Illustrations by Paul Wearing
In The Hope of the Gospel: Theological Education and the Next Evangelicalism (2022), author Mark Young, Ph.D., explores the ways evangelicalism has lost its identity. The president of Denver Seminary, Young writes that seminaries can help revitalize the mission that once fueled and unified the Evangelical Movement. Parts of this essay – the sixth in In Trust magazine’s partnership with the Theological Education Between the Times project, based at Candler School of Theology at Emory University and funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. – are taken from Young’s book.
I still believe in theological education. And I’ve been at it a long time. Now, more than ever, I believe that personally meaningful, richly spiritual, powerfully formative, prophetically courageous, missionally focused, and hope-drenched theological education is absolutely necessary for the Church to thrive in the future. You likely share that conviction. Yet, the leadership challenges created by the difficult institutional realities that most schools face temper our hope that such theological education is even possible in these days.
The need for change in theological education today cannot be denied. But change is not new in theological education. Institutional forms and educational practice have adapted to new contextual realities throughout the years, sometimes with a modicum of pace but more frequently at glacial speed. That won’t work anymore. A sense of urgency drives most of the change in theological schools today. It comes from the sincere concern that many schools simply will not survive, much less fulfill their historical missions, unless they change in ways that increase enrollment to meet the demands of tuition-based financial models.
Evangelical theological schools are especially vulnerable to this threat. Since the majority of our schools lack sufficient long-term investments to fund operations, many of us have been forced to make dramatic changes to program content and delivery, marketing and recruitment strategies, and faculty roles and responsibilities in order to increase enrollment and tuition revenue. A fellow evangelical seminary president described the last five years as a period of “frenzied change.”
I sometimes fear that change has become an idol for theological educators, a 21st century Molech ( Jer. 32:35) that promises more than it delivers and demands more than it gives in return. Instead of being linear, organized, and progressive, change is often serpentine, frequently messy, and sometimes regressive. Change is not theological education’s deliverer, but it must be an educator’s constant companion and conversation partner. It is not worthy of our adoration, but it does demand our attention. Though institutional change will not meet all of our challenges, it may assuage our fears for a while (and keep the doors open and the lights on).
I often wonder, however, if the change described above is enough. I worry that the demands of institutional leadership often seem to blind us to the reality that theological education is first and foremost a theological enterprise. If we don’t ground our leadership and vision for the future of our institutions theologically, we risk “being tossed and blown about by every wind” (Eph. 4:14) of new strategy and trendy innovation.
Whether explicitly or tacitly, a community’s shared theological convictions shape the vision, strategies, structures, and practices of theological education. The shared convictions that imbue educational practice and forms are not necessarily found in the formal creeds and doctrinal statements that undergird our religious form of identity politics. Theological grounding for educational practice is seldom accomplished through communal reaffirmations of a confessional statement, no matter how tightly formulated and policed such doctrinal compliance may be by institutional governance, denominational authorities, and constituent dollars. That’s not to say that formal statements are irrelevant. Indeed, they are an evangelical school’s bona fides. Moreover, they often shape the school’s curricular content, program structures, and educational resourcing, particularly faculty deployment.
The shared theological convictions that are most formative in shaping educational practice, however, are much more visceral, instinctual, and deeply valued than many of the affirmations that make up the theological distinctions and identities of various schools. These convictions are immanent: They bring the eternal into the present. They are incarnate: They usher the transcendent into the gritty realities of human experience. And they must not change lest our work become vacant and vapid.
Change is not theological education’s deliverer, but it must be an educator’s constant companion and conversation partner.
The theological convictions that shape educational practice lie in a community’s sense of God’s engagement in the world and their participation as God’s people in that engagement. The first question theological educators need to ask themselves is, “What theological language connects my understanding of God’s purpose and engagement in the world with the gritty realities of human experience?” And the second, although much less noble-sounding question, is just as important, “When the life-draining financial reports, soul-numbing committee meetings, mind-boggling academic trivialities, and head-shaking institutional pettinesses are momentarily silenced in my heart, what matters most to me as a theological educator?”
For me, three words come to mind: gospel, redemption, and hope. The gospel is the “good news” that God has intervened in human history in the person of his Son to address the three enemies that have plagued all of humanity since our unfortunate encounter with the serpent in the Garden — sin, death, and evil. That’s good news, really good news. Redemption describes how God is resolving those three problems. The brokenness of this world does not remain unchallenged; it will not last forever. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God intervenes on humanity’s behalf, rescues us from that which holds us in bondage, and restores us to relationship with Himself. The good news of redemption brings hope to humanity.
Hope is the gospel made immanent, incarnate, and certain. It is the experience of God’s redemptive engagement in human history in a most intimate, vulnerable, and meaningful way. Hope is the personal and communal experience of the gospel of redemption that lies at the center of our theology and our educational practice.
For theological education to remain evangelical in this time of intense pressure for change in institutional forms and educational practice, the enduring ground and frame of the enterprise must remain the hope of redemption. That’s why I believe the identity and mission of evangelical theological education springs from the reality and promise of redemption, what the Apostle Paul calls “the hope of the gospel” (Col. 1:23).
The power of hope lies in its ability to help us navigate present circumstances with a vision of a better future. It fills the gap in our souls between what is true now and what we want to be true in the future. Hope gives us permission to aspire to something better and it animates us to act in ways that move us closer to that “better.”
Hope grounds and drives education. Most adult learners carry an image of their future deemed better than their present and expect education to create a pathway toward the realization of that image. Exemplary teaching informs, equips, and inspires students to keep pursuing their vision of a future they do not currently experience. Such is my personal testimony.
As a child with deep roots in Appalachia, my vision of the future was bounded by a family with no history of higher education and a rather geographically sequestered culture that placed little value on education. For so many in that beautiful and culturally rich region, any vision of the future stopped at the rims of the topographical and cultural “hollers” where my family lived.
Neither of my parents attended college. My dad was the first in his family to go to high school. At their insistence and with their financial help, however, I attended an underfunded regional public university 25 miles from our home. With minimal library holdings, little industry or government funding for research, and no academic reputation to attract and retain top scholars, that university was woefully short on resources. But it also was long on hope. For those who dared to envision a future beyond the “holler,” it promised a pathway to that end. At that university, I fell in love with learning and surrendered to the abiding power of hope in education.
Although I could not see the future, I knew that its contours must include a life of learning, teaching, and instilling hope in the lives of those who dared to envision a future different than their present.
During those years, I also strengthened my faith in Christ and fervently embraced the hope of the gospel. Whereas education helped form a vision of my personal future, the gospel of Christ gave me a vision of a cosmic future. Looking back on those years, I have no doubt that I made a lifelong faith commitment to both education and the gospel because they both touched the deep chord of hope residing in my soul. Both promised a better future for me personally and both demanded of me the pursuit of a better future for others. Hope spawned a dual calling as educator and minister of the gospel that has defined me for over 40 years. That’s why hope frames my understanding of the identity and mission of evangelical theological education.
It also frames my understanding and experience of institutional leadership. When a leader can no longer envision a better future for the enterprise, leadership becomes little more than palliative care. Hope inspires change; hopelessness makes change meaningless. The hope of the gospel, our expectation that Christ’s redemptive work will be fully and finally realized, provides for us a beautiful and powerful motivation to keep pressing forward as a leader toward a vision of the future that is better than our present.
For more about Dr. Young visit denverseminary.edu