Experiences in Theological Education I

I’ve been part of the Evangelical Christian world my whole life.  I grew up in a variety of sunday schools, children’s programs, student ministries.  I attended public schools from kindergarten through high school, so up through age 17, the church was my primary form of theological education.  My parents were both educated at fine Evangelical Christian institutions (my dad graduated from Wheaton, my mom graduated from Biola), so I had wonderful resources at home as well.  It wasn’t until I myself attended Wheaton that I entered into the institutional world of Christian education.

As I think about a theology of Christian education, I cannot help but think about my own experiences. I am not, after all, considering theological education purely from the standpoint of a teacher.  Before I started teaching, I had several decades of experience being taught, to varying degrees of success. In thinking about my experiences, I realize I’ve spent time living in each of the “cities” at various points.

For a great, succinct summary about the models of theological education see Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s article from a few years ago.  Really, for a great, succinct summary of almost any topic in Christian theology, see something he has written.

For now, I’ll offer just a brief recap and share about my time living in these cities.  David Kelsey got the framework started by using “Athens” and “Berlin.”  The Athens model reflects a classical approach exemplified in Greek education and later on was the model of the early church. The goal in “Athens” is to form character, to know God, to become a Christian in full–knowledge and practice.  This emphasizes personal development and spiritual formation.  Clement of Alexandria called a truly educated Christian a “gnostic,” one who truly knows, as he tried to redeem the term that had been co-opted by heretics.  The key is holistic learning.  Athens

From the first time I stepped onto Wheaton’s campus I was flooded with their emphasis on integrating faith and learning.  We had chapel three times a week, in which we would interupt the regular flow of campus life by sitting in our assigned seats and listening to great Christian leaders, Wheaton faculty, ministry teams.  I generally made full use of my allowed skips (I think we had 8 back in the day, but I can’t remember exactly), while even then valuing the opportunity for what it was. These chapels were inspirational, convicting, worshipful, community-building, and only very occasionally frustrating or numbing.  I generally got some coffee and a plain bagel from the STUPE on my way to chapel, so that likely helped.

We had a Pledge that mandated not doing certain activities.  It also encouraged doing other activities, but never with the same force.  There was strong peer encouragement to participate in a ministry, and even as this wasn’t required, most everyone I knew was involved in one or more teams.  Faith was integrated into every class, often passionately so, though never in ways that diminished the quality and depth of the teaching.  Wheaton had a lot of community activities, though I was not very connected. I had good friends (especially my junior and senior years), and yet I think back on Wheaton as characterized by radical loneliness.  God was shaping me, and that meant some radical deconstruction alongside intense learning in a broad liberal arts context.  Wheaton-Sign-Christ-and-his-Kingdom-Permission-300x200

That I was a very strong introvert and was dealing with untreated clinical depression (that was likely both neurochemical and related to current life issues), didn’t help my connection with others, but did seem to drive me deeper in Scripture, theology, and especially church history. I found counselors among the ancients and saints of the faith.  In almost every way, Wheaton was a profound time of transformation, and yet because I was so far from my roots, from what was a strong community back home in California, it wasn’t all good transformation.  I disconnected my spirituality from the experience of deep community and commitment.  God was certainly good even in my troubles–there are some truly good people I got to know there and I’m not sure I could find a better overall education–but I didn’t have guidance how to navigate the various hardships of my life and really finished quite a bit broken.

Which makes me see how holistic formation functions best in a context of committed community.  At home I had the committed community, but I didn’t have access to the depth of learning or exposure to the great teachings of the Church. I didn’t have guidance about how to truly integrate my faith, learning, and myself in a coherent way.  Wheaton was, as I look back, a white martyrdom, a giving up of what gave me security, what gave me comfort, what made sense (because it made very little sense that I would or could go to Wheaton for many reasons).  I was indeed crafted into a daily following of Christ that sustains me to this day.

Kelsey’s second model is “Berlin.”  This is the university model, especially in tersm of a research university. The goal here is learning and applying critical reasoning to categories of learning. It is a training of the intellect in accumulating and compiling information, an increasing pool of resources used to analyze and create understanding.  Such understanding then can be deployed in the professional tasks that require such learning. In theological education, this would be used in vocational ministry or academia.  Berlin

My MDiv studies very much reflected this model. Fuller Seminary was created as a new institution for Evangelicalism that emphasized critical learning and thinking.  The courses were structured to teach the essential categories of seminary education, namely Scripture, Church History, Theology, and Ministry. It was 144 quarter units of learning, about 3 classes per quarter.  There was a weekly chapel, but it was not mandatory.  As far as I can remember, there was little emphasis on prayer or personal spiritual formation. That’s not to say these were seen as irrelevant or unimportant. They were emphasized as vitally important! Just not seen as part of the course of formal study.

As a commuter student driving in from about 21 miles away, I very rarely attended chapel (they did not compare well to Wheaton chapels). While I had acquaintances and co-laborers, I did not develop deep friendships. There were some wan attempts at discussion groups, but these were stilted affairs, rigid and limited in scope.  Everyone attended classes for learning but then spiritual life was the role of the church. I did take an elective on Spiritual Disciplines at the end of my first year, which certainly did emphasis a more holistic approach, but it was indeed an elective. With generally very large class sizes, there was hardly any personal tutoring. I did make some key connections with Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, but the fruit of this did not really ripen until many years later.

I did learn a great deal.  I learned deeply of Scripture, the original languages, becoming pulled into systematic theology for the first time, finding resonance in church history, fuller-theological-seminarylearning about the vocation of ministry–how to preach, how to teach, how to respond to questions about faith struggles.  Unfortunately, this high quality of education was itself disconnected from my church experiences, which had varying levels of extreme dysfunction and success.  I was caught in the storm that is the church of our era, and I didn’t know how to navigate to a place of stillness and renewal.

Those are my experiences with the first two cities in the framework. I’ll save my discussion of the others for another post.

Before I go, though, it is worth noting that while Fuller was created firmly in the Berlin model and was still quite entrenched in this during my MDiv years, after my graduation it has gone through a shift.  There was a reduction of required credits for the MDiv, and it was mostly the core content classes that got cut or combined. Meanwhile there is now a set of four required classes with the title “integration studies” that bring together spiritual disciplines and pastoral/church practices.  These four classes respectively focus on calling, worship, community, and mission. They really do add a fair amount of holistic learning and reflection in the seminary process. Meaning that nowadays, theological education at Fuller might best be understood as “Budapest,” a city that is in between Athens and Berlin.

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