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Transforming Theological Education

“Whatever the reasons, seminaries are not viewed as civic assets in their communities and beyond…Nor are seminaries widely viewed as educational assets…Some of the seminaries in our group are recognized for their cultural assets…” (Elizabeth Lynn and Barbara Wheeler)

For the past thirty years or so the state of theological education at a global level has been the center of much discussion. And here we are, yet again, attempting to add another bit to the whole debate. But theological education must be reconceived again and again in order for it to remain relevant and on the cutting edge. The purpose of this consultation is to consider how we might go about developing a missional curriculum or a program of study that is infused with missional content, thereby creating a passion for and desire to participate in the missio Dei (God’s mission).

This paper provides a foundational framework to launch the ensuing discussions and workshops and provide some direction, I suspect, for those seminaries desiring to attempt something different. It is not a magical solution or formula that gives us the answers, but what I hope are some pointers to get the ball rolling. I suggest that the seminary must undergo a radical transformation of its self-understanding before it can truly begin to think of developing a missional curriculum. In fact, a reinvention along the lines that are suggested here will demand changes in how curriculum is viewed and developed. But first let us begin with some historical perspective on the place of missions within the theological curriculum.

Some Historical Background

Even though the post fifteenth century Catholic Church had taken on vigorous missionary overtones, theology itself was “thoroughly unmissionary.” With the Protestant Church, matters were even more critical especially when, in 1652, the theological faculty at Wittenberg expressly denied the church’s missionary responsibility and call. This was the age of orthodoxy where theology was not concerned with furthering the missionary cause. David Bosch writes, “Theologians and churchmen were chiefly, if not exclusively, concerned with the cultivation and preservation of pure doctrine.” Theology in its theoretical and practical modes remained completely “parochial and domesticated,” even to the extent of being replicated in the new seminaries of the Third World.

However, the expansion of the missionary enterprise coupled with the establishment of new churches in “mission territories” underscored the need to address this predicament. Stirrings of a mission theology had already emerged in the 17th century with Gisbertus Voetius and later his student Johannes Hoornbeek, both of the Netherlands. Voetius, known for his versatility in all the theological disciplines, sought to outline the “foundations for a theological discussion of the principles and methods of the missionary enterprise.” On his part, Hoornbeek emphasized the value of instructing the students on the “Church’s duty toward the heathen” since not only did it provide new material for dissertations but more importantly because “theological controversies tend to make Christians heathen rather than heathen Christians.” But it was not until and after Friedrich Schleiermacher that missions were viewed seriously enough to warrant some sort of accommodation, inclusion or integration into seminary curricula.

The Accommodation Model

The dominant, fourfold pattern of theological study relegated missions to the outside edges, if not altogether neglecting it. The missionary engagement of the church however ensured that missions could not be ignored. Friedrich Schleiermacher’s answer was to accommodate missions into the field of practical theology, under the discussion of Catechetics (teaching Christian doctrine) thereby leaving the fourfold pattern untouchable. “Conditionally,” he writes, “the theory of missions might also be attached here, one which is as good as completely lacking up to the present time.” Practical theology was considered to be the normative discipline which dealt with how the church was built up in all dimensions, and missiology – being one of these dimensions – was concerned with how the church expanded and grew in missionary situations. This model continues to be in the trend in certain circles. Another dimension of this approach is to convert “missiology into comparative theology, ecumenical studies, Third World theology or world Christianity.” The problem though is that all these subjects are “both narrower and broader” than missiology.

The Inclusion Model

In the inclusion model, missiology was introduced as a theological discipline, standing rightfully on its own. Under the influence of Gustav Warneck, it came to be established as an independent field of study in the University of Halle. Chairs of missiology were established both in the West as well as in the Third World. In this scheme of things the department of Missiology became the theological institution’s “department of foreign affairs”, dealing with the exotic but marginal.  In developing its own “theological” framework, missions came to be regarded as “a science of the missionary, for the missionary.”

