Faithful Theological Education
Theological education abounds in America in a wide variety of churches, institutes, colleges, universities, and seminaries. The interesting question before us is: what makes for faithful theological education?
In the great heritage of Reformed Christianity represented by Ligonier and Reformation Bible College, faithful theological education must be linked to the Bible. Recognition of and submission to the authority of the Bible is the foundation of faithful Christianity and therefore of faithful theological education.
One of the greatest problems in many churches and schools today is that they have drifted or run away from the authority of the Bible. Rather than the Bible standing as standard and judge of what they do, they stand as judge of the Bible. Human minds, judgments, and values decide what parts of the Bible are true and useful today. This unfaithful approach to the Bible has led to the serious decline of churches in numbers and influence and has turned formerly Christian schools into secular institutions.
To be faithful we must recognize the Bible for what it claims to be: the revelation of God written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, clear and complete in its teaching for the salvation of sinners and the life of the church. Without this confidence in the Bible, we can have no faithful theological education.
A formal acceptance of the authority of the Bible, however, does not guarantee faithfulness in education. We also have to understand the character of the Bible and the calling of the church and its ministry in order to evaluate approaches to theological education.
The Bible is a volume of many works by many authors over many years. Almost all of it was written in Hebrew and Greek. Its writings express a variety of styles and emerge from a variety of cultures. These facts do not mean that the basic message of the Bible is obscure or dependent on experts for elucidation. It does mean that faithful theological education will help students understand and appreciate these dimensions of the Bible in order to come to a richer grasp of its meaning.
Recognizing this character of the Bible is what led the Reformers to establish the kinds of schools which they did to prepare Christians and particularly ministers for the study of Scripture. They began by stressing the importance of a liberal arts education to lay the foundation of being able to read and understand a text and its means of communicating. Then they stressed the importance of knowing Greek and Hebrew for reading the Bible in the original languages in which it was written. Among the various academic disciples, they saw the particular need for philosophy to understand human thinking, for history to understand different times and cultures, for careful exegesis for the careful examination of a text, and for systematic theology to see the ways in which the fruits of all the other disciples can be brought together and organized.
We see how demanding this thorough approach to faithful education really is. Faithful theological education for leaders of Christ’s church is not accomplished easily or quickly. This great truth is not readily accepted today. In America we tend to seek quick fixes for our problems. We want analysis that can be put on a bumper sticker. And we like speakers who abound in rhetorical cleverness. We want to get to the work immediately rather than spend years getting ready for the work.
When faithful Calvinists founded Princeton Theological Seminary in 1812, they faced a religious environment where the second awakening was creating great enthusiasm in many churches. Some believed that the end of the world was near and that all energy needed to be given at once to evangelism and missions. Calvinists were repeatedly challenged with the question: do we really need all this education when all people really need is the simple gospel? In response to that question and the situation they faced, the founders of Princeton wrote: “zeal without learning and learning without zeal must ultimately prove injurious to the church.” Here is a superbly balanced statement. We may be able for a time to operate just on zeal, but in the long run zeal alone will injure the church. In the long run Christianity that is faithful and stable and deep must also have learning.
A commitment to learning flows not only from the character of the Bible but also from the character of the gospel ministry. Today in many churches the minister who is successful is the minister who is clever and entertaining, rather than the minister who is careful and thoughtful in his study and exposition of the Scriptures. Which minister, however, will actually build the church and make true disciples? Numerical success is never the measure of faithful ministry. As Luther said, wherever Christ builds a church, the devil builds a bigger chapel next door. Faithful ministry leads God’s people into the Word so that the Word by the power of the Holy Spirit renews them.
The education of faithful ministers requires the kind of faithful education we have been considering. A carefully educated ministry has been one of the hallmarks of Reformed Christianity and is more needed today than ever. In the midst of shallowness and error, faithful ministers are needed to pastor and teach the flock of Christ.
The faithful minister understands not only the authority and character of the Bible, but also grasps the message of the Bible in all its breadth and depth. The Scriptures certainly present a simple gospel. But the Scriptures also teach profound doctrine, instruct on worship that pleases God, show the way in which the church is to be governed, and direct Christians in the path of holy living. They open to us the fullness of what it means that Christ is “our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (I Cor. 1:30). The full teaching of the Bible is the light and life of the church.
Only churches nourished with the Word through a faithful ministry will be strong. Only faithful theological education will provide the faithful ministers which the churches need. Let us pray that the Lord will continue to raise up and maintain faithful schools in our day.
W. Robert Godfrey is president emeritus of Westminster Seminary California and a Ligonier Ministries teaching fellow.