Note: Paul Williams will be a featured speaker at Karam Forum 2021, taking place in Los Angeles on Jan. 5-6, alongside Mark Labberton, Darrell Bock and many more. This article has been adapted from our original newsletter coverage of his address at an Oikonomia Network event.
Paul Williams, now the head of the Bible Society in the UK, gave a seminal talk on the paradigm of theological education to the Oikonomia Network’s annual faculty retreat in 2016. You can listen to the full talk here, and view the slides from the talk here.
Williams framed his talk with the topic of hermeneutics. The Bible presents an integrated picture of faith and work, so what does the church’s continual disconnect between the two imply about how theological education is reading the Bible and teaching the Bible to be read? Where is the breakdown occurring between the Bible’s integrated picture of faith, work and life, and the fragmented lives of many American Christians?
1. Problems with the Current Paradigm for Theological Education: Scholastic and Clerical
The first problematic feature of theological education, Williams said, is its scholastic nature. Institutions of theological education have mimicked the values of the modern secular university, which emerged from the 19th century German model of education. This partially results from insecurity and desire to appear credible. It has formed theological education around values that are antithetical to the Christian tradition.
Williams stated that the scholastic paradigm leads to hyper-specialization, resulting in the loss of an education formed around an integrated whole. The career track for professors seeking tenure create and reinforce this. Research, training, getting published in peer-reviewed journals and being hired all require specialization. The scholastic paradigm also promotes individualism in how learning is understood. This is particularly evident in the way most classroom pedagogies work, and the prioritization of consumer choice (students choosing what they will study) by most educational institutions. The scholastic model also tends to de-contextualize learning. A student is seen as a tabula rasa who downloads content from an expert.
Williams cited the work of Henri Nouwen to argue that scholastic pedagogy does violence to our humanity, as the culture of learning operates as an educational factory. He also pointed out that many Christian educators are grieved by students who are largely motivated to get a degree as part of a career track in church leadership, yet the prevailing educational model encourages this mindset.
The second problematic portion of the current theological education paradigm is its clerical nature. Influenced by the 19th century idea of scholar-priest, the clerical paradigm results in an education that is heavy on biblical and theological content, with a limited range of practical training. It focuses on preaching and teaching and what Williams called “mediating transitional and sacramental moments” – the baptisms, marriages, funerals and communion that take place in the gathered church.
The clerical educational model presumes the focus of the church is almost completely inward, on the gathered community. This form of education assumes that churches already exist, is full of tithe-payers, and that what the ecclesial community needs is a theologian-in-residence. The clerical model deemphasizes church planting, the missional context of Western culture and knowing what it involves to disciple and equip a congregation as the scattered church in the world.
The scholastic and clerical model of theological education is a Christendom paradigm. This paradigm is rooted in Enlightenment modernity and assumes cultural Christianity. It prepares students for a world that doesn’t exist.
2. What Is the Bible?
Williams then went on to unpack how the scholastic and clerical paradigm trains students to view and interpret the Bible. It views the Bible as a pietistic tool; a way of accessing our inward experience and connection with God. It leaves readers prone to over-spiritualizing the text. Priest and academic Anthony Thiselton argues that it ends up “reducing the text to a docetic system of signifiers.” Texts are not understood to involve actual flesh and blood humans, but are instead understood in non-historical and non-incarnational ways. For example, we tend to spiritualize the exodus as a symbol of liberation from sin, deemphasizing it as a historical event in which people were liberated, not from sin in the abstract, but from slavery in particular.
Due to its hyper-specialization, scholasticism detaches the Bible from other bodies of knowledge. The study of theology and Scripture is cut off from other domains of knowledge – the sciences, arts and humanities. Theology should play an integrating role, bringing order and holistic integration to human knowledge.
According to Williams, clericalism and scholasticism result in “lay Christians find[ing] their experience of the text disconnected from life in the world.” This disconnect leads them to adopt problematic strategies in an attempt to deal with this disconnect. They spiritualize the content. They see the Bible as nothing more than a compendium of right answers. They engage in hyper-subjective interpretations, asking only: What does the Bible mean to me?
Furthermore, the clerical and scholastic mindset only understands biblical authority in propositional statements. Readers look for instructions or commands and miss how non-propositional biblical authority works. Williams contended that while some of the bible is propositional, a lot of it takes the form of other genres. For example, the authority of the wisdom literature does not come from what it is telling you to do, but because of the insight it has into the truth of reality. Narrative is authoritative in the way it shapes our imagination.
What we think the Bible is determines our goals in reading it. If we view the Bible as a pietistic text, or nothing more than a guide to life, that will distort how we approach the text.
3. Who Is the Bible’s Audience?
What is the implication of this educational paradigm on who we understand the audience of Scripture to be? The clerical answer is that the Bible is for Christians. It addresses the private, inner life and not the public, outward life. Scholasticism sees the text as the domain of specialists, asserting it is only understandable if you have the right training.
Williams stated that these two paradigms lead lay people to feel disempowered and question whether God can speak to them through his Word. Additionally, it becomes difficult to relate the text to matters outside the believing community; most Christians don’t see how the Bible relates to contemporary discourse. A privatized Bible leads to a loss of confidence in the Bible’s relevance and power, and reinforces the culture’s sacred-secular dualism.
In this context, church leaders posture themselves as “Bible answer gurus”, but still see very little deep transformation in their congregations. The domain where their teaching and preaching can land is very narrow. Williams recounted how a Made to Flourish pastor in his virtual workshop stated: “We’ve been trained to be theologians-in-residence and to lead in our expertise in Bible and theology.”
