Alister McGrath on theological education (1)

Last week I was over with a colleague at the European Evangelical Accrediting Association (EEAA) annual conference near London. It had over 80 representatives from (I think) over 50 theological colleges all over Europe. Fascinating hearing what is going on in different contexts and encouraging to build relationships.

Alister McGrath was the guest speaker. He gave 3 lectures over Thursday / Friday looking at the challenges, vision and changing context of theological education. We could only get to the two on Friday. The lectures will eventually be published (probably here), but here is a snapshot of some things that stood out for me from the first lecture (I’ll do a second post for the second lecture).

These are my notes and personal impressions – NOT verbatim quotes!

As Christianity becomes more marginalised culturally, a significant challenge for theological educators is how to equip and help students think apologetically. The New Atheism, for example, provides such a challenge and needs a thought out response – not just from college professors and academics but from church leaders who can  provide a moral, theological, and rational argument and vision for Christianity.

If  the church chooses simply not to engage in such apologetics, then the Christian faith will be seen as for those with no mind or vision for life.  McGrath is deeply concerned about evangelicalism’s anti-intellectualism in this respect.

So theological training has to be more than just giving students information with a few skills added. It has to be about character, thinking, engaging – to shape people and help them to think biblically and theologically about all of life …

At the heart of good theological training is personal transformation. And this takes time.  It is about developing wisdom. And such wisdom develops in relationships. Students need mentors and coaches not just teachers to impart information.

In later Q&A he had a few comments here on parallels with medical training. How there is increasing awareness and dissatisfaction with the highly functional form of medical training that equips a scientifically to treat disease, but may leave him/her useless in dealing with real people. Solid research is now pointing to the connections of spirituality and health. And therefore how medicine needs to be holistic as the treatment of the whole person, not just a heart valve (for example). And this has obvious implications for medical training.

Theology not just a way of thinking but a fundamental vision for reality – a wonderful vision. The task of the teacher is to communicate this big bible story in a way that excites, energises and thrills. To help students see the big picture of life and where they fit in with the wider purposes of God.

This is theology as inspiration not just education.

I was encouraged by this. We don’t have it all sorted by a long shot, but this ‘fits’ with the heart and vision of theological training at IBI. It is applied theology – applied personally, and to the Irish context. It seeks to be holistic, not just information transfer. It builds in reflective practice and tries to connect ‘head’, ‘hands’ and ‘heart’.  It has a compulsory track for mentoring and apprenticeship within actual ministry practice. We have specific modules on engaging with thinking and trends in Irish culture.

And I think there is an increasing tension at play here. Prof McGrath talked of the need for time and development of wisdom. For some this will lead to the traditional full-time residential 3-4 years away in college. But pressures in the wider culture are making this more and more difficult. Students want control over their own learning. Many university courses are becoming fully modularised. You take bits and pieces when you can. Many cannot afford to take several years out from work. Training sits alongside work and ministry.  There are also significant advantages of studying while in ministry, without being removed from a ‘real life’ context.

The challenge is to have mentoring, coaching aspect built into whatever model is used – and for the student to keep and develop such relationships after training when they become even more important.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

2 thoughts on “Alister McGrath on theological education (1)

  1. My graduate college has as its theme and continues to fully integrate the ideas of knowing, being and doing. This translates into all of their programs; from the diploma to the PhD. I think it incorporates the ideas McGrath spoke of very well.

  2. Greetings Jeff,
    I think there continues to be a paradigm shift within theological education in the direction you mention. Still a way to go for some more than others … one challenge being that cognitive is easier to assess and teach than being (affective) and doing (behavioural). I have a post on this tomorrow so thanks for the interaction.

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