Welcome to The Theology Whisperer, a series of short blog posts on theology and theological education.
Theological education in the twenty-first century usually involves formal training in structured programs, usually at a post-secondary level, with the primary aim of preparing students for a vocation of leadership and service within the church. As theologian Bernard Ott observes, theological education serves the church in its mission, “trains people in powerlessness and dependency upon the activity of the Spirit of God,” and does its work in close conversation with the church and community.
But theological education is much more than an academic discipline. According to the Apostle James, “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). True theological knowledge is one such precious gift. It is available in many forms, and we encounter it not only in the context of formal or informal Bible study, but through spiritual practices such as prayer, worship, diaconal service and mission.
Reflecting on that statement in the letter of James, the medieval theologian Bonaventure (1221-1274) noted that the light of which James speaks is a single source variously refracted: God is its origin, “but at the same time … there are many lights which flow generously from that fontal source of light.” Theological education similarly seeks to refract the knowledge of God to meet human needs in diverse times, places and cultures.
Christians engage with the subject matter, though not the tools, of theology in many ways and for many reasons. They read the Bible devotionally; they participate in various faith-based groups that often have a theological or educational element; they attend church services where they sing, pray, listen to sermons, and participate in liturgical/sacramental activities. Those things in themselves are theological, and often educational, but are not theological education as I’m considering it here.
Formal theological education takes a more rigorously rational and objective approach to faith – or at least it tries to do so. Often different questions are asked of a biblical text, and the analysis and evaluation of answers to such questions seeks to be more overtly rational, critical and objective in contrast to devotional reflection and congregational teaching and learning.
In practice, theology is often more like an art than a science, and many theological students find their studies profoundly enriching. Australian theologian Jeanette Mathews reflects that:
To be able to give time and attention to exploring one’s faith can be a real privilege. When I began to study theology after completing a degree in another unrelated vocational area I was surprised at how much I cared about my readings and assignments in contrast to earlier academic work I had undertaken. Rather than a chore to be finished as quickly as possible in order to complete a degree, I found that what I was studying was intimately integrated with my deepest thoughts and impacted on my actions and relationships. What a luxury to be ‘studying’ in an area that had always been an important part of my life so that now it could become the major point of focus in my life! There was a coming together of life, faith, thought and study.
That has been my experience too. When I commenced theological studies in 1993 at a small denominational college, I was encouraged to pursue a higher standard of academic rigour than I had experienced as an undergraduate humanities student in a large university. I found it much easier to do the required reading in preparation for lectures, and to conduct research in preparation for essay assessment. And I discovered a new delight in learning, the “coming together” that Jeanette referred to above.
Above all, my theological studies helped me to frame my previous learning and experience in the Christian community. Who knows where I would have ended up without that reframing! And the delight has remained as I have continued my theological education journey, through master’s degree in social ethics by research, and now engaged in doctoral research in historical/systematic theology.
What’s your story when it comes to theological education?
This post was written by Rod Benson. Leave a comment in the box below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
 Bernard Ott, Understanding and Developing Theological Education (Carlisle, UK: Langham Global Library, 2016), 196-198.
 Bonaventure, Reduction of the Arts to Theology (c.1270), in Works of Saint Bonaventure (vol. 1; New York: Franciscan Institute, St. Bonaventure University, 1996), s.1.
 Jeanette Mathews, “Taking the first steps: Theology as a discipline,” in Jeanette Mathews (ed.), God, By Degrees: A Practical Guide for New Theological Students (Canberra: Barton Books, 2014), 6.
 Mathews, “Taking the first steps,” 4.
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