Escaping the babylonian captivity of theological education (1)

ibi_logo_400x400At Irish Bible Institute we are embarking on a year-long journey of ‘re-validation’ with our partner university. Happily, this means that the university has agreed to renew our partnership for years ahead.

But it is not just re-signing a bit of paper, the process involves (and requires) us to think afresh about what we are doing and why. This isn’t just ticking boxes – our partner is committed to educational innovation and creativity and is pushing us to think afresh from first principles as to what we are doing.

The thing is, most theological colleges have some form of assent to integrative learning. But it is a very different thing to get beyond ‘ink on paper’ to genuine transformative learning that shapes the whole person.

Some paradigms of theological education, historically particularly within universities, aren’t that interested in this sort of learning, particularly if that university is, or has ambitions to be, a prestigious academic institution that prizes a particular type of educational success . This is one reason the Bible College movement began in the UK and Ireland.

It was Lesslie Newbigin who, paraphrasing Luther, talked about the Babylonian Captivity of much theological education. He meant by this the prioritization of a form of objective, scientific learning that imagines theology as an academic exercise of the detached neutral mind. It results in a programme where academic, cognitive success dominates all levels of the student experience – from advertising and recruitment of students, entry qualifications, the shape and structure of the classroom, the content of lectures (primarily information transfer), the setting of assessments, the criteria for grading, right through to qualifications, awards and prizes.

In other words, an Enlightenment paradigm of learning where theology is primarily the study of books and ideas, detached from personal faith, character transformation, practical skills for ministry, prayer, community and Christlikeness.

This is theology as mere acquisition of knowledge, the student as consumer of information, the teacher as expert distributor of information. It is non-relational and I would say, pretty well non-Christian in terms of an authentic preparation for forming people spiritually and preparing them for the demands and messiness of Christian ministry.

No wonder churches have long been sceptical of the value of going to study theology – whether at Bible College or university. No wonder, there is a lot of anti-intellectualism in the church if studying theology means that a student might be brilliant at writing a paper on Barth’s doctrine of election but have little humility and self-awareness or pastoral heart (nothing against Barth, but you get the point).

So, going back to first principles is a very good, and demanding and uncomfortable, thing to have to do. For, if you are like me, if we are allowed to, we tend to keep doing what we know, what we are comfortable with, what has worked in the past, without asking too many tough questions of ourselves and our organisations.

9781783689576To do this, we are working as a team together through Perry Shaw’s excellent and stimulating book Transforming Theological Education: a practical handbook for integrative learning

I’ve linked to Shaw on this blog before – see here, here and here for thoughts on integrative learning across cognitive (head), affective (heart)  and behavioural (hands) domains.

At the moment we are also doing a series of consultations with leaders, current and past students and others on some key initial questions. We need to answer these sorts of questions before we get into the nitty gritty of programme design and what modules we will offer and how they will be assessed etc.

Because it will the answers to these sorts of questions that will shape what we do. The biggest obstacle to change in any organisation I think is not being willing to ask and act on questions of purpose.

Shaw talks about the sorts of questions his Seminary worked through in their radical restructuring of their programmes. We are now doing the same:

I wonder what your answers to these questions might be?

What is the ideal church for our contemporary context in Ireland?

[assuming our continued purpose is to serve the Irish church it makes sense to think about what sort of churches are going to be best set to fulfil God’s missional mandate.]

What are the contextual challenges facing churches in Ireland?

  • Internal challenges?
  • External challenges?

What are the qualities and attitudes and skills of an ideal graduate in this context?

  • what sort of knowledge and thinking skills are needed for a faithful Christian to connect with the context and to continue to adapt and grow in a changing ministry environment?
  • what sort of character and attitude traits are required for Christian service in this context?
  • what sort of skills and abilities are needed so that the gospel can be incarnated in word and deed in the student and those he / she serves?

We are processing these questions and working towards the next steps

Your comments and thoughts are welcome to the mix


4 thoughts on “Escaping the babylonian captivity of theological education (1)

  1. I’ll let your vicious attack on people studying Barth slide (even though I reckon Declan Kelly and I are the only Irish people currently studying him… 😉 ), simply because I have to raise my arms in evangelical praise-pose after reading this post.

