During a recent visit to the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo (Presbyterian), I was invited to share some extemporaneous thoughts with the faculty on the topic of ‘excellence in theological education’. The gist of my remarks follows.
When we speak of achieving excellence in theological education, we must take ourselves and our alleged competencies out of the center. I have often said—first to myself and then to anyone who should ask—that I will leave the pastoral vocation of theological education only when it ceases to become a disciple-making enterprise. Making disciples embraces a critical role for the mentor whose life is offered with trembling hands as a model. Yet it is not fundamentally about me. Or about you.
Here in the land of Cyril of Alexandria, the great Athanasius, and others, we must be clear that excellence in theological education is not about doing more, doing better, or about any human ability to achieve excellence. To the contrary.
Excellence is merely our way of speaking on the human side about God’s reflected kabod, about Jesus’ doxa, his inherent glory which in his condescending mercy is allowed to reflect off our lives and into the world we inhabit and serve. God’s person and his character, we are told in the Old Testament and by the very semantics of its vocabulary, is a matter of his weightiness, his centrality, his cruciality in this world of his. The Seraphim of Isaiah’s vision proclaim, incessantly, not only that the Yahweh is holy, but that his glory fills the whole earth. In my understanding, excellence is attributable to our labors only when we have the good fortune to find ourselves reflecting the Lord’s glory as we stand in proximity to followers who have been entrusted for a time to our care.
The heresy of Pelagianism, with its supreme optimism about human achievement and self-improvement, crops up far too frequently in circles where we—trained theologians, many of us—ought to know better. And so we crack our methodological whips and marshal our trendy theories in order to drive ourselves and others to do more, to do better, to do more shrewdly what our poor, benighted fathers did not know how to do. This leads in the end to self-exaltation, to the worship of technique, and then to exhaustion and collapse. But worst of all, it finds God’s glory to be irrelevant, impractical, or even alien.
If I may go on citing the fathers, excellence in theological education is not a Pelagian affair, but rather a deeply Augustinian matter. That great North African understood that all things truly Christian begin with the Lord’s merciful intervention in the lives of individuals and communities that are both incapable of helping themselves and unworthy of being helped. When God allows us to shape a young life that has drawn near to us with some mixture of reticence and admiration—if only because the registrar has told him he must take the class we teach—that is only because God’s kabod, Christ’s glory, has by some miracle come to reflect off our dull clay and into that emerging, leaderly life.
Secondly, I think that excellence in theological education requires that we take up our vocation as a priestly role. God’s holiness and humankind’s sinfulness make for a volatile mix. When God dwells with men and women, his holiness is lethal. It blesses beyond measure. It also kills the casual. Into this scenario comes the priest, who stands as a mediator between the holy deity and his unholy company of sons and daughters.
The priest plays a mediating role. He acts as a bridge, even as an interpreter of God to man and of man to God. He explains the ways of God to human beings who are too dim to discover and comprehend them on their own. Then, if he is a good priest, he turns to God and explains the predicament of his—the priest’s—people back to God in prayer. He pleads, he remonstrates, it might not be too daring to say even that he educates in both directions. God and the people manage to live in the company of each other in consequence of the priest’s arduous ministrations.
There must be something of the priest in any theological educator who is worth the time he claims in his students’ lives. He explains divine mysteries to them—standing here I think of the early church’s ‘christological controversies’ and their eventual settlement at Nicea and Chalcedon. He opens minds and elevates hearts to learn of God’s grandeur, a majesty both more just and more loving than they could have imagined. He turns to plead before God for his students, for he knows that proximity to holy things can do all manner of damage to tender lives.
One can measure all sorts of educational outcomes, in fact we must subject ourselves to such accountability. But if there is no priestliness in the theological college, there will be no real excellence.
Then, finally, the lecturers, staff, and leaders of a theological enterprise that would achieve excellence must become the patient mediators of the wisdom tradition that we encounter most clearly in those sections of the biblical anthology that we call the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Canticles, and the like. A globalized generation that is intoxicated with what is new, odd, or remarkable has no reflex for finding God in the old, the usual, the ordinary, and the unremarkable. Yet wide swaths of the biblical legacy teach us that this is precisely where some of the greatest treasures of God’s way with his world are to be found.
This wisdom tradition requires that we have a robust theology of creation. This means that we learn to observe patterns of interaction, cycles of human behavior, the way things work, and to become adept in managing these things. One of you asked how I would define wisdom. My answer is this: ‘wisdom is the ability to understand how Yahweh’s world works and to live effectively in it.’ There is no more practical achievement than this, yet is the possession only of those who devote a lifetime to humble observation of it. That is why its master are usually ‘elders’ and almost never ‘youngers’. One acquires this deep understanding of people and things only after serial scarring, deep disappointment, repeated joys that show where seeds grow best when planted, and many pairs of worn-out shoes.
Our students’ generation has no instinct for this. That is why we must teach them.
So, if you ask me—and you have been kind enough to do so—excellence in theological education is:
(a) a matter of reflecting God’s glory in the company of our students.
(b) a result of exercising a priestly vocation in the company of our community of learning.
(c) a matter of mediating the biblical wisdom tradition to a generation that lacks an instinct for it.
May you know the Lord’s blessing as you respond to his lavish grace by pursuing this excellence.