Banks’ Reenvisioning Theological Education (Review Article)

By Nolan Bremer

Banks, Robert. Reenvisioning Theological Education: Exploring a Missional Alternative to Current Models. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

          By “missional” Banks means that the focus of theological education should be outside the classroom. But before elaborating on his vision of this missional alternative, Banks reviews the current scene in theological education and finds it wanting. Banks begins his book with a concise but critical and comprehensive survey of the chief issues, discussions and proposals of major writers surrounding the practice of theological education today. Theological education today, he concludes, is fragmented because theory and application are not well integrated in theological, moral and spiritual formation. What is missing in the large volume of literature that attempts to address the “crisis” in theological education and presumably is the reason for the fragmentation is a serious examination of what the Bible might contribute to the discussion.

          With that problem identified, he sets out to examine closely how ministry formation happened in Bible times and finds a rather consistent picture from the Old Testament prophets through Jesus and Paul. The prophets, for example, were leaders who taught a small group of people what it meant to be a prophet as they carried out their divine calling. About Jesus he notes, “It was not preparation of the Twelve for mission that was uppermost in his mind, but engagement of the Twelve in mission.” Paul seldom traveled alone. In his travels he was always working with others to equip them for evangelism, church planting, congregational nurture and mutual support. Banks sees this examination of the formation for ministry in the Bible as “the most fruitful, as yet largely unexplored, direction for theological education.” Implications Banks finds in this review include the ideal that theological education should take place through in-service ministry activities and that formation should take place in partnership with an experienced person. The literature examined in the first part of the book, the reader now realizes, was examined in the light of this model and, in one way or the other, they all fell short.

          Banks is now ready to discuss his missional model. In his words, this model is “an education undertaken with a view to what God is doing in the world, considered from a global perspective.” It is about “reflection, training, and formation for work on the mission field.” More practically, it is “theological education that is wholly or partly field based, and that involves some measure of doing what is being studied.” Banks sees the missional model as a holistic approach without at the same time diminishing “the importance of high-level theological reflection, involving all the prevailing critical approaches and social scientific resources. It is only a question of where, when and how best to incorporate these.” (The DELTO format would probably find qualified approval if Banks were to review it!) The last half of the book is an amplification and defense of this model of theological education with special emphasis on implications for the changing demographics of students, how learning and teaching would take place, and what extensive changes are needed in the institutional (seminary and church) cultures in order to shape the curriculum and thus to implement the missional model successfully.

          If the mission of the church is to be carried out, according to Banks, then this authoritative approach from the Scripture is a necessary one. But what is the mission of the church? Banks does not say here, although by reading between the lines one might conclude that he sees the church’s primary mission as engaging in social transformation that leads to inclusiveness and justice. Thus he seems to focus primarily on what Stephen Krueger calls “God’s minor subject… healing of God’s first creation” rather than on “God’s major subject… to bear the cost of offering the forgiveness of sinners’ sin and new life connected with God’s Son.” Banks would have helped the reader to evaluate his model more appropriately if he had at least outlined his views on the mission of the church. We are instead left to evaluate it on the basis of the extent to which it conforms to the Biblical example. But if the reader looks at Bank’s approach through the lens of “God’s major subject,” then his approach might be attractive and worthy of further discussion.

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