First published RTR 55, no. 3 (1996).
Every training institution is the subject of complaints which run along well-established lines. Where such institutions feed one of the professions, for example, it is certain that they will be charged with neglecting the realities under which the profession labours, and producing graduates who are innocent of the skills which the profession most highly values. Many such criticisms are beside the point though self-evidently true, but they must be borne with equanimity as their banality makes them attractive to a certain type of mind. They fall into the same class as jokes about a person’s name.
One of the more obvious complaints about theological education is that it is too intellectual. While the average person would never dream of making the same remark about the training of a medical specialist, it is a common criticism of the education of theological students and graduates. In turn, the training institution is blamed for making theological education a barrier to the aspirations to ministry of those who are unable to satisfy its academic requirements, and for turning ordinary persons into monsters of unnecessary erudition.
In this case, however, such remarks are not entirely unjust. Like other new graduates the freshly ordained pastor may well exhibit signs of knowing more with his head than he does with his heart, and lording it over the flock by means of the power of knowledge cheaply gained through books. But the problem has a specific theological edge. We usually do not expect to be experts in the arcane practices of the medical profession. The gap between the professional dentist, for example, and the lay person is relatively well established. But the lay Christian reads the same Bible as the pastor, and is often engaged in elements of the same ministry. The lay Christian is in a far better position to discern the weaknesses of a minister, and to sheet them home to deficiencies in the minister’s education for the job. It is legitimate to ask that the pastor’s training include attention to godliness and humility and prayerfulness and relational skills. The business of educating a minister is lengthy and expensive, and many who have little or no education do as well or better at the job. Not all would agree, therefore, that the cultivation of the Christian mind is vital for the exercise of effective pastoral ministry. In fact, not all would agree that it is a priority, or should be even an essential part of the preparation for ministry provided by contemporary theological colleges. It is that issue that the present article addresses.
1. Knowing the Lord
Christianity is an intellectual faith. That its appeal is to the whole person I do not deny. That a person with little by way of intellect or education may be great in spiritual advancement, is also part of the gospel itself. But it is a faith that can be described as ‘knowing God’, and it commends itself through the word written and spoken. It is a faith, therefore, which puts special demands upon the minds of its adherents. It is no accident that wherever Christianity goes in the modem world there follows literacy and education. It is the provision of the Bible itself that the home should be a school, a nursery of instruction, in which the word of God is taught and dialogue is entered into between parent and child about the meaning of God’s revelation (Deuteronomy 6). The biblical faith calls for knowledge, learning, memory, instruction, insight, understanding and discernment. Faith is not the abandonment of thought, but the presupposition of profound thought; ‘Stop thinking like children’ says Paul, ‘in your thinking be adults’ (1 Corinthians 14:20).
Colleges of divinity are a recent invention in the church’s history, but the transmission of the faith through teaching is as old as the Bible itself. The godly home is the fundamental theological college, and remains without peer in significance. The congregation of God’s people is, likewise, a vital, God-appointed sphere of learning and instruction. What we learn from our teachers in these two places are the most important lessons in theology. In both places we encounter those who have been set by God himself to ‘keep watch over you as men who must give account’ (Hebrews 13:17), ‘who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you’ (1 Thessalonians 5:12). These are without doubt the elders Paul appointed in the churches, choosing them from among ’those whose lives were pre-eminently godly and who were ‘apt to teach (1 Timothy 3:1-7). It is they whom Timothy had to appoint ‘to teach others (2 Timothy 2:2). In the home the father is enjoined to ‘bring [his children] up in the training and instruction of the Lord’ (Ephesians 6:4). The theological college is a useful extension of home and church. The fundamental goal of its instruction is the same as theirs: that all its members may grow in their knowledge of the Lord in the appointed ways. The business of the college is to engage in learning and teaching about God. God and his relation to the world is the content of the curriculum. Just as in the home or the church this study is the most practical of pursuits, so it is in the college. We cannot engage in the study of God without allowing our study to mould us. That is one of the reasons why our study is best done in a community of prayer and worship. The business of learning God is done pre-eminently in Christian fellowship. Christian knowledge is personal knowledge that follows from the very nature of God himself. Our prayer life is vital to the whole experience; so, too, is the humble and contrite heart. It is not a matter of mere intellect. But neither is it accomplished by the abandonment of the intellect: ‘We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ’ (1 Corinthians 10:5). From the study of God done in this way arises training for ministry as an intended consequence.
