Reflections on Theological Education

Stephen C. Krueger

Editorial Note: Developments in both the church and the world are calling for a re-evaluation of theological education. Theological education has been the subject of a number of recent books calling into question both the core values and the pedagogical methods of most seminaries. In order to address the challenges of vacant parishes and new mission opportunities, the seminaries of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod have been developing new approaches to distance learning in the Distance Education Leading to Ordination (DELTO) and the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology (EIIT) programs.

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed.  When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he then said to the paralytic – “Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings (Matthew 9:2-8, NRSV).



For over 30 years I’ve pondered the topic of theological education and cannot find any reason to abandon Philip Melanchthon’s description of his own methodology in the Fourth Article of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession. There that vast enterprise’s single purpose is “to necessitate Christ” (Ap. IV, 12). To make that claim is to imply the whole faith hangs together in a way and has a logic where the gospel about Christ is a part of every article of faith worth believing. Theological education, therefore, is about teaching critical tools and systems of learning which end up making the Christ of the Christian kerygma so winsome and compelling that hearers of that kerygma say, “I gotta have that which has grasped me.”

To the end of discussing the topic of theological education in this way, that of “making full use of Christ,” I have found this pericope from Matthew’s gospel helpful where Jesus heals a paralytic by, of all things, forgiving him his sins.


I. Sins Forgiven?

To engage this Matthew 9 text at any serious and honest level, we might be struck by the same surprise Jesus’ audience seems to feel at Jesus’ greeting, “Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven.” The most obvious need paralytics have is to be healed of their paralysis and, I’d be willing to wager under most similar circumstances, most of us would agree. As a matter of fact, it almost seems to be flippant or trite to deal with a suffering man by “merely” announcing the forgiveness of his sins. The Sacred Scriptures themselves even warn about passing by the suffering of this world too quickly with pious sounding slogans. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace;keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:15-16),

Isn’t this precisely the great question of theological education today? With the serious problems looming of, say, global warming or a nation locked in a terrible and bloody conflict in the middle east, the failure of national education today or of adequate health care for the underserved, ought the churches, their theological schools and forums of theological education not be leading the way in getting involved with the great issues of our time? I remember serving a parish in California and walking down the street with my collar on at the beginning of the Iraq war. One young man came up to me in great distress and said, “Where are the churches? Why aren’t the churches speaking up?”  We can find Jesus’ greeting about “taking heart” as surprising as Jesus’ audience does.

As the editor was coaxing me into holding forth on the topic of theological education, coincidentally The Christian Century arrived with its February 20, 2007 issue on (you guessed it) theological education.Among the many ads for theological schools from various mainline groups and traditions included devotions from Peter Steinke (pp. 20-21), an article entitled “Meltdown” by Bill McKibben on global warming and which began, “We need a movement to combat climate change, we need it fast, and we need to involve as many churches as possible” (p.22), and an article by a seminary president entitled “Overextended” on the proliferation of demands on seminary faculties to meet the needs of an increasingly diminishing church (pp. 26-30). The Christian Century issue, if anything, shows, sensitive to the needs of the world, like the needs of a paralytic at the time of Jesus, how involved and even confusing theological education today has become.  What’s more, while often today our internal debate about theological education involves who ought to receive it, should it be oriented to professional church persons for service to the church or should it be “dummied down” for the masses, perhaps the more serious question is, “What is theological education at all?”


II. The Blasphemer

In the Matthew 9 text, the reaction by the scribes has always been interesting to me. Oh, sure, at face value (and probably in the meaning of Matthew), their reaction to Jesus’ “take heart” announcement seems to be, “Who does this Jesus think he is…announcing something which only God can do, that is, forgive a sinner’s sins?” True enough.

Yet, I wonder if we could impose our post-modern hearts into the hearts of the scribes and see, perhaps, something more. Could they be (possibly secretly) cynics themselves about the relevance of Jesus’ gospel which involves the forgiveness of sins? After all, as years ago we were reminded in Menninger’s classic Whatever Became of Sin?, the modern, non-judgmental mantra since the Freudian revolution is something along the order of, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” If any notion of “sin” has fundamentally disappeared in the culture’s consciousness, how does a gospel announcing the forgiveness of sins have any meaning at all?

It is an intensely serious question because theological education, if it is anything at all, is about meaning, and not just meaning in the sense of holding values and beliefs which give meaning, albeit provisional and relative to the culture, but meaning in the ultimate sense, as, say, Paul Tillich approached the question of God and said, “God is the object of our ultimate concern.” Paul Tillich tried, however successful he was, to make his case “from below” for the core, Christian faith. His mid-twentieth century counter-voice, Karl Barth, didn’t even try as Barth’s voice cast the theological enterprise at that time afresh from “the Word” coming “from above.”

