In addition to receiving degrees from these institutions, I spent twenty years teaching at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. At Columbia I taught Evangelism and Church Growth for fifteen years and Christian Spirituality for five years. So, for more than forty years I have been passionately engaged with theological education both as a student and a professor. As I look back over these years, I recognize some basic truths.
The Knowledge of God and of Self
Above all, theological education should be primarily concerned with the personal, experiential, transformational knowledge of God. John Calvin, in the opening paragraphs of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, indicated that knowledge is of two kinds – the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self. He believed that which arises first cannot be predetermined; a vision of God transforms the vision of self, and, likewise, the knowledge of self drives toward a larger vision of God.
Most first-year seminary students come with a sense of excitement that they will be engaged in getting to know God, but this early vision often gets lost in the stress of reading assignments and writing papers. Instead of having their faith deepened and expanded, these hopeful students acquire gigabytes of data on the Bible, the church and skills for ministry. Often the effort to develop “the best and the brightest” results in creating professional ministers lacking the one thing – the personal knowledge of God.
Curriculum: Vision and Pedagogy
I believe that all theological institutions genuinely seek to create the best ministers of which they are capable. The long-embraced image of an effective minister and an unquestioned pedagogy both continue to shape the seminary curriculum. The effective minister refers to a graduate who knows theology and the Bible and has mastered the skills of preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. The pedagogy tends to be lectures and reading coupled with some clinical supervision. Sadly, one does not need a personal knowledge of God to “run” a church program effectively. For half a century seminaries have been creating professional ministers in this manner [See Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993].
A different vision and an alternative pedagogy could give birth to a new minister for a new day. What is the vision for the new minister? What is the pedagogy to facilitate it? Let me suggest some concrete ways to reshape the curriculum and the vision. First, I suggest that spiritual formation should be at the center of the seminary’s efforts. In contrast to a school of religion, the seminary is primarily focused on the shaping of lives rather than passing on data. Acquiring biblical, theological and practical knowledge can create an effective professional leader, but it alone cannot create a man or woman of God. Ministers who are spiritually formed have the essential foundation for ministry; they have the ability to speak with people about the deepest issue of their lives – the presence of God. Teaching clergy in the Doctor of Ministry program sharpened this conviction for me. I recall ministers who had been engaged in pastoral work for ten years saying, “I don’t know how to speak with people about God.” One minister honestly confessed, “A woman came into my office for a pastoral visit; I could tell that she wanted to talk with me about God but because I did not know what to say, I changed the subject.”
In addition to spiritual formation I am convinced that the seminary curriculum should help students integrate the knowledge they are gaining with the life they are living. We often speak of this as the union of head and heart.
The curriculum of most seminaries divides the fields of study into theology, Bible and the practice of ministry. These subjects often suffer from the “silo effect,” that is, each subject is like a silo walled off from the others. Further alienation comes when these subjects are studied as objective data without a thorough exploration of how this ancient wisdom impacts the lives of the students. These various areas, which are often separated into specialized units, must be integrated with human questions, personal searching and community concerns.
We need a pedagogy that consistently questions the meaning of biblical and theological insights in a manner that probes the depths of the soul. If we can develop this pedagogy, good results will follow. The knowledge that students bring to seminary will be honored; their questions will be appreciated and openly discussed; a good seminary pedagogy will provide a matrix for continued learning and development beyond seminary; and, perhaps most important of all, this matrix will serve as a model for ministry in a congregation.
This mode of study would consistently ask: What does this say to us today? What does this mean in our setting? What is God saying to me about my life? What are the implications for this insight in the life of the church? What guidance does it offer to a world spinning out of control?
Imagine a class studying one of the attributes of God — God’s Omnipresence — and asking questions like these: What does it mean that God is everywhere and in everything? Is this a biblical doctrine? What scriptures attest to God’s all-embracing presence? How do we discern this Eternal Presence? If God is everywhere, how do we account for evil in the world? Where is God in the life of one who comes for counseling after a tragic loss, or one faced with joblessness and bankruptcy?
When we began the Certificate in Spiritual Formation at Columbia, using this method of teaching, it was warmly received and deeply appreciated. Every course had an emphasis on the theological, the practical, the communal and the personal dimension, whether it was a practical course on prayer or a more theoretical course like New Testament spirituality. Students welcomed this approach.
A New Insight
During my years of teaching Evangelism and Church Growth, and later Christian Spirituality, interfaith work never occurred to me. Since my retirement in 2000, I have been led by the Spirit toward the contemplative path and along that path experienced the birth of a passion for ministry among the other major faiths. This work has been one of the most life-changing experiences in my sixty years of ministry. Because of this transformation, I am convinced that seminaries in the twenty-first century must include multi-cultural and multi-religious training of tomorrow’s ministers.
It is not enough just to study world religions. What is needed are first-hand, respectful encounters with Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Islam in particular is in the news daily. Our culture is increasingly diverse, and the minister who can relate in love and understanding with those of other faiths will bring a spiritual light to the congregation – and to the community.
In summary, the best theological education begins with a personal, transformative knowledge of God. Innovative seminaries can build on that knowledge using spiritual formation and a creative pedagogy to produce ministers whose self-understanding, vision of ministry and practice of faith extend in new directions. Seminarians may not plumb the depths of this more experiential pedagogy in three short years, but I believe that in a matrix such as this, they can learn to explore the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self that will lead them to see the reflection of God in those of other faiths.
BEN CAMPBELL JOHNSON has been a church leader, author, developer of a church renewal program, and professor of evangelism and church growth at Columbia Theological Seminary. His Web site is (bencampbelljohnson.com.)