In this model, the study of missions is relegated to the “out there,” the “distant country” or someplace far removed from the theologizing of the class room. The danger is that classes on missions or missiology then are viewed as dealing with practical problems faced by missionaries and helping them to develop skills to overcome such difficulties. No real theologizing is done or even thought to be necessary. Both missions and theology are shortchanged here.

The Integration Model

The multidimensional nature of mission led some to employ a third strategy in which the “various dimensions of mission may be taken care of by the various fields of study: biblical, systematic theology, church history, and practical theology.” Essentially, the goal was to discard missiology as a separate discipline altogether and incorporate its various dimensions under the entire rubric of the traditional, fourfold pattern of theological study. While on a superficial level this seems a workable solution, there are inherent deficiencies in it.

David Bosch notes two problems with this model. First, most teachers of other disciplines themselves have no awareness of the missionary element that is inherent in all theology. Second, if there is awareness, they do not have the requisite knowledge needed to incorporate it into their discipline, even less teach it. While Bosch’s pronouncement is evidence of his bias toward missiology, it undoubtedly contains a kernel of truth. The pressing question then is: If mission is hard pressed to fit in with the so called “academic disciplines” then how can it become integral to theological education?  I suggest that the answer lies in what might be called the transformational model of theological education.

A Transformational Approach to Theological Education

In the 2004 Lausanne Forum that met in Thailand, the Issue Group on Effective Theological Education for World Evangelization stated that “Effective education for evangelization, therefore, must be transformational.” The group identified isolation from contextual realities as one of the major challenges that had to be overcome if effective training was to take place. It also noted the tendency of the faculty, students and staff “to live in an environment that is protected from the world as they breathe the rarefied air of theological learning and reflection.” To minimize the danger of producing graduates who are ill-equipped to face the realities and challenges of ministry, the group suggested that “theological colleges and schools need to be in constant communication with local churches.” They concluded that “a greater emphasis on missiology, applied anthropology, and contextualization must be apparent in training.”

It is difficult to disagree with the problem areas that have been delineated. However, the solution lacks potency and depth. To assign missiology, anthropology, or contextualization more space in the curriculum forces us to raise the question of whether mere curriculum change is in itself sufficient in effecting reform within theological education. I would rather suggest that rejuvenated understanding of the mission of the church as transformation must permeate every aspect of the theological education enterprise.

Mission of the Church as Transformation

Shalom, most commonly translated “peace,” in its fullest sense refers to “total well-being,” “wholeness” or “harmony.” In its root meaning, shalom suggests “soundness” and “completeness.” Shalom is more than the “cessation of hostility, and is God’s word for wholeness and goodness and total satisfaction in life.” This is the quality of life Jesus promised when he declared, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). It is also a clear indication that he viewed his mission in terms of bringing in, by his presence and ministry, soundness into the totality of human existence.

Recent theologizing in ecclesiology has led to viewing the nature of the church as “missional.” This descriptor finds its meaning in the missio Dei primarily expressed in Jesus’ life and ministry as well as in the historical trajectory of the life and witness of church beginning in the book of Acts till the present time.

Wilbert Shenk argues that the church in traditional Christendom was essentially non-missional based on the spread of early Christianity as well as on the expressions of “authentic spiritual vitality” through history. He outlines five characteristics of a missional church:

  • An intense desire to witness so that people are liberated;
  • Committed to, but not controlled by, the world;
  • A mission patterned after Jesus’ mission with the redemptive and transforming nature of the cross being central;
  • A keen awareness of the eschaton or the Kingdom to come and;
  • A moving away from “archaic forms” and adapting newer structures to enable effective witness.

Two factors seem to be implied in these. First, that there must be a transformation of one’s view of the very nature of the church. Second, the church is meant to engage with the world and the communities it lives within in such a way that transformation is effected in all areas of life.

A report by the Theological Education Fund declares, “Few needs are more immediately recognized, yet less satisfactorily resolved by a seminary than those concerning its life and worship as a Christian community.” It further states, “Perplexity over the role of the seminary in deepening the corporate vocation of its members is found in every country of the world.”