However, since Barth’s powerful voice has so influenced most traditional patterns of theological education today, it is legitimate to ask, “How successful has it been?” A whole subsequent generation of students of the Barthian tradition, most notably Douglas John Hall, have raised serious questions and have used a particularly “Lutheran” theme, the cross (and something about reclaiming forgiveness through the cross), to reawaken something deeper about what modernity truly needs.

The scribes, no matter what their motives in the Matthean text, help us see ourselves today. In their first century world perhaps they were truly concerned about getting their own sins divinely pardoned. But, perhaps, there is a bit of post-modernity in them, too, about how laughable Jesus’ gospel (especially when it appears so irrelevant to the problem of a paralyzed man) just may seem.  The shot of “blasphemer” may be little more than a cheap one, covering up the scribes’ own patent unbelief…and our own.


III. The Table-turning Question: “So, Which Is Easier To Say?”

It seems to me that contemporary theological education needs to be preoccupied with Jesus’ question with which Jesus turns the tables on the scribes in Matthew’s text. Listen to it carefully:

But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’ (Matthew 9: 5).

Part of the question involves with what would we be impressed? In Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor the imprisoned Jesus is confronted by the Grand Inquisitor who reminds Jesus about the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The powerful Jesuit excoriates the Lord with the well-known ways (miracle, mystery and authority) in which Jesus could have had the loyalty of the masses. In each of the devil’s temptations, the crowds would have followed Jesus blindly if only Jesus would have given them what they wanted because they would have been, as we, impressed.

Again, we are confronted with the same issue. While piously nodding to that easy proclamation of Word and Sacrament about the forgiveness of sins, so easy to say (we preachers have said it, as we ought, a thousand times and more), it would have been truly impressive, would it not, for us to witness a miracle here with impossible words for a mortal to utter: “Stand up and walk,” and indeed, then a paralyzed man would then do just that.

So, which is it easier to say? And what shall preoccupy the theological attention of the church and its whole educational enterprise?

I think we would have to agree that the healing of the world, indeed, of the planet, would be far more impressive to most all of us. And the “easy” words, “Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven,” far less so.As a matter of fact, that we have bungled the Creator’s world far more than we have helped to heal it, while at the same time, have let a forgiveness gospel roll easily off our lips, unmasks a certain fraud on our parts that even with a forgiveness gospel we do not have what it takes to save anybody, least of all ourselves. And the temptation will be to always follow all those other gospels which are far more impressive to us than the one which comes in such simple forms: bread, wine, water and the community of sinners which gathers around those marks.


IV. The “Aha!” Moment

My dear friend and teacher, Edward Schroeder, talks about the Augsburg “Aha!” By that I think he means that the kerygma suddenly comes through with such grasping clarity that in that moment not only are we suddenly surprised we had not seen it before but see it now and still, in spite of us, we are claimed by the gospel’s winsome power.

In the Matthew 9 text, Jesus then says:

“…But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” –he then said to the paralytic – “Stand up, take up your bed and go to your home” (Matthew 9: 6).

And, of course, we next read, “And he stood up and went to his home” (Matthew 9: 7).

To me, this is the crux of it. Robert Bertram used to talk about God’s “major” and God’s “minor.” God’s major subject is to bear the cost of offering the forgiveness of sinners’ sin and new life connected with God’s Son. God’s minor subject, so impossible to us (but no less God’s) is to offer healing of God’s first creation, no less under judgment, but again no less God’s. Forgiveness of sins costs God everything…the life of his Son on the cross. Healing paralytics can come in a flash with a simple Word, impressive to us, apparently less so to God and far less costly.

The trouble with us is that we can confuse the two, inverting them in terms of their costliness and largely missing God’s surprise much of the time that such an awesome thing, the forgiveness of a sinner’s deadly sins through the cross of God’s Son, can be grasped through simple faith alone.

If the primary goal of theological education is “to necessitate Christ” that goal is best served by keeping God’s major God’s major and God’s minor God’s minor. Yet the awesome task is also best served by ever being reminded that both major and minor subject areas are no less God’s and, as Jesus did, one is enlisted for the sake of the other. “So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he then said to the paralytic – “Stand up, take up your bed and go to your home.” If Jesus can distinguish and yet hold together God’s two distinct Words and be involved in the care and then the redemption of all God has made, then so our theological education in all of its forms ought to follow.


V. Theological Education is for Learning Critical Thinking for the Sake of Both and at the Same Time

Many years ago I ran into an unpublished paper by the then young Roman Catholic Henri J. M. Nouwen in which he was discussing the liberating function of theology and of theological education. There Nouwen suggested that the definition of theology was “an articulate not-knowing.” To be sure there is some medieval influence there in that definition but the notion was intriguing to me. Nouwen suggested that the tendency in theology has always been to fill in the blanks completely and say, “God is this or that. God is here in this thing, this notion, this concept.” Yet, theology has an important critical function of saying, “No!” While the scheme is one that Karl Barth also used to debunk Continental Liberalism and the critical function of justification by faith has also been widely discussed in circles closer to home, Nouwen captured a good point as it relates to theological education. In the unpublished essay, Nouwen then relates the “No-saying” function of theology to what true education is (thus you get “theological education”). The word “education” comes from two Latin words, e-ducare, which literally means, “to lead out of.” It is not the purpose of education to dump things into people’s heads. It is the purpose of education to lead people out of and away from former things into new, deeper and more universally embracing concepts and ideas. In other words (not unlike the pedagogy of Liberation) it is the purpose of education to free people.

