Reflections on 40 years in theological education

The plan is that I will be retiring from Houston Baptist University in a few weeks. This is not retirement to a rocking chair, but more like retirement to church ministry: I plan to be very involved in church ministry, including formation programs for clergy, I will do some limited teaching for theological institutions, and, of course, I have writing and editing project, but with respect to HBU and with respect to funding it will be retirement. I am already quite excited about this new phase of life, this new adventure. Ordination 236 Recessional starting DSC_0236

However, this shift of focus gives me a chance to reflect on the changes that I have seen in university-level theological education over the 40+ years that such education has been my major focus. Please note that none of what I write is specifically about Houston Baptist University; I have made my own observations in many institutions and also read a number of articles in such publications as the Chronicle of Higher Education. These changes are far bigger than one institution in Houston, Texas.
TSM Campus
First, there has been a shift from the collegial model to the business model. When I entered theological education the ideal of the college had not yet faded. Faculty of whatever rank were mostly full time. The faculty meeting was where the business of the theological institution got done, often with faculty also serving various official capacities such as dean, registrar, and the like (at least in smaller institutions). In the larger institutions, of course, it was the senior faculty, members of a faculty senate, who had the real authority. Now the model has, for the most part, changed. To a large extent theological institutions or departments of institutions are in the education business. There is a board who holds a CEO accountable for reaching the agreed-upon goals of the institution. The CEO directs the business through various officers. Faculty committees exist, but usually to advise those who run the business or to implement their policies.

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That They All May Be One

It is very clear from John 17 that Jesus intended his church to be one. Indeed, that is also a theme in Paul. There is not to be a Jewish-Christian people of God and a Gentile-Christian people of God, but one people of God, for all barriers have been removed (see, among other places, Eph 2). But Jesus made it clear that this unity is to be observable. In fact, this unity will indicate to “the world” that God really sent Jesus and will lead to the world believing. If they cannot see it, they cannot believe it. Therefore our thousands of denominations are not just a scandal, but an offense against the spreading of the good news. Yet, granted that this is true, what is someone to do about  it? Let me suggest three hopeful signs that even when we may feel helpless, God is at work doing himself what we have not managed to do (indeed, what we have often messed up).

First, there is the relatively recent news about Pope Francis’ reaching out to the Orthodox, taking steps towards bridging a 1000 year division. This is not new for this pope. He was involved in such bridging before he became pope. But it looks like significant steps forward are being taken. One event spurring these steps on is the persecution of Christians of all types in Syria and Iraq, among other places. Standing together is not a luxury in such a situation.

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What does the King have to do with an election?

The minor election cycle (i.e. the two-yearly) is barely over and the major one (four-yearly) has started ramping up so that we have something to think about for the next two years. Just after the election I happened to be driving across the city with news radio on to alert me to traffic problems to avoid. It was interesting to hear both Republican and Democrats speaking about their plans to “get something done” in the next Congress, as well as to learn that those Democrats and Republicans were elected with the lowest percentage voter turnout since the early 1940’s. Each side was talking about its priorities and, not surprisingly, there was no mention of themes that had been big during the election especially when addressing religious groups: abortion and/or reproductive rights, marriage, whether defense of or equality of, moral issues of any type. 

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Independence Day Gen 3 and Matt 11

Last Friday was, of course, Independence Day. I live on the edge of a small city in Texas, so eidola (images) were as much in evidence as Herms on the streets of ancient Corinth. Every railing and awning in the city park was festooned with red, white, and blue, the hillocks were painted with patriotic slogans and pictures, and along the streets many homes put out their own eidolon while the city supplied them for the streets along which the solemn procession would take. July 4But what type of worship is taking place? What is there to celebrate anyway? That is indeed the question.