In a paper presented at a round table on mission and education organized by the International Council on Higher Education at Calcutta, William Dyrness echoes the same concern, albeit a little differently. “The basic challenge,” he notes, “is to give churches resources for them to move toward maturity in Christ. Such maturity means not only more faithful worship and personal discipleship, but also a larger vision of God’s purposes that will allow them to play a role in the necessary development of their countries…” He argues that especially in the non-Western world where the rapid growth of the church does not necessarily translate into a powerful influence on a societal level, “theological education needs to address the life and work – the practices – of the Church and not simply its belief.”

Reconceiving the Seminary as a Transformational Community

The transformation motif is not new by any means. The notion of mission as transformation, as discussed earlier, is one that is slowly finding its way into ecclesiological thinking. Our concern however, is how this notion of transformation applies to a relevant and effective approach to theological education. A basic premise that guides the following suggestions is that to be transformational is to be missional. The transformational approach therefore not only retains the missiological core as an integrating factor, but also enhances it in such a manner that the gap between the expectation and reality is noticeably reduced.

The Seminary as a Worshipping Community

First, regaining the centrality of worship as that which drives all facets of the seminary is crucial to the transformational model. Based on the premise that theological education of necessity must be concerned with not only belief of the church, but also its practice, William Dryness suggests five elements that must be present in any seminary. These are doxology (the practices of worship), koinonia/diakonia (the practices of ministry), witness (the practices of testimony), stewardship (the practices relating to cultivation and gifts of creation) and transformation (redemptive practices). However, Dyrness does not allocate priority to any one of these practices. In the transformational model, I propose that worship must occupy the centerpiece of theological education and therefore must be given primacy.

Worship is integral to the life of the Church universal and by extension to every local expression of it. Beginning with the Old Testament references to the people of God it is abundantly clear that liberation was for the express purpose of worship and service (Exodus 19:1-6). It was a genuine seeking after God that led to a transformed life which in turn was reflected in right relationships with all aspects of God’s creation (Amos 5; Malachi 1). In the New Testament, the life of the early church was characterized by the gathering of Christ’s followers for worship seen in the breaking of bread, study of God’s word and prayer (Acts 2).

In essence what the transformational model/approach proposes is that the seminary community must not merely consider itself to be an academic community – which is the case more often than not – but also view itself as a local church community and allow this awareness to define its vision and purpose. This underlines the importance of the premise that unless the very rationale and purpose of theological education is redefined and reconceived, mere curricular changes will only remain cosmetic. Worship at its core is intrinsically transformational and affects every aspect of human life and relationships. It is in the context of worship, therefore that spiritual, intellectual, ministerial and community formation must take place. Worship then does not simply become part of the curriculum; rather it is the foundation on which both the explicit and implicit curriculum is developed. And as we shall see the implications for the seminary and theological education are enormous.

The Seminary as a “Being-Transformed” Community

Second, centering seminary life on worship of God allows the seminary also to have a realistic view of itself and what it seeks to accomplish. The danger that institutions involved in theological education could well fall into is to elevate themselves to a position of superiority over the local congregations. But as a worshipping community the seminary is a “being-transformed” community engaged in practices that lead to personal and corporate transformation.

The model assumes tension between worship and the various areas that make up seminary life. Worship informs and transforms the four areas of intellectual endeavor, character formation, ministry formation, and community formation. So, too, each of these areas in turn informs and transforms the act of worship. It is within these interacting forces between worship and various other areas that the seminary finds itself in the process of being transformed continually. This does not set the theological community apart from the local congregations and churches. Rather it strengthens the relationship between the church and the seminary and makes room for mutual benefit and growth.

The Seminary as an Engaged Community

Third, engagement for transformation is the natural outflow of being a worshipping and “being-transformed” community. Noted mission historian Andrew Walls says that authentic theologizing requires all of Scripture to address the questions and choices with which ordinary believers are confronted in their calling to live out the Gospel in their native context. The true task of theological education, accordingly, is to ensure that the Gospel engages with culture and context and to prepare a training framework that aids in this undertaking.