The same idea was recently discussed by James Allison in the above cited issue of The Christian Century as he described his own maturation in a thoughtful Christian faith. It is also consistent with how developmental education talks about the growth of the human intellect. Allison, a Roman Catholic, talks about his concern with disengaging theological education with the great traditions of philosophy. He writes:

As an aside, I would note that, paradoxically, as this male-only culture winds down—and the discipline of theology is undertaken (as it should be) by people of both sexes—the loss of prior philosophical training is likely to mean that theological discussion will become narrower, less capable of tolerating variety and less aware of the case with which theology can fall captive to religious ideology…(p. 8).

In the essay entitled Taking the Plunge Allison reflects on his own odyssey when he “fell through”:

But even more significant than that my self-importance was threatened by the excellence of the teachers was the cumulative effect of the sheer volume of reading. Day after day, week after week, author after author, opinion after opinion, a sea of words were being poured on me from every angle. They were opening up new horizons and challenging bits of surety in the pit of my stomach—until the little Inquisitor General on his throne in the upper part of my skull could take it no longer. He had been accustomed to sitting there, serenely sifting through such little ideas as my reading and listening had brought before him, routinely and elegantly trashing them from a position of enormous imagined superiority: after all, someone who is right can easily detect what is wrong and is never aware of how defensively he is proceeding.

It’s not as though all these opinions and words were out to get my poor inner Inquisitor. But he was completely at sea amid the sheer volume and breadth of what was washing over him. He didn’t have the staff or the time to be able to put all these dreadful books right, or the fingers to plug up all the holes in the dike. And so he drowned.

This is what I call “falling through.” And it was for me the vital experience in beginning to learn theology (pp. 8-9).

In a sublime conclusion, Allison tells what “falling through” meant for him. “’Falling through’ was how I moved from being someone who had an interest in theology to someone who loved theology and had found himself caught in a bigger, more open world than he could imagine” (p. 9).

I submit Allison has it right. “Falling through” in the truest sense of theological education is not finally a matter of earning professional credentials. It is “falling through” into the arms of Christ alone for the sake of engaging the world critically and (even more important) redemptively just as Jesus did as Jesus asked, “Which is easier to say?”  Ultimately, despite the fact that theological education is willing to embrace the whole of learning and experience, it does so because it is free to do so, as it gently pushes and probes to the core which is Christ made necessary by all our pushing and probing and prodding. It shows what Jesus says in all theological education’s engagements with the host of ideas and truth claims, “So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.”


VI. The Great Tradition and More

The assumption of current theological education is that by confronting students with the body of traditional thought, arguably called “the Great Tradition” and involving the body of philosophy, exegetical learning and historical consciousness at least there is a common set of learning a student must account for in his or her theological thinking. I am persuaded that the argument is true enough. As Allison notes above, without that sense of the development of theological ideas and thinking, even in their conflicting forms, “falling through” will never occur and learners of theology will be ill prepared for the even vaster array of cultural ideas every theological learner will confront. On the other hand, there is ample reason to say that “the Great Tradition” is itself hardly without bias and all-too-often limited to the groups of cultural power. Religion captive to ideology is not restricted just to the theologically unlearned.

Yet, if the goal of theological education is to engage the world in order “to necessitate Christ” then that world of ideas is hardly restricted to seminary classrooms. Theological education exists in all its forms in “out there,” including in the churches themselves. If anything, the seminary classroom should far more effectively model how to engage the world for the sake of necessitating Christ, rather than be promoting denominational ideology or seeking to score debating points with conflicting points of view. The goal of theology is kerygmatic. It comes at the world out of the same love by which the world was redeemed.

As a hospice chaplain serving in a secular setting, I have never needed all the formation of my own theological education as I now do. In my world of daily work, I have had more opportunities to talk to people seriously about Jesus Christ and justification by faith alone than I believe I had in my preceding 28 years of Lutheran parish ministry. People get serious when they or their loved ones are dying.Interestingly, we hospice chaplains need to be good at listening deeply and, while on the surface, we are not allowed to promote any particular faith point of view, we get to respond to the question, “Chaplain, how do you see it?”

Then I get to say and have seen first hand how the Matthew 9 text concludes: “When the crowds saw it they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority (to forgive sins) to human beings” (Matthew 9: 8).

And it occurs to me that we need to be where the real people are who are asking the deepest questions of them all. They are what a theological education is for.

Sunday of the Passion, 2007

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