church? While I used to be on their side of things, wanting to rethink everything from the ground up, it is my new inclination that a more fruitful endeavor would be to rework the model from within it. This is not just a pragmatic claim, but I have a lot in mind when I suggest this. Maybe we can discuss this. I should say that  I was in an innovative seminary program designed with many of the same worries as Breen’s, and it did deal with (in my mind) many of their worries (not to diminish other major issues such as the financial, etc.).

Last, the post and video point to two distinct issues that they believe are interrelated: the church and the seminary. I wonder if we would explore the relationship between these in more detail if that would help. For instance, I know few churches who really take a role in future pastor’s and missionary’s development (spiritual, financial, etc.). I wonder if the seminary is often required to hold a load a bit too large? Anyone who has taught an introductory class at a seminary can recognize how low biblical and theological knowledge truly is, as well as an understanding of the Christian life. It is no surprise that three years later they don’t feel equipped for ministry.

In the end, I like the questions, I like the desire, but I am left with much more hesitancy than excitement. It has too much of the feel of the evangelicalism that continues to say: “I know, we should just start from scratch;” and “Finally, I have come around to fix everything.” What are your thoughts? Am I being too harsh? Am I totally off about what they are doing? What do you think?


14 thoughts on “Questioning Theological Education

  1. Kyle, these are some really excellent thoughts. I’m caught walking out the door as I write this, but a few quick thoughts:

    1) I do think the video is limited by the time constraint put upon it. It is meant to be more of an introductory video to the subject, rather than a discourse on it.

    2) I think much of the questions you asked are discussed at length in the paper we wrote concerning the subject (which, again, the video was a preamble to).

    What we hoped the video would do…and seems to have…is start some serious discussion! So let me say thanks for engaging with this incredibly important topic!

    • Mike, thanks for your comments. I am trying to start some discussion as well, so I hope my remarks are seen in that light. Your Whitepaper and video were something of a muse for me on things I am seeing that are much broader.

  2. Pingback: On Theological Education: Does It Need to Be Reconstructed? « The Evangelical Calvinist

  3. Kyle, I’m with you on the Christendom issue. I’d say not only was the treatment lacking in nuance (probably inevitable in a short video, although not so in a white paper), it was fundamentally wrongheaded. Christendom was what happened when God blessed five centuries of consistent, faithful missionary activity in Europe with success. These guys act like the New Jerusalem will be a big basement where we’ll all be subversive together….

    On “character” and “competence,” though, I’m not so sure. I concede the talking-pointiness of the terminology, but I think they’re driving at a useful point. We do, in fact, need people who bear a recognizable family resemblance to Jesus, and who can credibly do the sorts of things He did — as Paul and the early disciples clearly did, as did men like Patrick, Boniface, etc. That’s character and competence, by whatever terminology we want to use, and existing academic programs do in fact fall woefully short of the mark a high percentage of the time.

    • I guess I’m just not sure what it means to talk about our call as “doing things Jesus did.” In what way? I just don’t think Jesus is our model in that sense. Jesus’ actions, broadly, are our model (Phil. 2), but not in a character/competence sense (as far as I can tell). Character is the self-help version of holiness, and competence is the pragmatic version of spiritual gifts. I just don’t think this language gets at what the call of the gospel really is.

      • Kyle,
        I understand your desire to avoid the false gospel of self-help, but I think that in your zeal to avoid the ditch on one side of the road, you’re backing crawdad-fashion into the ditch on the other side.

        I must confess I’m confused about what it might mean to talk about our call in terms of doing other than Jesus did. Jesus seemed to like that language: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works I do he will do also….” If we’re not proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom, ministering to the broken, annoying sanctimonious hypocrites, baptizing the nations and teaching them to observe all things that He commanded us, then what would it mean to have a gospel calling at all? Jesus was Paul’s model — that’s who Paul was following, and he exhorted others to follow him as he followed Christ. Again, I don’t know in what useful sense you can talk about Jesus not being our model. Maybe I’m not familiar with the sort of thing you’re backing away from, or something — what am I missing here?

        re. the language, if it makes you happy to say “holiness” rather than “character,” feel free — although I think the latter encompasses more than we usually mean by “holiness.” Perhaps you’re working with a broader definition than I’m accustomed to?
        As to competence being the self-help version of spiritual gifts…no way. A person can develop abilities outside his area of gifting — and we all have to, because we’re not gifted in every area where we must operate. I must give, and I must evangelize, but these are not spiritual gifts that I have. Nonetheless, I need to be able to do these things well, and this requires that I grow in competence in those areas. What word would you rather use? Moreover, a person can lack competence in an area of gifting, just because he hasn’t yet developed his gifts.

        • Tim, first, to take your example, Jesus didn’t baptize anyone, and that is the point. Is Jesus our model in some sense? Yes. But that is by no means his primary role. We follow Chris because we follow his teaching, and because we are endowed with his life we can “do the things he did.” But we don’t just act like Jesus’ acted. My worry is that people remove Jesus from his particular role and start to make him a model in a simplified sense. For instance, the move to preach in parables.

          The tern character is simply acting correctly in the given situation you find yourself in. That is much more narrow than holiness, which is an aspect of God’s own life, a life we must come to participate in.

          I’m not worried about competence as such, just the place it is given. Competence is a power term, a term of achievement. We are to minister out of weakness. Does that, at times, include competence? Of course. But making that the main thing is missing the main point, especially Paul’s point in his spiritual gifts discussion. Competence is what Paul rails against in the kind of preaching that undermines the cross.

          When given the prominent place in the discussion, competence and character replace the Spirit. You don’t need the Spirit for either.

