In conversation with a friend last week, I wondered aloud if the desire for secular accreditation has led seminaries to compromise their ability to produce spiritually mature graduates. Spiritual formation generally takes a back-seat to academic work, with the result that many graduates can say and write a great deal about God without having grown closer to knowing God personally. Why does this happen?
For the past two days I’ve been reading A Broad Place, Jurgen Moltmann’s autobiography. It’s fascinating to read: his experience as a soldier in WWII, his conversion experience while a prison of war, and his accounts of encounters with various theologians and church figures as his career progressed. In light of the question asked above, though, I’ve appreciated his commentary on the education system in which he both learned and taught. Writing about his first seminary teaching experience at Wuppertal, he says, “It is a point worth remembering that in Wuppertal there were professors who were at the same time pastors of their parishes and never considered exchanging their congregations for the seminary” (p. 72). Earlier in the book, he makes a similar comment while recounting his days as a theology student. After writing about his professors Joachim Jeremias and Gunter Bornkamm and their involvement at St. Albani church in Gottingen, he notes “I mention Jeremias and Bornkamm because neither close ties with the church nor a broader education are firm components of academic theology any more” (p. 43). Moltmann seems to lament this, preferring instead theology in service of and connection to the church. Yet the inclusion of “a broader education” in that quote reveals a desire for teachers of theology to be connected with the world as well as the church. As a result, Moltmann defends the German educational system which allows for theology programs in both public and private institutions: “‘Theology at the charge of the church’ is good and valuable, but theology at the charge of the kingdom of God goes further than that and reaches beyond the bounds of the church out into the world, into politics, society, culture – and also into the universities, the home of the humanities and sciences” (p. 94).
Reading this helped me see that the problem of spiritual formation in schools of theological education does not have an institutional answer. Spiritual formation is a personal endeavor – not in the sense that it is private, but in the sense that it requires relationships with real people, not institutions. Discipleship is a personal and relational practice, rather than an institutional practice. Hence Moltmann’s attention to the professors themselves in the first two quotes. The people under whom we study influence our academic and spiritual formation more directly than the educational institution. Accordingly, students should take care in choosing the teachers to whom they apprentice themselves. And those who teach should not take their position lightly. Strong role-models for academic service to the Church and missional engagement with the world can be found teaching in both “Christian” colleges or seminaries and “secular” universities. Unfortunately lousy role-models can sometimes be found in both.
This means that alternative programs like Ancient Christian Faith Initiative and traditional seminaries both have a place in preparing the leadership of the Church. Both are capable of producing pastors and leaders who both know God and know about God. But the deciding factor in whether or not that capability will be realized is personal and not programmatic; it depends on the spiritual maturity, faith, and knowledge of the teacher.