In the transformational model, since the seminary community is a worshipping community patterned along the lines of the church, engagement is called for every day in the microcosmic context that reflects what India is today. The typical approach to practical or ministerial formation is to relegate it to the weekend in some distantly located church or ministry setting. Lack of faculty guidance and mentoring in ministry situations exacerbates and compounds the problem of inadequate ministerial training. The transformational model circumvents this drawback by bringing the Indian context to the doorstep of the seminary making full and effective engagement possible for the whole community – both students and faculty. Even in the best of situations, the theological education enterprise is accused of remaining socially isolated from the community around it.

The transformational approach is however concerned with the short term as well as long term effects of transformation of the community/locality in the immediate vicinity of the seminary. The question that the engaged community of learning must ask is: “What difference have we made in our own immediate locale by living as the people of God?”  Approaching this question from a transformational perspective opens up myriad opportunities and avenues for constant interaction and engagement with individuals, families, businesses, unjust societal and government structures, and so on. This day to day interaction, closely monitored by faculty, in turn provides the raw material for relevant classroom discussion, reflection, and theologizing in context.

Practical Implications for Theological Education in India

Several gaps exist in the current approaches to theological education in India that can be minimized by adopting a transformational model characterized by the centrality of worship thereby intentionally transforming the seminary into a “worshipping community”. In other words the seminary must purposefully consider itself ekklesia, the expression and agent of God’s kingdom and rule. This coupled with a redefining of the mission of the church as ushering in shalom will transform theological education itself. The impact will be felt in several crucial areas.

Impact on Curriculum

The first and most obvious impact will be on curriculum and curriculum development. Curriculum, for the most part, has remained static in many seminary catalogues. The vitality that must attend curriculum development is altogether missing in the majority of Indian seminaries. The reasons are several – lifeless vision and mission statements, no clear understanding of the mission of the church, the lack of engagement with contextual realities, and in some cases, simply overdependence on what others have done before.

In the transformational model however, curriculum is defined by the nature of the seminary community as well as the understanding of the mission of the church as transformation. Here God’s redemptive practices in the world through the agency of the church are the focal point of the transformational mission. Mission statements that keep this in the forefront will undoubtedly result in the shaping of a dynamic curriculum. Additionally, active and consistent engagement with context ensures that curriculum is updated on a regular basis.

Another aspect of curriculum design that, of necessity, will be affected is the apportioning of time to the classroom, worship, and engagement. In the current scheme of things – and this is the age old lament – the lion’s share remains with academics and the completion of course work. The transformational approach lays equal importance on all four aspects of seminary life centered on worship, namely spiritual, intellectual, ministerial and corporate formation.

Impact on Methodology

The second area that will be affected is methodology, resulting in a move away from the heavily content-oriented, and lecture-based pedagogical practices rampant in most Indian seminaries. Learning in the midst of engagement or learning in ministry must become the focus. While easier said than done, it will allow for a back and forth, seamless movement between the classroom and context.

The focus of methodology will be learning versus teaching; integrating versus fragmentation; reflection versus collecting information; theologizing versus maintaining the status quo. Faculty will be called upon to greater creativity in enhancing the learning process, thereby lessening the gaps in the learning process. Here is where contextual theologizing happens.

Impact on Faculty

The third area of impact will be on the faculty. The quality and commitment of faculty will be called into question in the transformation model, since what is required is not so much teachers for the classroom as much as mentors for ministry and lifestyle. While academic qualifications will continue to be a factor, experience, age and most of all a commitment to mentoring through practice and living will be the order of the day. Faculty will be required to design course work, learning tasks, and assessment criteria that will involve more than just spouting knowledge and information in exams.

More significantly, this will lead to a reduction in the number of part-time faculty that our seminaries enlist. Part-time faculty often is found to take the easy way out, with just focusing on the classroom. Again as the reports suggest, most seminaries struggle to recruit and maintain full-time members of their theological faculty. Moving to a transformational model of theological education will force seminary leadership to clearly articulate a desirable profile of a faculty member, and then take steps to recruit and retain them.

