The ancient Greeks knew that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Over the Greek Temple at Delphi the words were inscribed: Know thyself. They knew the importance of self-knowledge as the key to all other knowledge. A number of theologians have recently drawn attention to the need for serious self-examination in relation to the work of the Church in general and the work of theological training in particular.
David Paton has edited an important volume entitled, Essays in Anglican Self-Criticism. Its purpose, he says, “is to draw attention to some of these intractable longer-term issues which lend themselves so well to formulation on the agenda of a committee or a conference, but which can be seen sooner or later to be of central importance.”
This attitude of self-concern is a healthy and encouraging sign. Reformed Churches are aware of the necessity for continual reformation according to the Word of God, and this activity demands self-scrutiny and self-examination. If it is necessary in relation to the activities of the institutional church, it is even more necessary in relation to the task of theological training, for the kind of ministers we get will depend to a great extent on the kind of training we give.
It was Richard Niebuhr who set the ball rolling by his study of The Purpose of the Church and Ministry (Reflections on the Aims of Theological Education)—a study which was sponsored and financed by the Carnegie Corporation of New York at a cost of 65,000 dollars. This study was simply a factual record of an existing state of affairs. It underlined the fragmentation which has occurred, and the fact that the curriculum “is a collection of studies rather than a course of study.” Niebuhr endeavored to analyze the nature of the malaise which at present afflicts theological training. “During the course of the last two or three generations the theological curriculum has been ‘enriched’—like vitamin-impregnated bread—by the addition of a long series of short courses in sociology and social problems, rural and urban sociology, the theory of religious education, educational psychology, methods of religious education, psychology of religion, psychology of personality, psychology of counseling, methods of pastoral counseling, theory of missions, history of missions, methods of evangelism, theory and practice of worship, public speaking, administration, et cetera, et cetera.” The inevitable result has been the neglect of the more traditional subjects of biblical studies.
The process of self-scrutiny has been carried a stage further by John McIntyre who succeeded John Baillie as Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh. His contribution has added interest for those of us who live in the Antipodes, for McIntyre was Principal of St. Andrew’s College, Sydney, prior to his appointment to Edinburgh. He draws heavily on his experiences in Australia in the formulation of his conclusions.
McIntyre asks the pertinent questions: where are we going? what are we trying to do? He points out that there are two distinct kinds of theological training: the American, designed to produce in the student certain specific skills and techniques; and the British, concerned not with skills or techniques, but with “disciplines and discipline necessary in every ministry” (The Expository Times, April 1959). “The disciplines are those of the four or five basic academic subjects; and the discipline is that of a well-trained mind, which can discern the problem and make reasonable efforts to solve it.”
The courses provided in an American seminary “have in themselves no structure whatever; they are a list of classes. The student imposes order upon the chaos and he does so in terms of the kind of skills which he is likely to require in the type of ministry which he intends to perform.”
McIntyre makes it clear which system he prefers: “My own judgment is that the linguistic basis of our curriculum provides the disciplines and the discipline in the prime instance; and that with the disappearance of seriousness on the part of many of our students in this regard, the re-enforcement, the strengthening, has gone from our structure. The result of this is not just that these students are lazy about Greek and Hebrew: they are just so much slower in coming to terms with a complicated piece of Trinitarian theology or Kantian philosophy. The lack of discipline induced by the ambiguous relation in which they stand to the basic disciplines has produced what I can only call a fluffiness in their attitude to other subjects.”
McIntyre points out that the principle of a thorough academic training as a necessary prerequisite for the mastery of particular techniques has been adopted in other spheres. He states: “Certain of the larger industrial houses have invited to join their executive staffs Honours graduates in Arts with literally no knowledge of the techniques of the industry, solely on the assumption that a trained mind will make its contribution whatever the sphere in which it operates.”
Australian theological colleges have not resolved this problem. (Some colleges are not even aware that a problem exists.) The British system has been transplanted to Australia, but there is an increasing hankering after the American system. The consequence has been the addition of techniques to the heavy demands of a traditional course. Many colleges, concurrently with lectures on biblical and historical theology, biblical languages and church history, now provide courses on pastoralia, pastoral psychology, practical psychiatry, religious education, group dynamics, elocution, and so forth. The result is a conglomerate course over-weighted with the demands of assignments and “practical work” in the techniques of various specialties.
In one college the awareness of these tensions has led to a drastic redrafting of the whole theological course. In the future, during the first three years of training, students will be required to address themselves, without distraction, to the acquisition of theological learning: to the study of biblical languages, the study of the Old and New Testament, the study of theology, the study of Church history. From this three year course all so called practical subjects will be rigorously excluded. The final year or years will be devoted to the application of the knowledge already acquired to the several spheres of social life and ministerial responsibility. The study of these several specialties will be theological rather than sociological: the theological knowledge gained and the insights learned will then be applied within the context concerned. In this way the sovereignty of God will be rightly acknowledged, and God will be seen to be the Author and the Giver of every good and perfect gift.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.