Theological Education

Pastor Terry Jones

Terry Jones - not the Python

Another fiery minister has been in the headlines lately for organising a Qur’an burning day on September 11. Fortunately, after pressure from the President himself, Terry Jones has backed down. [Admittedly, it’s because of an alleged compromise over the Mosque site at Ground Zero in New York, and not the plea of the President, who with a name like Barack Hussain must be a Muslim.]

Terry Jones – who sadly is not the former Monty Python troupe member, and is thus deathly serious – got me thinking again about the state of Christian leadership and about the role of theological education.

Terry claims to have an honorary doctorate in theology, and may be formally trained as a teacher of the gospel. Who knows? Either way, the trouble is that Christian leaders often hit the headlines not because the gospel is offensive, but because they are offensive, and all too often display startling ignorance of their faith and their world. Christian Higher Education – when done well – is a wonderful antidote to parochial Christian thinking.

Learning vs Book-burning
Why is theological education important? Isn’t having God’s Word in the Bible enough?

Firstly, theological education is important, because, while the Spirit has been given to lead us into all truth (John 16:13), that promise is to ‘you (plural)’. The Spirit leads us into truth via the Apostles and by means of the whole community, not mystically delivering truth to the individual teacher. We need to interpret the Bible with the help of the Christian community, and theological education places the future teacher in continuity with the Church community throughout history, and with the best Christian thinking and interpretation available. To suggest that one does not need the help of anyone else in understanding the Bible is as arrogant as saying that your understanding will be flawless, even though no one else in the past has been.

Secondly, and flowing from the idea that truth has been passed down via the Apostles, training is necessary because the Bible is historical Spiritual literature. It is written for us, but not to us. It was written to people whose circumstances and issues and patterns of thought belonged 2000 years ago and older (and even back then, to those who belonged to scripture’s native context, St Peter himself claimed that parts are hard to understand – 2Peter 3:16). Understanding the Bible requires one to understand the time and people to whom it was written, so that the message can be ‘translated’ into our age. You wouldn’t try to translate a document that was written in a language you haven’t learned. Why would you try to teach people about ages, cultures and issues that you don’t understand?

“I’m called to preach, not to study”
For some reason, study is seen as dispensable or even undesirable by many Evangelicals. This is unfortunate, seeing as good training has the effect of greatly enhancing one’s apprehension of the riches in scripture. The Bible itself levels serious warnings against its teachers, such as the warning that even powerful, seemingly sincere ministers will be rejected as false teachers (Matthew 7); or the insistence that teachers will be examined more strictly at the Judgment (James 3:1). Paul even blatantly says that Timothy (and the church elders that succeed him) should do all he can to ensure that he handles scripture well:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2Timothy 2:15)

Paul in 1Timothy 1:6-8 also criticises those who try to teach, but ‘don’t know what they are talking about’, and he says that the law is good, but only if it is used properly. So if you’re called to be a preacher, you’re called also to be a ‘workman’ who needs to handle the word with care, and not those who can be charged with ‘wandering away’ and ‘turning to meaningless talk’. Spare us the meaningless talk, friend. Get some training.

Many are called, but few are chosen
One of my colleagues was speaking about an unfortunate by-product of the 19th C missionary movement in England, which bequeathed to us the idea that a Christian missionary or minister must undergo a special ‘calling’ to ministry. While this surely must have been the experience of many ministers, it was pointed out that countless others with the desire to serve have been put off because the wait for a mystical calling never ended for them. They could not identify a clear, unmistakable call to be a minister.

While the vocation is serious, and while it should not be entered into whimsically, there is also no indication in scripture (particularly the pastoral letters about the commissioning of elder-teachers in which such an idea would be most needful) that an experience of divine calling to service is to be expected. An elder is someone of high moral example, with a ‘track record’ in the faith, and who is gifted with the ability to teach. It goes little further than that. If you feel strongly that you have the potential to be such a person, don’t wait for lights from heaven or writing in the sky.

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I work for an Evangelical training institution in Cape Town, South Africa, called George Whitefield College. We train pastors and children’s workers in a Reformed, Evangelical ethos, offering a government-accredited BTh degree. We are ranked among the top Evangelical institutions in Africa, and we’re located in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We are the official training college of the Church of England in South Africa, but we train students from a variety of denominations, and from all over the world. Applications for 2011 (particularly for those seeking bursaries) close soon.

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4 thoughts on “Theological Education

  1. Hephaestion says:

    Another fiery minister has been in the headlines lately for organising a Qur’an burning day on September 11. Fortunately, after pressure from the President himself, Terry Jones has backed down.

    There are a couple of ways of dealing with blowhards like this, ignore them or mock them. Unfortunately there are millions of crazies who’ll be equally as “fiery” in the offense that they take. It’s unfortunate that the president had to undermine the secular nature of the constitution by stating that “We are one nation under God. We may call that God different names, but we are one nation.” Disappointing and divisive, though politically expedient. How little has changed since 1987 when George Bush said, “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”

    If only the crazies would stay in church and quietly burn books in the privacy of their own chapel.

