What is theological education for? Perspective.

Perspective is important for all areas of life. In his book, A Non-Anxious Presence, Australian pastor Mark Sayers describes a strategic shift that took place during the Korean War when the US Air Force transitioned from propeller-powered aircraft to jet fighters. When flying propeller-powered planes, pilots were taught to use a linear, three step decision-making process in aerial combat: “observe where the enemy was, decide how they would respond, and act.” However, when jet fighters were introduced, pilots had to learn a new strategy. Because jet fighters were considerably faster than propellor-powered aircraft, pilots could easily become disoriented in flight, thinking they were flying in one direction when in fact they were flying in another, thinking they were climbing when in fact they were diving straight toward the ground. The presence of new aircraft produced a new environment for aerial dogfights that required an immediate change in strategy. A new element had to be introduced into the decision-making process: “orientation, knowing where you are in relation to your environment.” Pilots needed to observe, orient, decide, and act if they were to succeed in combat.Mark Sayers, A Non-Anxious Presence: How a Changing and Complex World Will Create a Remnant of Renewed Christian Leaders (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2022), 157–58.

As Ted Gioia observes, North American culture “is changing at warp speed.” Social media platforms, rather than arts and entertainment, now dominate the cultural landscape. These platforms preside over a cycle of stimulation and distraction designed to elicit a dopamine release in its consumers and, through repetition and habituation, turn consumers into addicts. Fueled by TikToks, tweets, and VR experiences, this “dopamine culture” moves at Mach speech and shrinks our world to the size of our screens.Ted Gioia, “The State of the Culture, 2024. The shrinking of our perspective leads to a shrinking of our souls, simultaneously dimming our minds and dulling our desires. In such a context, the church needs pastors with a God-sized, God-centered perspective who can lead congregations in cultivating such a perspective as well. Theological education seeks to address this need by forming such pastors.

Cultivating Perspective through Theological Education

The word “perspective” originally meant “seeing through” but it has come to mean “seeing in relation to, seeing from a specific vantage point.” Though both senses are relevant to theology, it is the latter that is primary. Theology is divine discourse concerning God and all things in relation to God.Franciscus Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, trans. David C. Noe (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 162. By providing formal training in the discourse in theology, theological education imparts many goods: knowledge of the Bible and its languages, capacities for understanding and interpreting church history, philosophy, and culture, skills related to preaching, public prayer, and pastoral care, along with the character required to excel in all these areas of study. Above all, theological education binds the preceding elements of learning together by cultivating a God-centered perspective on all things.

The cultivation of perspective begins with wonder. As Aristotle observed long ago, all forms of inquiry begin with wonder. According to Ross Inman, the first element of wonder is “perceived vastness.”Ross D. Inman, Christian Philosophy as a Way of Life: An Invitation to Wonder (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2023), 6. We are struck by something that transcends our immediate grasp and experience of the world and this leads us to pursue understanding. Wonder before something leads us to wonder about something.William P. Brown, Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 4. This is supremely true in the case of theology. Theology begins with wonder before the God of “majesty unbounded” (Te Deum Laudamus). We stand in awe before the work of his hands (Ps 8). We bow in reverence before the one who addresses us in his holy Word, revealing who he made us to be, how far we have transgressed his will, and how he has comforted us in the gospel of his Son. God himself is the supreme object of revelation and therefore the supreme object of wonder in theology: the one who is who he is, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, from whom and through whom and to whom are all things. To him be glory forever (Exod 3:14; Matt 28:19; Rom 11:36).

Theology begins with wonder before the God of “majesty unbounded.”

