By Rupen Das
Last week, ABTS hosted a conference organized by Overseas Council where one of the questions asked was: “How can the effectiveness of a theological seminary be assessed?”
It has often been assumed that seminaries train pastors to preach, teach and counsel church members and manage church affairs. Their curriculum reflects this and the “success” of the seminary is measured by whether the students were trained to be pastors with these skills and had the required doctrinal and theological knowledge. Unfortunately, what is often not assessed is whether the graduates were effective in the churches where they served and whether what they had learnt in seminary was relevant to the contexts where the churches are located.
Events over the last few years in Egypt and Lebanon and the last few weeks in Ukraine have provided new images of where the church also ministers. In Egypt, Christians and their leaders, standing together with Muslims, prayed in Tahrir Square as the revolution unfolded. In Lebanon, local churches who had never addressed social issues opened their doors to Syrian refugees and demonstrated what forgiveness and love looks like. In Ukraine, not only were Orthodox priests in their robes and carrying crucifixes seen praying in Maidan Square, but this week, all the churches united together in a whole night of fasting and prayer to thwart foreign aggression. Do seminaries prepare their graduates to be effective and relevant in a world where the reality of the Kingdom of God needs to be demonstrated (and not just preached) and to walk alongside those who are fearful of what the events mean to their safety and the future?
For a long time theological education has focused on training students on the core and essence of the Christian faith, essentially Biblical and Systematic Theology. It was believed that this, along with the skills of preaching, teaching and counseling, is all that a pastor needed to know to be effective. However, Christians are struggling to understand the relevance of their faith and spirituality in an increasingly complex and pluralistic world where moral dilemmas are pushing against boundaries that had not previously existed.
Context does not determine what theology and Truth is. However God is perceived and understood through the lenses of one’s own culture, gender, social and economic status, life experiences, season of life, political ideology, and value system. Therefore theology has to translate the truth about God into specific cultural, social and political contexts.
Listen to the voices of some theologians.
- Daniel Migliore, formerly of Princeton Theological Seminary:
Theology must be critical reflection on the community’s faith and practice. Theology is not simply reiteration of what has been or is currently believed and practiced by a community of faith…when this responsibility for critical reflection is neglected or relegated to a merely ornamental role, the faith of the community is invariably threatened by shallowness, arrogance and ossification.
- Karl Barth, the doyen of 20th century Protestant Reformed theologians:
Theology is an act of repentant humility…This act exists in the fact that in theology the Church seeks again and again to examine itself critically as it asks itself what it means and implies to be a Church among men.
- Alister McGrath at Kings College London:
Christian theology is not just a set of ideas: it is about making possible a new way of seeing ourselves, others, and the world, with implications for the way in which we behave.
- Mennonite and Anabaptist theologian Thomas Finger:
Theology is always in dialogue with its cultural contexts…including the academic sphere. Theology tests the church’s current beliefs and often revises them through conversations with its culture. Anabaptist should not only celebrate their distinctives but also recognize how preoccupation with distinctives can encourage narrowness, exclusivity and a false sense of superiority.
If theology needs to be constantly in dialogue with cultural, social and political contexts to make relevant the truths about God and the world He created, then theological seminaries need to train their students to lead the churches they will serve to repeatedly ask what does it mean and imply to be a Church among a people and in society.
It is this kind of leader that IMES’ Master of Religion (MRel) in Middle Eastern and North African Studies program seeks to develop. IMES seeks to be in dialogue with the Arab and Islamic contexts to understand what would the Gospel (the Good News) mean to people who have a very different worldview. This kind of theological education will not only proclaim Christ in ways that He will be understood but will also have a profound impact on society.