This article is written to commemorate the official opening of Trinity Theological College
by President S. R. Nathan on March 16, 2002.
Reflections on theological education
WE GENERALLY expect those who come forward to serve as pastors and church workers to go through a programme of formal theological education. And why not? After all, don’t we expect doctors, pilots and bus drivers, in whose hands we often entrust our lives, to go through some form of training and certification?
But what exactly is theological education? What do people do in seminaries such as Trinity Theological College (TTC)? For those who have not stepped into a seminary or attended seminary classes, theological education is probably a mystery. Some even consider it as a waste of time with unkind jokes that the seminary is a cemetery where one’s faith is buried. This is probably the result of a serious misunderstanding of what theological education is all about. We should look at what theological education seeks to achieve.
In his helpful book “Theologia”, Edward Farley notes the three periods of theological education in America. Firstly, the 17th and 18th centuries were a “period of pious learning” when theological studies were considered as an “exercise in piety”. The second period, covering the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, saw theological education as “specialised learning … in which the student is exposed to a considerable number of scholarly methods and disciplines, known now as the departments or areas of the theological school”. The third period covering the second half of the 20th century has seen seminaries increasingly providing “professional education” producing professional ministers trained in special tasks and ministries. In the three periods, the focus has been on the spirituality, scholarship and skills of the minister respectively.
We get into problems when we begin to debate which of these three emphases is the most important and should be the central focus of theological education. From time to time we hear complaints that a pastor lacks the necessary skills (such as preaching and leadership) for effective ministry and that the seminary should focus on developing these. Others may point to a pastor’s lack of scholarship in not being able to meet the needs of a well-educated and critical congregation. Yet others may wish that their pastor was “more spiritual”.
In reality, the seminary embraces all three goals of developing the spirituality, scholarship and ministry skills of its students. One cannot be neglected for the other. These goals are effectively met through a process of spiritual formation and traditioning. That is to say, the process involves the shaping of the person by Word and Spirit, and grounding in the faith and ways of the church. Here is where we must also note that theological education does not take place only in the seminary. It also takes place in church.
While teaching at TTC I had encountered a few church leaders who would say “Why has TTC produced such a graduate?” referring to some persons. I have replied, “Why did you send such a student?”
A student spends almost three years in the seminary for a basic theological education. Before that, he has spent so many more years in church. If spiritual formation and traditioning are the key processes of theological education, then the church must provide these before a candidate enters the seminary. What the seminary does is to build on this and provide a more formal, intensive, focused and specialised course of studies and training to prepare the person for fulltime ministry.
These days seminaries are also providing theological education for lay people who may be looking for some training for their lay ministries in church or who may be seeking to “know more about the Bible”. This is indeed an encouraging sign. However, the seminary must not lose sight of its primary role of training pastors and church workers. The theological education of church members at large is (or should be) primarily done in the church.
One of the skills that must be imparted to seminary students is that of teaching. One of the duties of pastors is to equip their congregations for service (Eph. 4:12) and the key skill required in pastoring is the ability to teach (1 Tim. 3:2). A failure in this teaching ministry in church will result in an impoverished church and an overburdened seminary whose primary goals may be forgotten in the desire to meet a growing demand and need to provide theological education for church members.
How the seminary delivers theological education is another matter to be seriously considered. In his article on theological education in American Methodism (in the book “Theological Education in the Evangelical Tradition”), Russell Richey describes four phases in the Methodist movement: apprenticeship, a guided course of studies, college education, and finally, seminary education.
In the early days of Methodism, preachers were recruited and trained “on the job” through a process of intensive mentoring and apprenticeship. Later, a more formal course of studies was designed for preachers to be educated while also pastoring churches. Subsequently pastors were required to undergo formal theological education in seminaries.
We cannot go back to the old days of Methodism. Our needs and context today (except in our mission fields, and that requires another article) are different. It is for good reason that the seminary has developed and that pastors and church workers are expected to go through formal theological education. What we need to do is to recover the valuable and essential process of mentoring and apprenticeship, which would complement the seminary curriculum. This the church and seminary must take note and act upon.
Theological education is something that takes place in both church and seminary. And both church and seminary must labour together to make it work well. The seminary has a specific task – the training of pastors and church workers to be guided and shaped, in the words of the TTC anthem, by Master’s voice and holy Word. It has to produce pastor-teachers who can teach and train their church members and provide theological education in the church.
If we are mindful of the partnership between church and seminary, and the specific roles, tasks and goals, then the seminary can fulfil its clearly spelt out role, and the church and its ministries will be strengthened and blessed.
CHURCH AND SEMINARY
‘Theological education is something that takes place in both church and seminary. And both church and seminary must work together to make it work well.’