Theological education: a gift from the reformed


What insights and gifts do various church traditions offer to each other, and to the world?

Well, the Orthodox remind us that this girl is old, much older than you think. In fact, she’s a real nanna. The Pentecostals remind us that this girl likes to experiment. The Seventh Day Adventists remind us that the graffiti on the back of the dunny door announcing that this girl likes Marcion, who also goes by the name of ‘Marci’, is just slander. The Anglicans remind us that this girl plays best when she’s playing with all sorts of different girls. (‘Anglicans’ who don’t get this might as well become Brethren.) Speaking of which, the Brethren remind us that this girl shows us that weirdness can be catholic too. The Baptists remind us that this girl is supposed to have a thing about unprotected sex with civil authorities, and that she has a mind of her own. The Presbyterians/Reformed remind us that this girl is a bit of a nerd. The Methodists remind us this girl can sing! The Lutherans remind us that this girl can drink! The Salvos remind us that this girl can go without drinking at all because her arms and legs alone keep her alive. And the Roman Catholics remind us that this girl is not a girl at all but actually a boy who likes playing dress ups.

Now the thing that I really want to reflect on here is the gift that each of these habits and idiosyncrasies are to each other, and how much poorer this girl would be were any of these features made to be unwelcome, or not given opportunity and space to flourish. I’ll take one – the Presbyterian/Reformed commitment to education.

In his little book The Church Transforming: What’s Next for the Reformed Project?Michael Jinkins writes:

The Reformed project has always promoted theological education to support and strengthen the church in its mission. We live at a moment, however – an axial moment in the history of the church – when some question the rationale for the theological education of those called to lead the church. Today we must argue convincingly for a theologically well-educated ministry if we care about the quality of preaching and the worship of God, of pastoral care and counseling, of Christian teaching and nurture, of mission, service, and evangelism. We must make this argument powerfully if we care about the nurturing of a church that can grapple with the social and cultural challenges it faces. Theological education will not solve every problem: it will not heal our every disease or deliver us from every evil. But theological education can teach us that we don’t have to be mean or stupid to follow Jesus of Nazareth. And in our culture today, this is one of the most countercultural messages we can articulate.

Education, including theological education (a subject about which I’ve blogged a bit before), proved to be fundamentally important in the birthing of the Reformed movements in the sixteenth century, both through Grandpa Calvin’s emphasis on catechesis and the ‘sermon’, and through the establishment, in 1559, of the Genevan Academy, which became the training ground for an ‘educated clergy’ and the nursery of Reformed movements in France, the Netherlands, England, Poland, Scotland, and elsewhere.

In his masterful biography on Calvin, Bruce Gordon has observed that ‘Schools were, in Calvin’s mind, essential to the building of Christian society’. Calvin shared with the Genevans a commitment to the humanism of the great European centres. This commitment found expression in the creation of and widespread support for the Academy, which had two parts – the schola publica which trained ministers and the schola privata where Genevan children, each of whom was believed to be a gift from God, were schooled. The schola privata, in particular, received substantial support – a claim buoyed by the fact that it was provided with new buildings, and it received nearly 20% of the city’s annual budget in 1559–60, money gained largely from the dissolution of the monasteries. In addition, citizens of Geneva were required to bequeath legacies to the Academy in their wills, and were expected to pray for the Academy and its work.

Undergirding such a commitment is a deeper commitment to the world itself. The church has often faced the temptation to disengage from the world, to take a turn inwards and focus almost entirely on churchly matters, to become a mere sect. By and large, the Reformed have resisted this temptation.

Indeed, historically, one of the real gifts that the Reformed have bequeathed to the wider Church and to the discipline of theology has been the rigour with which it has applied the life of the mind in the service of God and of God’s work in the world. So Jinkins:

From the first, Reformed Christians have sought to advance the best thinking in the face of superficiality, superstition, bad religion, social reactivity, and anxiety. As expressions of confidence that Christian faith and the promotion of knowledge go hand-in-hand, the Reformed project established the first programs of universal education, founding universities, graduate schools, and teaching hospitals as it moved across the world. Today the world’s problems have become extraordinarily complex, and many religious people try to prove their religious devotion by refusing to test their convictions intellectually or by seeking to silence those with whom they disagree. Now more than ever, we as Reformed Christians must foster the curiosity and intellectual openness that have driven us to think deeply, for there is desperate need for faithful people who are bold and unflinching thinkers, people who will use their best knowledge and concerted intellect to engage and mend a broken world.

