In my last post on theological training (click here for the post), I talked about the importance of engaging in the real world. What we learn in seminary and theological college has to be meaningful in real life. In this second post I want to share what I believe as the most important thing to learn in theological studies.
I need to be honest that this is my own personal view. Different people have different opinions here. But this is my story.
In a good seminary or theological college, there will be knowledgeable professors who have in-depth knowledge of the Bible. There are those who have profound understanding of theology. There are experienced pastors and missionaries who can teach us the art of ministry. We learn analytical skills to critique theological thoughts, and we discover ministry insights. We learn how to deliver a good message, and skills in pastoral care. We gain insights into cross-cultural communication and missional endeavours.
All these are good and very important. But I want to suggest that the most important thing to learn is the skill to study the Scripture independently. (I will talk about other important – or equally important – things in subsequent posts.)
Pick up any course on Greek and/or Hebrew if you can, even though it is daunting. It’s okay not to be expert at the end, but the exposure to biblical languages is important. Study the historical and social backgrounds of the Old Testament and New Testament. Don’t be afraid to do exegetical subjects. Do courses that study entire books of the Bible. (Hopefully your professor/lecturer will make those subjects relevant to real life, which is very important, I believe.)
These will sharpen your skills to study the Scripture for yourselves in the future. From then on you can learn from the Bible with relative confidence.
(There is one thing I need to clarify at this point. I do not want any of the above to become an obstacle to know God. That is, your Greek and exegetical skills should be applied appropriately. Don’t be bogged down by over-sophisticated analytical processes. Learn to read the Bible as simple texts that contain God’s stories – stories that we can participate in. Read the Scripture with your “ears” listening to God’s voice at the same time. Your advanced training is a tool. Master it, rather than being mastered by it.)
Simply put, I tend to think that theological training is not primarily about learning some ministry skills, or some sophisticated theological arguments. It’s not mainly about being inspired by some great lecturers who are particularly good communicators. Again, all of these are good. But personally I think it is far more important to use the opportunity to learn how to study the Bible. Of course, reading the Bible has to be done within a reading community. We don’t have all the answers, and we need humility to allow others to teach us. But when we have the opportunity to study at a seminary or theological college, I think we should take full advantage of it and learn the skill of studying the Scripture.
What I find in my own experience is that the skill will be useful for life. I know how to use the Scripture to prepare for a message or a Bible study. When I encounter a new ministry or social trend, I know how to find resources in the Scripture to assist me to critique the trend. When I want to know what God has to say about a particular subject or issue (say, poverty, development, or human rights), I have the tools to help me use the Scripture to critique the matter.
After finishing my MPhil, I worked in a non-Christian profession for a few years. There I encountered situations that were not ministry related, but profoundly connected with real life events. Again, I had the resources and skill set to deal with them through a prayerful reading of Scripture.
Okay, that’s enough for now. Again, I am aware that the above is subjective. It’s my reflection after many conversations with theological students and graduates from a range of Christian traditions. I have taught quite a few of them, and have had the privilege of working with some of them. I think the skill to study the Scripture is still the most important thing for us all.