Tag Archives: Theological Education

Academic Argument

Brian Smith for The Chronicle Review

I was interested to read the chapter on academic argument in Winning Arguments by Stanley Fish.

That is what you have to do to earn your bona fides as an academic: enter an ongoing conversation about a topic deemed to be important—not important in the larger world (although it may be), but important in the academic world—survey the arguments now competing for attention, and put forward an argument of your own that corrects the others or outflanks them (by bringing them together in a ‘higher synthesis’), or reconfigures the field by arguing that your predecessors have asked the wrong questions; you, of course, have the right ones (167).

That is, the process of academic argument is to join a conversation that is underway before we come to it, detailing an intellectual problem and its outstanding issues, the present scholarly approach and arguments with respect to the problem, to set forth one’s own argument to persuade others that your own approach is superior in that it addresses the outstanding issues.

Perhaps more interesting is his claim that academic arguments ‘don’t matter.’ They are strictly ‘academic,’ concerned, that is, with the intellectual points at stake, and as such, not concerned with outcomes, real-world consequences or implications, and so on. Academic argument is neither activism nor formation. It does not seek nor intends to change the world per se but to understand it—pace Karl Marx (176). Academic argument does not seek to move mountains; it seeks rather to move the mind. An academic argument ‘shouldn’t be political, therapeutic, or exhortatory. It can, however, have political, therapeutic, and exhortatory effects, as long as those effects are not aimed at…’ (175).

Also of interest is the idea that not every topic is properly speaking, academic. Fish discusses several examples: holocaust denial, the attribution of Shakespeare’s plays to others, and creationism. Fish finds that in each case the academy has decided the topic is something else masquerading as academic: lies and distortions in the case of holocaust denial, or religious dogma pretending to be science in the case of creationism (180). This might be all well and good with respect to the particular matters raised, but it does appear that in contemporary universities, some positions of argument are being deemed out-of-bounds not on the basis of their academic demerit but because loud cultural voices are declaring that such-and-such a topic is illegitimate as a form of enquiry. It may be that argument is still required to determine what may be argued about.

With respect to theological argument, Wolfhart Pannenberg reminds us of the distinction between faith and theology—a distinction all theological students should note:

Individual faith is certainly not tied to this basic argument. We can believe without it. But faith of that kind is not theology. Only arguments count in theology. Theology cannot ignore the question of the foundation of faith in Jesus Christ. It cannot ignore the underlying relation that leads to the rise of faith and the statements of the christological confession. Theological argument neither here nor elsewhere makes faith or the Holy Spirit superfluous. Nevertheless, it is also true that appeal to faith and the Holy Spirit is not of itself an argument (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Vol. 2, 287; in subsection on “The Method of Christology”).


table-fellowshipSeveral years I gave my Introduction to Theology class an assignment on the Lord’s Supper. They were to explore biblical, theological and contemporary perspectives and conclude with their own hopefully-now-informed view. One student wrote a fine paper on the topic and then appended to her essay a poem she had written while reflecting on the material she was studying. I was delighted with Nicki Bowles’ poem. I hope you enjoy it as I did.


Bread of the earth
I smell you and see your substance
I reach out my hand and touch you
I break you, smell you, taste you…

I close my eyes
You are before me
I see your broken body
And the light as it fades from your eyes
I smell fear, and blood
I hear jeers and cries of pain
I reach out my hand and touch you
Your bowed head, your mangled hands
You are there, broken, and I take you in

I turn and see you — there, again!
You sit at a table
A feast laid out before you
I smell incense, the aroma of food
I see the light dance in your eyes
And your dear face smiling
I reach out my hand and touch you
Your energy pulses through me
You are here, alive, and I am with you

The bread
The sacrifice
The life
All so real
I take them in
And I am changed…

© 2012 Nicola Bowles


Old BooksDarren Sumner has been writing on the Eternal Functional Submission controversy in Evangelical Theology. His careful work is worth reading.

In other words, there is no dispute that the Son submits to the Father in the economy, or in God’s life ad extra.  The thing under dispute — the only thing under dispute — is whether this submission also obtains in the immanent Trinity, in God’s life ad intra.  This is why specificity here is crucial.  But it is crucially absent from most of what Ware, Grudem, and their supporters have written.


Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.

