Alan Sell’s The Theological Education of the Ministry: Soundings in the British Reformed and Dissenting Traditions: a review

The Theological Education of the MinistryAlan P. F. Sell, The Theological Education of the Ministry: Soundings in the British Reformed and Dissenting Traditions (Eugene, OR.: Pickwick Publications, 2013). ISBN 13: 978-1-62032-593-3; 328pp.

A guest review by Graeme Ferguson

Alan Sell, who served for a time as Theological Secretary of the WARC and who taught in Manchester and Wales, has indulged himself in retirement, writing a very readable account of the thinking of several theologians who helped form ministry in the reformed tradition in Great Britain and whose contribution should not be forgotten.

It may come as a surprise that the English dissenting tradition is as angular and stubborn today as it has been through the years in shaping the Church. Sell, as an unrepentant Congregationalist, knows the ins and outs of this history well. He has worked with the theologians who shaped ministry in the last fifty years. He has the patience to track through some of the more tortuous paths of dissent both in England and Scotland and celebrates several churchmen who are not widely remembered.

He begins with Caleb Ashworth and the dissenting academy he set up in Daventry. This sets the tone for remembering the costs involved in bearing witness to the faith outside the mainstream of English church life.

His chapter on Scottish religious philosophy in the later nineteenth century is a sharp reminder of how effectively and fully Scottish theologians engaged in the intellectual debates of the day.  Theological professors such as A.C. Fraser, Robert Flint, A.B. Bruce, James Iverach, and others, came out of the realist tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment. They were committed apologists for the faith, formulating forms of knowing that gave an assured intellectual basis for strong faith. Their books were found on the shelves of many New Zealand ministers who followed these debates closely.

His chapter on John Oman of Cambridge not only traces his formidable philosophical contribution to personalist modes of knowing God but also has a fascinating segment on Oman’s church background in the secessionist groups of the islands of northern Scotland. Oman is an Orcadian who for all his life retained that mystical spirituality of the northern lights. I was glad to see that Sell added the story about Oman’s portrait which hangs in the dining hall at Westminister College. One person asked the artist if the sitter’s face was that of a fisherman; another suggested a philosopher, and a third that he had the face of a saint. The artist was content that he had captured Oman’s heart.

In writing about N.H.G. Robinson and Geoffrey Nuttall, Sell speaks about people he knew and valued. Robinson was an ethicist in St Andrews, a careful scholar committed to clarity and precision in developing his ideas. Sell develops a set of theses to encapsulate Robinson’s thinking. Nuttall was an angular and difficult church historian of English dissent who taught in London and with whom Sell had a long friendship. Not only did Nuttall not suffer fools, but he was also an authority on Puritanism and dissent. Both men influenced a generation of students to value sound scholarship and appreciate the richness and depth of lively faith.

This book needed some strong editing. In trying to ensure that each scholar could speak for himself, Sell quotes extensively. There are some personal interjections which may be endearing but which read as self-justifying. A good editor would have picked up infelicities of language and dates that wobbled into the wrong century. Also, the bibliographies are far too long. But the book was well worth persevering with as a fascinating study of people, with their foibles, personal loves and hates, and passion for sound scholarship, who influenced generations of people serving in ministry.

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