We can see from this how pernicious is the division made so frequently between the pastor and the teacher. The best reading of Ephesians 4:11 binds these two together, as they were united in the great pastor of the sheep, Jesus himself. If we think of the pastoral gift as that which enables those who have it to care for the flock, guarding, guiding, protecting, sustaining, consoling, listening, modelling and praying, we do well. But the person who does all this must exercise these functions in the office of a preacher, one who brings the care, consolation, protection, sustenance of the word of God into immediate contact with the needs of the flock. Preaching is not merely the Sunday morning sermon, crucial as that is to pastoral ministry; it involves the whole teaching ministry of the pastor. It is the word, perhaps a brief word indeed, that is brought as a result of listening; the word that sustains the dying, encourages the sick, guides the young and rebukes the sinner. It is the necessary word of the one who has been given the care of souls. It is in fact the word of the gospel.
There can be no doubt, therefore, that a proper theological education will ,not be merely ‘academic’, if by that we mean in some sense unrelated to life.
On the contrary we must assume that it will put the highest demands for godly patterns of thought and behaviour on those involved. If the venue is a theological college in which many of those who will exercise pastoral ministry are trained, the need for godliness is even more apparent. There can be no compromise of standards at this point. We need a fearless commitment to holiness in personal and corporate life, and this commitment should be the enduring ethos of the whole school.
Congregations are entitled to believe that their pastors are men and women of integrity, upholding in their own lives the righteousness which they preach to others. If we are tempted to think that we mean mere morality, we need to be reminded that we speak here of that quality of life which is founded on the saving work and living model of Jesus himself and is best summed up by the word ‘love’. Insofar that this is true of those who attend colleges of training, it should be pre-eminently true of those who have the weighty responsibility of being teachers at such institutions. The modem practice of appointing persons with the requisite academic training, but with little intellectual, spiritual or moral commitment to the gospel is appalling. Those who teach the pastors must themselves be pastors, models of the Christian virtues, and able ministers of the new covenant. They, above all, must be those who ‘know the Lord’.
2. The Fact of Revelation
There is, however, a further consequence of seeing that the knowledge of the Lord is the fundamental business of the college, and that training for ministry is its by-product. It arises from our belief about where the knowledge of the Lord may be found, namely in God’s revelation. It is, I think, this aspect which gives rise to the suspicion that our colleges are too much given to intellectual attainment. Indeed the experience of those who hear the graduates can sometimes fuel this suspicion, and in some cases with good reason. But it is not a necessary consequence of the nature of our studies.
I have said that the proper study of the college, like the church and the home, is God and his relation to the world. But, as Christians we do not believe that the fundamental source of such knowledge is human experience or the world around us. We are committed to the view that we need to rely on God’s revelation of himself, and his revelation must figure largely therefore in our study of him. This remains true even if we distinguish the revelation of God from scripture, for there would be few Christians who would deny that our access to Jesus Christ on any account the focal point of God’s revelation is via the Bible. Thus, a theological educator of an earlier generation, W. R. Matthews, former Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral London, remarks, ‘I was sure, however, that the minister had no justification for existing unless he was convinced that there is a divine revelation in Scripture and the pastoral office of the Church is for a large part the explanation and application of revelation.’1W. R. Matthews, Memories and Meanings (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1969), 119. For himself, Matthews accepted the distinction between revelation and the Bible. All the more are his words true for those of us who believe that the Bible is far more directly the revelation of God to his people. For us it is doubly sure that the pastoral office is ‘for a large part the explanation and application of revelation’.
There are other models of ministry which call for different training patterns. In his own day, Matthews noted to his surprise that there were degrees in divinity being awarded in the USA which did not require a facility with the Greek New Testament. Since then, the trend to value quite different ministry skills than those presupposed (shall we say) in the Ordinal attached to the Book of Common Prayer has gathered pace. Some wish to put their emphasis on a pattern of ministry which is therapeutic, for example. The skills of the minister are to be found in his or her capacity to counsel, along the lines of the many secular counsellors available in modem society. Others have been greatly impressed by the managerial revolution, and aware of the failure of the church to make much impression on the unbelief of the modem world, have begun to reach out using skills garnered from the commercial work place. Much of the church-growth movement has learned readily from these sources, and it is no accident that larger churches frequently feature ministry schools where the practical skills may be acquired.
