Why read theology?

I am thinking about the curriculum for a new compulsory module I have to teach entitled ‘Readings in Medieval Theology,’ and doing the usual academic thing with a new module, particularly a new module you didn’t design, of trying to work out some intentionality: why am I teaching this (beyond the fact that I have to)?; what do I want the students to get out of it? There are various levels at which I can answer the question. The module exists in part because we believe that reading primary sources in the tradition should be a part of a theology degree (there are other compulsory modules in patristics, Reformation, and modern theology). This is in part about content: I occasionally apply the ‘graduation test’ to the curricula I teach: what would really embarrass me if it suddenly struck me at a graduation ceremony that someone was on stage getting a theology degree without having read it? Amongst the medievals, only Thomas’ Summa Theologica really passes that test for me. (And so I have always taken every opportunity to get primary reading in the ST in – together with a well-honed piece on how to read the text, beginning ‘The Summa is divided into five parts, helpfully numbered one to three…’) There is also a skills element: reading primary texts, particularly ancient texts, intelligently is, or should be, a core skill in any humanities degree. Like most skills, it is gained only by practice, so compulsory readings modules have become a significant component of our degrees. I want to go deeper than either of those answers, however. Why should anyone do a theology degree at all? Some of our students are preparing for Christian ministry, but even there – why does a pastor need to have read Thomas Aquinas, still less Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, John of Damascus, or John Major (all of whom will feature in my module)? My answer comes straight from the medieval universities that Thomas and John Major taught in: we read theologians to learn how to think theologically. The texts we read are, at one level, entirely irrelevant. We are trying to learn an art, and thinking along with good practitioners of the art will help us to learn it. Thinking along with the greatest practitioners will help us to fly as high as we can, which is why undergraduates really should read Thomas (and Augustine, and Calvin, and Schleiermacher, and Barth) – and why graduate students should pick a great mind to live with for their three years of formation. (And why those of us who presume to teach should be reading the greats very regularly…) The point of a theology degree is not that you know what Thomas or Calvin thought about this or that; the point is that, when asked what a Christian should think about this or that, you are a bit more able to give a worthwhile answer than you would have been had you not done the degree. (Of course, giving the time you spent doing the degree to prayer, or evangelism, or serving people who are poor and/or marginalised, would have been far more productive in these terms, but…) You know where to look for answers, have a sense of which logical distinctions might become important, and are just skilled, in a thousand subtle ways, at thinking in this mode. (This generalises, of course. The point of doing any degree – possibly with the exceptions of medicine and law, amongst the traditional subjects – is to learn to think. The knowledge you acquire along the way is entirely accidental; what you (should…) gain is an ability to address any question, any problem,...

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The future of (UK) ministerial formation: some musings

I have been involved in a large number of (private) conversations recently around a broad theme of ‘ministerial formation’, where ‘ministry’ is widely defined. It seems to me that we stand at the threshold of a significant change: this is in part necessary, and in part possible and desirable. For a century, or nearly two, we (defined here as ‘British nonconformist churches’) have practiced a model of ministerial formation that centred on attendance at a residential college. This is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive: most candidates for ministry these days are married, potentially with family, and so moving house is a major upheaval; for colleges tied in to mainstream university programmes in England, there is a sudden increase of £6-9K pa in training costs that someone has to bear from this year as a result of the introduction of university fees. At the same time, the imperative that made college attendance necessary is receding fast. We used to train ministers on an apprenticeship model, a young aspiring minister studying alongside an experienced and recognised practitioner. That had to change as a result of the expansion of academic publishing: where once a thoughtful minister’s library could be nearly exhaustive, we moved to a situation where a major institutional investment was required to offer a library that was even adequate. Again, the development of academic sub-disciplines made the idea of apprenticeship to a single master implausible: those of us trained in Christian doctrine are acutely aware of our lack of expertise in Biblical studies, for instance. So a community of scholars, each with a different specialism, was needed  – a college. Now, however, these necessities are passing away. In writing my recent Trinity book, I accessed 80-90% of the articles, and perhaps 40% of the monographs, online – probably I could have accessed 50% of the monographs online, but I still prefer working from a printed edition when it is easily available. I am very aware of the rate of advance of electronic publication, and (particularly given CLA permission to digitise material for course packs) the moment when an entire course could be delivered on the basis of electronic access to publications without any real compromise in quality was reached some years ago, if the course is offered by an institution is linked to a top academic library (this conditional is significant: academic e-publication presently works by selling big chunks of material for big money to big institutions; a specialist theological college should in theory be able to access a bespoke body of specialist material for a reasonable price, but those options are not currently offered in the marketplace). Similarly, there is no need any more for physical access to faculty. I have done doctoral supervisions, and even vivas, using something as basic as Skype; this is less than ideal, but an institution that invested seriously in web conferencing equipment and software could offer a student experience not far from that of the best campuses with only very infrequent requirement to attend. (Much distance learning is substandard: a good test is to look at the cost – here in St Andrews, we charge our DL students the same as we charge our residential students, because we offer them the same standard of programme; this was a revelation to me when I first discovered it, that it is possible to aspire to genuine excellence in every aspect of learning and student experience, even when working at a distance.) These same electronic opportunities change what is necessary in ministerial training. One conversation I had concerned people who had advanced to positions of national leadership very quickly on the basis of their abilities, but needed some better intellectual foundations to sustain a long and fruitful ministry. My first thought was the old ‘don’t give them a fish; give them a rod’ analogy – what such people need is the skills and language to access theological resources, not intensive grounding in theology; my second thought, though, was an extension of the analogy: ‘don’t even give them a rod, but introduce them to an expert fisherman’. I find myself regularly – certainly more than once a month – advising national church leaders with whom I have become acquainted on theological matters; some are quite highly educated theologically (doctorates…); others are less so; all share an ability to know when they are out of their depth and need expert help. That ability seems to me a crucial one now at every level of Christian ministry: there are plenty of scholars able and willing to help, but the minister needs a very clear awareness of what she doesn’t know. To add another factor...

