Character and Virtue in Theological Education (2)

A while back I posted a book notice about Marvin Oxenham, Character and Virtue in Theological Education: An Academic Epistolary Novel (Carlisle: Langham, 2019)

The promised series got sidetracked by pandemics and such. To get going again, here is a pre-publication version of a book review I did for Evangelical Review of Theology, April 2020.

Character and Virtue in Theological Education: An Academic Epistolary Novel by Marvin Oxenham

Carlisle: ICETE/Langham Global Library, 2019

Pb., 393 pp., index
Reviewed by Patrick Mitchel, Director of Learning, Irish Bible Institute, Dublin, Ireland

“It is AD 2019, and theological education is suffering from Philistine domination. … 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” (p. xv). So begins Marvin Oxenham’s creative, scholarly and passionate argument for a radical reimagining and restructuring of contemporary theological education. In this review, I will unpack each of those three adjectives in turn.

Regarding creativity, as the title hints, this is no neutral, detached academic analysis. Oxenham develops his case in the form of a fictional correspondence from a Christian educator in the West to his friend Siméon in the majority world, who is working to re-envisage and re-launch a ‘Theological Academy for Character and Virtue’ in his context. Each chapter/epistle contributes to articulating Oxenham’s overall vision (Part 1), theological and historical underpinnings of virtue (Part 2) and proposals for practice (Part 3).

This creative move is not without risk; it could feel a bit artificial to have such a one-sided conversation consisting of ‘letters’ that are primarily academic and theological argumentation rather than personal epistles. But overall, the risk pays off at a number of levels. First, the dialogical tone makes the book a pleasure to read (this is also due to Oxenham’s gift for clear prose). Second, the epistolary structure gives the book a sense of unfolding narrative as each chapter carries the conversation forward. Third, the letters help to root the discussion in the nitty-gritty realities of theological education—for example, persuading a sceptical seminary board of the central place of character and virtue in the theological enterprise, or how to re-imagine teaching and assessment in that scenario. Fourth, the conversation with Siméon repeatedly opens up the importance of context. Oxenham has written before on the particular challenges facing higher education in the West within ‘liquid modernity’ and, given his global experience, is acutely aware of the dangers of uncritically exporting a Western model of theological education to the majority world. He candidly acknowledges that he wished he had more space to integrate learning from rich traditions of character and virtue in non-Western cultures.

In terms of scholarship, Oxenham covers a wide range of complex academic territory related to virtue, theology and higher education with the assurance of a well-travelled guide. There are many fascinating conversations to enjoy en route. Some of these cover the difference between spiritual formation and character and virtue education; a critique of loose assumptions of what constitutes Christian discipleship, accompanied by a case for more coherent integration of character and virtue within discipleship paradigms; a critically astute apologetic for an Aristotelian framework to underpin character and virtue education in theological schools; his ‘reading Romans backwards’ (à la Scot McKnight’s recent book of that name, but written independently of it) as ‘a comparatively straightforward invitation to character and virtue’ (p. 211); the author’s familiarity with and critical assessment of the virtues in the classical tradition; and a rich description of the virtues themselves. In addition, as a fan of Stanley Hauerwas I appreciated Oxenham’s frequent engagement with and acknowledged indebtedness to this Texan’s distinctively Christian approach to virtue.

Running throughout the book are extensive footnotes, often in the form of quotations or expanded discussion. I am glad that the publisher did not eliminate these footnotes, which constitute a rich resource for the reader who wishes to take a detour (or ten) along the way.  

The passionate nature of Oxenham’s treatise leaves perhaps the most lasting impression. His analysis of the death of character and virtue in theological education will likely be recognized by most of us working in that field—and by many churches. Oxenham clearly writes with a sincere desire to be of service to fellow theological educators across a theological and geographical spectrum who share his concern to restore character and virtue to the heart of their discipline.

This goal becomes especially evident in Part 3, which explores what actual implementation of Oxenham’s vision might look like at the level of criteria for hiring staff, community ethos, curriculum design, teaching virtue, module content, assessment and quality assurance. He contends that much of what he writes is globally transferrable, yet is keen to emphasize that his work is not a textbook but a work of fiction, designed to inspire and resource his peers in their God-given calling to develop graduates of virtuous character who will serve God’s people with integrity. The book succeeds admirably in achieving that goal. At my institution, we will certainly be reflecting on this book together as a team.

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