The Purpose of Theological Education

I have personally heard Dennis P. Hollinger, the president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, quotes the famous saying twice: “As goes the seminary, so goes the church.”[1] Theological education has a huge impact on the church. Therefore it is crucial for theological educators to always bear the correct purpose of theological education in mind. This paper is a study and reflection on the purpose of theological education and how we should do it based on our understanding of it.[2]

Historical Review

Graham Cheesman claims that spiritual formation has almost always been a central concern and strength of the evangelical tradition.[3] He argues that it is rooted in the Reformation, the Pietist tradition and the revival/revivalist tradition.[4] However, research of other scholars shows that the picture might be more complicated.

David Kelsey in his Between Athens and Berlin points out that it has been a theological debate on “what is the nature and purpose of specifically theological education.” Athens school focuses on the formation of the soul, while Berlin school emphasizes on research. In addition to these two models Brian Edgar, professor of Asbury Theological Seminary, adds two more: Jerusalem and Geneva. Jerusalem model is especially interested in mission as its goal. Geneva model sets the goal to “know God through the use of the creeds and the confessions, the means of grace and the general traditions that are utilized by a particular faith community.”[5]

A former Yale University research associate Hugh Hartshorne wrote an article “What is Theological Education,” in which he discussed the content of theological education.[6] He states that theology at first “meant teaching of the doctrines of the church. But it quickly expanded to include various other subjects, including even sermon-making and church administration.” In his opinion, the pattern of theological education has undergone unconscious adjustment because of the pressures from the church, because “a school whose graduates were unacceptable to the churches would not long continue to have students.” He maintains that it was generally agreed that “it was the present purpose of the seminaries to help students gain not only adequate mastery of the traditional subject matter but also a knowledge of human nature and social conditions, and to develop in them skill in preaching, pastoral work, and personal evangelism.” He also points out that “perhaps the weakest point in theological education from a functional standpoint is its provision for the acquisition of professional skills.”[7]

William A. Brown surveyed a century of theological education before 1926 and concluded that despite the differences among the seminaries, the subjects studied in the middle of the second quarter of the nineteenth century were the same: the biblical languages, exegesis, systematic theology, and a smattering of homiletics.[8] The fourfold pattern of the theological curriculum was introduced by the faculty members from the first seminaries (Andover, Princeton) who went to Germany and learned from there.[9]

The content (tasks) of theological education is inseparable from its purpose. The purpose decides the content, and the content serves the purpose. From the curriculum mentioned above we can see that spiritual formation is not explicitly mentioned. Brian Edgar notes that the Berlin/vocational model tends to “leave personal, moral, spiritual development in the background.”[10] However, in practice it can be easily neglected. In his speech at the first Chinese seminarian conference Dr. Hollinger uses three components, the head, the heart and the hands, to represent thought, passion and action respectively. Historically, he notes, Christians tend to go toward one end. Seminaries tend to draw people who are head oriented. Most seminary professors are oriented to the head (working with ideas, concepts). He also mentioned that there was little attention given to spiritual formation in the past. In 1930s, there was no concept of spiritual formation, and that impacted the church.

According to Edward Farley, it was under the influence of the Enlightenment. The purpose of theological education as a way of living has been replaced by the study of theology as a subject. It happened with the birth of modern universities at the opening of the nineteenth century. In his opinion, “present-day theological schools simply cannot provide theological education.”[11] Therefore, it is pivotal to recover the nature and goal of theological education.

Spiritual Formation as the Purpose of Theological Education

Gary A. Parrett defines Christian education as: “To teach is to come alongside another, in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the company of the faithful, to seek an encounter together with the Truth; taking aim to perceive it more clearly (perception), consider it more critically (cognition), embrace it more passionately (affection), obey it more faithfully (behavior), and embody it with greater integrity.”[12] It has several dimensions. Christian education involves heart, mind and hands components of the individuals. In other words, the person as a whole is involved. It should be done in a community within the community of the believers. It is personal encountering with the Truth, the Word of God. And it is done with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Christian education essentially is not passing on knowledge, but about people and their relationship with God. For this reason, academic ability is not the most important qualification. A teacher of the Faith can be said to be a sort of living Torah.[13] They do not only familiarize themselves with the Word of God, but also live out the Word. They need to have good relationship with God to lead the students close to God. According to Acts 20:28, Richard Baxter warns the pastors to take heed to themselves before they take care of the people they are responsible for.[14] Marva Dawn considers daily immersion in the Word and prayer as the most important component required for a pastoral heart.[15] She alerts that young people will reject a Christianity that is hypocritical.[16] Relationship requires relationship. A teacher who does not have personal relationship with God can hardly draw people to God. This should also be held true for theological educators. As Elizabeth Conde-Frazier writes, “As a Christian educator, I realize that transformational teaching needs to make use of personal experience. This is because transformation entails bringing together affective and cognitive dimensions.”[17] Theological education is not like courses such as science, engineering, mathematics in which people who are morally corrupted can still make great achievements with their gifted intelligence.

