Theological education has fallen on hard times. Financial difficulties resulting in seminaries closing or consolidating, a proliferation of different modalities for the delivery of educational content, instability within many Protestant denominations at times leading to splits, the politicization of so many aspects of life with an increase in culture wars, social media invectives, and the confusion and disruption that the COVID-19 global pandemic has wrought in many spheres of life—those invested in theological education have not signed up for a simple or easy life.
Furthermore, there is increased confusion and disagreement over the goal of theological education.
- Is it making good biblical and theological information as widely disseminated and as easily accessible as possible? Who can be the first (or second or third) to deliver seminary level lectures and videos? The Netflix model.
- Is the goal of theological educational a means to ministerial efficiency? To provide pastors, leaders, and teachers with specialized knowledges and skills so that their professional ministerial work is efficient and successful?On this model, see Ted A. Smith, The End of Theological Education (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2023), 50–64. And so, through these specialized and professional skills and knowledge, to thereby provide the credentials and legitimation individuals need for their careers – presumably within a denomination? The Career Model.
- Is the goal to form students into good citizens, maybe even activists who can advocate for peace, justice, and the well-being of our society – whatever that might happen to look like? Is it to produce citizens who know how to engage the ecological, racial, and economic challenges of our current age? The Activist Model.
These challenges make the following question urgent for most of us: What is theological education for? When theological education is flourishing and working, we might not feel the need to spend much time and energy reflecting on this. It’s working; keep doing what you’re doing. But when theological education appears as if it is unravelling—as Ted Smith (among others) has argued it is!—and there is a proliferation of new approaches, creative initiatives and strategies, other modalities for teaching, and so on and so forth, the question “What is theological education for?” is worth our careful attention.There are many overlapping ways of defining the goal of theological education. See, for example, Daniel O. Aleshire, Beyond Profession: The Next Future of Theological Education (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021), 82: “The goal of theological education should be the development of a wisdom of God and the ways of God, fashioned form intellectual, affective, and behavioral understanding and evidenced by spiritual and moral maturity, relational integrity, knowledge of the Scripture and tradition, and the capacity to exercise religious leadership.”
I think many would agree that the pursuit of learning—some type of knowing—is at the heart of why we’re all invested, in some form, in theological education. Seminaries, divinity schools, those devoted to theological education in one way or another are unapologetically focused upon learning. We are here together as learners. But what type of learning, what type of knowledge are we after? Knowledge as information (encyclopedic access to all the necessary content), knowledge as doctrine (a capacity to speak as a Christian), knowledge as technical and professional skill (knowing how to plan a service, counsel a couple in marital difficulties, how to read biblical languages)?
In this series, we’re gathering a range of responses to this foundational and urgent question. We’ve asked a variety of scholars involved in theological education to give us their best answers, hoping that their different academic backgrounds and ecclesial traditions will help bring greater clarity and focus to the subject in a time of confusion. We will plan to keep adding to this series over the coming months, continuing to bring more voices to this important conversation.