- a talk by Solanga Mkiva of St James Church, Summerstrand Lorraine
There are a lot of people, even Christians, who look at theological education with disdain. A lot of non-Christians frankly think of theological education as nothing but brainwashing; like you’re deliberately escaping reality and clouding your mind with mystical fairy tales instead of doing something useful in life. I know a lot of Christians too who similarly think getting theological education for full time ministry is tantamount to wasting your life. “You could be doing something so much better.” But there are other reasons as well as to why it is generally looked upon with disdain. In our circles especially, quite a few Christians think of those with theological education as Bible snobs. All head but no heart. I hear this being said all the time from books, from fellow Christians, “it’s all just an intellectual exercise”.
What some people fail to grasp is that that is an indictment of wrong theology not theology itself. One of my legendary theology lecturers, Dr. Robert Doyle, defined theology accurately and succinctly when he said, theology is the attempt to properly recognise what the Bible says. Theology is the attempt to properly recognise what the Bible actually says. And what the Bible has to say of course addresses the whole man at the deepest possible level. I heard someone who once said, “you know Jesus said to the Pharisees in John 5, you guys are wasting your time, you shouldn’t be studying the scriptures, you should come to me…” The irony is that it is theological education that will help you interpret that text correctly. Others say things like, “it’s all heavenly minded stuff but no earthly good.” I have to say that there are times when I hear our people express such disdain for theological education that I get a little sick because usually it reveals how apathetic even some of our people are about God’s Word. And you see this apathy toward the Word of God all the time: after Sunday’s sermon, they have no interest in what was said.
Patchy Bible study attendance. No curiosity about the meaning of the scripture. No questions or joy or insights that come from them reading their Bible. No Bible based conversation. No participation in Bible study. And it all stems from this misguided notion that thinks there’s a path to relationship with God apart from his word… apart from properly recognising what the Bible says. There are even churches who go so far as to swear by pastors who have little to no theological education. I know a pastor who’s a very old man now who use to pride himself on never having gone to College because that shows that he is legitimately led by the Holy Spirit in his thinking. He’s more authentic because he never studied. His successor therefore, is also a man with no theological education and I know him also. You can go to that church tomorrow and what you’ll see for yourself is that the baton of the Gospel has long been dropped…
We live in a time where Christians have bought into this secular new age philosophy that is sweeping the globe which I call ‘spiritism’. Professing Christians and Christian churches are chasing these mystical connections with God and out of body mindless experiences of God that are based on ecstatic emotions and musical meditation, floating away on a melody. We are in a time in which relationship with God is thought of as an enemy of knowledge of God, the heart is thought of as the antithesis of the mind, devotion as the opposite of study, Spiritual means mindless, authenticity and genuineness equals thoughtlessness and spontaneity and absence of preparation. We’ve gotten sucked into this pattern of thinking and so theological training, the task of properly recognising what God has to say through His word, has become increasingly unpopular even among Christians.
There’s a whole host of other factors that contribute to theological education being looked upon with disdain even within the church but we don’t have the time to explore those any further.
But what’s the value of theological education?
Number 1: The value of theological education is that it serves the safeguarding of the Gospel for the building and the maturing of the body of Christ.
When you read the Pastoral Epistles, Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, you see this emphasis on the passing down of the precious news of the Gospel from one Generation to the next. When Paul was coming near to the end of his life, he said to his son in the faith, Timothy; Timothy “what you have heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” That is how God builds His kingdom you see. That is how God builds the church. That is how God saves the lost and that is how He matures Christians: through the safeguarding of the precious Gospel. Not through emotional arousal through music, not through the spreading of miracles and financial blessing, not through trances and out-of-body experiences and mystical connections but through well-taught men and women entrusting the Gospel to the next generation of men and women who will guard it from false teaching and error… So Paul continues to tell Timothy that the things that he has been taught, he must also entrust to reliable men who will be qualified to teach others, 2 Timothy 2:2.
As you know, we are celebrating 500 hundred years since the birth of the reformation this year. And we are not celebrating the heroes of the Reformation in themselves. And I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t want that.
Calvin after all wanted to be like Moses in that he didn’t want anyone to know where he was buried; he didn’t even want a tombstone on his grave because he didn’t want to receive any hero worship. George Whitefield in the next generation said something similar when he said, “let the name of George Whitefield perish so long as Christ is exalted.”
What we are celebrating with this 500th anniversary is the rediscovery of the Gospel that took place 500 years ago and the fact that it has been guarded for generation after generation through the training of reliable people who will be qualified to also teach others. That is what we are celebrating. None of sitting here today are self-made proclaimers of the Gospel. It’s all because God has put Gospel men and women in our lives who have handed the Gospel down to us so that with faith and love we may hand down to others. That is what theological training is fundamentally all about. It is about Gospel men and women entrusting the Gospel to reliable men and women who will also be able to teach others. That is how God builds His kingdom. That is how sinners are saved. That is how believers are edified and matured and equipped for works of service. That’s the 1st value of theological education.
Number 2: The Value of theological education is that it provides you with the tools that you need to be able to correctly handle the word of God.