Community is essential to Christian education. The Bible emphasizes the importance of teaching God’s Word to children (Deut 6:7). Gary Parrett argues that parents are to be the key players in teaching.[18] And on the other hand, as Marva Dawn points out, “it is impossible for parents to raise Christian children alone.”[19] Both church and home are important settings for Christians to grow in faith. How can the future ministers learn the importance of community? Seminary should be the place for them to enjoy and to learn. Jackson W. Carroll et al in the book Being There conclude that “The culture of educational institutions plays a powerful role in how students are actually shaped;” “faculty dominate the students’ experience of their school;” and “formative education requires prolonged and intensive exposure to an educational institution.”[20] According to these, distance learning programs are not effective in shaping students, because it is not easy to build a culture. It is helpful for those who cannot become full time students due to the distance, finance, and ministry etc. But it should not replace the traditional way of education.

God’s Word is the center of theological education. It is not to be studied as merely an object. The primary purpose of studying God’s Word is to encounter it in our lives, and let the Word of God shape us. The second purpose is to teach the students so that they can teach in their ministry field (2 Tim 2:2). If we emphasize solely on academic training, the Bible becomes an object of research rather than “the Living Word of God.” If we primarily target at training students to teach, the danger is that if the students are not spiritually mature, their ministry can be very much ministry driven. They tend to do ministry like running a business rather than building relationship with God and people.

Perhaps the most important factor to consider is the Holy Spirit. If we believe the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, if we believe the Holy Spirit is the Teacher to lead us into the Truth, if we believe only the Holy Spirit can change the heart of people, how would it affect theological education? One thing is prayer. We need to take more time to pray. It is not only a ritual we practice before we start each class. It is the key. It is very possible that students may learn some knowledge in the classroom, but their lives are not changed at all. Teachers and future teachers must learn that we cannot change people’s heart unless the Holy Spirit works. We need to open ourselves in prayer, to ask the Holy Spirit work in us. Therefore prayer is important, both private and public.

The challenge for prayer sometimes is the matter of balance. Most western seminaries take prayer meeting as optional. They do not want to fall into the pit of legalism by taking prayer meeting as mandatory. Asian seminaries on the other hand thinking that students will not automatically give enough attention to prayer, take prayer meeting as mandatory. They believe that although it could be legalistic to those students who do not know how to pray, they will eventually learn to pray by praying.

The focus of teaching ministry in church is to form the Christians to be Christlike (Gal 4:19). It is formation rather than merely passing on biblical and theological knowledge. Seminary as a place to train church leaders should not deviate from that purpose as well. Seminaries at graduate level might assume that the incoming students are spiritually mature enough and being familiar enough with the Bible, ready for academic training. But the reality contradicts the assumption. Jack Fitzmier, the vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean Professor of American Religious History at the Claremont School of Theology, reveals that an appalling number of the new students have never read the Old Testament entire.[21] Reading the Bible several times does not automatically make the person spiritually mature. But how can the students be spiritually mature if they haven’t read the Bible once (of course there could be exceptions, such as those people in places where the Bible is not accessible for variety of reasons)?

Some schools may admit that students do need spiritual care, but not all. John Frame in his article reveals that some schools do not take spiritual formation as their main focus. Those schools claim that “training in spiritual character was the work of the church, not of academic institutions; it was illegitimate, therefore, for the seminary to try to take over the work of the church by introducing spiritual nurture into its curriculum.”[22]

I think this is too idealistic. Like most seminaries, the church also tends to assume that seminary students are spiritually mature enough as that they should be church leaders. They should take care of others rather than being taken care of. I think both the seminary and the church should discard this assumption. We need to face the reality. More and more students come without much Biblical knowledge and church life. They are neither spiritually mature. Seminary is the place for them to grow spiritually before they enter full time ministry, or they would be spiritually drained out quickly. Spiritual formation should be the main purpose of Christian education. When we separate spiritual formation from biblical training, Christian education will inevitably fail to fulfill its purpose.

This, however, is not to say that knowledge is not important. We need to know the Word of God so that we may know what kind person we should be. We need to know what Christlikeness means so that we know what kind of formation should Christian formation be. For example, the understanding of biblical teaching on gay relationship and women’s role in the church will greatly affect the church. The understanding of Ephesians 4:1-16 leads R. Paul Stevens to conclude that there should be no fundamental difference between the clergy and the laity, for both are called by God. Pastors are not more called than the other people.[23] It would be extremely helpful if the students can distinguish what the Bible clearly teaches and what the Bible is ambiguous about, and which doctrines are essential and which are less important.

Professional Training as the Purpose of Theological Education

As a place to prepare students for ministry in order to help the church to fulfill its mission, seminary has other tasks as well. Therefore, before we talk about seminary education, it is helpful to know the mission of the church.