          • Kyle,

            OK, part of the disconnect is clearer now. I don’t know where you encountered that definition for “character,” but it’s not what I mean at all. I don’t know Breen, but one of my mentors is being discipled by his group, and when we talk about character, “acting right” is pointedly *not* what we mean — so I kinda doubt it’s what Breen means either. What I mean (and feel free to read this back into what I said earlier) is actually in direct contrast to that: character is being the sort of person who makes the right choices from within (i.e., driven by love and communion with God, “doing what [you] see the Father doing”) rather than needing to have them imposed from without (i.e., by imposition of Law).

            I would guess this is pretty close to what you mean by ‘holiness,’ a perfectly good biblical term I often avoid because in my circles people think it means “punctilious moral rectitude.”

            I think you’re defining “competence” differently from Breen as well. You’re reading him through a megachurch lens, and he’s a different animal altogether — not a corporate church guy at all, and so not using ‘competence’ at all in the way you are hearing it.

            If we were ministering in the same context, Kyle, we’d have some common experience and knowledge of each other to guide our discussion. As it is, we lack that, and we’re speaking two different languages, so actual communication will be an uphill battle. That said, I’m willing to put some effort into hashing through it if you are — you call it.

            If we do, I think the next bit is probably continuing the discussion of Jesus as a model and in what senses that is or isn’t true. Might be we could make some headway there, if we are able to get down to specifics (like the preaching in parables thing you mentioned).

            • Tim,

              That is encouraging to know that Breen is trying to give these terms more robust content, but I still think it is a mistake to use them at all. Even if you try to change the meaning, you are, in fact, changing their meaning. The world knows what these terms mean, and it seems odd to use terms that are already used by the greatest temptation for spiritual growth – self-help movements. I just think it is wiser to use terms like holiness that are more removed from our ability to create ourselves in our own power.

              In terms of Jesus being our model, I think your baptism example is a helpful one. To talk about our lives being formed by Christ is to do a good deal of theologizing. Paul did a lot of this, hence his total rejection of the term “disciple” or “discipleship.” Paul, I believe, recognized their inherent problems, and his theology was built on a deeper reality that we need to pick up and re-inform our use of terms like “disciple,” if we choose to use them at all.

  4. ‘Rather than a wholesale rejection of the model, why don’t we start asking new questions about how that model can be more faithful to the call of the church? While I used to be on their side of things, wanting to rethink everything from the ground up, it is my new inclination that a more fruitful endeavor would be to rework the model from within it. This is not just a pragmatic claim, but I have a lot in mind when I suggest this. Maybe we can discuss this.’

    Good and provocative post Kyle. I think i’m with you on this in that, i also am drawn toward starting everything from scratch, but upon further reflection recognize that i’d reproduce a lot of the problems again. I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on what reworking the model from within might looks like. How can we train our people in a theology that really does help them to read and interpret their bibles better (as opposed to just constructing a massive list or box of ‘orthodox’ questions and answers). There seems to be a gaping divide in many seminaries between the biblical exegesis faculty and the theological faculty. Perhaps this is one of the signs of the sickness of our current state that needs to be overcome?

  5. Geordie, on a purely abstract level, I think faculties need to be reminded that the seminary, as a servant of the church, does ONE thing, and not dozens of different things. In other words, we need to stop pretending that these pretend fields exist (New Testament studies, etc.), and recognize we focus on one part of the whole for the sake of the gospel. I think that reorientation will help spur some deeper thinking into how we can integrate our approach more.

    In developing an integrative model of education, we also need to talk deeply about spiritual formation and the role of the seminary in that. I was in a program like this, that was cohort based, and I found it very fruitful.

    In general though, I think just as much weight falls on the churches and their general disregard for coming alongside seminary students (in mentoring roles, financial, etc.).

  6. Of course it is a good idea to follow Christ. But can we trust the churches to tell us exactly who Christ was? When all the churches disagree?

    My method therefore, would be to read the Bible ourselves; keeping in mind conventional church dogmas … but also reading with a reasonably indpendent mind too. To find out who Christ really was, as far as we can. In this search, I’d like to hear not from just one church or cult; but many churches. And then from independent scholars especially. So we have a wide data base from which to choose.

    In my experience, working just with small groups, churches, can be good; but can also be dangerous. My impression of several cults and communes that I’ve briefly visited, was that often communal group-think is not as healing and healthy as one would hope.

    Partially for these and other reasons? Rather than working intently with small groups, I rather prefer an academic theological method. One that is open to many different approaches; and that does not fix on any single one, with (an often bullheaded?) singlemindedness.

    Life is complex and nuanced; so is God; so is the Bible. To demand clear and simple and forthright marching orders, toward a “kingdom,” means often, falling victim to simply the most trenchant anti-intellectuals and unimaginative drill-sergeants.

  7. KENT:

    With your permission, I’d like to retire (possibly permanently?) from your pages here; and defer henceforth to the comments of Dr. Woodbridge Goodman. Whose thoughts are far more systematically formulated, even in his rough-draft blog. A blog which outlines the central importance and nature, of a true science of theology. Finding its sources particularly, in the Bible itself.

    Goodman far more fully oulines my “personal eschatology” (thanks BG! I’ll accept it). The idea there being that one “day” or another, as we “mature” and develop our Reason, we are supposed to see God note sins in all our holiest men and angels. But next, God at the same moment introduces us to a “second” and better “appearance” of God; in reason- and Science-Based theology. Or science-based Religious Study.

    If we have to follow a guru, or a definitive idea of “Christ,” I’d strongly suggest that vision. Which is currently being worked out in rough draft. On the Woodbridge Goodman/ “Destruction of Heaven” blog. Now being roughly worked out.

    Thanks for your tolerance to date.

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