You know it is entirely possible to open the Bible, read it and call yourself a Bible based Christian and not teach what the Bible actually says. It’s entirely possible. Creflo Dollar for example, the millionaire Pastor with a private jet and a mansion calls himself a Bible man. He’s even written books on how to study the Bible. I remember watching him once teaching his church a passage in Job. It was very disappointing because he was pointing out that Job’s suffering is not actually from God but from the devil and that in fact when Job put his faith in God, God blessed him abundantly.
Point: Believe in God and you will have your own private jet and mansion like me... That’s Creflo. The question is how is it that Creflo, the Bible man, got Job so very horrendously wrong?
One of the primary causes is that Creflo Dollar needs to fit everything he reads in the Bible into his presupposition that God is all about materially blessing those who trust in him. So everything needs to conform to that pre-existing framework that he conjured up. Because he comes to the Bible already convinced of this, his method of reading the Bible is to align scripture with whatever he already holds to be true. What you are doing then when you are reading the Bible like this is that you are listening to the echo of own voice and suppressing the voice of God. Theological education trains you in a method of reading the Bible that is designed to get you to see what is there in the Bible. Theological training is valuable because its goal is to get believers to read carefully what is already in the Bible so that what you believe and what you teach is actually what God had intended to say.
And when you have read the Bible’s story carefully with the help of teachers and the writings of other believers over 2000 years of church history who’ve pondered and thought deeply about what the Bible says, it becomes clearer and clearer that the main character in the Bible’s story is not me and my craving for a private jet, it’s Jesus. And it becomes clearer and clearer that the climax of the plot is the death and resurrection of Jesus and that everything else either leads to or flows from that central event. That is why Jesus said to the guys on the road to Emmaus, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken. Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter His glory? And so beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the scriptures concerning Himself” Later he said to the disciples, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” He’s talking about the whole Hebrew Bible. He’s pointing out how the whole Hebrew Bible is actually all about Him.
What you’ll also notice in Luke 24 is that Jesus explained to the guys on the road to Emmaus and explained to the disciples. He explained and explained to them the Scriptures.
In Cape Town I met a guy who goes to 1 of our churches who couldn’t stand GWC. Couldn’t stand the College. I got to know him quite a bit and one day he told me that he thinks we should quit preaching from the pulpit and rather have everyone sit in a circle and share what they feel the text says to them. He explained to me that preaching belongs to the first century context, not in today’s world. Then I realised that he hated the College because could not stand explanation. He didn’t want to be taught. He despised explanation. That’s another off-shoot of the post-modern world we live in today: the relativizing of truth. What’s true for me is not necessarily what’s true for you. Therefore, why should I sit under someone’s explanation of the Bible? And why would you set up a theological training institute to produce people who will carry on the legacy of the explanation of the scriptures? It just didn’t work for him. And I’ve sat in this guy’s mid-week Bible study and you would be shocked at what’s going on there.
We are in danger of people despising theological training because they’ve grown tired of receiving explanation of the scriptures. The limitation of theological training, what theological education can’t do, is open our minds so that we can understand the Scriptures. It can’t open our minds so that we can understand the Scriptures and actually see Jesus and His death and resurrection for sinners as its centre. Only Jesus can do that. So Luke 24:45, “then Jesus opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘this is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the 3rd day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”
That is why Paul said to Timothy, “The things you’ve heard me say entrust to reliable men… who will be qualified to teach others”.
The reliability and qualification that Paul is talking is more than a degree or the ability to teach, it’s a regenerate heart and a mind that is opened by Christ to understand the centrality of the Gospel in all the scriptures. It’s only when you grasp the centrality of the Gospel that you will be able to produce what Paul in the Pastoral Epistles calls the pattern of sound teaching, or what he sometimes calls sound doctrine. Sound teaching flows from the centrality of the Gospel like water flows from a fountain. Paul makes the connection between sound doctrine and its source in the Gospel clear in 1 Timothy 1:11 when he talks about “…sound doctrine which conforms to the glorious Gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” So he says to Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” You see because if you can’t handle the word of God, then all you are left with is the tradition that you have grown up in. And sooner or later if your tradition veers off the Gospel then you will be purporting a false Gospel. So you cannot depend on tradition. You’ve got to be able to handle the word of God. And so Paul urges Timothy to do his best, “…to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”
Theological training gives those whose minds have been opened by Christ, the tools as they read the scriptures to be able to come to an understanding of how each element in the story fits this the grand narrative that climaxes in the Gospel event.
When I arrived at College in my first year I remember looking around and seeing all of these people from all over the world and thinking to myself, “Wow, I’ve come to like in this military base together with these Gospel soldiers who’ve come together to receive this training in handling the Word of God. And then be thrust back out into the world in order to safeguard the Gospel.”
Let me tell you it is a thrilling thing to be in that environment, to see that picture. It awakened me to the reality that you are part of something big, much bigger than you, much bigger than your St. James or your Word of Life or Gorge or Emmanuel, you’ve been drafted into the army of God to safeguard the Gospel of grace for the advancement of the kingdom of God in the world. The Gospel is permanently under attack. The Gospel is always under attack. So you must never be relaxed about training; theological training, brothers and sisters.
