Theology is Too Hard! A Letter to My Student

Theologians_Top 10 of All TimeLast semester I had a Graduate Diploma student who could not take a class on-campus, so I organised a Directed Study Contract for him to take the unit in that mode instead. We met a number of times during the semester to discuss the lessons, assessments, etc, while he did most of the work on his own. After the semester finished he sent me the following note:

And thanks for making DSC allowances for me – much appreciated. From talking to [my friend who took the class on campus], I did miss a lot of good discussion during the lectures, though. 🙁

I have a love-hate relationship with Theology now: I love the idea of it, and thinking about it is really uplifting, but I hate that it’s sooooo hard!

I am afraid I just couldn’t let that last line slide, so here is how I responded:

Hi ….!

Yes and No!

Yes, we had some very good students, and so good discussions in the class – I think you would have enjoyed it.

And No, theology’s not “sooooooo hard”!

The difficulty with doing units the way we do is that we make it harder than it needs to be by exposing you to a whole range of view points on a whole range of subjects all at the same time. That’s hard! (so, Yes, perhaps it was hard!)

But, if you take the time to read Erickson (Christian Theology) & Migliore (Faith Seeking Understanding) through and one at a time, you will get first a solid conservative take on theology, and then a briefer, broader more liberationist but still (mostly) orthodox take on theology. Then at leisure think through the issues that arise around each of the topics. Or you could work through sections in both correspondingly. Erickson on Scripture, Migliore on Scripture. Either way is fine. But done over time it is not “so hard”! (Note: these are the two texts we use at present in the Seminary in our introductory units on theology).

Then pick up Grenz (Theology for the Community of God) or McGrath (Christian Theology), and then one of the Reformed theologians such as Horton or Frame (because Reformed theology emphasises doctrine there are probably dozens to choose from!). Along the way pick up Olson (The Story of Christian Theology) for a survey of the development of theology over twenty centuries, and Stassen and Gushee (Kingdom Ethics) or another fairly comprehensive ethics text to remind yourself that theological convictions always include moral commitments. Perhaps also choose another theological text along the way to diversify yet again, perhaps reading a theology from a Roman Catholic or a feminist or an Asian or a (fill-the-blank) perspective.

If you took a year, or even two to do this you would be well set for a lifetime of theological reflection that enriches your whole approach to faith and life. And the slower more systematic approach will help alleviate some of the difficulty experienced in a seminary setting. (If you were to go onto to do the whole MDiv, though, some of these “pieces of the jigsaw” would begin falling into place.)

Once you have laid a good foundation like this, then you are in the position to dive deep into either or both according to how your interests have developed:

  1. One of the great masters ancient or modern: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Bavinck, Barth, Pannenberg, etc; or,
  2. One of the great loci or issues: the doctrine of God, atonement, pneumatology, theological anthropology, ecclesiology, etc, etc; or even a third possibility emerges,
  3. The integration of Christian faith and thought with another discipline or field of endeavour: philosophy, ethics, science, politics, psychology, business, education, technology, etc.

Perhaps that third option should be a permanent option no matter where we are in our theological endeavours, but as always, there is a crying need for specialist engagement with every sphere of life from a deeply informed Christian base.

So, what’s your summer reading going to be? And 2016?

I think the letter might have worked, because the student then responded back…

Thanks so much for taking the time to write that email response! That’s a great guide which I will definitely work through! Much appreciated!

 I think you’re right – it’s the approach of picking a topic, then doing a few readings on it, discussing it, then moving on to the next topic which makes it hard. You don’t have time to a) learn about the topic in a broader sense (just very particular parts of it) and b) get to know how the authors *think* about everything. I’ve heard Keller say once or twice that you know when you’ve read someone enough when you can pose hypothetical questions and just *know* how that particular author/theologian would’ve answered them. I’m not at that level with any author!

There is some wisdom here. I read two very different authors many years ago (Trevor Hart and John Piper), telling how they had been advised in the early years of their development to choose a theologian with whom to “go deep,” so that, after some years of study, that theologian would become your dialogue partner. Piper chose Jonathon Edwards, and Hart, Barth. Both testified that their decision to sustain a life-long study of and “dialogue” with a particular theologian had proven to be an incalculable blessing in their life, and in their ministry as a Christian theologian.

6 thoughts on “Theology is Too Hard! A Letter to My Student

  1. Thanks Michael, that’s a really helpful exchange.

    Of late I am beginning to realise that after July 2016 (hopefully when I will complete the M.Div.), I am going to miss the stimulation I am enjoying so much at Vose (I don’t think the idea of further enrolments will fly! :-).

    However, your little essay puts it back to me: I have Erickson and McGrath on my shelf, and have been reading Migliore this semester. I have enough resources to put into action the sort of plan you have described….

    1. Thanks Ian.
      More enrolments won’t fly? Course they will (here at least…) There’s always the MA or the MTh – just what your wife and family would love to hear!

      And Vose library is always open, especially for alumni. There is such a wealth of resources in the library, an embarrassment of riches at every level.

  2. I rememeber I had a quick conversation with you, Michael, about much the same issue. As a (former) academic, I can only compare to the standards at secular universities I worked/studied at. The workload at Vose is at least twice as much as that at an average secular university, I can confidently say. Three times is a bit of an exaggeration, but at some universities, some courses require surprisingly little work for a pass. I went to Uni of Melbourne for my Masters and one big essay (or one small assignment and a presentation) and the final was the norm for each unit. That said, I actually don’t know whether it is a good thing or bad. Personally, it wasn’t easy at all to handle all four units and I should say still it’s more positive than negative. Yet I hoped to have more time to think and let thoughts sit in longer rather than rush to finish off for the next essay. I think, to be politically correct, it will depend much on the selection of readings we are required to spend so much time on, but it isn’t too bad an idea to consider discussing adjusting students’ workload a little.

    1. Hi Jason,
      I have heard that comment several times, and it was also my experience moving from Tabor College to Murdoch University. I did more work for each subject at Tabor, though the level of instruction or organisation of units was probably better at Murdoch (in those days, at least). Our units here at Vose have a set number of words required in assessments per unit, and typically, we steer clear of exams. It would be possible to have one big essay, plus one exam, but it would probably mean that some people would fail simply because they do not perform well in exams. I will bring your comment to the attention of our academic dean.

  3. What a great letter Mike. I hope that student frames it and returns to it every so often to remind themselves of he great and noble task you assigned them.

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