And not just in America! In Australia, too, this is a growing popular sentiment that in my view, threatens the intellectual heritage and cultural fabric of free societies. This sentiment is already very prominent in the often hostile and facile political discourse of our country.

The Atlantic argues that tertiary educational institutions have a responsibility to encourage robust thought and discussion, even where the views expressed might cause some offence. Students need to be encouraged to engage constructively in such discussions, rather than be wrapped in cotton-wool lest their feelings and commitments be challenged. A few more citations from the article:

If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons—or at least as evidence in administrative proceedings—then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond. Schools may be training students in thinking styles that will damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health.

Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for … democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When the ideas, values, and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as willfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.

The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.

For another article on a similar vein see Rachelle Peterson “On Reading Old Books.”

On Studying Theology: A Letter to My Students

Theology TogetherThis week marks the beginning of a new semester, and what a blessing to have the campus full of students again! There is a buzz about the place that simply is not here while the students are away. It is a joy to see our continuing students again, and great to see a whole lot of new students joining us. They’re excited too, and I hope their excitement grows even in the midst of challenging assignments and pressing deadlines. I look forward to another year of getting to know each other and growing together as we study and learn together. And as a new semester starts, I think about some of the things I might like to say to new students just starting out in this most joyful and perilous of endeavours…


The opportunity to study is a privilege. During our recent orientation programme, our mission’s director Lloyd emphasised this, by reminding us of the many, many people in our world who would value the opportunity to study but for whom it is not possible. A survey of history shows that only the most privileged members of society gained this opportunity.

If this is true, then theological study is a double privilege. We are invited to give our attention to reflect on Scripture and tradition, history and theology, ministry and practice in a systematic and sustained way, and so to grow in our understanding of God and his word, his will, his people, and his mission. We are invited into conversations and reflections about these matters that have been underway for millennia, as each generation seeks afresh to understand the reality within which our entire existence unfolds. We are invited to dialogue with and learn from spiritual and intellectual giants who have lived this life before us. And this invitation comes with the added benefit of being able to do all this in the company of friends and fellow-travellers.

In so doing we are also invited into a process of learning intended to issue in personal transformation. Theological study in a seminary context is not merely an academic and critical exercise—although it certainly is that—but also a self-involving discipline that engages the learner in the subject matter under consideration. How could it be otherwise?

Theology is not a religious studies programme or a course in professional practice. Nor is it a purely historical exploration of the origins, history, traditions, and content of the biblical texts and Christian tradition. Such study is possible, of course, and included within the orbit of a theological curriculum. But theology goes further, for theology is faith seeking understanding. The object of study in theology is not the Bible nor the Christian tradition, but the God who is revealed in and through Scripture, and to whom the Christian tradition seeks to bear witness. In theology, we have to do with the living God who calls and claims us even as we engage in study about him.

Quite some years ago I was engaged as a student representative on a review panel of the theology programme in a university context. During one of the meetings, the panel chair proudly proclaimed that their (theological!) institution had been in existence for almost 100 years and in that time faith had never yet entered the classroom. Even though only an undergraduate at the time, and still without the resources to think through the matter, I thought to myself, “That can’t possibly be right! How can one study theology as though God does not exist?”

This division of head and heart, this split between the spiritual and the academic is not only dehumanising and depersonalising, but alien to the object of theology, detrimental to the life of faith, and debilitating to the ministry of the church.

Augustine Reads Gentile_da_FabrianoHerein lies perhaps the most insidious danger theological students face in their studies: the temptation to allow the critical faculty to overwhelm or squeeze out the life of faith. Often this change of heart creeps up unnoticed on the student. The busyness and pressure of the workload and other life responsibilities crowd out one’s devotional life. The heady pursuit (pun intended!) of academic knowledge and grade-point excellence may issue in pride or even arrogance. Sometimes students are drawn to the avant garde opinion, the innovative or radical position, without sufficient attempt to evaluate it in the light of the gospel. Tradition and even contemporary Christian practice may be despised as old-hat, wrong-headed, offensive or dangerous. Realisation of the missteps and faulty beliefs God’s people have taken and held over the years may generate cynicism.

In all these ways and more a distanciation may take place whereby the student may become estranged from their faith, tradition, and faith community. They find themselves in the position of the spectator, standing apart, standing over against God, not necessarily as an enemy or an unbeliever, but in a more agnostic sense. God, or the people of God, no longer conform to that which we think appropriate. To some degree isolated in their “objectivity,” they may seek like-minded companionship and confirmation and the stance begins to solidify.

