I did my bachelor’s degree in theology in the mid-1990s. But it took me seventeen years to finish my master’s and PhD in the New Testament. The reason why it took so long was that I worked as a pastor and other Christian ministries, as well as doing non-Christian jobs to earn a living.
For many years I had the privilege of being a sessional lecturer in a number of theological colleges. Right now I am an adjunct lecturer, teaching biblical and mission studies. My studies, teaching, ministries and other working experiences have prompted me to think a lot about theological training in Australia. Here are some (random!) reflections on theological studies and ministry training.
(1) Some theological colleges focus on teaching people the “right beliefs.”
Although the curriculums of these training institutions look fairly standard, they have a strong tendency to teach people the “right beliefs.” The outworking of such tendency is that the ministry focus of its students tends to be about defending the faith. In some cases, the student’s primary approach to mission is to prove that Christianity is the best religion.
Often these theological colleges have a high academic standard. But my friends in pastoral ministries often say that these colleges focus too much on head knowledge, rather than practical ministry.
I hesitate to criticise these colleges though. They have some excellent scholars, and we are indebted to their contributions, especially in light of the declining biblical literacy is a big issue in Australia.
(2) Some institutions focus on training people for practical ministry.
I think it is fair to say that some Bible colleges focus more on training students for ministry than on the Bible itself. They do not encourage students to do intense studies on the Bible. Generally speaking, their graduates have not done many subjects in biblical and/or theological studies, because their focus is practical ministry. In fact, these colleges tend not to have biblical scholars on faculty.
The problem with this focus is that students do not have a comprehensive and thorough knowledge of the Scripture. Nor do they have the skills to perform in-depth studies on the Bible.
(3) Some theological colleges seek to help students to engage with culture.
There are colleges today that seek to help students to understand the interface between faith and culture. They want the students to interpret the culture in which they live, and ask what it means to be a follower of Jesus today.
I think this is excellent, but it is not easy to do it well. One needs to be thoughtful in critiquing culture. Criticism and cynicism without thoughtfulness cannot make a positive contribution to the kingdom of God. Most importantly, one needs to have an in-depth understanding of Scripture and the values of God’s kingdom in order to engage with the cultures of our world today.
(4) A qualification.
It is unfortunate that sometimes it boils down to a piece of qualification. This doesn’t always happen. But at times I feel that we are held captive to a consumeristic or utilitarian worldview, and think that a theology degree is only a means to an end—that is, it is a qualification for someone to become an ordained minister or move higher in the organisational structure.
I understand the dilemma. Even though we don’t want to see theological studies as a means to an end, the reality is that people do need academic qualifications these days.
But if we are going to spend a few years and a lot of money on intense theological studies, I think we do have to consider the real reasons why we study. Does God want us to spend hours each day (for several years!) on simply a qualification?
In the worst scenario, the theological college is merely a service provider for its consumers to get a qualification. Hmmm . . . that’s not good, is it?
(5) Know God
My own reason for doing theological studies was to know God. My desire has always been to know him and love him with all my heart, and allow him to use me in whatever way he wants. Here are Paul’s words in Philippians.
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3:10–11; NIV; emphasis added)
I chose studies that would help me to achieve this goal: to know God and let him take hold of me so that I may serve him better.
If we have the same desire as Paul above, then our whole life will be shaped by the cross and the risen Christ. Theological studies that focus on knowing the crucified Christ and the risen Lord will lead the church to create a cruciform community with a cruciform mission—one that gives the world a genuine resurrection hope.
I think good theological studies and ministry training are about spiritual formation through the Scripture. Students will develop ministry skills along the way. But skills are good only if they are shaped by a cruciform mindset that looks to God for his resurrection power.
(Let me say that the above are simply some random thoughts. I am sure I have missed many things.)