    Firstly, theological education is important, because, while the Spirit has been given to lead us into all truth (John 16:13), that promise is to ‘you (plural)’. The Spirit leads us into truth via the Apostles and by means of the whole community, not mystically delivering truth to the individual teacher. We need to interpret the Bible with the help of the Christian community, and theological education places the future teacher in continuity with the Church community throughout history, and with the best Christian thinking and interpretation available.

    Which community..?

    Catholicism: Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Church, Assyrian Church of the East, Anglican Communion

    Protestantism: Pre-Lutheran Protestants,Lutheranism, Anglican Churches, Reformed Churches, Presbyterianism, Congregationalist Churches, Anabaptists, Brethren, Methodists, Pietists and Holiness Churches, Baptists, Apostolic Churches – Irvingites, Pentecostalism, Charismatics, African Initiated Churches, United and uniting churches, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, Southcottites, Millerites, British-Israelism.

    Latter Day Saints: “Prairie Saint” denominations and Rocky Mountains denominations.

    Nontrinitarian groups: Oneness Pentecostalism, Unitarianism and Universalism, Bible Student groups, Swedenborgianism.

    There are an estimated (World Christian Encyclopedia, 2001) 38,000 Christian denominations. The range of beliefs is astounding, from wacky biblical literalists who think the world is 6000 years old to sophisticated Catholics who accept all the findings of cosmology, geology and biology. And, some of these groups have been enthusiastically killing members of the “wrong” group! Quite a community.

    Secondly, and flowing from the idea that truth has been passed down via the Apostles, training is necessary because the Bible is historical Spiritual literature. It is written for us, but not to us. It was written to people whose circumstances and issues and patterns of thought belonged 2000 years ago and older (and even back then, to those who belonged to scripture’s native context, St Peter himself claimed that parts are hard to understand – 2Peter 3:16).

    Correction: the bible was written BY “people whose circumstances and issues and patterns of thought belonged 2000 years ago and older.”

    The Bible now has to be retro-fitted in the most ungainly matter in order to show that slavery is bad, that rape is bad, that educate is good, that equal rights is good and so on. It will be amusing if, in the future, Christians lay claim to being at the forefront of gay rights while earnestly quoting from the good book all the verses that give authority to their arguments.

    Understanding the Bible requires one to understand the time and people to whom it was written, so that the message can be ‘translated’ into our age. You wouldn’t try to translate a document that was written in a language you haven’t learned. Why would you try to teach people about ages, cultures and issues that you don’t understand?

    It’s curious that such an important book can only be properly understood when read through in light of the ‘correct’ history, culture, commentary and interpretation. And for that we obviously need scholars armed with the ‘right’ theological education. One would have thought that the meaning of such a divine text should be timeless, unambiguous and accessible to all (and not just the geographically ‘fortunate’). Surely this is not too much to ask of a god? This god is either incompetent, inscrutable (though its followers will claim to know its thoughts, desires and hates) or non-existent. Assuming that there is a god, how are the laity, ignorant of the subtleties of theological interpretation and apologia, of the history, supposed to know which of these lofty theologians is right?

    Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar and professor of religious studies, was an evangelical Christian who was so enraptured by the Bible that he learnt ancient Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Coptic and Latin in order to read biblical manuscripts in their original language. Such dedication and passion! He went to the Moody Bible Institute, then Wheaton College (another Christian college) and then got his PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary. And what can this learned and distinguished authority on the NT tell us? Well, for starters, it’s full of inconsistencies, copying errors and modern rewrites that promoted the viewpoints of the author. After 25 years of research, Ehrman went from being a self-righteous, preachy, devout, evangelical Christian to an agnostic (“Everything I had previously thought about the historical evidence of the resurrection was absolutely wrong.”).

    William Lane Craig, on the other hand, while being a contemporary of Ehrman’s (both going to Wheaton), has only become even more convinced that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. He has a PhD in Theology from the University of Munich (and other PhD from the University of Birmingham). He and Ehrman debated over the question “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?”

    If two such distinguished scholars have come to opposite conclusions, how do we know who is right? Perhaps they are both wrong, and that we should actually be reading the Koran and praying five times a day while facing Mecca. But then do we choose the Sunni over the Shi’ah? And what if it’s not Islam, but rather Hinduism that we should all believe?

    The problem with religion is that there is no way of knowing if you are wrong. There is no way, even in principle, that someone can prove that your faith is based on a falsehood. Even when empirical claims (such as the age of the earth or the creation of Adam and Eve) can be, and have been, falsified the faithful can, and will, still believe them. To the religious mind, factual truth must yield to the divine Truth, and so anything can mean anything. It does not matter, for example, whether the world is 6000, 10000 or 4.5 billion years old, it just matters that God created it. For those who value truth, it matters that the world actually is 4.5 billion years old and that this fact be acknowledged. If a person of faith puts their trust in something that can never be verified and refuses to accept something that has been all but proven, what does this say about their sanity?