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Theological textbooks

Ben has a teaching job (congratulations, Ben!), and asked on Facebook about textbooks for introductory theology courses. I started writing a comment, which rapidly became an essay; but it seemed a question of more general interest, so I thought I’d move my thoughts here… Which is the best textbook? I can’t answer this without answering several prior questions about the nature of the course, how it fits into the wider curriculum, the identity of the students, &c., &c. I’d start by thinking about these: 1. What do I want to achieve in this course? (Not ‘learning outcomes’, although including those as well): Do I want students to have a basic understanding of the major loci of theology? Do I want them to have a detailed knowledge of certain key loci (Trinity & Christology, say)? Do I want to introduce them to the breadth of the theological tradition? Do I want them to be seriously grounded in one tradition (Wesleyan; Reformed; Pentecostal; neo-Thomist)? Do I want them to face up to modern critiques of theology and possible answers? Do I want them thoroughly grounded in the patristic debates and ecumenical decisions? Do I want them to understand the nature of theological claims and argument? Do I want them to be excited about the possibilities of theology? Do I want them alive to majority world and gender issues concerning justice, and how these impact theology? Do I want to emphasise the ethical and social implications of theology? These all pull in different directions. I grew up on the ‘worthy but dull’ tradition of evangelical textbooks – we had Erickson, but McGrath and Grudem are now more popular. For a while, I reacted badly, emphasising interest and excitement over content (if they’re up to it, give them Gunton’s Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, and let Jenson and Hauerwas provoke them with idiosyncratic views). When Colin Gunton, Murray Rae and I wrote a textbook, it was designed explicitly for a course on theological method, and with an eye to introducing people to the major voices of the theological tradition. The thing is, you can’t be both comprehensive and deep, both balanced and provocative; in the space of one module including one thing means excluding something else (or failing to do either…). Only when you know what the course is aiming to achieve can you choose a textbook that will help, rather than hinder, your aims. 2. What does the wider curriculum look like? What opportunities for supplementing or reinforcing your course are there? Are all the students doing level 1 church history at the same time? If so, what is it about? If it is patristics (it often is, rightly or wrongly), you can choose to focus on ecumenical debates over Trinity and Christology, and expect some reinforcement between the courses, or you can choose to go light on the ecumenical debates, trusting your colleague to give the students the things you are skipping in her lectures/seminars. How much other theology are the students forced to do? How much are they able to do? If yours is the only compulsory course, what is so central that every student should have met it? If there is another compulsory course in year 2, what does it contain? What do students need to know to engage with that course effectively (you need to give it to them)? What are they going to do in detail there, allowing you to go light on it? Here in St Andrews, Alan Torrance teaches our introductory module. He does a stunningly good job of exciting students about the possibilities and relevance of theology, and of introducing them to certain absolutely central concepts and debates. I get them in the second year; knowing this background, I feel constrained to give them a survey course that introduces most doctrinal loci and the general shape of them. The broader curriculum has to fit together. 3. Who are your students? This question includes intellectual ability; previous academic achievement; faith commitments; vocational intentions; age, gender and ethnic profile; and some other things. I first taught theology in Spurgeons College, a Baptist college for ordinands. The students there varied extraordinarily widely in intellect and academic background, but were united by a broadly evangelical faith and a commitment to the Christian ministry. Here in St Andrews, the students are uniformly intellectually able and academically well-prepared, but vary significantly in their beliefs and intentions. In Spurgeons, I needed a textbook (or a suite of textbooks) that would interest recent Oxford graduates and be accessible to ex-bricklayers, but I could assume a particular angle on the subject. Here, I can assume a certain level...

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