According to Inman, the second element of wonder is “need for accommodation.”Inman, Christian Philosophy as a Way of Life, 6. Having perceived something that transcends our immediate grasp and experience of the world, we seek to reorient our perspective on the world and to reframe our lives in relation to it. The quest is not to domesticate the object of wonder so that it may fit into our preconceptions and predispositions but to adjust our preconceptions and predispositions in relation to the object of perceived vastness. In the study of theology, this quest proceeds in primarily two ways. First, in the study of theology, we seek to cultivate contemplative wisdom by considering how all things relate to God. Under divine tutelage in Holy Scripture, theology trains us to see the world as the creature of God and the object of his providential care, whose fulfillment lies not in its own resources but in the resources of its transcendent Creator, who sent his Son to redeem it and who promises, by that same Son, one day to consummate it in accordance with his plan for the fullness to time (Eph 1:10). Second, in the study of theology, we seek to cultivate practical wisdom by considering how we, as creatures made and remade in God’s image, may order our lives in relation to God and God’s wonderful works of creation, redemption, and consummation. By God’s grace, we seek to cultivate those forms of human excellence (i.e., virtue) whereby we may fulfill the glad obligations we owe God (i.e., piety), our neighbors (i.e., justice), and ourselves (i.e., temperance), even as we seek to cultivate patience for the final transformation of our perspective in the beatific vision of God (Titus 2:11-14). There, we will no longer “see” God “through a mirror dimly” but rather “face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). Unlike Aristotelian forms of inquiry, which commence in wonder and terminate in an understanding that dispels wonder, theology never exhausts wonder. The end of theology is doxology: “O the depth of the riches…” (Rom 11:33). The end of theology is “reasonable worship” (Rom 12:1–2).

Impediments and Conducive Conditions

Several impediments stand in the way of cultivating such a perspective in our present context. Social media’s “dopamine culture,” mentioned above, is one such impediment. Rather than promoting the virtues that accompany the knowledge and love of God, our supreme good (Ps 16:2, 5–6, 11; John 17:3), dopamine culture is designed to distract us by and addict us to the consumption of lesser, often ignoble goods. Listlessness, the weakened desire for things that really matter, is the crowning vice in this pedagogy of desire. In addition to social media’s dopamine culture, ideology is a second impediment that stands in the way of cultivating a God-centered perspective. Ideology represents a pseudo-perspective, promising the power to “see through” surfaces to uncover the power plays that lie beneath. But ideology fails to cultivate true wisdom, offering instead superficial narratives to memorize and talking points to parrot. Christians must beware ideology; but they must also reject the temptation to turn Christian theology into a kind of anti-ideology, ideology’s counterfeit double. A third impediment to cultivating a God-centered perspective is more mundane but no less threatening: inaccessibility. An inaccessible housing market is one where median-income families cannot afford median-priced housing. Theological education becomes inaccessible when the average person called into Christian ministry is, for various social and/or economic reasons, excluded from an adequate theological education. In such circumstances, would-be students are constrained either to forgo theological education altogether or to settle for defective models of theological education, which fail to offer students the time or the community required to cultivate perspective.

As there are impediments to cultivating a God-centered perspective, so there are conditions conducive to forming the perspective that theological education seeks to commend. Two are worth mentioning. First, like all human endeavors, theological education takes time. There are no shortcuts, no cost cutting measures for acquiring wisdom concerning God and all things in relation to God. The tree of wisdom, planted by streams of water, bears its fruit in its season (Ps 1:3). Second, like all forms of education, theological education takes a community. Animals may acquire the skills they need to survive through instinct. But human beings can only acquire the wisdom they need to flourish through community.See Thomas Aquinas, On Kingship, 1.1. For this reason, theological education is a social enterprise. Perspective is cultivated in persons planted in a community of persons who are further along in the process of acquiring perspective (cf. Prov 30:1–4; Phil 3:13). Though technology may serve as a useful handmaiden in such a context, it is a terrible magister. Residential learning is no mere luxury for those seeking to cultivate contemplative and practical wisdom. The tree of wisdom, planted by streams of water, bears its fruit in its season (Ps 1:3).

Institutions of theological education that offer students the time and community required to cultivate a God-centered perspective on all of life are a blessing to the church. Such institutions flourish when individuals, families, and churches recognize the strategic necessity of such institutions and are willing to invest in making theological education accessible to those who are called to lead God’s people.

Sustaining Faithful Christian Lives

When Paul charged Timothy to persevere in Christian ministry, he charged him in view of God’s wonderful works in the past, “in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession” (1 Tim 6:13), and in view of God’s wonderful works in the future, “the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Tim 6:14). In both cases, the Apostle traced these wonderful works back to their source in the one who alone does wondrous things, “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:15–16). Paul recognized that faithful Christian ministry, and faithful Christian lives, can be sustained only by a transcendent perspective on God and all things in relation to God. What is theological education for? Cultivating such a perspective.