By Graham H. Twelftree, Academic Dean at LST
Christians are sometimes told that studying theology kills faith. I am firmly convinced that the opposite is the case. A developed mind is the handmaiden of a healthy and robust faith, and an essential base and aspect of effective ministry. Let me explain:
1. A developed mind honours God.
There is a story of a leader coming to Jesus asking which was the most important law. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus answers: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’ (Mark 12:30). In this view, to honour God with our whole lives involves giving careful attention to our minds. Not surprisingly, some people dedicate their lives to the life of the mind as academics or scholar-pastors, such as Gerhard von Rad, Dietrich Bonhoeffer or John Stott.
Father Sertillanges was a French Dominican. Near a century ago he wrote what has become a treasured classic, The Intellectual Life. He rightly says to those called to an intellectual vocation: ‘Do not prove faithless to God, to your brethren and to yourself by rejecting a sacred call.’1
2. Our mind helps discern God’s will.
Some Christians give the impression they have a spiritual organ – independent of their mind – that enables them to discern God’s will. This is not how Saint Paul understood discerning God’s will for he says, ‘be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you may discern what is the will of God’ (Romans 12:1–2). For Paul, our mind is the seat of discerning – figuring out – the will of God. Paul thinks that discernment takes place in, not despite or aside from, our minds.
If our minds are so important in discerning God’s will it is imperative we do all we can to develop our minds. This leads to the importance of theological education in particular.
3. Our theological education helps equip others.
Roger Olson was the quintessential Pentecostal preacher-boy. He spoke in tongues at age fourteen, he raised his hands in exuberant worship at revivals and camp meetings, he tried to convince Christian friends they needed the ‘sign gift’ of speaking in tongues. However, in Roger’s high school years he began to question some Pentecostal teachings and practices. Sadly, his doubts and questions led to a difficult departure from the spiritual movement of his youth. Roger is quite clear about why he drifted away and eventually broke from the movement: he wasn’t satisfied with the pat answers to his questions by his mentors and teachers.2 Young Christians need those with theological education to help them with the interface between their faith and their world.
4. Theological education can help combat heresy and reduce scandal.
Jim Jones was born in Indiana in 1931. His is a troubled and complex story. Those who knew him in childhood say that he was obsessed with religion. One day, like a modern-day Simon Magus, he saw a faith-healing service. He noticed faith healing drew a crowd, and helped raise money. So, he started his own church. We don’t need to rehearse the twenty-year tangled, and tragic, story that reached a climax in the so-called ‘socialist paradise’ in Jonestown, Guyana. What is now most remembered is that on November 18, 1978, 918 people died, most of them in a mass suicide by cyanide poisoning.
The greater tragedy is that this is not the only story we could tell of what happens when ordinary people get swallowed up by some aberration of Christianity. I think of that oft’-quoted line by Albert Camus: ‘Mistaken ideas always end in bloodshed.’ I also can’t help thinking that if there were greater theological awareness in our churches there would be fewer of these tragic stories to tell.
5. The mind of Britain – or your favourite country! – needs your theological education.
One of the most moving books I’ve read is Stephen Neil’s The History of Christian Mission.3 Neil tells of wave after wave of missionaries rising as soldiers out of trenches facing spears and disease as they landed the gospel on new shores. In more recent times, many graduates of LST have joined the battalions of missionaries who have ventured across the globe. Long may it continue. There is also a mission field within these shores. It is the mind of Britain – or your favourite country!
Dale has a well-developed mind and is a highly accomplished photographer holding a number of national awards. He was introduced to me as someone with lots of questions. We met regularly for coffee and he would ask question after question after question. I never invited him to church as I didn’t want him to feel he was a project. (Indeed, in those conversations we became firm friends.) I wanted Dale to feel free to engage in rigorous conversation to help him get to the bottom of important issues. And I wanted him to see that even though I could not answer some of his questions it remained credible – as well as intellectually satisfying – to be a follower of Jesus. One Sunday however he came to church and became a follower of Jesus. He is now a leader in his local church.
In our families, communities, churches, and places of work there are people who will become followers of Jesus, at least in part, through our ability to engage in intelligent conversations. Teachers, engineers, journalists, lawyers, biologists and business leaders need Christians who can translate the gospel into their particular “language”.
