The valuing and devaluing of theological education

Among the myriad challenges facing the Church of England is the state of theological education.  Part time and mixed mode study dominates the theological educational landscape. Residential theological education is deemed too expensive.  In many places, two or three year theological degrees with optional original languages are seen as sufficient for pastoral ministry.  The few remaining evangelical theological colleges provide the most robust forms of training, with Oak Hill College the most outstanding among them. Nevertheless, even some evangelicals themselves seem confused about the importance of theological training, with theological college seen as primarily an opportunity to do university ministry, or with short and narrow in-house church courses mistakenly seen as a sufficient alternative to longer in-depth theological training.  Whatever the motivating factor – perhaps the decrease of funding, desperation for numeral growth, or well-intended activism – the devaluation of theological education does not bode well for the national church of our motherland.

The evangelicals of the early English Reformation cast quite another vision of ministerial theological education.  When they were in the ascendancy, evangelicals prioritised theological education. In terms of pre-college training, a theologically robust catechism was published in Latin and English, and was required to be taught at all grammar schools throughout the kingdom (consisting of evangelical doctrinal discussion which modern theological students would find challenging). In terms of college training, clergy were residentially trained in divinity over several years, and were generally expected to be proficient in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.[1]  In terms of post-college training, episcopal visitations raised and maintained the theological standards of the clergy.  Bishop Ridley privately and personally examined the learning of every priest and curate in London, Bishop Hooper focused upon the adequacy of preaching and knowledge of the Lord’s Prayer throughout Gloucester, and Bishop Ponet focused upon the minister’s own theological knowledge, and his ministerial catechising of the young in Winchester Diocese.

When the English evangelicals fell on hard times, their adherence to the priority of theological education was even more striking.  During the reign of Queen Mary Tudor, almost 1,000 evangelicals went into exile on the Continent.  Most of the leading clergymen, and many students from Oxford and Cambridge found refuge in Strasbourg or Zürich.  It has been often recognised that students from these two latter cities would later fill many senior roles in the Elizabethan Settlement (contra those who found refuge in Geneva and would later generally find a home among non-conforming Puritanism).  What is not often recognised is the importance of the role that theological education played in their time of exile.  In Strasbourg, students such as Edmund Grindal and Edwin Sandys were taught by Peter Martyr Vermigli, Girolamo Zanchi, and John Ponet.  In Zürich, students such as John Jewel and John Aylmer were taught by “Bishop” Bullinger, Konrad Pellikan, and Vermigli (who moved there in 1556).   Although times were tough for the English evangelicals, their commitment to a deep theological education remained unshaken.

There are three additionally noteworthy features about the English exiles and their theological training.  Firstly, great fundraising efforts were made to ensure a high-quality education.  While the exiled students boarded in hostels together and eked out a meagre existence, wealthy evangelical merchants back in London secretly sent them money, as did evangelical patrons throughout the Continent such as the Duke of Württemberg.  Secondly, exciting ministry opportunities were turned down by students so as to ensure their own theological education.  Recently discovered letters from Edmund Grindal and James Haddon record that the desire to learn Greek and Hebrew properly was the reason why they turned down important leadership opportunities among the growing exile ministry at Frankfurt.  Thirdly, the English exiles were training with long-term ministry in view.  They could not have predicted when Queen Mary would die and whether Elizabeth would be alive to succeed her.  But they were dedicated to serious theological education for the wellbeing of Christ’s church wherever they might minister in the future. Thus, this long-sighted approach to theological education goes some distance to explain the firmly evangelical character of the Elizabethan Settlement.

So, what has Strasbourg to do with Sydney? Well, the same high priority and long-sighted approach to theological education has characterised Sydney evangelicalism since the arrival of Richard Johnson, whose well-used Cruden’s concordance arrived with him on the First Fleet in 1788 and remains today in the Moore Theological College library. The same priority and approach drove Thomas Moore to envision and provide for Moore Theological College which opened in 1856, and drove Broughton Knox to strengthen and extend the Moore Theological College degree program in more recent years.  Indeed, this priority and long-sightedness is articulated well in Knox’s mature reflections on theological education within his recommendations for the establishment of George Whitefield College, Cape Town, in 1986:

The minister of the congregation is the teacher of God’s Word to the congregation.  This is his main task.  He will have other duties and opportunities of service as a Christian, but his main task is that of teacher.

Since the training of a minister is so crucial for the spiritual life and eternal destiny of members of the congregation and their families, nothing but the best possible training in knowledge and character should be accepted.

The expansion of the three year course into a four year integrated progressive course, each year building on the earlier years, in core subjects.  A theological student looking to ordination to a life time [of] ministry needs four years study as a minimum if he is to study at proper depth all the subject[s] which should be covered as well as receive practical instruction and experience in preaching, evangelism and other aspects of the ministry.[2]

We in Sydney have received a great inheritance of theological education from those evangelicals who have come before us.  The high priority and long-sighted character of theological training has enabled evangelicals to both advance the Gospel in the good times and prepare for future advancement of the Gospel in the harder times.  There will always be financial challenges, numerical aspirations, and distracting opportunities.  There will always be attempts to redirect funding for theological education into other noble – probably shorter-sighted – endeavours.  There will always be efforts to confuse the necessary curricula of a theological college with that of a bible college or a local church course.  However, the temptation to succumb to these wrong turns ought to be resisted.  Of course, I write with vested interests, as a new Moore Theological College lecturer!  However, I also write with recent experience of the sad state of theological education in the Church of England, and I have observed students pass through their (evangelical!) theological education and lament the little formal teaching on the doctrines of Scripture and of justification by faith alone.

The threat of devaluing theological education is, in reality, an opportunity.  It is an opportunity to hold fast to our high appreciation for theological education while others do not.  It is an opportunity to send well equipped men and women into our churches in Sydney with the education other institutions do not provide.  It is an opportunity to give the best help and assistance to the churches of other Dioceses, Provinces, and Churches.  It is an opportunity to give the finest possible training to people who will spend their lifetime holding out the Gospel of Christ Jesus our Lord to a world which so desperately needs to hear that message. Should we devalue our theological education? By no means!

[1]The latter (Hebrew) coming to prominence a short while after Greek.

[2]D.B. Knox, Report by David Broughton Knox to the Executive of the Synod of the Church of England in South Africa on Theological Education, Peter Spartalis Archives, Moore Theological College.