We start with more general questions: Why are we in the world? What is the purpose of our lives? Both the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechism begin with the question: What is the chief and highest end of man? The answer is “to glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him forever.” How, then, do we glorify God and enjoy Him? We glorify God through worship, through obeying His Word, and through bringing more people to do so. From this derives the three basic tasks of the church: worship, Christian formation (teaching) and outreach (evangelism). These ministries are all primarily relational. The existence of the seminary is to help the church to realize its purposes. Seminaries should not exclusively focus on only one aspect and neglect the others. This is important, because most seminary graduates will become ministers. When they enter ministry field, they will apply in their ministry what they have learned from the seminaries.

Firstly, they need to learn the nature of worship, Christian formation and outreach. Secondly, they need to know how to do them. Students may learn the “how to” by observing in their churches, but they may not know why the church does it in that way. Does it have theological significance? It is very important for the students to learn the “why” and then the “how.” When they become ministers, they can help people to understand what they are doing in worship.

As soon as the students begin pastoral ministry, there works will involve all aspects of the church life. They need to organize meetings, lead people in worship, preach sermons, counsel congregations and do evangelism. They also need to perform baptism, the Lords Supper, wedding ceremonies and funerals etc. And, they also need to train people in the church so that they can also serve together.

These courses are not to be considered as accommodation to the church’s need so that the church would send more students to the seminary. In other words, the adjustment is not to be because of the pressure from the church, as Hugh Hartshorne observes.[24] Seminary does not exist for its own. It exists to help the church. Although doing the same thing, the motivation can be quite different.


The role of the seminary is to help the church to fulfill its mission. Therefore, theological education at seminary should never lose the focus on spiritual formation. The students’ relationship with God would deeply impact the spirituality of the people they are going to serve. The seminary should not assume that the students are spiritually mature, but to help the students to grow toward Christlikeness.

It has to be acknowledged that perhaps three years of training is too short for learning all the needed professional skills for pastoral ministry and gaining thorough knowledge about the Bible, not to mention spiritual formation. There is limitation in seminary trainings. Nevertheless, we should try best to help the students to know God and to serve people, not just to know about God.

[1] One occasion was a celebration evening with the friends of the seminary in the Alumni Hall of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary Hamilton Campus on June 7, 2013. This saying was the main idea of his speech. The other occasion was the first gathering of the Chinese seminary students in the North America. The speech was delivered in the Alumni Hall as well on May 26, 2014.

[2] “Nature” and “purpose” sometimes can be used interchangeably.

[3] Graham Cheesman, “The Spiritual Formation of Students – a Personal Selection from the Literature,” accessed May 15, 2014,

[4] Graham Cheesman, “A History of Spiritual Formation in Evangelical Theological Education,” accessed May 15, 2014,

[5] Brian Edgar, “The Theology of Theological Education,” Evangelical Review of Theology 29, no. 3 (2005): 208–17.

[6] Hugh Hartshorne, “What Is Theological Education?,” The Journal of Religion 26, no. 4 (1946): 235–42.

[7] Ibid., 241.

[8] William Adams Brown, “A Century of Theological Education and After,” The Journal of Religion 6, no. 4 (1926): 368.

[9] Edward Farley, Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education (Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress Press, 1983), 10.

[10] Brian Edgar, “The Theology of Theological Education.”

[11] Farley, Theologia, 14.

[12] Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, S. Steve Kang, and Gary A. Parrett, A Many Colored Kingdom: Multicultural Dynamics for Spiritual Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 277.

[13] Gary A. Parrett, Teaching the Faith, Forming the Faithful: A Biblical Vision for Education in the Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009), 151.

[14] Richard Baxter, “The Reformed Pastor,” 1656,

[15] Marva J. Dawn, Is It a Lost Cause?: Having the Heart of God for the Church’s Children (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub, 1997), 92.

[16] Ibid., 94.

[17] Conde-Frazier, Kang, and Parrett, A Many Colored Kingdom, 198.

[18] Parrett, Teaching the Faith, Forming the Faithful, 152.

[19] Dawn, Is It a Lost Cause?, 104.

[20] Jackson W. Carroll et al., Being There: Culture and Formation in Two Theological Schools, Religion in America Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 270–74.

[21] Jack Fitzmier, “The Aims and Purposes Literature: Notes From the Field,” April 12, 2004, 15,

[22] John M. Frame, “Proposal for a New Seminary,” accessed June 25, 2014, John Frames targets at the view that seminary offers mainly academic training. Students should find a church for spiritual formation. People who hold this view have a “broader” picture of the kingdom, where seminary focuses on academic training, and church the spiritual formation.

[23] R. Paul Stevens, Liberating the Laity: Equipping All the Saints for Ministry (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1985), 29.

[24] Hartshorne, “What Is Theological Education?,” 236.