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Theology Degrees And Spiritual Growth

Churchleaders.com has some interesting articles and videos; I’ve included some here before. But a piece that was highlighted in their daily email the other day bothered me.

The content of the post is fine. A man called Rick Howerton argues that pastors should not assume that because they have a Theology degree they are spiritually mature. Churches seeking new ministers should also not be seduced by that error. Spiritual growth is demonstrated in the fruit of the Spirit and increasing embrace of kingdom ethical standards, amongst other things. Quite right, too.

The problem came with the headline: ‘Are Theology Degrees Keeping Pastors From Spiritual Growth?’ It didn’t seem to me that was quite the thrust of the article. Moreover, a headline like that risked playing into the anti-intellectualism of some popular evangelicalism: “Don’t go to theological college, you’ll lose your faith.” Yes, the issue of pride in one’s academic knowledge must be confronted, but at best I want to argue good theological knowledge can enhance spiritual growth, when detached from pride. When I read a Tom Wright book and his vision stretches me, I end up in worship. Didn’t Jesus call us to worship with ‘heart, soul, mind and strength’?

For me, George Carey put it best. When he interviewed me for a place at Trinity College, Bristol, he told me, “Trinity is not just about information, it is about formation.” I think the two can hold hands. What do you think?

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Theology Is Important!

The other day, someone said to me, “You’re not academic.” It was meant as a compliment, but I felt disappointed. The speaker meant that I was interested in people, and took ‘academic’ to mean ‘remote’.
However, I see academic theology differently. I know that in all too many cases it can be remote from ordinary life, and frankly abstruse. Try reading anyone called Karl – say Barth or Rahner – in a home group or a sermon. It’s often dense, and I need to re-read it to get the sense. My passion, though, is to connect the academy and the church. I believe theology is important for living.
So I was pleased to see Sally Coleman blogging on this very subject. I added a quote in the discussion there from one of the Desert Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus:

If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.

(I found that quote many years ago in David Benner‘s wonderful book ‘Psychotherapy and the Spiritual Quest‘, where it was cited from S Lash’s article ‘Orthodox Spirituality’ in ‘The SCM Dictionary of Spirituality‘, edited by Gordon Wakefield.)

To me, it encapsulates what theology is about: not just words about God (which would be a fairly literal interpretation of the word), but words to God, the exploration of God as an act of worship.

As for the academic stuff, well don’t we need the people who will use their gifts to think hard about the difficult questions? The church can be strangely ambivalent about this. In my experience (although not, I hasten to add, in my current appointment), I have encountered Christians who have vehemently rejected the idea of sermons that made them think only at other times to expect the same minister to explain hard issues to them! You can’t have it both ways!

Surely we are all theologians, at least by Evagrius Ponticus’ standards. But we each bring something different to the table, as together we seek to know God more deeply.

Reading

It’s half term, and I’m taking this week on leave. Daytime, I shall be having time with the kids, of course. We’ve been exchanging Tesco Clubcard vouchers for money off ten pin bowling and a meal at Café Rouge.

But in the evening, I’m beginning to delve into some newly arrived books. Yes, they are all Theology, and that might seem a strange choice when I’m away from ‘work’, but few things restore me like a dose of good reading. (Yes, I am an introvert, if you hadn’t guessed.) Here is what those nice people at Amazon and The Book Depository have sent me lately:

Eugene Peterson, The Word Made Flesh: Peterson explores the issue of language as a spiritual concern by examining the parables of Jesus in Luke’s so-called ‘Travel Narrative’ and in some of his prayers.

Klyne R Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: I love the parables of Jesus, and this looks like being the standard work for the next several years. A few months ago, Scot McKnight was raving about it. Then Paul Beasley-Murray did the same in Ministry Today. Already, I’m hooked. He has a subtle, multivalent treatment of the parables. For years I’ve loved Craig Blomberg‘s book Interpreting The Parables, because he so thoroughly took to pieces the anti-allegory school and gave a brilliant history of schools of biblical interpretation. However, it was beginning to feel a bit simplistic in some of its expositions. I think Snodgrass will bring the subtlety.

Colin Greene and Martin Robinson, Metavista: What do we do, mission-wise, after postmodernity? Greene and Robinson are sketching a vision. I met Greene five years ago on a Bible Society course at Lee Abbey, but I’ve never previously read his books. I was pondering buying this one when I saw him interviewed by Alan Roxburgh on the Allelon website. That convinced me.

Christopher J H Wright, The Mission Of God: another Scot McKnight rave. Eleven or twelve years ago, I bought Wright’s commentary on Deuteronomy, in which he interprets the book missiologically. Later, I bought his exposition of Ezekiel, which attempts something similar. This is his magnum opus, bringing together his skills as a biblical scholar and his past experience as the Principal of a missionary training college. Wright argues that the whole Bible is a missionary document. I believe this will be required reading for all of us concerned with the ‘missional’ approach. It promises to be the most important work of missiology since the late David Bosch‘s Transforming Mission.

Ben Witherington III, The Letters To Philemon, The Colossians, And The Ephesians – A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles: I’ve bought several of BW3’s commentaries in the last year or so. I’ve been looking for something to complement and contrast Andrew Lincoln‘s majestic Word Biblical Commentary on Ephesians. Witherington is a prolific, eloquent and brilliant writer. 

Richard Burridge, Imitating Jesus – An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics: For someone whose calling involves helping people with ethical decisions, I don’t read as much as I should on ethics, although I’m indebted to Changing Values by David Attwood and The Moral Quest by the late Stanley Grenz. Burridge is flavour of the month in some circles I know, not least in Chelmsford, where he gave a Holy Week lecture earlier this year. Not long ago I reviewed his commentary on John’s Gospel, which was superb. This too has been well reviewed, again not least by my friend Paul Beasley-Murray. I had a quick dip into his section on Paul and homosexuality, and while not everything Burridge said convinced me, he said enough to shed new light for me on this painful debate.

I won’t read all these books cover to cover. Some will just go straight on the shelf for reference. In the case of others (e.g., Snodgrass) I shall read the introductory chapters before squeezing them into my statutory thirty yards of bookshelving in this study.

Have any of you read any of these titles? What did you think of them?

What are you reading, or have you read recently, that you would recommend?

I would be fascinated to know.