Theological study is a dangerous vocation. One would think this listening to advice sometimes given to young adults “If you go to college, especially ‘that’ one, you might lose your faith.” “They don’t call it theological cemetery for nothing.” “If you do study, make sure you go to ABC school and not XYZ college.” These comments arguably reflect ignorance and fear as much as astute awareness of what colleges actually do. But they also reflect that colleges do deconstruct previously held assumptions and beliefs to helpbuild a coherent and hopefully relevant theological framework for contemporary faith and ministry. Theological education, at its best, is dangerous. It is meant to stretch and challenge, form and reform, train and equip the people of God for Christian life and ministry, which is in itself a dangerous business.
What is theological study about? Who needs it? How has it been viewed in history? How doits different fields hang together? What advice would help theological students today? The Trials of Theologygrapples with these questions.
Andrew Cameron and Brian Rosner compiled and framed the book while teaching at Moore Theological College. Their choice of topics and contributors comes theologically from their conservative Reformed framework and pastorally from their teaching and supervision of students. Cameron teaches Ethics and is Director of The Centre for Christian Living. Rosner is now Principal of Ridley College in Melbourne, and his teaching expertise is New Testament.Their focus is to encourage students to come to theological study with a diligent attitude to study, an eagerness to grow in the knowledge and love of God, and an understanding of where certain theological disciplines fit in the curriculum and how they enhance pastoral ministry.
Cameron and Rosner have collected chapters with six voices from the past (mostly long excerpts with brief commentary from the editors), and five other voices from the present.
The reader learns from Augustine and his desire to take time out to study (to “pray, read and weep”) so that he would not do ministry badly: “nothing is easier, pleasanter and more likely to win people’s respect than the office of bishop or priest or deacon, if it is performed negligently and with a view to securing their approval; but in God’s sight there is nothing more sorrowful, miserable, and deserving of condemnation” (pp.20-21). It is interesting, however, that while Augustine wanted to retreat from ministry for study, it was in the midst of ministry and challenge that he learned significant and enduring lessons. I will return to this point at the end of my review.
Martin Lutherelevates trials as a welcome part of education and formation. He counsels using a studytriad prayer, meditation and temptation: “I didn’t learn my theology all at once. I had to ponder over it ever more deeply, and my spiritual trials were of help to me in this, for one does not learn anything without practice” (p.26).
Charles Spurgeon warns against “unconverted ministry” and urges the development of the inner life and self-awareness: “It will be in vain for me to stock my library, or organise societies, or project schemes, if I neglect the culture of myself”(p.35).
Benjamin Warfield advocates maintaining discipline in communal seminary worship and in not becoming overfamiliar with God, in order to grow in learnedness and godliness: “A minister must be learned, on pain of being utterly incompetent for his work. But before and above being learned, a minister must be godly” (p.51).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls theologians to a confident pride in the gospel and critique of local culture, especially to confess Christ in time of crisis. Writes Bonhoeffer: “The work of theology consists not of the individual’s passions, nor of a monologue or even a religious self-actualisation, but instead it consists of responsible hearing and learning, of paying attention to the word of God in the midst of a hostile world”(p.71).
ForC S Lewis Andrew Cameron diverts from the pattern of a large excerpt of the theologian’s words and offers an essay on Lewis’ obscure warnings against the desire to belong to an inner circle: “Of all the passions … passion for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things” (p.78).
It is ideal for beginning theological students to read about their study task in the original words of some of the key theologians they will be learning from. The second half of the volumeis full of counsel from contemporary teachers across the “core” curriculum.
John Woodhouse, Moore’s Principal, maintains the purpose of theological education is to grow in the knowledge and love of God. He cautions teachers and students against anti-intellectualism, preoccupation with grades, and any feelings of superiority.
Don Carson, regarding biblical studies, urges integration of critical and devotional reading, and learning alongside godliness. He warns against working not enough with the Bible or growing workaholic with the task, and temptation to manipulate Scripture either to be accepted by your church tradition or the critical academy. He also offers counsel for scholars with their writing, encouraging academic and popular writing, and not letting small writing tasks distract from your most important projects. I appreciate Carson’s high view of biblical studies: “The mark of true growth in the study of Scripture is not so much that we become masters of the text as that we are mastered by the text” (p.117).
Carl R. Truemansimilarly espouses the value of Church History to help us navigate our present contexts for ministry by learning from our tradition’s past. Trueman just says beware of both naïve idealism and relativism.
Gerald L. Braydiscusses how theology can become speculative abstraction or dangerous apostasy, and argues for the place of overall guiding theological study in the curriculum.
Dennis P. Hollingeroutlines models of ethics and the unique contributions of a Christian worldview: “The Christian gospel brings unanticipated and badly needed news to a struggling world. The study of theological ethics shows how the gospel applies in the cut-and-thrust of everyday life” (p.186).
There is a limitation in the volume with lack of diversity. The first half represents a long stretch of history, and the second half is a spread of theological disciplines. Given the tradition of the editors, the choice of authors has an understandable Reformed preference. But there is also lack of diversity in gender and cultural background. The editors acknowledge the lack of women writers, and encourage women to showcase what is missed (p.13). Of the five present voices, all are Western intellectual men. The first is their own Principal, John Woodhouse, the only other Australian voice. The other four are North American male professional theologians. I would love to read perspectives by women, Non-Western educators, perhaps a pastor with an interest in theological education or someone championing the ministry of the whole people of God. (Moore College students are perhaps an exception, but most Australian theological colleges have a majority of students equipping themselves for faith and ministry in their everyday lives, not necessarily pastoral ministry. Moore is focused on training people for vocational ministry, so the contents may be more relevant for colleges with that focus.)
A second limitation is lack of practical theology and mission perspectives.Perhaps the assumption is that students can focus on “core” disciplines and work out the integration and application later. But the mission of God ought to be a key organising principle, and missiology have a central place, in any theological studies. And the growing field of practical theology offers an integrating and practice-focused framework for reflecting theologically on issues of ministry in contemporary contexts. Contextualization got a nod in the Church History chapter, and Christian ethics necessarily begins with ethical dilemmas in society, but I remain curious what other contributors see as the place of context in theological studies. Woodhouse, as Moore’s Principal, elevates partnership in the gospel and mission as what theological education exists for: “everything done here, from introductory Greek grammar to the mundane tasks of administration, is a partnership in the gospel. We are a department of mission” (p.105). But where do and how do students learn the practical frameworks and practice being leaders shaped by mission?
The most valuable contribution of the book is its appeal, in different ways, to maintain passionate spirituality alongside intellectual endeavour, and communal worship alongside individual study efforts. Rosner concludes with this enticing invitation to enjoy what theological education:
“A potent danger for students of theology … is of substituting intellectual stimulation for genuine spiritual experience. Studying theology without arriving at wonder is like growing a rose bush and producing only thorns and prickles. It is all voyage and no destination. It is like travelling to Arizona, pondering the geology of the Grand Canyon, memorizing its dimensions, editing the tourist video, but forgetting to take a look. It is like struggling all the way to the goal of our theological study is not to figure out God, but rather, to arrive at awestruck incredulity and joyful confidence in God” (pp.190-191).
The Trials of Theology is good reading for students and teachers of theology to help put the overall task of theological education into perspective. Students and teachers need the intellectual rigour and passionate spirituality the book advocates, but to be a ‘proven worker’ they also need this integrated with mission theology and practical ministry engagement and reflection (or head, heart and hands).
A condensed version of this review was originally published in Australian eJournal of Theology Vol 19:3 (2012).