But wait! Is it not the case that sometimes Christian belief and practice has actually been foolish, wrong-headed, offensive and dangerous? Yes, sadly, that must be admitted. Christian justification of adventurous wars, slavery, persecution, and the oppression of others have marred the Christian story, and very careful, deliberate thought is required to identify how and why these aberrations have arisen; and how, by means of a deeper grasp and application of the gospel, they may be identified for what they are, and new ways of being the people of God learned, commended, and modelled.Here the work of theology comes into its own: theology for the sake of the church’s life and mission in the world. Theology as a Christian’s willingness to be drawn more deeply into the life and activity of the gracious God revealed in Jesus Christ, to become a participant in the drama of redemption as it continues to unfold in our lives, the lives of those around us, and the world at large. Theology as the response of those who find themselves called into the fellowship of the Lord Jesus Christ, and who wish to understand, express and obey his lordship in all of life. Theology, that is, as faith seeking understanding.

How, then, might theological students avoid falling into the snare that this danger represents? I don’t know that I can say something definitive here, but I think I can make several suggestions. First, maintain a robust Christian devotional life including prayer, Scripture reading, and other spiritual disciplines—not just to pass assignments, but to grow in your knowledge of and relationship with God. Second, maintain regular participation in a local congregation’s worship, fellowship, and mission. It will be especially helpful if you have peers or a mentor who will journey with you as a Christian while you are undertaking your studies. Together, these practices become ‘means of grace’ that help keep our hearts and lives oriented toward God, and the community and mission of his people, so that theology is undertaken in this context.

peanuts-snoopy-and-sound-theology-floodThird, and closely related, if you find your studies are disruptive such that old patterns of thought, belief and life are challenged or even overthrown, be reassured that this is surprisingly common. My own study journey involved a prolonged season of quite profound doubt—caused by my studies! My faulty foundations needed some substantial work and strengthening in order to build something stronger, taller and more enduring. When the ground is shifting under your feet you need something firm to hang on to. This is when your peer relationships, mentor and spiritual practices will be especially helpful.

In my experience—admittedly limited—a means to address this kind of disruption is twofold: first, a deeper engagement with the gospel and the tradition is required. When questions arise, it is not time to withdraw from the field, but to seek a means of addressing them that is consonant with the gospel, and the major doctrinal and practical convictions of the church. Second, an attitude of trust or respect for authority will be immeasurably helpful. Most learning in any field involves a kind of deference to authority until our own learning becomes sufficient that we too might be called a ‘master.’ Most questions are not altogether new, and it is often the case that the tradition has the resources to address the questions adequately or initially, until we have learned sufficient to think independently or afresh about them. The great temptation here is simply to jettison the tradition before we have mastered it. The tradition is certainly not infallible; nor are our interpretations of Scripture infallible. But it is folly to abandon the tradition before we have heard it and heard it well.

Fourth, seek to integrate what you are learning into your everyday life. Allow your studies shape your worldview, character and behaviour as well as your thought processes and knowledge. A primary fruit of theological study is wisdom for life. How are your studies shaping your life, your relationships, priorities, choices, and morality? Again, peers and mentors can be very helpful here, and help keep us honest and grounded.

Finally, recognise that the ultimate purpose of theological study is not a higher grade or erudite knowledge; rather, “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5 NASB). Paul also warns that “knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies” (1 Corinthians 8:1). If our theological studies lead us to love God and love others more deeply and more truly, we are engaging in them appropriately. If our theological studies are not ultimately issuing in such love, something has gone awry—perhaps in the mode or content of instruction, or perhaps in the approach of the student. Either way, it is something to be aware of and discuss.

For myself, I love the way reading and studying theology has deepened my faith, broadened my vision, enriched my ministry and changed my life. I hope that you also find that studying theology brings you into closer proximity to and alignment with Jesus.


Book shelvesThe Benefits of Books
Here is another article that spruiks the benefits of real books on real shelves. A couple of grabs:

“Digital media encourages us to be high-bandwith consumers rather than meditative thinkers.”

“The implications are clear: owning books in the home is one of the best things you can do for your children academically.”

The Top Ten
I nicked the graphic from this site for an article a few weeks ago, but also thought the content was somewhat amusing. Included in their Top 10 Theologians of All Time are Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin, as well as CI Scofield and (my friend David will love this…) Matthew Henry.

