Thursday, November 09, 2006

Toward a Biblical Perspective on Formal Higher Theological Education

I've heard more than one sincere Christian raise serious objections to the idea of formal theological education. They tend to argue that since Paul charged Timothy with the task of training pastors within the context of the local church (2 Tim 2:1-2), there is no room for pastors to receive a formal higher theological education. However that conclusion does not follow. The fact that pastors ought to receive pastoral training from seasoned pastors in the local church in no way militates against the possibility of thier obtaining formal theological training as well. While formal theological training cannot impart the kind of practical knowledge pastors need for ministry or compete with the church in fostering the pastor's personal sanctification, it can and does equip pastors who are gifted academically with useful skills and disciplines which enable them to use their academic gifts in the service of Christ's kingdom.

1. Christ trained to develop a sharp theological mind. At a young age, Jesus is recorded as “sitting in the midst of teachers both listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were amazed at His understanding and answers” (Luke 2:46). It is also significant that Christ went to the religious teachers in Jerusalem, who would likely have been better educated than the ones in his own town. Christ desired to study among the very best scholars of his time and he proved that his own scholarly credentials exceeded theirs. Though Christ was perfectly able to discharge the duties of a minister from a very young age, he did not begin his public ministry until age 30 because he was patiently growing to a high level of spiritual and intellectual development (Luke 2:32). We are not told how much of his education was formal, but we do know that he diligently studied the Scriptures, without entering into public ministry, from childhood until age 30 – a fairly long time. Christ was able to communicate with such clarity that the crowd understood Him, yet he was able to answer the questions of biblical scholars (Matt 22:35), and He showed himself fully capable of correcting the most highly trained religious elites of his day (Mark 10:1-12). Indeed, he understood the Scriptures better than most of the scholars of his time (Matt 22:29; Mark 12:10, 24).

2. Paul was a formally trained scholar. He said, “But even if I am unskilled in speech, yet I am not so in knowledge; in fact, in every way we have made this evident to you in all things” (2 Cor 11:6). He was trained academically in Judaism by Gamaliel, who was a highly respected scholar of Judaism. It is well known that the Jewish religious education of that time was some of the most intense in the world. Paul not only endured that intensity of education, he excelled at it. The New Testament epistles that bear his name could not have been written at the level they were if it were not for his intense education. The book of Romans is an academically noteworthy theological treatise in which Paul makes his higher learning quite evident. Some claimed that Paul was “hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16), but Paul persisted in his diligent labor to educate God’s people in spite of such complaints. Paul exhorts the Corinthians, “in your thinking be mature” (1 Cor 14:20). He makes much of elders being able “both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). Paul valued academic training as a bulwark against doctrinal error so much that he set up a special school to train the disciples to avoid error. He called it “the school of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:8-10), in which he trained these disciples for two years.

3. Moses too was a formally trained scholar, educated by the best minds of the time in the house of Pharaoh (Acts 7:22). This is evident from the writings that came from his hand. Deuteronomy is to the Old Testament what Romans is to the New Testament: a profound theological work that shows acquaintance with much of the literature of the ancient near east. Moses’ mind was remarkably sharp. Scholars today marvel at the literary genius of Moses so much that some even (wrongly) doubt that Moses could have written the Pentateuch by himself.

4. A good case can be made that Ezra was a thoroughly trained scholar as well, which would have been very helpful in a leader during the restoration. The Scriptures tell us that Ezra "was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses . . . For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances to Israel” (Ezra 7:6-10).