Impact on Students

Fourth, students from different backgrounds and experiences will be provided a learning experience that will groom them as individuals and as ministry and mission leaders of integrity and passion for God’s mission. Each student will have the opportunity to discern his or her gifting and sharpen it for effective ministry. The learning experience will move away from a one-size-fits-all package to personalized mentoring in their areas of ministry calling.

The focus on engagement also addresses the increasing problem of students’ lack of personal formation and experience. But more importantly it increases the ratio of graduates entering the field rather than making a career out of theological education and collecting degrees.

Impact on Seminary-Church Relationship

Being patterned after the local congregation has a fifth area of impact, that of the church-seminary relationship. The transformational model, which is based on the practice of the church as a worshipping community in the world, bridges this crucial gap and brings the two agencies closer to each other. The opportunity for dynamic partnership with other local worshipping communities for effective proclamation and witness readily presents itself to the seminary.

One of the major benefits of such a partnership for the seminary is the availability of resources, both material as well as personnel. Experienced practitioners can come alongside full-time faculty to enhance the learning experience. Further, a pool of mentors is also readily available made up of pastors, missionaries and evangelists from local congregations.

Impact on Community

Of immense significance is this sixth area of impact – the immediate societal community within which the seminary exists. The transformation model, through both its lifestyle and engagement, paves the way for discernible transformative moments in the wider community. As the learning community grows in its understanding of its missionary purpose, so grows the desire to engage within its context as kingdom people ushering in kingdom values and practices for a transformed community.

As the seminary as a worshipping community dwells among and engages with lost humanity, it shares in their suffering, pain, struggles and in essence becomes part of the people. The prophetic nature of the community of God is not lost. The seminary truly then becomes God’s people in the midst of all peoples.


As I conclude this paper, I would like to refer to Richard Slimbach’s provocative article in which he suggests some distinctive features of what he calls a “missional college.” Building on the premise that a “missional college” is concerned with restored relationships throughout God’s creation, Slimbach suggests shifts in four areas that make up our approach to theological education.

  1. Curriculum: Shifting our focus to consequential issues
  2. Context: Shifting our location and direction to the community
  3. Instructor: Shifting our role to that of mentor
  4. Students: Shifting our goal to the renewal of creation

If the seminary, as a worshipping community, can begin to make these shifts then we can truly begin to learn and live as a transformed missional community.

Paul Cornelius
Paul Cornelius
Paul Cornelius earned his doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary.  He is the Regional Secretary for India/Asia Theological Association. Paul’s duties include problem solving and intervention in accreditation related issues, and he has participated in and led evaluation visits to seminaries and Bible colleges across India. He also has helped organize and teach in ATA India’s Value Added Services program (seminars and workshops on faculty development, curriculum development, syllabus writing). Paul's other activities include teaching biblical Greek to a group of lay people in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu; serving on the local YFC Committee in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu; serving on the National Executive Committee of India Youth for Christ; adjunct faculty at SAIACS, Bangalore and Believer’s Church Seminary, Tiruvalla. Articles and books published by Paul Cornelius include:
  • Textbook on the Gospel of John and Johannine Writings for HBI’s Extension Program
  • Article entitled “Tribalism” in Dictionary of Mission Theology published by IVP in 2007
  • Article entitled “The Clash of Civilizations in Modern India: Some Implications for the Mission of the Church” in Hindustan Evangelical Review, 2007
  • Article entitled “Jesus and the Guru-Shishya Method of Teaching” in Hindustan Evangelical Review, 2008
  • Article entitled “Hinduism in the 20th Century” awaiting publishing as a chapter in a book on Religious Plurality, edited by Drs. Wilbert Shenk and Richard Plantinga as a co-venture of Fuller Theological Seminary and Calvin Theological Seminary
  • Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles for the South Asia Biblical Commentary which has been approved for publication


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