Who are my top ten? By what criteria would I choose? Off the top of my head I would certainly include Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin. Barth would make the list, as would Luther and Athanasius. As I get toward the end of the list disputes arise: Is a Tertullian or Irenaeus more deserving than, say, a Wesley or an Edwards? How does one choose such a list?

Who are your top ten?

Colloquium and Theological Education
The new issue of Colloquium, the journal of the Australian-New Zealand Association of Theological Schools (ANZATS) arrived yesterday (Vol. 47.2 (November 2015)). It has an interesting mini-theme of theological education with essays by Stephen Plant on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Mark Lindsay on Thomas Cranmer, Geoff Thompson on the functions of theology, John McDowell on God as the telos of higher education, and Monica Melanchthon on theological education for transformation. Looks like good reading. The Colloquium website is not updated yet, but should be in due course.

And Finally…
My go-to web-based dictionary has just announced a very prosaic Word of the Year 2015. If nothing else, it indicates how a very ordinary word has become freighted with angst and new shades of meaning in the present cultural milieu.

Theological Education, 12th Century Style

AbelardIn twelfth century Western Europe, independent schools were springing up alongside the older cathedral schools as a precursor to the development of the universities. There was a market for students as more and more people wanted the kind of education that prepared them for the growing civil service required by both church and state. According to Gillian Evans,

A school did not need buildings or organization or a syllabus. Would-be masters could simply set themselves up and lecture to students, so they needed to be in places where potential fee-paying students might be found. There was rivalry. Masters tried to capture one another’s students, sometimes adding critical comments about one another’s opinions in their lectures….

One of the most notorious of these wandering masters, Peter Abelard (1079-1142) describes in his History of My Calamities how he went to hear Anselm of Laon (d. 1117) lecture at the cathedral school at Laon, with the express purpose of capturing some of his students. Abelard had already made his name as a daring logician and now he wanted to move on to theology, an obvious career move because it was regarded as a more advanced and prestigious subject. … Abelard was not a trained theologian. He had, however, skills in linguistic analysis from his knowledge of logic, and he began to apply these to the interpretation of the text of Scripture with disturbing results. Students loved this for its danger and novelty. They flocked to hear him. He was able to set up a school in Paris at St Geneviève on the left bank of the Seine (Evans, The Roots of the Reformation, 161-162).

I had to smile at Abelard wanting to “move onto theology, an obvious career move…”, and also at the rivalry between teachers and schools. Some things change and some things don’t.

It is also evident that some things about students haven’t changed much either, though perhaps this can be forgiven. Part of the joy of education is the opportunity to explore novel and even dangerous ideas. Problems occur when such education is broken off too quickly, and the novel is embraced uncritically, or worse, because it is novel. Sometimes, though, the novel may prove to be a breakthrough, a new paradigm that advances knowledge and opens new vistas of understanding. This has happened time and again in the history of theology. It is evident, however, that Evans does not think much of Abelard’s innovations.

New Books on Bonhoeffer

Strange GloryBooks on Bonhoeffer continue to flow off the presses, testimony to his enduring appeal and significance. Although I can make no claim to expertise in Bonhoeffer’s work, I do retain an interest in his life and theology, and would like one day to deepen my exposure to his thought, and understanding of his theological vision and contribution. So I was interested, last year, to hear some controversy around a new Bonhoeffer biography by Charles Marsh. Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (SPCK, 2014) raised uncomfortable questions about Bonhoeffer, especially for some evangelicals. Earlier this year the book won Christianity Today’s award for best book in History/Biography for 2014.

Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker

The same issue of Christianity Today (Jan-Feb 2015) features a cover article about Bonhoeffer as youth minister, and considers the implications of his ministry and thought in the Germany of the 1930s for youth ministry and churches today. Andrew Root, author of Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker (Baker Academic, 2014) argues that most of Bonhoeffer’s ministry from 1925-1939 was among children and youth: “Bonhoeffer is primarily not a theologian doing youth ministry, but a youth minister doing theology” (32). He cites a thesis written by Bonhoeffer about youth ministry sometime in the mid-1930s when the Nazis were harnessing the youthful spirit, hearts and minds of the nation:

Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the Word of God; it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the Word of God (35, emphasis added).

