Character and Virtue in Theological Education (1)

Marvin Oxenham, Character and Virtue in Theological Education: An Academic Epistolary Novel (Carlisle: Langham, 2019)

“It is AD 2019, and theological education is suffering from Philistine domination. As we face the giants that occupy the land of contemporary education, we often feel outnumbered, forced into conformity and unable to fully deploy our own weapons. We struggle under the predominance of critical thinking, the supremacy of measurement paradigms, the captivity of secular accreditation, the pressures of efficiency, the prioritization of academics, the demands of professional competences and the strains of achievement and ranking. In all this, we strive to keep alive that which is at our heart: the holistic formation of kingdom humans. This book argues that it is time to arm our slings with the stones of virtue and character and reclaim portions of lost territory that are rightfully ours. It is time to revise our tactics and revisit our calling. It is time to inaugurate a new season of flourishing for the church and society as we recover the central place of character and virtue in global theological education.” (xv)

So begins Marvin Oxenham’s creative, scholarly and passionate argument for a reimagining and a restructuring of theological education. I’m going to engage with this book here in the next while.

Anyone who works in this area will recognise the reality of his opening words. There is a tension that we wrestle with in theological education. Let’s call that tension SIDE A and SIDE B.

SIDE A

Quality theological education is powerful and life-changing. In fact, I think there is little to rival it in terms of its capacity to enable profound personal change and spiritual growth. Again and again I have seen students’ lives transformed during their studies: in their love of God; in being captivated by the beauty and richness of Scripture and the story that it tells; in their ability to understand themselves and the world in which they live; in developing ability to think critically about church, ministry and mission – and therefore act to renew and develop praxis on the ground; and in being challenged personally in terms of character – to think, act and speak in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ in all of life. The real dynamic for such transformation comes as learning through teaching and personal study is integrated within a life of service in a local Christian community. Learning happens most powerfully in relationship with, and service of, others.

SIDE B

Refers more to Oxenham’s challenges. Very broadly speaking, third-level secular university education in the West has detached learning and knowledge from character and virtue. For many, the university has no place, and no right, to be telling students what to believe or how to act. They are treated like rational, individual consumers of information. While they are required to show that they know information (exams, qualifications) that knowledge has pretty well nothing to do with how they live their lives. For one to intrude on the other is, for many, a gross violation of personal freedom.  And so much third-level education is narrowed in the way Oxenham describes – the priority of academics, grades, mastery of information, the competition for results, education as a tool for economic advancement and employability.

Christian theological colleges offering university level qualifications live in this tension between SIDE A and SIDE B.

SIDE B skills are valuable for a lifetime: skills of study, researching information, excellence in writing, developing an ability to think clearly and express yourself; an ability to assess arguments and come to your own conclusions and so on. Especially in Christian ministry, knowing how to interpret and handle the Scriptures, while humbly being open to learn from theologians and biblical scholars, is an essential preventative against destructive or superficial teaching shaped more by someone’s prejudices and personality than by the Word of God.

But no Christian education worth its salt should allow SIDE B to overwhelm SIDE A.

Where I work (Irish Bible Institute) we constantly wrestle with the multiple challenges Oxenham describes, while striving to keep central the overall purpose of authentically Christian theological education which he so well summarises – ‘the holistic formation of kingdom humans’.

In our 2018 revalidation of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, we worked hard as a team to integrate ‘head’ (cognitive skills, knowledge) ‘heart’ (character, self-awareness) and ‘hands’ (practical skills, being a reflective practitioner) into every level of every module.

However, we are far from resolving this tension – it is an ongoing process within all Christian education. And this is why I have so enjoyed diving into Marvin Oxenham’s book. It is a cry from the heart for the restoration of character and virtue to the centre of the theological enterprise. Aristotle plays a central role as you might expect.

He makes his case through a series of fictional ‘letters’ between a Christian educator in the West and his friend and peer in the Majority World who is working to re-imagine and re-start a theological college in his context in which virtue and character are at the heart of the whole enterprise.

What would such a college look like? That will emerge as we engage with the book.

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