Over three decades ago missional thinkers like Lesslie Newbigin, David Bosch, and Harvie Conn argued that theological education needed to be overhauled. In the context of an exploding third world church they asked what kind of theological education would train faithful pastors. They believed that theological education as it was practiced in the West was deeply shaped by the Enlightenment worldview at a number of levels. One of their fundamental concerns was with the curriculum: mission was simply seen as a small subject area relegated to one area of practical theology. As Conn put it, mission maintains its toolshed appearance behind the stately mansions of biblical studies, systematic theology, and church history.
They argued that contrary to this Enlightenment approach, mission was central to the very identity of the church. It wasn’t just an activity of the church—even a very important one!—but essential to the very nature of the church. The role the church plays in the biblical story is as a sent people—sent to make known in life, word, and deed the good news. This defined who they are, their very being.
If this is true then treating mission as one task of the church and teaching it as one small part of the practical theology curriculum is more than a little problematic. They asked what theological education might look like if we really believed that mission is central to the church’s identity. How would that begin to impact the curriculum?
There are at least three ways. First, mission would reshape all the traditional disciplines of theological education. Bosch drew on a distinction made by Newbigin who distinguished between missionary dimension and missionary intention. All of the theological curriculum ought to have a missionary dimension. But there was also an important place for mission as a particular subject that treats the intentional missional activities of the church. But all subjects should have a missional dimension. The question they posed was: What would biblical studies, systematic theology, and church history look like if mission is integral to all these disciplines?
Biblical studies would ask how each book of the Bible and the story has a whole equips God’s people for their missional calling. Thus all the resources of biblical criticism and theology would contribute to answering that question. Systematic theology would follow the lead of the New Testament that explicated and defended the gospel in particular contexts and was aimed at equipping the church for its mission. Theology would be contextual, engaging the idols of the day. Church history would be taught in terms of the church’s successive encounters with different cultures in its mission rather than a narrative of doctrinal and polity controversies.
Not only would the traditional disciplines of the existing curriculum be reframed missionally—and this is the second point—but also much more time would be given to studying subjects not normally treated in Western theological education. For example, it is essential to learn to exegete our culture. The gospel and the ministry of the church are always translated into a particular culture. Each culture is shaped by idolatry and the danger is that the church will be fatally accommodated if those idols are not known. A missional curriculum will labor to enable theology students know their culture.
A third way that mission would shape the curriculum is to reject the Enlightenment theory-praxis distinction that lies at the heart of the traditional curriculum. There are not theoretical subjects (biblical studies, systematic theology, church history) pursued in isolation from the church’s mission and then later applied in practical theology. Rather all theological work is reflection on the gospel in terms of the mission of the church.
At Newbigin House we want to follow the lead of folk like Newbigin, Bosch, and Conn, and work out their seminal proposals and insights into a full-blown missional curriculum that will equip pastors to be missional leaders in the city.
Michael Goheen Ph.D.