Bonhoeffer's Seminary VisionThe book promises to be a rich and rewarding read not only for youth ministers, but for all who love and serve in the church. The Christianity Today article is also worth reading.

Finally, Paul House has published a book that has immediate interest and relevance for my own work: Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together (Crossway, 2015). The final chapter, entitled “Life Together Today: Some Possibilities for Incarnational Seminaries,” just demands to be read by those in theological education. I hope to read it; perhaps over summer I will have the opportunity. If so, I will post a review. Or better, what if several of us read it and begin a conversation…?


On Teaching and Learning Theology

karl-barth in studyIn the semester which has just finished, my class read through much of the first book of Calvin’s Institutes, some enjoying the experience, others bemoaning it. Agree with, or disagree, it is instructive and salutary to engage with the best theological minds of previous generations as we learn to do theology for ourselves. I note that Karl Barth gave the following rationale for reading theological classics:

The fact that I devote six of the ten hours a week that I usually teach to these exercises stems from the growing conviction that what can be communicated to the student in this form is probably the most immediately fruitful part of academic instruction. The student should be learning, by means of important texts, to read: at first to become aware, quietly and completely, of the content of these texts, to understand what [they have] read in its historical context, and finally to adopt a critical attitude towards it. For this [they need] the stimulation, the guidance and the correction which is given … by a form of collaboration, in which on the one hand [they are] addressed and treated by the teacher as a regular fellow-researcher, and on the other [they have] to consider openly and carefully the attempts of [their] fellow students … It is a matter of preparing the student for teaching by [their] active participation in research. (Barth, cited in Busch, Karl Barth, 352-353.)

Next semester, in my Introduction to Systematic Theology class we will be reading Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word, Luther’s The Freedom of the Christian, Barth’s Strange New World in the Bible, and LaCugna’s Living Trinitarian Faith. I hope it whets the students’ appetite for reading theological classics…

A Dilemma for Theological Education

Catholic Theological EducationJohn Olley sent through this interesting article on the situation of theological education in the United Kingdom. He commented that what is happening in the UK has already been happening here in Australia for some years. Certainly the article suggests that a residential model of theological education/ ministerial training has been the norm there, whereas I don’t know many such schools here. An obvious and continuing issue facing theological institutions is financial pressure, something compounded by government policies which allow private institutions to offer degrees, but then do not fund all the degree programmes offered, or demand compliance regimes difficult for smaller institutions to sustain.

The article indicates other pressures: shrinking church constituencies, a “re-tribalisation” of evangelicalism (an interesting topic in its own right), and fundamentally, the changing context of ecclesial vocation.

Ineson believes that future theological education will look very different. ‘We’re going to need to train many more ministers, both lay and ordained, and these will need to be people who know how to encourage the ministry of all the people of God, not just do it all themselves,’ she says. … They will need to have experience of leading teams. They will need to be people who know how to handle and lead through change as the context of ministry and church life shifts rapidly in the next few years. They will need to be adaptable…My guess is that there will be more creativity in the way training is done.’

The massive changes in the socio-cultural location of the church and in the ministry context demand high levels of practical wisdom and skill for those who would be ministers. Many pastors have said something like, “Almost everything that consumes my time in daily ministry, I had to learn after I had already finished my theological education.”

This is an ongoing tension in theological education: trying to achieve the kind of academic breadth and depth required to sustain theological reflection and godly discernment over the course of a lifetime, while also equipping ministerial candidates with the kind of practical wisdom and skills required for ministry in challenging contexts.

A real partnership is required between seminary and churches with give and take on both sides. Substantial Christian and theological formation cannot occur only in the seminary, for Christian spirituality and life is lived out in the contexts of the community of faith and in the world. The seminary exists for the church and needs the church.

Does the church likewise need the seminary? Many today question this, but I (obviously!) believe that the seminary is also necessary for the ongoing life of the church, for the training of new ministers and lay persons, for the careful examination of contemporary trends in the light of the gospel, etc.

Ineson believes that strong theology must not be compromised for the sake of hands-on experience. ‘We still need good theology…so we do need good theological colleges with well-trained, committed faculty members, able to publish and supervise higher research; where academic rigour is maintained and we continue to discern how God’s word in the Bible speaks today. That only comes through devoted study.’

What good is the seminary? How might we tackle this fundamental tension
at the heart of theological education? What do you think?