6. Theological education is the hallmark of great Christian leaders.
The early followers of Jesus who had the greatest impact were highly educated. Paul, who interpreted the gospel in a way that made sense to non-Jews, and all the other writers represented in the New Testament were not only among the mere 10 percent of the population who could read. They were also among the smaller number who could write significant pieces of literature.
There are glorious exceptions – Francis Asbury and William Booth would be two of them – but a typical hallmark of significant Christian leaders is theological education. Paul, Luke, Basil, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and John Stott – great church leaders – have been well educated. I draw the conclusion that theological education can help leaders make a significance difference to the people around them.
7. Theological education is needed in the national and global debates.
Britons are fortunate having a culture in which religion and religious issues can be part of the nation agenda and consciousness. Even for those in countries where this is not the case a theologically informed person can be salt and light.
In 1947 Carl Henry was appointed the first professor of theology at the new Fuller Theological Seminary. One of his aspirations was to lead evangelical Christians to a greater intellectual and social involvement with the culture. His book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, published just after the Second World War, called readers to develop their minds and urged a more reflective engagement with the community.4 Now, evangelicals are not only activists, but are also involved in social and political analysis; John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus and the work of Krish Kandiah come to mind.5 If the values of followers of Jesus are to find a stronger and clearer voice in the schools and educational system, in the blogs and mass media, and in the social, economic and political debates, then the Christians involved will need a robust theological education.
So far my point has been that Christians (pastors, youth leaders, children’s pastors, worship directors and lay folk) need to see the strategic value of education – and theological education in particular – in honouring God in worship, in evangelism and in nurturing other followers of Jesus. However, two important cautionary points need to be added.
First is the importance of the character that embodies the Christian mind. Left to my own devices I drift to reading biographies. Over the years one builds up an impression of the characteristics of the influential lives for whom education – and theological education in particular – has been important. For example, I have valued George Marsden’s doorstop biography of Jonathan Edwards.6 Along with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, few have shaped the foundational character and religious temper of the United States more than Jonathan Edwards. Coming away from Marsden’s book I cannot help but see that Edwards’ theologically astute mind was just one aspect of a life that involved other key factors: a passion for truth, holiness in living, perseverance over a long period of time, courage in the face of opposition and personal difficulty, and humility despite great accomplishments. For truth to be seen to have value – to have purchase – and to be taken up by others it must be lived.
There is a second cautionary point to add beyond the need for theological education: not by mind alone! Ideas, education or scholarship, or even character, are not sufficient in themselves to embody and convey the good news of Jesus. The gospel is more than words or ideas. Paul, for example, describes the good news coming to the people at Thessalonica not only in word but also in power, in the Holy Spirit, and in fullness (1 Thess 1:5). For Paul the coming of the gospel was not simply the delivery of a set of propositions, though it included that. Theological education is only part of what is needed to convey the good news. We also need such openness to God’s Spirit that, through us, he is able to be powerfully present for others.
Ernst Käsemann, whose life spanned most of the twentieth century, was a giant in New Testament research. On the importance of what he calls ‘enthusiasm’, or God’s powerful and obvious presence in the church he said:
‘[A] Christianity in which there are no signs and mighty works, no visible charismata . . . becomes empty, doctrinaire, and a form of ideology. . .. No matter what danger enthusiasm may have brought to the church, the final defeat of enthusiasm has always signalized the sleeping church, even the busiest one. . .. There is no Christian freedom without a dose of enthusiasm.’7
For society, the church and for the individual believer, even indirect access to robust theological education – perhaps through you – is profoundly important. However, the challenge is not only to be passionately diligent in our academic work as part of loving God with our whole mind, but also to carry that passion in the context of a life that models Jesus, and to be so open to God’s Spirit that he can use us to be powerfully present for others.
1 A.-G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: It’s Spirit, Conditions, Methods (1934; Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1987), 5.
2 Roger E. Olson, ‘Pentecostalism’s Dark Side: Troublesome Teachings and Practices’, Christian Century (7 March 2006).
3 Stephen Neil, A History of Christian Missions (1964; London: Penguin, 1990).
4 Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1947).
5 cf. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (1972; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994)., E.g., Krish Kandiah, Paradoxology (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2014).
6 George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2004).
7 Ernst Käsemann, Jesus Means Freedom (London: SCM, 1969), 51.