A thoroughly evangelical theology cannot be satisfied with such views of ministry, and the theological education which they foster. There are things to learn from counselling and management, and there are aspects of the pastor’s task which could benefit from training in such allied areas. But the true business of the pastor is with the things of God, and it is with the revelation of God that those in preparation must fundamentally be involved. Without doubt, that preparation requires a rigorous intellectual formation, accompanying the spiritual and moral maturity of which I have already spoken. The very nature of God’s revelation leads to this conclusion.
Consider its historical particularity. As has often been observed, this is one of the distinguishing features of the Christian faith, and sets it off from mere abstract philosophies and moralities. The one who wishes to study God in his revelation is necessarily committed to work involving literature in its historical context. Come what may, historical and literary judgements are involved. The more we develop a knowledge of the historical, philosophical and geographical background, the better will be our capacity to engage in that wise criticism which is an essential part of receiving and transmitting the enscripturated faith. To such studies must be added a knowledge of the exegesis of the Bible through the centuries, and the capacity to synthesise its teaching so that we may summarise its message for ourselves and others.
This constitutes a massive program of study, all the more intellectually demanding because the heart is so fully engaged with the subject. It is perfectly true that there are those who study God and his works with the same dispassion or distaste that others may bring to mathematics. But neither maths nor God are best studied in such a way, and in my experience those who give themselves to the knowledge of God are motivated by a sincere and fervent desire to know him better. When the study of God is motivated by love for God, as it so often is, the intellect is at full stretch. Great intellectual attainment is the fruit of spiritual motivation, exertion and encounter. The student does not have to be ‘an intellectual’ for the intellect to be fully engaged by love for God and his word. In this sense, like training for ministry, intellectual attainment is a by-product of the subject of study. But it is not a by-product to be discouraged or despised for it is a necessary element of the exercise of ministry that the college is aiming to produce.
3. The Learning of Languages
The test for whether we accept all this and, indeed, for what we want by way of theological education, is the matter of the biblical languages. Our attitude here will reveal what we consider the true nature of Christianity and the ministry of the gospel to be. The acquisition of language has profound consequences for the curriculum. Without language study, precious time is saved; with language study, more understanding is achieved. Without language study, more skills can be acquired; with language study, the mind can be more readily matured.
Consider the case against languages. No-one can deny that they take up a significant amount of time in the college curriculum, especially when Hebrew is added to Greek. When time is limited (and more so in an era characterised by the mature-age theological student), how can we justify the time and effort involved? It is resource-expensive, and inhibiting as well, cutting many otherwise suitable persons off from being equipped for ministry. Furthermore, it is clear that many of those in active ministry never use the Ianguages that they have acquired so painfully. The persistence of language requirements reflects one view of ministry, based on the preaching model, and does not do justice to other approaches. Indeed, to suggest that the modem theological student ‘learns’ Greek is an exaggeration; even the best of students does little more that acquire a certain facility with one Greek text, namely the New Testament, abundant translations of which are readily available.
It is a strong case. In response to it, various ameliorative things may be said. For example, the teaching of Greek and Hebrew can be, and indeed has been significantly improved, and the aids now available make it far more likely that the willing person can continue to use the languages, and even extend their grasp of the languages as time goes on. The concept of in-service training has been slow to catch on amongst the clergy, but it has now become part of the expected work pattern for many. Even a beginner’s understanding of Greek or Hebrew will make an important difference to the pastor’s ability to gain access to the commentaries which are so important for a ministry of the word. But the most important response must involve matters of principle rather than pragmatics. The salient principles are two.
The first concerns the nature of the Christian faith itself. As I have already remarked, our faith is based on a revelation which is historically particular. In Christianity we are not dealing with a set of timeless metaphysical ideas, but ultimately with a person who lived a historical life. The gospel which we preach is the gospel which declares that he is Lord. In response, we seek to mould our lives by his teaching and his example. The learning of languages in college is the chief earnest of the fact that we are determined to stay in touch with our sources, to be ruled and governed by what was actually said and done, to commit ourselves to the particularity of this revelation as it has been passed down to us. A willingness to let go of these documents in their original form will be a signal to pastors, and to their congregations that in the end history does not matter, that the imprecision of intuition and feeling can take over, that we do not need to spend time and effort focusing on the truth which has been delivered to us.
