Written by Frank James
Thursday, 25 July 2013 00:00
No one knows the challenges that face theological education better than Association of Theological Schools (ATS) Executive Director, Dan Aleshire. He made what I consider an obvious but remarkable statement, namely that theological education needs to be “reinvented.” It is obvious because we all know that our world is changing rapidly and seminaries need to be able to minister to this changing world. It is remarkable, because traditional agencies like ATS are usually the last to admit the obvious.
In a very real sense, the current challenges have provided a window of “opportunity” for seminaries to re-imagine theological education for the twenty-first century. It is an opportunity to be creative and to think outside the box. I must say that the accomplishments of the BTS board and Dave Dunbar are nothing short of astonishing - not to mention courageous. The groundwork has ready been laid and BTS is in position to tackle the challenges.
Theological institutions must recognize and understand the cultural shifts and engage them - not merely to perpetuate the survival of an organization, but because seminaries are called by God to further His kingdom.
Since the middle ages, most seminaries tend to have a rather narrow self-identity with an inward focus - typically a particular denominational or theological tradition which they are trying to perpetuate. BTS is different. We affirm that “God’s church does not have a mission in the world; rather, God’s mission has a church in the world.” This outward focus resonates deeply with me.
Reinvented theological education is not dis-engaged from the outside world, but is a caring presence and a blessing to that community. We need to ask: Who is the seminary within the wider community? Part of a missional approach to theological education is that it seeks to prepare ministers not only by rigorous intellectual study but also by engaging the wider community. In the past, seminaries have tended to be almost monastic, isolated and inward looking. In more recent times, some seminaries have produced graduates who tend to live in their heads - a kind of mental monasticism even as they minister to their flocks. But that approach is no longer viable in a post-modern world. Ministers must be culturally engaged and relationally present in their communities.
We often speak as if the missional model is something new and I suppose it is to some extent. But as an historian, I know that few things are really new. I would argue that the early church was missional at its very core. In a world entirely lacking in social services, early Christians became their brother’s keepers. By the fourth century, Christians had become especially well known for their compassion for the poor - both Christian and pagan. The Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate (361-363) even complained about “those impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well.”The Christian Gospel always has been identified with compassion for the sick, poor and disenfranchised, as well as for its opposition to injustice. More recently, whether it was William Wilberforce’s opposition to the slave trade or Amy Carmichael rescuing little girls dedicated to the Hindu gods and forced into prostitution, history demonstrates that followers of Jesus have long understood that the Gospel must be manifested in both word and deed.
Considering the vast scope of history, re-invention may not be the most accurate descriptor of what BTS is doing in seminary education. Perhaps it would be better to say that we are seeking to re-capture the original missional vision.
Can I get an Amen?
Frank A. James III is the President of Biblical Seminary. He formerly served as Provost and Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He has two doctorates, a D.Phil. in History from Oxford University and a Ph.D. in Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary/Pennsylvania. He is one of the founding members of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture (with InterVarsity Press) and has authored and edited nine books. His latest book, Church History: From Pre-Reformation to the Present (Zondervan), has just been published. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/frank-a-james