So we are thinking here about the habit of the Reformed to love God – and so God’s world – with our mind, as well as with our heart, soul, and strength. The Reformed are typically among those in the body of Christ who worry most about what will become of Christian faith – and, indeed, of the world – if Christians fail to love God and God’s world with a love schooled and tenacious enough to ask – and to keep asking – the tough, deep, critical and sometimes intractable questions about life. They are among those who are ‘concerned about what it will mean for our faith if we choose to ignore life’s most profound mysteries and insoluble riddles’, who are ‘concerned about the integrity of the church if we abandon the curiosity that is unafraid to swim at the deep end of the pool, if we jettison a passion for ideas, for knowledge, and for wisdom for their own sake’ and who are equally ‘disturbed about what will become of society if persons of faith retreat from the public sphere, where ideas must fight for their lives among competing interests, where justice is served by vigorous argumentation and intelligent action as much as by high ideals’. They are certainly among those who believe that the greatest heresy the church faces today is not atheism but superficiality, and its attendant ‘cult’.

To cite Jinkins, again:

Occasionally I hear editors of church publications or church growth consultants arguing that Christian laypeople just aren’t interested in theology, or that laypeople aren’t interested in the history of their faith or, worse still, that laypeople simply can’t understand complicated ideas. Yet, when I speak in congregations around the country, I regularly encounter crowds of lively, intelligent laypeople hungry to know more about their faith. These are laypeople, incidentally, who in their daily lives run businesses and shape economies, teach, read or even write important books on a variety of serious subjects, argue legal cases before judges and juries, write laws that shape our common life, and cure our diseases of the mind and body. These laypeople are tired of being infantilized at church. They want to understand their faith more deeply. The comments of the laypeople I meet, people who want to learn more about their faith, are often along the lines of what an elderly woman said … one Sunday after [Tom Long] had preached in one of the many congregations in which he speaks around the country. As he was making his way from the pulpit to the sanctuary exit, the woman stepped forward to greet him. Earlier in the evening, Tom had invited members of the congregation to share with him any messages they’d like him to take back to the future ministers he teaches in seminary. As this woman stepped forward, Tom greeted her with the question, “Is there a message you’d like me to take back to the seminary, something you’d like me to tell our students?” “Yes, there is,” she said. “Tell them to take us seriously.” Now, I know that not every person in our churches, or indeed in our society, craves to understand God (or anything else) more deeply. But I would also maintain that at the core of the gospel there is a sacred mandate – we call it “the Great Commission – to go into all the world to make disciples, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). The word disciple translates a Greek word that means “pupil” or “willing learner.” As church leaders, then, we have this duty, this mission, this commission: to teach, to kindle curiosity, to expand knowledge, to renew minds, to make our people wiser. And there are many, many people only too eager to learn.

The Reformed emphasis on the importance of education needs to be tempered, however, with the kind of humility that the Reformed emphasise concerning human personhood in general, and about the noetic effects of what its Augustinian forebears named ‘the Fall’. Truth, as the saying goes, is the first casualty of war. But self-criticism is among the first casualties of insecurity, especially those brands of insecurity that transform thinking people into an unthinking herd.

Christian faith, on the other hand, thrives on a spirit that resists taking itself too seriously. Healthy girls know how to party, and they do. As G. K. Chesterton once suggested, angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Devils, on the other hand, fall under the weight of their own self-regard. But God help us all when Presbyterians and Uniting Church folk start parking their brains in the shopping cart, as some of their own members and not a few of their ecclesial cousins are want to do.

So, three cheers for serious theological education, wherever it’s happening.

One comment

  1. Hey Jason – great article. So i have not long finished a roadshow going around the synod with Alan Torrence. What struck me was the deep appreciation for the depth of his speaking. Older people who sit in congregations who had had stellar careers, who were retired but their brains aren’t. They loved the depth. I wonder if we have confused depth with long words. There is an endeavour to be more accessible, but there is still a need to have layers of meaning for all who are listening. love God with our heart, soul and mind….


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