Indeed, we must go further, for these documents are not merely the historical title-deeds to the faith. They are the inspired word of God, and therefore possess a unique status. The abandonment of languages is not only a signal that history does not matter, it is a signal that these words no longer matter as far as their authoritative role is concerned. We do not need to know precisely what they say. It is understandable that such a mood may be true amongst those who no longer regard the Bible itself as God’s inspired word, and it is true that the initial move away from languages in Christian training has now become an accomplished fact in some such circles. Even world-famous divinity schools may now be found in which the study of the Bible is more elective than foundational But it cannot be so amongst those who think of Scripture as inspired and authoritative.
The second principle concerns the nature of the pastoral ministry. If the heart of the pastoral ministry is the ministry of the word, there remains no option to the inclusion of languages in preparation for it. It is through the scriptural revelation that Christ rules over his people. In any field of learning and instruction, the teacher must know that which he or she must teach. No translation will ever substitute for the Scriptures in their original tongue; indeed the plethora of translations makes the pastor’s job more difficult, not less. Some of the most popular translations are particularly poor. True exposition of the Scriptures arises from the pastor’s own struggle with the text, and no list of commentaries or multiplication of translations can ever substitute for reading for oneself. In the wise words of Professor Allan Harman, ‘There is the need for biblical study to be carried on in the original languages because this brings us back to the roots of the biblical faith … No generation of Christians can be content to rest on the legacy of the past in regard to theological study. We have an obligation to search the Scriptures for ourselves, and to go back yet again to the source of our Christian faith and practice. Detailed and accurate study of these sources can only be done by using the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures.’2A. M. Harman, ‘The Place of Biblical Languages in the Theological Curriculum’, Reformed Theological Review 50.3 (1991), pp.91-97.
The use of the biblical languages is obviously an important foundational skill for those involved in the exposition of the word of God. By the ministry of the word I do not mean the rhetorical ‘prophetic’ ministry which used to flourish in earlier years, nor, indeed, the short homilies which have become the custom in some churches which have given themselves to chiefly sacramental religion. Neither option will feed the souls of God’s people. I mean the task of expounding the Scriptures consistently and fully, so that in the end our people can truly say that from our lips they have heard ‘the whole counsel of God’. The pastor does not rule the church; the word of God is Christ’s means of doing this. It is entirely necessary then that pastors should be students of this word, giving themselves to the study of it before all other books, and devoting themselves to explaining it accurately and fully. The preaching ministry on Sunday will be the centre-point of this ministry, where the pastor will ‘confess the faith’ modelling the interpretation of Scripture and its application to the flock. But the pastoral ministry involves the application of the word in private as well as in public, in the quietness of the sick-room as well as the openness of the pulpit. It is, of course, a ministry of the sacraments as well as of the word. But the sacraments themselves are visible words, and the signs of the gospel. They can easily be distorted by the ignorant and unwary into signs of something else entirely. At every point, the pastor must be equipped with the theological and biblical resources that only profound and prolonged study, including study of the languages, can bring.
I have used languages as a test case, because of the way that their utility is so often questioned, and because they are the presupposition of those who would prepare for a preaching ministry. The whole of the’ classic’ curriculum is under review however, and training options which require far less time and intellectual effort are finding endorsement. The popularity of the Doctor of Ministry programs also bears testimony to the appeal of the practical and skills-based educational approach. But the gains of such programs were they to become characteristic of basic training will be short-lived. A Christianity whose front-line teachers are unaware of the great issues of the patristic era, for example, is bound to be both shallow and short-lived, though the religion it spawns might survive for many years, as Unitarianism has done. In the words of Goethe’s aphorism, ‘He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth’.3Quoted by Jostein Gaarder in Sophie’s World (London: Phoenix House, 1996). It is not, however, only the nature of the Christian faith itself and its ministry which makes so many intellectual demands. It is the context in which ministry takes place.
4. The Challenge of the Context
There is much to encourage Christians about the progress of the gospel in today’s world. Missionary activity has not gone unrewarded. Although there are many cultures which remain resolutely opposed to the Christian message, there are others where a significant acceptance is occurring. At the same time, however, there can be no hiding from the fact that in the West in particular the Christian faith is severely threatened. Not only does the conflict which arose from the Enlightenment remain to be resolved, but the new wave of pluralistic and relativistic thought patterns are threatening to silence the gospel. Enlightenment thought castigated the gospel in the name of sense; contemporary thought castigates it in the name of sensibility. The Christian churches retain enough prominence and authority to make the faith they profess a worthwhile target still. In the name of human liberty, men and women are challenging the long-held convictions of the churches in the areas of belief and ethics.
