The Best Place for Theological Training

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
24th August 2013

Tagged: family training

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Last week was Moore College Sunday. For over one hundred years our college has trained ministers of the gospel to serve in Sydney, Australia and overseas. It is a great college in which Christ is honoured by his word being faithfully taught. It lies at the very heart of our evangelical diocese.  

There is no alternative to formal, academic, theological training for those who would be paid to teach God's word. It is important for the health of the church that God’s pastors and evangelists know and understand the truth of God's word accurately and in detail. They need to know the original languages in which the word of God was written as well as the historical and philosophical background to the Scriptures. They need to know the history of Christian thinking, as different objections to the gospel have been encountered both from outside and inside Christianity. They need to understanding the total Biblical context of Old and New Testaments as well as the particular context of any passage they would expound. This kind of knowledge comes from years of serious study at the highest level that we as a community can afford.

The highest level is not the university, though the university contributes to it. The modern university cannot and does not aim to teach the knowledge of God. The goal of the university is not to know God, but to understand religion, or religious expressions, or historical movements. Universities follow the latest fashion in scholarly debate – ‘the consensus of scholarly opinion’. A present fashion does not teach what Paul or Luke wrote but what it is purported they wrote; not what they meant but the words they used to influence and control others. This current mode of cynicism does not entertain the notion that ‘he who doubts everything knows nothing’; and worse - has no friends.

Yet, for all this, the university does make a valuable contribution to formal theological training in providing academic rigour, testing ideas, introducing the questions of today and setting scholarly standards. The university is a measure against which teaching standards can be established, and is an important check against the closed ‘group think’ of a community that could lose touch with society.

However, Moore College teaches at a higher level than the university, for it teaches not only the academic rigour of modern university education but also the knowledge of God that comes from his revelation in Scripture. Moore College has never been a purely academic institution. It has always been a residential community where Christians study the word of God together, living with each other, eating with each other praying with and for each other as well as learning as student ministers on the weekends. For the goal of learning at college is not purely to gain information about Christianity or even knowledge about God but to know God, and with that knowledge to know how to serve him by serving other people in love.

Moore College is therefore more than an academic institution, it is a theological college: a community of scholars who share the knowledge of God. This is the necessary training for those whom we would pay to pastor our churches.

However, important as formal academic theological training is, we must not be seduced into giving it more credibility than it deserves. For it is not the primary or even the secondary place to learn theology. While we learn our theology from the word of God, the Scriptures, the primary context to learn of God is not in a theological college, but in the family just as the secondary place to learn is in the church.

For even though Moore College is a community of people bathed in prayer and seeking to serve, it still does not surpass the family and church as the context for theological education.

True theological understanding is found not in the technical expertise of exegesis, but in obedience to the word of God. As James wrote: “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). It is in the family that we are taught the word of God in order to do it. In that set of relationships we learn and observe the practice of living by God’s word. Similarly, in church we gather as God’s people to hear his gospel word and be transformed into the likeness of his Son.

These two contexts are the place for real theological education because knowing God lies at the centre of their purpose. The theological college is a specialist college where some people are trained to be professional teachers of God’s word. While it may encourage students to godliness, it has to teach a curriculum in order to award qualifications and degrees, which are necessary for appointments but have nothing necessarily to do with such godliness. The motivation to know God is often compromised by the formal academic notions of curriculum, examinations and awards, which can be, and at some points are, antithetical to the knowledge of our Saviour.

We must not confuse or equate theological education with formal, academic, professional training in theology. As Tyndale would put it, the Bible is for the boy working the plough, not the scholar. Wisdom is found in the fear of the Lord not in the fear of the examiner. Knowledge puffs up; it is love that builds up. The world is full of unconverted academic theologians, whose degrees have only been stumbling blocks for them.

Every man, woman and child is a theologian. The scholarly pastor must not replace the sacerdotal priest as our mediator. Beware of the educated elite whose esoteric expertise excludes instead of educates. Remember that out of the mouths of infants come the praises of God. We are all to know God. Such knowledge comes from hearing and doing the word of God. We cannot hand this responsibility onto our pastors, nor to our theological college, but must take it for ourselves and our families and our congregation.