Williams suggested that if we want a robust theology of different areas of life – such as communal regeneration, economic systems or human rights law – it will be those who work in those fields who will form that theology. They are the ones who are equipped to do it, and if they don’t feel equipped to read and apply the Bible, the church will miss out on those theologies.
4. What is the Context for Reading the Bible?
What is the implied context in which Christians are reading the Bible? Clericalism implies that the Bible is read in your quiet time at home, and only applies to your inner life and inner-church affairs. Scholasticism holds that the Bible is to be read in a Bible study group, expounded upon in a Sunday sermon or taught in a seminary class. Williams said these contexts for reading aren’t wrong, but they are all private, personal and church-centered.
The Bible is always a way to encounter God’s transformative power, but Williams articulated how these interpretive frameworks can denude it to the point where it no longer affects our behavior. He said: “We become a learning community but never a missional community. Never a community of intent and not a publicly witnessing community that embodies the text.” As another Made to Flourish respondent said: “Many of the people in my congregation are trying to apply the Bible to their relationships at work but not to the performance of their actual job.”
The scholastic paradigm especially emphasizes the cultural distance between the text and our current cultural context, leading Christians to read the Bible, but not read the culture. The Bible is seen as removed from daily life, which is dangerous because: “A fragmented Bible is very easily absorbed by the competing narratives of our culture.” When it is understood as only addressing individuals or is only accessible by experts, by default, “the larger context of our workplaces, neighborhoods and communities are governed by the stories of the mainstream culture.” We can believe that Christ is Lord of places, but we have no methodology for figuring out what Christ’s Lordship mean in those places. As a result, Christians and their understanding of the Bible are overwhelmed by the narratives of the dominant culture.
5. A New Paradigm for Theological Education: Ecclesial and Missional
Williams recounted how in his Made to Flourish workshop there was a great deal of excitement regarding Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen’s summarization of the big story, the metanarrative of Scripture, in The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story. As a group they discussed how this story is not only present at Scripture’s macro level, but it appears throughout specific biblical moments and is helpful for how to read and preach. Yet for the pastors and their congregations, this concept of an integrating story was completely new.
A grasp of this larger story of Scripture provides the foundation for an ecclesial and missional paradigm of theological education. What does this paradigm imply for how we understand the Bible, its audience and the context in which it is read? Williams said the text will be understood “as the unique story that reveals the meaning of cosmic history, creation and human agency that has been entrusted to the church for the academy and not the other way around.”
Instead of mastery of certain interpretive techniques, this understand of Scripture emphasizes listening well and trusting that God addresses all of life through the Scriptures. This establishes a posture of epistemic humility and confidence for the believing community. This posture of humble listening to the text is vital in our current cultural context, and allows us to be open to hear from the other. And if the text is “God’s love letter to all of humanity,” there is an epistemic confidence that we will hear God through the text. This is a proper confidence, a confidence that relies on a relationship with God, not in our mastery of an interpretive technique.
When we read the Bible this way, we are also reading ourselves and our culture. The text teaches us about more than just church life. It addresses us and our understanding of the world. This means that faithfully training church leaders means forming them as whole-life disciplers, because the text addresses both the scattered and the gathered church.
A missional paradigm means the text is going to be presented as the integrating center for knowledge. Through this, theology recovers its place as the source of coherence for other disciplines, leading Christian educators to draw more upon the expertise of Christians in other fields. If the audience of Scripture is understood as all humanity, not just Christians, the Bible opens up a dialogue with all society and all cultures and subcultures. This shifts the pedagogy of theological education from violent (doing violence to our humanity) to redemptive. Because if we believe that every aspect of culture can express the image of God – from investment banking to teenage culture -then we will expect to find God at work in every area of life and knowledge.
Hence, the Bible is to be read in every context, in the church, the world and even at work. This doesn’t mean simply putting a Bible on your desk, but when you are presented with a problem at work, the Bible is relevant for the issue at hand. Christians need to become adept at cross-cultural communication and translating their faith into contexts outside the church. Church leaders need to be formed to lead and equip for these activities. We don’t live in Christendom anymore, and Christian education must equip the church for cross-cultural mission and translation:
We need to move to a post-Christendom paradigm for theological education, rooted not in Enlightenment modernity, but in epistemic humility and a proper confidence. This paradigm assumes the church is in exile – not in a privileged place of power at the center of things – but an alternative society sent into the world with the story of God to tell for the blessing of all the nations.
This is a model in which the gathered and scattered church become mature only when they are in unity, when they listen to one another. The pastor cannot possibly become an expert in all different areas of work, and he or she doesn’t need to be. Yet pastors do need to be in dialogue with those who are in those arenas.
Williams then introduced an article by Perry Shaw, “The Missional-Ecclesial Leadership Vision of the Early Church.” In this article, Shaw shares the story of a seminary in Lebanon, where pastors are educated for a context very different from the West. The missional context of these churches has led the seminary to realize it cannot afford a self-indulgent curriculum. The curriculum has to deal with the cultural context they are in and the church’s missional call within it.
Williams ended by stating his concern that many in the theological academy do not realize they are standing on a “burning platform.” He proposed that the resources of theological education in the developing world – cross-cultural contextualization and translation skills – will help Western theological education move away from its scholastic and clerical pedagogy into a missional and ecclesial one.