These days call for more, not less, intellectual attainment, especially in those whose task it is to commend the Christian faith. We know that Christians are called upon to out-love the non-Christian society; but we are also called upon to out-think it. Great turning points in the history of the church have involved just such a capacity, most notably in the work of Augustine. True missionaries, able to cross the boundaries and speak the language of the people to whom they go, are persons who have immersed themselves in the culture, persons who labour to understand. Even in Australia, the need of the hour is the missionary; indeed each person in pastoral ministry needs to be a missionary. This great work will only be accomplished by those who are prepared to understand their own message at depth, and understand their own society at similar depth. Those who understand the Bible well will possess an enormously important key to the understanding of the world. But the specific forces which shape society and the ideologies which motivate so many must also engage our curiosity and keen interest. I once heard Bishop Stephen Neil say that he thought that every theological student should be aware of the teachings of Marx, Darwin and Freud, as three of the most important makers of modernity. Whether the names remain the same today, a course in theology ought also to be an introduction to the world of thought, commitment and behaviour which shapes contemporary experience. This cannot be achieved, even at the most modest level without time and effort.
The need for intellectual attainment of this type is evident even for the pastor who focuses on the sustenance and protection of the flock rather than missionary endeavour. No matter how isolated such a group of persons may be, they are still subject to immense societal pressures from the non-Christian world. An obvious example is in the challenge posed by feminism to the conventional relations between men and women. The pastor may regard these pressures with abhorrence; he may welcome them with enthusiasm; he may adopt a more nuanced approach. In any case, however, a Christian mind will have to be brought to bear on complex issues. The pastor who cannot critique a social movement from the standpoint of God’s revelation, being able to discriminate between good and bad, is failing his congregation. (I am not suggesting, of course, that any one such a person can do this; the wise pastor will call on all the resources with which God has blessed the church).
Every family is affected by such social revolutions as the women’s movement, and so is every church. If we want mature Christian people who will be able to respond appropriately to the forces which impact on their lives and challenge their faith, we will need a pastorate which is equipped to teach the Scriptures in the modem world. We often underrate the capacity of Christian people to assimilate the biblical teaching and so be equipped to stand firm against worldly pressures and to offer an intelligent and compelling witness to the gospel. The pastor who loves and teaches the Bible will create a strong and Bible-loving church. Congregations who have been taught the word of God by godly, learned and competent pastors will be able to discern truth from error in competing ideologies, and be flexible or repentant where appropriate and firm where great principle is at stake.
We expect the professional people whom we rely on to be well trained. When we commit our children to the schools, we believe that most secondary school teachers will have received at least four years university education. Without in any way denigrating the important role of the school teacher, I want to argue that those in pastoral ministry have a more difficult task and need an even superior training. They operate in a society which is hostile or indifferent; they advise, rebuke and counsel on matters of great delicacy; they lead a voluntary society; they have a responsibility under God for the eternal salvation of those to whom they minister. The task of ordained ministry has become far more complex and difficult in recent decades. It is so demanding that many who start are unable to continue in it. Mere intellectual achievement is not the answer, but neither can we neglect its importance for those whom we call, train and send as pastors into the churches, and as missionaries into the world. Indeed, preaching itself is one of the greatest spiritual and intellectual exercises which we may ask of a person. To this and the other tasks of ministry we must bring mature and able Christian minds.
It has frequently been observed that the record of the Australian churches in the area of theological education has not been a good one. In a period of declining funding and lower expectations of education in the general community, this problem is not likely to resolve itself speedily. In fact, there is considerable pressure to find shorter, cheaper and easier methods to train candidates for ministry. This is not merely fuelled by expediency; there is also the belief that we do not want cleverer pastors as much as we want more caring and skilful pastors. To argue, therefore, that intellectual attainment is vital for the pastoral ministry is to argue against the tide. As can be seen from what I have said, however, I do not believe that we are dealing with opposing aims. I, too, want more caring and skilful pastors. But, if by this we simply mean those who will be personally engaging and sympathetic, we may find that we have gathered to ourselves those who will suit our tastes but who cannot lead us in these difficult days. Likewise sheer intellectual brilliance without the mind submitted to Christ and a heart of love for his people is a snare and delusion. We need pastors who can think, thinkers who can preach, preachers who can shepherd the flock. And we need theological education which will foster and promote the intellectual life as part of what it means to know and love God.