One of the forgotten legacies of the Reformation is its impact on theological education. In the words of the Scottish reformer John Knox, “the virtuous education and godly upbringing of the youth” is essential for the “advancement of Christ’s glory.” This vision of reformation through education undergirded the work of Luther in Wittenberg, Calvin in Geneva, Puritans in Cambridge, and Presbyterians in Princeton. Wherever the convictions of the Reformation took root, a concern for theological training developed.
Much has happened since the dawn of the Reformation. Think about all that’s happened since the nailing of the ninety-five theses. Galileo changed the way we view the world. Isaac Newton ushered in a scientific revolution. Immanuel Kant dared to reason without revelation. The lightbulb illuminated modernity, the assembly line accelerated industry, the atomic bomb revolutionized warfare, the pill redefined sexual ethics, and the smartphone placed the world into our pockets. The social structures we inhabit today look different than the ones that ordered life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. While the gap between the reformation and the present widens with each new headline, the need for rigorous theological training that aims at the “godly upbringing of the youth” remains. The world needs more theological education not less.
Not every cultural change is a hindrance to theological education. Take developments in the United States for example. The proliferation of Christian publishers, the rise of evangelical theological seminaries, the development of networks for church planting and missions, and the harnessing of social media platforms hold promise for sustaining a vision for theological education that can be passed down to our children and grandchildren. Yet the challenges are profound. One of the ironies of evangelicalism is that it has witnessed both the increase of Bible resources and the decrease of Bible literacy. Changing norms regarding gender and marriage also impose unprecedented demands on singles, couples, and families. And whatever headway we make in our efforts to follow the Great Commission seems to be undone by the rapid exporting of the health and wealth gospel from the United States to the rest of the world. These are turbulent times.
Throughout the history of the church, God’s people have often responded to such times by asserting the importance of theological education. After the time of the apostles, centers of theological training soon emerged in key cities such as Alexandria and Antioch to develop ways to defend the faith, interpret the Bible, and catechize new believers. During the medieval era, universities in places like Oxford and Paris were founded to promote the study of theology as the queen of the sciences. But it was the Reformation that advanced a comprehensive view of theological education that addressed the needs of scholars, pastors, and lay people alike. This partly explains the outcropping of universities in Reformation strongholds such as Leiden, Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Edinburgh. Theological education provided the infrastructure for Reformation ideals to travel into homes and churches throughout the world.
Cultural shifts since the Reformation have not lessened the importance of theological education but stress its importance. For the advancement of Christ’s glory, the training of students in theology is an essential task of Christian discipleship. The goal of Reformed theological education is not to replace the teaching ministry of families and churches, but to come alongside them to disciple students who will love, proclaim, and serve Christ everywhere and will teach others to do the same. But to do this effectively, we must uphold the value of theology for life. The upbringing of the youth depends upon it.
Dr. John Tweeddale is academic dean and professor of Theology at Reformation Bible College.