    It’s only when belief in a talking snake is generally met with mockery and incredulousness that such beliefs will wither and fade. Perhaps that is why the religious resist from openly mocking the likes of Terry Jones. He is, after all, one of theirs.

    • Mark says:

      An interesting response, Hephaestion. As much as I am in favour of good theological education, it does not, in the final analysis, solve many of the problems you describe. (On the other hand, Jordan seems to have limited his essay to the issue of education within the context of Christian ministry, not as an antidote to each and every religious question.)
      However, I take issue with you on two points:
      1. “It’s curious that such an important book can only be properly understood when read through in light of the ‘correct’ history, culture, commentary and interpretation.”
      I don’t see anything “curious” about this. If one takes any great piece of literature – let’s pick Shakespeare as the obvious example – one his highly unlikely to get much out of it unless one is guided by someone who understands Elizabethan literature, the times in which these plays were written, and how drama and texts should be read. One can read Shakespeare without such aids and still have a basic (or superficial) idea of what is going on, but much will pass one by. If Shakespeare is complex, surely a book that claims divine inspiration should be even more complex and require even greater efforts in order for one to understand it?
      2. The other point you raise is how does one know which religion, or sect within a religion, is right? The level of disagreement among and between religions is often cited as evidence that religion is somehow invalid. But it has to asked: how does one know what is right about anything – apart from those that involve basic and practical cause-and-effect issues? In the areas of politics, economics, social policy etc, there is ongoing and vociferous disagreement over “who is right” or, to use your words, how do you know who is wrong? Disagreement does not mean that these areas of knowledge or belief are worthless.

      • Hephaestion says:

        let’s pick Shakespeare as the obvious example – one is highly unlikely to get much out of it unless one is guided by someone who understands Elizabethan literature, the times in which these plays were written, and how drama and texts should be read. One can read Shakespeare without such aids and still have a basic (or superficial) idea of what is going on, but much will pass one by.

        Firstly, Shakespeare does not lay claim to divine inspiration and nor does he condemn his readers (or audience) to eternal damnation for not believing in (or even liking) his stories. Does one require a degree in Elizabethan literature to enjoy Romeo and Juliet? Of course not. (Just go and watch Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, for example.) You do not need to be an expert in Elizabethan literature, 16th century English history or the structure of his works in order to enjoy them. Shakespeare did not write his plays and sonnets just for those with a PhD in Shakespeare Studies, as it were – his audience was much broader than that. His works endure because they have a timeless quality and are entertaining. Furthermore, the pleasure is there for all, no matter the creed, race or sexual persuasion.

        On the topic of appreciation, what does one need to know in order to enjoy a delicate claret beyond a functional palate? Should our educated palate inform us that it is a Bordeaux wine? Perhaps the delightful after-taste, consoling and feminine, with a certain blithely generous quality associates it with the commune of St Julien. Perhaps the connoisseur could establish the ‘growth’, that it is a fourth growth from a very good year – from a great year, in fact. Perhaps the true student of wine could further deduce, from the tannin in the middle taste and the quick astringent squeeze upon the tongue, that the wine comes from one of those small vineyards around Beychevelle, possibly little Chateau Branaire-Ducru. Apologies to Roald Dahl for the blatant plagiarisation, but you get the point.

        If Shakespeare is complex, surely a book that claims divine inspiration should be even more complex and require even greater efforts in order for one to understand it?

        If there is a “surely” it is the opposite of what you claim. If failure is eternal damnation then it would be a cruel god that would make it more difficult to avoid such a fate than to not. Since Christians claim a god of compassion and love it perforce follows that the Bible (being God’s handiwork or inspiration) should be clear, timeless and accessible to all. It is not clear. It is not timeless. It is not accessible to all. We might, at best, conclude an inscrutable god, but then you might as well forget about trying to understand the Bible as some kind of guide. Or at all.

        Let us say you had some children, and let us say you were separated by some great misfortune and there existed a grave threat (say, death by prolonged immolation) to your children should they not get back to you in time. Now let’s say you were able to give them some small scrap of paper on which to craft a guide leading them back to you. How would you do it? Would you make it complex and requiring of great effort in order to understand it, or would you make it clear and simple?

        What does the Christian god do? He indulges in obfuscation, as if titillated by the ensuing struggle (in which the majority of his children must fail). For those who misunderstand, are uninterested or are geographically unlucky, the result is an eternity of damnation. Not a day, or a year, or a decade, or a million years, or a billion years – but an ETERNITY. This is a wickedness beyond comprehension.

        For the non-believer the explanation is simple, plausible and requires no more assumptions than things we commonly observe. The Bible was written by many authors, is a (politically inspired) subset of a greater collection of writings, contains numerous copying errors, contradictions and enhancements by copiers, is full of hearsay, distortions, misogyny, superstition and exaggerations and makes empirical claims that are clearly wrong. It is, in short, the work of people, not gods. Much the same can be said about the Koran and the Tanakh. The only wickedness was in the minds of its authors, who, living as they did in a barbaric and ignorant times, have written nothing unexpected.

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