Why theological studies and ministry training? Some (random!) reflections

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.)

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Wisdom for students of the Bible at theological colleges

Bible colleges and seminaries are starting their new academic year now. Timothy Gombis and Daniel Kirk have both posted something to address students. They can be found here, here, and here.

Here are some excerpts that you may like.

Tim Gombis on “Study as Worship”

In the same way, churches need skilled ministers who are well-versed in theology and in study of the Scripture and its various genres in order to be reliable guides, helping people navigate the storms and stresses of life.  And it’s not the point to learn big truths in order to impress people with your knowledge.  You need to penetrate into the core of Scripture’s great truths here in the classroom so that you can speak to people in their own language, translating the faith for everyday pilgrims on the sojourn of discipleship to Jesus.

You need to learn about walking faithfully with God when life hurts from Jeremiah and the Psalms.  You need to understand the subtle threats of life from Proverbs.  You need to grasp the surprising character of Jesus in Mark.  You think you know Jesus?  So did the disciples, and Jesus rebuked them time and again.  Maybe you need to take a closer look and see that you are really devoted to your idea of Jesus, and not the actual person.  Get to know Mark, and that Gospel will shake you to your core.  But that’ll be good for you and you’ll be good for the church, but only if you study.  Only if you apply yourself to your work, immerse yourself in the text of Scripture and grapple with the theological notions that your professors introduce to you.

There are loads of common-sense teachers out there.  If we want to hear from Dr. Phil we can just turn on the TV.  But God’s people need to hear from God.  And not just platitudes about God ripped off from Christian greeting cards.  Some of the most crushing and damaging things that come from the mouths of Christian people are empty platitudes that sound like wisdom, but are actually false counsel.  If you have a vague idea of what Scripture says, you’ll be of no use to the church.  But if you study diligently, you can be a gift to God’s people and skillfully invite them into the wonder of God’s blessing.

Daniel Kirk’s “Open Letter to New Testament students”

But if I am doing my job, you are probably going to undergo a slow process of discovering that what you thought was a book is, in fact, a bunch of books; you’re going to find out that what you know is often incorrect; and what has spoken to you has been edifying, but that text may not ever be able to speak with that same voice again.

Here is what I promise to do for you: I promise to leave you with a Jesus who is worth following, a Christian vocation that’s worth risking your life on, and a Bible that will guide you toward both.

In other words, I promise that I will not leave you empty-handed; I promise that my goal is to strengthen you as a faithful follower of Christ. I have not come to steal, kill, and destroy, but to help you better see the One who is the way of life, and how scripture is a witness to him.

So for my part, I promise to leave you with a faith worth believing.