Abstract: Shaw proposes a helpful reframing of the predominant approach to theological education, arguing that Christian leadership requires a broader engagement of academic disciplines. However, caution is warranted. Uncritical engagement will only repeat the mistakes of previous generations. Yet, seminaries do need to reduce the dichotomy between theory and practice. They should help students learn to think theologically and develop theological criteria that can be used within any vocation, so they can engage even traditionally secular fields from an expressly Christian point of view.
Theological education in the 21st century faces several criticisms in light of changes in both the Church and society. Students and alumni work in more varied and diverse arenas than those of the past generation. The concept of ministry is getting broader, and is not limited to classic ecclesiastical work. Shaw’s article, “Re-landing Theological Education,” addresses an important topic in a way that is both strategic and, at the same time, sensible and uncomfortable, especially for traditional theological educators.
Engaging New Fields
I concur with Shaw that theological education should venture into academic fields and disciplines that have not been part of its historical curriculum. As Shaw states, classic theological education has focused on the biblical sciences and humanities (philosophy, literature, and history), but the current demands of society require engagement with additional fields of knowledge, such as medicine, education, and social work. I would add psychology, communication sciences, administration and leadership, sociology, and others. These fields have an affinity with theology and ministry. The interaction between theology (in its broadest sense) and these other disciplines is important, now more than ever.
Frequently, the approach is to make a distinction between theological studies (Bible, theology, church history, exegesis), which we identify as theory, and ministry studies or field education (or “real world” training), which we identify as practice. This approach is not very helpful because it perpetuates an ancestral dichotomy that has hurt us so much. Sadly, classical theological education has been part of the problem and not the solution. Where did we get the idea that theology is the theory and ministry is the practice? In reality, if theology is not practical, then it is not authentic theology, and if the ministry is not theological, then it is not authentic ministry. One of the current challenges of theological education is precisely to eliminate, or at least to reduce, this dichotomy. The solution is not to abandon “the theoretical” in order to focus on “the practical,” but rather to integrate both into a singular focus.
When we consider the areas where our graduates will go to work and do their ministry, we see that theological education should not be limited to forming pastors, teachers, and missionaries in the classical ecclesiastical ministries in the context of the local church or in related para-church organizations. As ministry has become more diversified, it is practically impossible to encompass all ministries in the programs of one seminary. For example, at our seminary (SETECA, in Guatemala City), we offer a bachelor’s degree in theology with various emphases: classical Biblical disciplines, theology, pastoral ministries, Christian education, youth ministries, and now music, as well as counseling. Furthermore, we offer undergraduate degrees in counseling, and in Christian administration and leadership. This last concentration is the least “theological” of them all because it is geared not to the formation of classical ministers, but rather to the formation of Christian business owners or senior executives who desire to set a theological foundation for their mid-level executives. Some might say that this is not formation for ministry and it is not, if we think of ministry in a traditional way. However, it is rightly ministry if we expand our understanding of the concept. In our graduate programs, we offer a Master’s in Counseling and a Master’s in Ministry to include broad issues of leadership and administration, social work, and the impact of the Church in society. These are only a few examples of how a seminary might “land” theological education in the “real world.”
A Word of Caution
Theology has been related to the humanities since the Middle Ages and even more since the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century. It is not necessary to abandon this association in order to relate theology to the new disciplines mentioned above. However, we need some caution. Frequently, theology and theological education have been naïve in their approach and relationship to related fields of knowledge. Often, scientific theories and truths have been accepted and incorporated uncritically into theological education as if they were biblical truths. For example, anachronistic theories from the fields of administration and leadership have been applied to the Bible. As a case in point, the book of Nehemiah has been turned into a manual for strategic planning. The field of communication provides another example. Homiletics and preaching are often based on communication theories from the 1950s. We have taught preaching using a logical outline. The sermon should be sequential, discursive, and hold to a main thesis developed through various points. This was a very useful theory for communication in the past and in contexts with people with some education. We have even taught that this is the way Jesus and the apostles preached! In postmodernity, however, communication requires another approach.
It is easy to wed and to sanctify the latest scientific theory or trend, and this will keep happening if we simply jump from “theoretical” theological studies to “practical” professional studies. We will end up teaching as biblical truth scientific theories that are here today and gone tomorrow, as others take their place.
What should we do then? As I read the article “Re-landing Theological Education” I perceive that the solution is to change our content-based (text-based) classes into classes that promote learning in context (context-driven learning). I agree with the change from a paradigm of teaching to a paradigm of learning, from focusing on the teacher and the content to focusing on the student and his or her learning. These insights come from new philosophies in the education sciences. However, the goal is not to have more practical classes and less theoretical ones or to do more and think less. That would only reinforce the old dichotomy I mentioned earlier.
A Way Forward
I believe the most important task of seminaries and of theological education in general is to sharpen critical thinking in students. Universities also seek to do this, but in theological education, there is a distinct and unique focus. We should seek to teach students “theological criteria” for thinking and acting. Therefore, a medical doctor, an educator, or a social worker who comes to our seminary to study is not coming to “do other things,” but rather to acquire theological criteria that will serve them as they do their work in a better and more theologically oriented way. If the student acquires these theological criteria, then he will not need the seminary to expose him to every possible ministerial or professional situation. Rather, she will learn what to do, how to do it, and, above all else, why she should do it.
So, seminaries do not need to invest their time and resources in developing programs or classes that cover every ministerial and professional detail (they would barely be able to cover a small portion). Instead, the seminary should expand its approach by teaching students how to think theologically and with theological criteria. The practitioner must not think only in traditional biblical and theological terms, but also, and even more so, in terms of his own vocation. He has to have theological criteria that serve as the foundation for what he does and the ability to put it into practice as he ministers to the people of God, irrespective of his profession. Ultimately, everything needs to be thought out theologically. This is what we need to teach in our seminaries.