You Never Graduate – Reflections on Graduation

I missed HBU graduation yesterday, for before I had realized the implications of the new calendar (perhaps before it was published) I had agreed to teach in an intensive bi-vocational clergy training program, the Iona School for Ministry. So I spent the day talking about the Gospel of John while students I loved were graduating. In our Department of Theology we saw students I know graduate from each of our programs, both MATS and BA, and even from the MABL program that used to be ours, but now is part of the new Department of Classics and Biblical Languages (it has moved up higher!). Each is a unique individual with differing gifts. most have bi-vocational experience (working and being involved in ministry while studying). This may be the shape of much of the church to come in that most churches are small and the bi-vocational minister or, even better, team of ministers, may be their best mode of existence. This is particularly true of churches that are pastorally strong and that because of that tend to stay small. (In my experience large church pastors tend to be leaders, communicators, and vision casters more than pastors, although there is usually someone pastoral on the staff.) And this is the way that churches start, so maybe some of this crew of graduates may end up as church planters. And, of course, some may go on to the new scholars who replace their professors who are growing older. Happy is the retiree who sees a former student doing a good job in the position he or she has vacated. Finally, some may lean harder on their “secular” vocational side and become “marketplace ministers” – serving God by thinking and living Christianly within a working situation that is not explicitly Christian. As I reflected on each of the graduates, I was thankful for the astounding range of possibilities the had to do good for Jesus the Anointed One and his Church.

But there is another reflection that was stimulated in me this weekend, and that was that graduation is not the ending, but the beginning of learning. If we faculty have done our jobs, we have sent people out on a life-trajectory of learning so that in 10 or 20 years most of what they know they will have learned after graduation day. This came home to me in a practical way when I went to church. The usual minister who led the service I go to (in my church most of the time different ministers lead each service) did not preach on Sunday, for the Ordinary (in essence, the usual minister’s boss) was present. The Ordinary started to preach on a wonderful passage from 1 Peter, then stopped and said that he was intimidated to do so with a 1 Peter scholar in the congregation and, after saying some very nice things about me and my commentary on the letter, actually had me stand. Then he went on and did indeed preach well. That was all very flattering and I am glad that he liked my commentary, but I am more glad that the ideas he liked from it I still agree with. I published that commentary in 1990. And I have gone on learning about 1 Peter (and other parts of the New Testament) since then. I would write it a bit differently today because I have learned more about 1 Peter since I wrote that work. But Eerdmans Publishers has (so far) left it frozen in time while I am not frozen in time. Nor will our students be frozen in time. If they have learned from us well, they will continually learning, continually growing, and continually thinking. In ten or twenty years I do indeed hope that they return and say, not “Thank you for my knowledge,” but “Thank you for giving me a start and pointing out a trajectory of growth for me.” HBU has some new graduates and with good reason the various offices of the university have to consider their education complete. But both my experience and my hope is that in their heart of hearts they never “graduate” but simply transition to another form of life-long learning.

Meditating on Lent

We are just past the middle of Lent, a customary observance that I did not grow up with, but which I now heartily embrace. I admit that people look a bit strangely at one when one talks about fasting. It has not been a major theme in evangelical talk, nor one that plays well. But it is certainly important. What have I learned?

Saving Marriage?

I am teaching Old Testament Survey this term, and when I teach that course I always note that one reason to learn Old Testament is to have a background for reading English literature, which can refer to Old Testament terms and concepts. One text we will study in a couple weeks is  Leviticus 16, the Day of Atonement. The one term I have to explain there is “scapegoat,” since it is so well often used in the English language, even if it might not be included in the translation they are using. I was thinking about that when a blog that I follow referred to this blog post:


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The Problem of Authority: Who Interprets the Bible?

The evangelical movement has always prided itself, as has Protestantism in general in the past, on being Bible-based. The group I grew up in eschewed any creed or doctrinal statement, saying that we just believed the Bible. Other groups have doctrinal statements, but they are studded with Bible verses to show that they are Bible-based. But who says? Which person or group arbitrates what the Bible “really teaches”? After all, for many of the founders of the USA it endorsed slaveholding, and for those on the Mayflower it endorsed the genocide of the indigenous peoples. For one denomination it “proves” that one should organize a church this way, and for another that way. Evangelicals are notoriously fractious with church and denominational splits not uncommon.  Continue reading

Who Speaks for the Church?

The drums of war are beating, the President has asked Congress for support of military action, the Congress is debating. It is 1990, it is 2003, it is 2013. The President is Republican, the President is Democrat. The story in one form or another goes back decades, sometimes with congressional votes involved and sometimes without (e.g. the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when I was in high school). Every President I can remember has been involved in such conflicts, overtly or covertly. We in this USA are a non-partisan warring nation. In these crises and conflicts the President speaks, the Congress speaks, various lobby groups speak, and to some degree the public speaks (if they bother to contact with Senator or Representative), but who speaks for the Church? Who speaks from the perspective of the King of Kings?

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