    Label me warped by my exclusively academic theological formation, but is there a set of questions to be asked prior to the ones you’ve begun with? I’m thinking specifically about the question of how we theologically adjudicate our starting point? I don’t know where Shaw is coming from, but the initial questions appear to be informed by a certain kind of educational theory and a certain business-inflected model of mission. If we were to start with more properly theological foundations, would we end up engaging in change through a very different model?

    (At the back of my questioning here is the suspicion that this approach won’t ever lead to very dramatic change, just tinkering at regular intervals. How do we approach these questions with the openness that might terminate at something like Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde?)

    • Greetings Kevin
      back from watching the lads beat Austria 🙂

      That ref to Barth is that he just came to mind first and is easier to spell than Scheiermacher … Reading back over the post it could read as a downplaying of the intellectual task of thinking theologically. Or it could read as here’s the intellectual bit (cognitive) supplemented by the personal/spiritual and the practical/skills which are somehow not intellectual / cognitive tasks!. I know we are agreed that everything is to be thought about theologically if we are Christians …. and the church desperately needs good rigorous and deep Christian thinkers as it navigates the chaotic landscape of late moderninty – so every blessing to you two Irish Barthians !

      So thanks for pushing for theological starting questions – you are right that the 3 questions have inbuilt assumptions that may or may not be valid. We did re-look at vision and mission. Of course these can be business / pragmatically shaped as well or just be fairly useless slogans. But we have been thinking about a vision that locates IBI within the wider mission of God in Ireland. Theological education must serve the church since God’s mission is centered on his church. So our vision is to see healthy flourishing churches, our mission is to serve those churches. Obviously there is a lot to unpack in that last sentence. Theologically, what is a church supposed to look like that is serving God’s mission in the world? How can we answer that question from the whole story of the Bible? And then what sort of training is needed to serve and help people fulfil their calling in the world?
      On Finkenwalde – you are right to suspect that it is pretty unlikely that we are going to upsticks and move to Leitrim (however lovely it is!) to set up a community. It may well be that we are too heavily invested in current models to be able to conceptualise let alone enact a truly radical model. Finkenwalde developed in a context of necessity for faithfulness – perhaps radically different models will emerge in the West if it becomes apparent that they are the only way to maintain such faithfulness?

  2. I heard recently the suggestion that all theology students in the West study World Christianity and Contextual Theology – not so much to understand the global settings they might travel to but to better understand the role of context in mission within the West. Without this assumptions run deep and can remain unchallenged. A little bit like Kevin said I would love to see a theological education developed in Ireland that follows an unpacking of the terms you use (“ideal”, “healthy” etc.) in such a way that challenges the assumptions of power and privilege that exist within and outside the church. The study of ideology is an obvious need particulary as relates to neo-liberalism and capitalism. Hearing from the margins of the church and society so as to understand the context is another. IBI is an institution with minority ethnic, LGBT and other alumni with marginalised identities. The evangelical community is equally diverse in its leadership and membership. So my response to your questions is how is IBI operating a “margins-in” listening process so as to rigorously achieve the unpacking of its language in your vision and mission statements? This might take a readjusting of further assumptions of that which is “internal” and “external”. For example, the equipping of gay Christians for leadership is (and has been) an internal challenge for IBI rather than an external one, but the dominant discourse within evangelicalism is that it is an external challenge (as would be the default for many – not suggesting it is for you Patrick but maybe it is for IBI?).

    • What you say about mission and the West chimes very much with Newbigin – that the ‘pagan’ mission is not ‘out there’ but ‘right here’ – and it took someone from outside to see that more clearly than most. The global shift of Christianity to the South is highlighting just how much Western expressions of Christianity have been assumed to be the norm – we in the West need to listen to voices from brothers and sisters in the global south. Some of my deepest learning and dearest friendships have been across those cultural barriers. So your point is well taken on the value of listening to voices from the ‘outside’ – thank you. (I’m not at all sure I agree that the evangelical community here is one of ‘power & privilege – but maybe that is a discussion for another day. I suspect you would reply that is exactly what some in ‘power and privilege’ would say!). Those outside voices will be saying radicaly different things – for example in listening to both global and LBGT voices: as you know it is the non-Western church which generally is vehemently opposed to (some of) Western Christianity’s affirmation of (for example) practicing homosexual clergy.

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