The Purpose of Comprehensive Theological Education


As I’ve been meditating on the idea of “Comprehensive Theology“, I’ve begun to realize that it’s main difference from systematic theology isn’t merely (or even primarily) the content. Rather, it is whole pedagogy associated with traditional theological instruction I am reacting against. I might characterize (caricature?) the traditional model as:

The purpose of Academic Theological Education [ATE] is to indoctrinate students into an intellectual understanding of, and belief in, the central truths of their religious tradition.

As contrasted with:

The purpose of Comprehensive Theological Education [CTE] is to equip leaders for a lifelong journey of bringing their “whole selves” (heart, soul, mind & strength) and “whole worlds” (family, church, community & marketplace) into ever-increasing alignment with God’s purpose (redemption, kingdom & glory).

My original thought was “ATE bad, CTE good” — but that actually is not the case. Read more for details…

To start with, I readily concede that ATE is something of a strawman; I suspect most actual theological programs exist on a continuum between a purely intellectual ATE and a more holistic CTE. However, the concept of ATE is useful in that it does reflect a distinct tendency within Western Christianity to treat faith as primarily a virtue of the mind, rather than the heart. And in fact, I suspect there are more than a few theologians who sincerely believe that ATE is identical to (and sufficient for!) CTE — that is, intellectual equipping is all we really need.

On the flip side, though, I’m beginning to realize that ATE is actually an essential component of CTE. From this perspective, my beef is not with ATE per se, but rather an unbalanced (dare I say idolatrous?) elevation of “head-knowledge” outside the context of holistic transformation.

The solution is not to abandon or deny the value of Academic Theological Education, but rather bring it into healthy submission under a broader understanding of Comprehensive Theological Education.

This may sound like a minor quibble, but I believe it is actually a matter of (spiritual) life or death. I believe that far too many Christian leaders (and churches) are dying due to our distorted emphasis on Academics over Comprehensive Transformation. By wrongly elevating the mind over the spirit, I believe we violate several severe scriptural sanctions:

“We know that we all possess knowledge.[a] Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. 3But the man who loves God is known by God.” ā€“ 1 Corinthians 8:1b-3

“In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.” ā€“ 1 Corinthians 11:17-19

Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. ā€“ Proverbs 3:5

Again, this is not to deny the value of knowledge (which is clearly affirmed elsewhere in Scripture). Rather, it is remind us of the danger of trusting in our own knowledge. Instead, we need to submit everything (including our love of learning) to the larger purposes of God. And that means ensuring our educational pedagogy reflects true Biblical values, rather than merely our Western cultural predispositions.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.