From the beginning of April 2007, the Evangelical Theological College of Wales becomes Wales Evangelical School of Theology. The new Principal, Jonathan Stephen, explains.
Over the years, I have been regularly involved in the process of examining and training men and women called to Christian service at home and overseas, but never imagined I would ever leave pastoral ministry to devote myself to it.
Under the leadership of Dr Eryl Davies, ETCW has developed since its formation in 1985 into one of the foremost Reformed theological seminaries in the UK. I count it a tremendous privilege to be following in his footsteps.
We live in a world where image usually far outstrips substance. At ETCW the reverse is the case. The College has never trumpeted its achievements or sought to employ some of the brasher methods of attracting students adopted by others. That is surely right.
But it is also right to share good things as widely and effectively as possible. That is why we have spent the last few months examining what we do and the way we do it – and why we have decided to change our name.
What’s in a name?
Not wanting to gain a reputation for changing the names of distinguished Christian institutions, I was initially not keen on the idea! But it is undeniable that ‘Evangelical Theological College of Wales’ is a cumbersome and, even more seriously, unmemorable title.
I often meet people who know there is a good training institution somewhere in South Wales, but they don’t know exactly where it is – and they certainly don’t know what it’s called. ETCW is often confused with EMW (Evangelical Movement of Wales), although they are quite separate entities.
Another factor was that, in the USA and elsewhere, the word ‘college’ rather misleadingly conveys the impression of ‘secondary’ level education. All in all, we concluded that if we wanted to attract attention to our renewed vision, it made perfect sense to change our name.
So we have come up with ‘Wales Evangelical School of Theology’. The change is minimal in that all four components of the original name have been retained. The chief advantage is that we can now be referred to monosyllabically as WEST.
Not only is the acronym memorable; it is also geographically significant. We’re on the western fringe of the greatest landmass on earth, and I like to think of us as a gateway into the rest of the UK, Europe and beyond. We very much hope the new name will
prevent future confusion and provide us with a vehicle for conveying what we have to offer the churches.
Handling the Bible correctly
My passion is to see men suitably prepared to meet the challenges of preaching the gospel in our present, desperate times. We read that ‘when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep’ (Acts 13:36). David was a man of war and the following generation required a man of peace.
It is my conviction that this generation calls for Davids rather than Solomons. This is a crude and violent age – it requires spiritual warriors, who can wield ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ amid the heat of battle (Ephesians 6:17).
God alone calls and gifts men to preach the gospel, but that’s just the starting point. They must be taught how to understand and handle the Bible correctly. They must gain some insight into the countless influences that can shape a preacher for good or ill. They must learn how to adapt their preaching style to suit the vastly different situations in which today’s preacher has to operate. And all this must happen in a context where they can grow in their knowledge and love of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s hardly surprising that so few aspire to be preachers. But I’m also sure that many preachers could have been far better had they received the right help. It is my longing that WEST will produce a godly, passionate band of brothers whose preaching will be used to transform the situation wherever they are sent. Apart from the first year doctrinal overview, conducting preaching seminars is where my personal teaching load lies.
Academic and practical
One thing we aim to provide is a healthy balance between the academic and the practical. There is no dichotomy between the two. We are glad that more PhDs in theology are supervised here than in any other institution in the UK.
Anyone who imagines that academic research is a distraction or an irrelevance simply does not understand the threat that postmodernist deconstruction of the Bible now poses. The recent attack on the doctrine of penal substitution is just the beginning. Not since the Reformation has there been such a need for faithful pastors who are theologically prepared and alert.
At the same time, we are determined to prepare men who will not be taken by surprise by all the practical demands of pastoral ministry. What we really need is a return to the pre-nineteenth century pastor-theologian model – think of Calvin, Luther and Edwards – where theology is both the queen of the sciences and the servant of the churches.
Support from the churches
I would like to enter in a plea at this point. I sometimes hear pastors dismissing theological colleges like our own as para-church organisations which are largely unresponsive to the wishes of the churches.
The truth is that WEST would not be here today if it hadn’t been for the active support of many churches over many years. Our Council has always been made up mainly of church pastors, and we have just appointed a Churches Co-ordinator to ensure the closest possible partnership between the School, the students and the churches.
Moreover, we are investigating the possibility of a radically new form of training programme which would involve the direct input of churches at every level – from the planning stage onwards.
My point is that, in order to be truly responsive to the churches, we need not just to know their wishes but also have their support – prayerfully and practically. By practical support I mean that more churches must learn to take full responsibility for identifying, encouraging and sponsoring the training of those whom God has gifted and called.
Men entering pastoral ministry today must make many sacrifices. What a blessing it would be if more churches were prepared to share realistically in the cost of training. I fear that if there is a shortage of men coming forward for ministry, the fault must somewhere lie with us.
Although I have concentrated on the training of pastors in the UK, we have always trained both men and women for diverse Christian ministries around the world. The international mix of our student body is a glorious reflection of the true Church of Jesus Christ.
As far as women are concerned, I am particularly excited about the track of Women’s Studies we intend to begin in
September and which will flow through each semester of the three-year BA course.
My wife Sheila and I have long been associated with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and it was one of my top priorities to establish an academic and practical course for women in ministry, based on complementarian principles.
What we are hoping to do is probably unique in the UK, where Bible colleges tend either not to differentiate between the ministries of men and women at all or, more commonly in Reformed circles, ignore the ministry training of women altogether. I hope this track will prove immensely popular.
Looking to the future
I am optimistic about the future of WEST. We enjoy enormous natural advantages by virtue of our location. But I suppose the greatest encouragement so far has been in the people who have already joined us and those who have said they will
We have an excellent full-time faculty, and were particularly encouraged when Bob Letham, recently of Westminster Theological Seminary, joined us at the beginning of the year.
Several ‘household names’ have promised to come and help us, and we expect to benefit from distinguished visitors on a regular basis. These are among the many tokens we’ve already received of God’s favour.
I hope that many churches will trust us to prepare some of their best men and women for the Lord’s service. I would be delighted to speak with anyone who is excited by what we are seeking to do for the spread of the gospel, and would like to learn more. We covet the prayers of all God’s people.