Theological FAQ:

What does it mean to teach theology at a Christian liberal arts school?

I define theology for my students as the discipline of thinking like a Christian. The story of the triune God and his self-involvement with his creation makes sense of us, and empowers us to make sense for others. This sense and the power it brings to all believers, whatever their vocation, sums up my assessment of the role of theology in a Christian liberal arts education.

To think like a Christian is still to think in and about the world. God created beings who inhabit God’s creation. Most of our time is taken up in the concerns of our creaturely existence. This is as it should be; it is not simply an effect of the Fall. Unlike the angels, we are earthly (min-ha-adamah). We belonged in a garden; we were always meant to attend to the world around us. We attend to God through the media of our physical actions and physical thoughts. We represent God in the created order by reigning justly over God’s other terrestrial creatures, and we worship by presenting our bodily lives as a living sacrifice. Faithful learning, then, is not an exercise in bypassing the disciplines that explore the world. Theology does not alleviate the need for the training that the other humanities and the sciences offer. Indeed, when properly pursued, theology focuses these other practices, bringing their own ends into harmony with the Chief End.

My story illustrates this both indirectly and directly. By our society’s standards, my college education was rich, challenging, and excellent. But being a secular university curriculum, it lacked an overarching coherence. It was an amalgamation of different disciplines with no shared rationality or teleology. Many of my courses were engaging, but in the end they added up to less than the sum of their parts. My informal theological education began in earnest in Church after I graduated from college, and my formal theological education began at seminary. In both contexts I was finally initiated into a vision of the world that made sense of its constituent parts, whether it appreciated or critiqued them. This perspective is what liberal Christian education offers, and all Christians can benefit from it.

I teach theology to cultivate my students’ powers of theological vision and bring the Gospel thoroughly into the fabric of their lives – in short, to think more like Christians. I help undergraduates see the theological coherence (or incoherence) of their worlds and of their own lives. I help graduates learn to explore that coherence more broadly, and focus it in their profession with greater intensity.

This means communicating the faith with a clarity, confidence, and freedom of exploration to which students may be unaccustomed. It means drawing on all the resources available to theologians: The wisdom of both the evangelical tradition and its rival Christian traditions; the divine discourse of Scripture, read faithfully yet critically; the "witness of the Holy Spirit" in the course of the life of the Church; and those resources outside the Church that can be brought into God’s service, which Augustine calls "Egyptian gold." It means exercising a firm but light touch on other disciplines, norming them by the Gospel while respecting their own power to critique Christian doctrine and method. It means stretching students so they can see theological resources where they had not seen them before.

Here a liberal arts context is very supportive. An impressive feature of the liberal arts approach to education is its confidence that the different realms of human knowledge, for all their failings, can fit together constructively. God gives all of us things to say to each other, regardless of our fields.

This is easier to say abstractly than concretely. How does Christian doctrine relate to, say, chemistry? I suppose I could (and should) leave the answer to chemists; but as a theologian I am in a unique position to help chemists offer their own best answer. I once asked another school’s chemistry professor how she integrated faith and chemistry, and drew an embarrassed smile. She mentioned that she occasionally appeals to the beauty of chemistry as a kind of argument from design, but didn’t have much more to offer. An awkward silence followed while I fished for helpful suggestions. I finally responded that another powerful way for her to integrate faith and learning is not so much to synthesize the formal doctrines of both fields, as to practice chemistry faithfully – to work according to the purpose of God’s old and new creation, model Christian discipleship before her students, and help them negotiate the idols and temptations of her field.

My doctoral institution rightfully emphasizes only a soft distinction between "theology" and "ethics." Each is a form of the other. To think like a Christian is already to act like a Christian, and vice versa. The Protestant Orthodoxy that intellectualized the faith produced some stunning achievements, but at the cost of a breach between "Christian doctrine" and "practical theology."

This is one reason my colleague and I were hard-pressed at first to appreciate how our vocations intersect. We theologians had trained her to think so narrowly of "faith" that she was leading a bifurcated life where "Christian chemistry" were reducible to the doctrine of creation. We had failed to supply the theological categories with which she could have appreciated her vocation fully in terms of her spiritual gifts. We had let modern dichotomies between objectivity and subjectivity, theory and practice, reason and faith compromise the original integrity and power of the Gospel and the true coherence of our disciplines.

This is also a reason many of my fellow seminary and undergraduate students once dreaded their theology courses, or saw them as little more than obstacles standing between them and God’s plans for their lives. They too had been held captive to a view of theology that partitioned off creative and critical thinking from both the real saving work of Christ, and the "secular" disciplines, into worlds of their own.

I resist and subvert such notions strenuously as I discover them. I draw from the other disciplines, read together with scholars outside my field, and guest-lecture in other subjects (for instance, economics, computer science, Islamics, and film) where I can. Doing so enriches my own faith and doctrine in constantly surprising ways. Furthermore, my students learn that God has a total claim on his creation and on their lives, and that every part of their world affects every other. Whether they go on to "secular" or "ministerial" careers, I work and pray that they may go on to lives they can understand in terms of the Christian faith, and vice versa.

Of course part of any undergraduate department’s role is to spark an interest in further exposure to the field, and to form a foundation for those who will go on to pursue further work. These students need to be well enough acquainted with the doctrinal landscape to identify and flourish in upper-division courses, and then in seminaries or graduate religion programs. Many other students are attracted to other disciplines, and these need the skills to remember and apply their theological knowledge without more formal training. Both sets need theological enthusiasm, and resources with which that enthusiasm will bear fruit. They need to know the fundamentals of what the Church teaches. They need to understand the main theological topics and see how they interrelate. They need to know enough to choose good theology over poor theology, good preaching over poor preaching. They need to know where to look to find answers to their questions after their teachers are no longer at hand. Being evangelicals, they need to know their way around Scripture and know how to read it well. They need both freedom from the Church’s demagogues and discipline from its Rule of Faith. They need the tools to retain and refine their theological vision throughout their lives.

The college years are an absolutely crucial time. Students are in the middle of acquiring (or not acquiring) adult faith. They must be mentored firmly but gently in order to attain their full stature. On Christological grounds, I am committed to the priesthood of all believers — and the prophethood and royalty of all believers (both men and women). Undergraduates are learning to exercise their pneumatic offices in every moment of their college experience. They will go on to exercise them in innumerable ways in their new careers, communities, and families. Theological education can help them do it with discernment, boldness, and power.

My original intention after finishing my doctorate was to pursue a position at a seminary. Along the way my family found a local church with unparalleled theological instincts, wonderful worship and preaching, and an unmatched spirit. All the senior staff had attended Christian colleges; none had attended graduate seminaries. It hit me then that teaching theology to undergraduates can form such people, in ways that teaching to seminarians cannot. Westmont affords a precious environment where the piety and excitement of young Christians rubs off on each other, as they grow up under the mentoring of the faculty and staff. These are the conditions and results I strive for in teaching theology to undergraduates.

Theological education is my passion. Like most scholars, I put my own field at the pinnacle of importance in both undergraduate and graduate education. Theology is by no means the only source of the overarching coherence that a truly Christian education demands. But of the sources God has provided, it may well be the best!

Grace and peace, Telford