“Intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.” Martin Luther King Jr. was only a college student when he penned these words in an article entitled “The purpose of education” that was published in Morehouse University’s The Maroon Tiger in February 1947. Almost 70 years later, they are important food for thought about the purpose of theological education.
Presbyterians prize education. It is in our DNA. We are both a people of the Book and people of many books. Yet what is the purpose of our higher learning? What do we, as a denomination, hope will happen when students enroll in seminary? Is there more to the project than simply the development of intellectual rigor?
Romans 12:1-2 can help answer these questions: “Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
This passage comes at a critical hinge in the book of Romans. Up to this point, Paul has been majoring in doctrine, but these verses signal a move to ethics. As theologian Brendan Byrne puts it in his Romans commentary, by now Paul has concluded his systematic account of the gospel and begins exhorting believers to live out their faith.
It may be helpful to think about Romans 12:1- 2 as a cycle that begins with God’s mercy. When we experience God’s mercy, we are moved to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice; we work to renew our minds and we participate with the Holy Spirit in demonstrating transformation that leads us to join Jesus’ mission to the world. We can apply this cycle to the process of receiving a call to ministry, beginning seminary, studying and learning, joining in the Spirit’s transformation and then accepting a call.
The process begins with God’s mercy (Romans 12:1), which is fundamental to the gospel that brings salvation (Romans 1:16). Though we all sin, our merciful God gives righteousness through grace, not works (Romans 3:9-28). Out of mercy, Jesus gives us peace, perseverance, character and hope (Romans 5:1-4). Nothing can separate us from God’s mercy in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:37-39).
When God’s mercy strikes home for us, we come to faith and our lives change. Karl Barth’s magisterial commentary on Romans speaks of the “Great Disturbance” — what we believe disturbs how we live. In other words, the knowledge and experience of God’s great mercy impacts and transforms us. Some Christians are disturbed by the Spirit for a particular (but not superior) vocation: teaching elder, professor or other ministry requiring theological education.
In the second step of the cycle (found in Romans 12:1), Paul articulates this disturbance by calling his readers to “offer [their] bodies as a living sacrifice.” Byrne tells us that what Paul calls “body,” we best understand as our entire existence, wholly given over to God. Many seminarians understand the magnitude of this sacrifice when they enroll.
Responding to God’s mercy is no longer theoretical, but fully disturbs their lives. Those who study full-time often leave jobs, cities, families, incomes and whole support systems behind. Part-time or distance students must juggle schedules and reconfigure commitments so that they can thrive in their classes.
Speaking of classes, the third step of the process encompasses “the renewing of [our] mind” (Romans 12:2). Theological education often focuses on this step as the most important — sometimes to the exclusion of the other steps. The centuries whip by in church history courses; Greek and Hebrew verbs are parsed; and theories of the atonement are critiqued. Increasingly, leadership is researched and developed. Books are read (or at least purchased) and papers are written. The content of our minds is shaped and renewed.
In this exercise of renewing our minds, however, we often miss what Paul meant in the first place. Byrne believes the “mind” is the part of us that thinks and discerns. The purpose of this discernment is a new moral life. Princeton Seminary theologian Ellen Charry’s book, unsurprisingly called “By the Renewing of Your Minds,” argues similarly that the study of Christian doctrines (is not simply for head knowledge. Instead, the truth that Christian doctrines assert about God is a truth that must influence and shape us.
Yet seminary faculties and students alike sometimes forget that the purpose of our knowledge is the fourth step in the cycle: transformation. As the dean of students of one PC(USA) seminary once told me, “So often we forget that the holy grail is not a publishable paper. The holy grail is fruitful ministry.” This ministry emerges from a life transformed by the Holy Spirit to bear the image of Christ. Barth calls the actions we undertake out of transformed lives “parables” or “tokens” of the action of God.
We must participate in the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying power through spiritual disciplines like devotional (as well as academic) Bible study, prayer, accountability groups and worship to experience transformation and embody these parables. The renewing of our mind alone will not transform us. But the renewing of our minds is critical so that we can first discern God’s good will for ourselves and the world so that we can then live it out by the power of the Spirit.
Our sanctified selves, in the last step of the cycle, are “able to test and approve what God’s will is” (Romans 12:2). The divine will for us, of course, is to join Christ’s mission to transform the world through God’s redeeming love. This means that the transformation that we ourselves experience is matched by our participation in the transformation of the whole world, so that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). For seminarians, the primary (but not exclusive) means of joining Christ’s mission is by accepting a call into ministry, whether traditional, innovative or bi-vocational.
When teaching elders join Christ’s mission to the world through these calls, the cycle begins to repeat. Others experience God’s mercy to them and respond by sacrificing their whole selves for the gospel. As their minds are renewed, their lives are transformed by the power of the Spirit. They then join Christ’s mission. As this cycle is repeated again and again and again, the purpose of theological education is revealed: nothing less than the transformation of the world.
CHIP HARDWICK is the directior of Theology, Worship and Education for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).