The Legitimacy of Theological Education

September 12, 2017
North Texas Giving Day is fast approaching, and there are more needs this year than ever before. So why should you give your hard-earned dollars to an institution of theological education like B. H. Carroll? Does theological education matter?

If you are looking for suspense or surprises, this probably isn’t the blog for you. I am an ordained minister and a theological educator, so it won’t shock anyone that I think theological education is important. But I hope you’ll keep reading anyway because what I have to say just might change the way you think—not only about the value of theological education but also about the very nature of the Christian faith.

In next week’s blog, I intend to defend my thesis that theological education matters by enumerating its benefits for members of the clergy, for individual lay people, and for the church as a whole. This week, however, I want to defend my thesis by arguing that theological education is a legitimate exercise. It seems to me that the best way to get at this issue is to ask whether theological education is consistent with biblical Christianity and fulfills a practical purpose in the life of the church.

Is Theological Education Biblical?

Let’s begin by addressing an objection that I have heard a lot of people raise to the legitimacy of theological education. Perhaps you have heard this objection, too. It usually goes something like this. Jesus didn’t go to seminary. Paul didn’t go to seminary. Peter didn’t go to seminary. So why do we need seminaries now? All we need is the Holy Spirit!

It is true that seminaries, as we now know them, did not exist in the ancient world. But that fact, in and of itself, hardly decides the question of whether formal theological education is inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture. There are at least two points that we can make in support of this claim.

The first point is a hermeneutical one. Just because seminaries and other institutions of Christian higher education had not yet been invented when the Jesus movement began institutions does not mean that such institutions should not exist today. It may simply mean that we live in a different cultural, technological, and historical context than did the first Christians. I am convinced that the Bible tells us far more about what we should be doing than it does about how we should be doing it, and I am equally convinced that Jesus and his earliest followers would applaud any attempts that we make to use resources present in our society for the glory of God. Too often, objections to theological education are rooted more in a latent anti-intellectualism than they are in the consistent application of biblical principles.

The second point that needs to be made is a historical one. Formal mechanisms for obtaining highly specialized skills, including skills that facilitated theological reasoning and enhanced ministerial effectiveness, did exist in the world that Jesus and Paul inhabited. Did Jesus and his earliest followers appropriate such resources for the benefit of the gospel? The best evidence suggests that at least some of them did.

The most obvious example of such a person is Paul the Apostle. Paul was clearly trained in methods of biblical interpretation that were common in his day, and it is at least possible that he was also educated in the use of Greek philosophy and rhetoric. Paul worked with others who possessed specialized training in language, rhetoric, and other useful fields (Luke, the writer of Hebrews, Tertius, etc.), and he regularly deployed such people in support of his overall ministry objectives.

But what about Jesus? Some people have portrayed him as nothing more than a simple peasant (or, at best, a humble artisan), but this portrayal of Jesus may not be entirely accurate. Voices as diverse as Craig Keener, J. P. Moreland, and Rodney Stark are calling us to reevaluate our understanding of Jesus. He was certainly no simpleton, and he may have been a trained interpreter and teacher of the Bible.

And if that is true, then we have to reevaluate the way that we understand his first disciples. It is true that Peter and John were described by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem as “unschooled” and “ordinary” men (Acts 4:13). Still, they had been with Jesus, and if Jesus was a trained rabbi who possessed significant hermeneutical and theological skill, then it stands to reason that these men were neither uneducated nor unremarkable. They could come before the ruling council of Israel with confidence because they knew what they were doing.

Is Theological Education Practical?

With these hermeneutical and historical factors in mind, I think that we can safely say that formal theological education is consistent with biblical teaching. But there is another objection that is often heard when the subject of theological education comes up. Indeed, it is often voiced by people who are either students of or graduates of institutions like B. H. Carroll. The objection is that theological education is not practical.

Admittedly, many students feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information that they are asked to learn when they come to seminary, and much of this information seems arcane at best. Graduates often get bogged down in the details of daily ministry, and they find it hard to see how the abstract speculations of the classroom have any bearing on Sunday’s sermon—to say nothing of tonight’s committee meeting. As one pastor (who holds two seminary degrees) put it in a recent podcast, “Seminary doesn’t teach you how to be a pastor.”

Once again, though, I think that such objections fall victim to the anti-intellectualism that seems to be so prominent among evangelicals in the United States. It is true that there are some things that you cannot learn in a classroom; you can only learn them by getting out there with real people in real churches.

Nevertheless, theological education is practical. After all, biblical interpretation, theological reasoning, historical context, and pastoral sensitivity are the foundations upon which all healthy ministries are built and the framework such ministries use to structure their existence. In other words, the more we understand our faith, the more we see how others have lived out that faith in different contexts, the more we contemplate the shape of our unique calling, the more effective we will be as caregivers, leaders, and teachers. And, yes, such reflections can have a profound impact not only on the heady stuff like sermons but also on the nitty-gritty stuff that so often consumes our time and energy.

The Point

Theological education is not some unbiblical distraction from what the church really ought to be doing, nor is it an impractical burden on the time and resources of God’s people. Rather, it is the natural outworking of the church’s mission to make disciples, and it is a valuable investment in the future of God’s people.

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