An educated ministry

Robert Letham Robert is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at the Union School of Theology, formerly Wales Evangelical School of Theology. He is also Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Westm
01 May, 2007 3 min read

Recently I returned to Britain after 17 years’ ministry in the United States. In all, I have lived on the other side of the Atlantic for 28 years of my adult life. During that time the Christian church in the UK has taken a battering.

Many Evangelicals are losing hold on central doctrines such as penal substitution. The impact of charismatic theology is great, with Alpha courses toning down the gospel. Islam is a threat. The post-modernist world places huge questions over truth and meaning.

Anti-Christian forces are on the march, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s demon balrog as it bore down on Gandalf and his friends in the subterranean depths.

An educated ministry

At this particular time and in this context, I have been shocked to find that many still decry the need for an educated ministry. One highly respected leader (a household name in evangelical circles for decades) recently cast serious doubt on the need for the academic study of theology in ministerial preparation.

The demands of our day pose an unusually intense challenge. Christian ministers are required by the Bible to preach the gospel, to teach the flock, to defend the faith, and to answer challenges to the truth.

We cannot pretend that we are preaching Christ faithfully or effectively if we turn away, ostrich-like, from the doctrinal, moral and intellectual challenges to the gospel that have surfaced in recent years.

When he returned to office as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939, Winston Churchill is said to have bemoaned that the Navy was going into battle with the weapons of 1914. Our preachers need the skills to preach and teach incisively in our current culture, not that of fifty years ago.

Some argue that what ministers need are not academic or intellectual skills but godliness – because ‘knowledge puffs up but love builds up’. Certainly, the tools that theological training provides are not sufficient of themselves to feed the flock of God, defend the faith, preach the gospel or awaken sinners to eternal life in Christ. However, while they may not be sufficient they are nonetheless necessary.

Mining God’s Word

It is a striking fact that the average tenure of a pastorate in the United States is little more than two years. Why is this? In recent decades many seminaries have focused on practical matters, shying away from the theoretical or merely cerebral. Surely, our pulpits need men with experience who can address real-life issues?

Well, yes. But without the tools to unlock the Scriptures and to place those Scriptures in historical, theological and contemporary context, many end up preaching the same sermon over and over again – an enigma with few

The linguistic and theological tools that may at first seem unpractical, actually prepare the preacher for a long and fruitful pastorate. They enable him to mine the depths of the Word of God in a way he could not otherwise do.

Moreover, he will have the resources to address the knotty pastoral issues that today’s world throws at us. Many problems that surface in the ministry are complex and difficult, requiring the careful application of theological wisdom.

Loving God with the mind

Well, someone might say, this is what we would expect from a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, known for its stress on theology and learning. Yes, Presbyterians have always insisted on an educated ministry. In this they are in line with the Reformed churches down the years.

But the state of the church mirrors the quality of its preaching – and that in turn reflects the level of education of the preachers. When learning slumps so does the church, since there are few with sufficient knowledge to expound the Scriptures effectively.

Conversely, in the providence of God, the explosion of scholarship at the Renaissance prepared the ground for the mighty Reformation. This was a work of the Holy Spirit if ever there was one, but on the human side it could not have prospered without the ground-breaking effort of scholars who laboured on the exegesis of the Hebrew and Greek texts, and the use of the Fathers and mediaeval theologians.

This need for learning in the ministry follows from the fact that this is God’s world – a world we are to subdue to his glory – and that every square inch belongs to Jesus Christ, to whom all truth belongs.

Above all, we have the words of Jesus – true piety involves loving God with all our heart, soul and mind. To belittle the use of the mind in Christian ministry in favour of ‘godliness’ is to set up a false antithesis. It is not godliness at all.

Robert is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at the Union School of Theology, formerly Wales Evangelical School of Theology. He is also Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Westm
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