In a late-2018 article published in Eternity magazine, Michael Jensen described some of the challenges facing Australian theological colleges. In the closing paragraphs of the article he called for “a new vision … for theological education” and “some Spirit-led and courageous investigation of how God’s mission may best be served into the future.”
I think his article was a timely one. The new challenges—and the new possibilities—of our time call for some creating and visionary thinking about the shape that theological education ought to take in the decades ahead. But, as Michael rightly acknowledges in the article, the new thinking that we do in re imagining the forms and strategies of theological education needs to be informed by some old wisdom about what theological education is and what it is for.
Here are three essentials which, I believe, will be vital for us to hold on to (or recover) as part of that reshaping process.
1. Christ-centred wisdom as the essential content of theological education
By “Christ-centred wisdom” I don’t mean merely the accumulation of biblical knowledge and exegetical expertise (important as those things are). Nor, by “wisdom” am I referring simply to some additional content of life experience, managerial skill, leadership acumen, and so on, tacked on as extra training modules alongside the subjects that focus on Bible and theology (though all of those elements of skill and ability can be enormously useful in the service of God’s people).
What I have in mind is the kind of integrative imagination that knows how to join the dots between the details of doctrine and Scripture, the big picture of the biblical grand narrative and a coherent theological vision, and the complicated practicalities of life in the world. I’m thinking of the way in which the apostle Paul describes his own ministry, with its sharp focus on Christ (“he is the one we proclaim”), its all-embracing horizon (“admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom”) and its practical, formative purpose (“so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ”) (Col. 1:28). And I’m thinking of the way in which Paul anticipates that the believers he is writing to will do something similar for each other, as the word of Christ “dwell[s] richly” among them and they “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” (Col. 3:16).
Wisdom of this sort involves thinking to and fro between Scripture, history, theology, the human sciences, the practice of ministry and the experiences of life, in a series of loops and spirals. It is acquired slowly, and accumulates across a lifetime of following Christ. Formal theological education is a chapter within it (or a strand of it) but can never be the the totality of it.
2. Community as the essential context of theological education
An education of that sort requires teachers who are not (or, at least, not all and not mainly) narrow, academic specialists, with vast expertise in biblical studies or systematic theology but little or no experience in ministering within a community of God’s people or serving in a secular workplace. And it requires a community of learning and mutual service, in which the connections between doctrine and character, belief and behaviour, can be observed and imitated.
Jesus described the process as one of being “discipled for the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 13:52; my translation) and observed that disciples who are fully trained become like their teachers (Luke 6:40). Paul sent the Corinthians not just a letter but his “son” Timothy, promising that “he will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:17). He encouraged the Philippians not only to remember his teaching but also to “join together in following my example … and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (Phil. 3:17).
One way in which that has traditionally been done (in recent centuries, at least) has been within theological colleges that are set up as communities of worship, learning and discipleship. Flexible modes of theological education, as many have observed, can have the effect of eroding the community life of a full-time, residential theological college. And if non-residential, part-time and online theological education models are rolled out without thought for the relational context in which the curriculum is to be learnt, then they will, inevitably, have an effect of diminishing the formative effect that a true knowledge of God is always meant to have. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
3. Partnership as the essential strategy for theological education
When Jesus and Paul (and all the other writers of the New Testament) talk about the communal context within which disciples learn wisdom and faithfulness, they are not describing something that looks exactly like a full-time, residential theological college. If theological colleges are going to play their part well in the work of the gospel and the shaping of its servants, then their own internal structure and ethos ought to be shaped by the content that they teach; that is true. A non-relational Christian theological college is a contradiction in terms. But they should never, under any model or strategy that is informed by the wisdom of the Scriptures, attempt to monopolise the whole process of the getting of wisdom. The work of the gospel (as the New Testament writers underline again and again) is best done in partnership.
Flexible models of theological education, implemented well, have the potential to enable new kinds of partnership between the various learning communities (family, church, denominational association, theological college, mission society, etc) in which disciples are trained and the wisdom of the gospel is passed on. How that works out in practice across the coming decades will, I suspect, be richly varied, and some experiments will work better than others. But the experiments are worth trying, and all of the various participants and stakeholders involved will need creativity, humility and openness if they are to succeed.
 I have sketched out these ideas in a little more detail in “The Scribe, the Steward, and the Inhabiting Word,” in Theological Education: Foundations, Practices, and Future Directions, ed. Andrew M. Bain and Ian Hussey (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018).