The 2nd value of theological education is that it gives you the tools to be able to handle the word of God correctly.
Number 3: The value of theological education is that it trains you in relating God’s word then to our struggles in the church now.
There’ve been appalling displays of the use of the word of God to address the struggles that are found in the local church. Appalling displays. Again, displays that show that you are listening to the echo of your own voice when you are going into the scriptures. And we’ve got to remember that we are sinners saved by grace. So sin is always going to be a challenge for the local church. It’s amazing how many Christians subscribe to this notion that because of theological education, we get too heavenly minded and as a result we become no earthly good. I wonder what you do then with Colossians 3:1 which says “because you have been raised set your hearts on things above where Christ is seated… and not on earthly things”. And according to Paul, this is actually the basis upon which to fight earthly racism which is still so rampant in our country and in the church. How do I know that? Well, when he shows the relevance of fixing our hearts on things above as people who have been raised with Christ, He then says in v11 of Colossians 3, “Here there is no Greek or Jew… but Christ is all and in all.” That’s the effect of setting our hearts on things above. That’s the earthly good. Or in Ephesians 2:14 he says “Christ Himself is our peace…”You see. Ultimately peace does not come through political intervention, Paul says ultimately “Christ Himself is our peace, he has made the 2 one and has destroyed the barrier, the diving wall of hostility by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in Himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”
You see it’s careful reflection on the Christ who is now seated above that is the cure of our earthly pain and strife. That is the solution to our struggles. The way to tackle racism is not to close the Bible and talk, it’s by carefully working out how the word of God speaks into the issue and how the Gospel is the weapon to kill it and then having open and frank discussion on that basis. That is what theological education trains you to do. Many people close their Bibles and try all sorts of pragmatic solutions to help them fix things because the Bible and the Gospel are too up there, too abstract for ‘real life’... so it is thought. The truth is that it is those who are heavenly minded, those who have been raised with Christ, who fix their hearts on things above who are in fact of most significant and of most real earthly good.
Number 4: The value of theological training is that it equips you to give sound answers to the cries of our broken world
I remember when I was telling people that I was going to study theology at George Whitefield College. I could see by the look on their faces that many people felt sorry for me. Really, many people looked at me as if to say, eish “you could have been useful to the world”. But you know what? Do you know what question people the world over asked during the world wars? Or during the civil wars across Africa? Or during Colonialism and Apartheid? Or what question people asked when Tsunamis swept through Asia? Or when babies are raped and killed? Or when Boko Haram murders innocent people and kidnaps school girls? Or when terror ravages the Middle East and Europe? The question everybody wrestles with is “where was God? Where was God?” The very same people who thought you were foolish for studying theology are the very same people who ask the question, “where was God, where was God.” And whatever answer you give to that question is a theological statement; it’s a reflection of your theology. As a Christian the thing that we’ve all got to come to terms with is that everyone of us is a theologian… When you talk about God you are saying something theological. Some of you sitting here tonight might be surprised to know that many Christians do not think that they are in fact theologians. In fact some even go as far as to say I hate theology, I just want to know God… They of course fail to see that that option doesn’t exist: whenever you talk about God, you are theologising. The simple fact of the matter is everybody is a theologian and the only real question then is who is schooling you? Who is schooling you? What is the basis of your thinking about God? And so the 4th value of theological education is being trained to form Biblical answers to the cries of our broken world. Forming Biblical answers to cries of our broken world is a great way to reach the lost for Christ. When can show how plausible the Bible is in its answers to the deepest questions that humanity has, you are a very effective person in reaching the lost for Christ because it’s the Gospel in the end that brings true healing. It doesn’t mean that we all have to run off to theological college to receive formal theological education. Some of us here are not called to full-time ministry as such. But because as a Christian you are a theologian, you have to care about your theological training. You have to care about being trained and equipped theologically for these 4 reasons that I’ve just outlined.
Number 5: The value of theological training is that it gives you sweet communion with God
Speak to anyone who’s undergone theological training and they’ll tell you that those years were some of the best in their entire lives and I can say the same for myself. What could be sweeter than seeing and savouring God in the scriptures hour after hour day after year after year? The greatest pleasure there is in the world is to enjoy is communion with God through his word. There’s no greater delight than communion with God. And when you get the opportunity for theological training in a formal setting, you get to have that as the main staple of your everyday life with little distraction, there’s really nothing sweeter. My hero D.A. Carson always says, devotion is nourished by study and study is nourished by devotion. The 2 go hand in hand. Delight comes from knowing God and you can’t know God without studying His word. The 2 go hand in hand. And when you’ve got the tools to mine for yourself the treasures that are there in God’s word then how sweeter your delight will be in our God and Saviour.
In summary, 5 values of theological study:
Number 1: the safeguarding of the Gospel for the building of the church and the advancement of the kingdom of God.
Number 2: the tools that you need to be able to correctly handle the word of God.
Number 3: the ability to relate God’s word then to our struggles in the church now.
Number 4: the ability to form give sound Biblical answers to the cries of our broken world.
Number 5: sweet communion with our God.