Thursday, November 19, 2009

Local theological study, church, and the end of first semester

First semester has ended at Trinity Theological College (TTC). The website states:
Trinity Theological College was established in 1948 to equip people for the ministry of the church.

It provides a comprehensive curriculum which seeks to develop the faith through intellectual inquiry, spiritual formation and vocational training.
Now, after having finished the first semester, what do I think about what the website says and my experience with TTC so far?

I think those phrases are loaded and can be easily misunderstood, depending on what background and theology you have. Take "equip people for the ministry of the church" as an example. "Ministry of the church" has to do with our theology of the church, its institutionalization and purpose. If you think that the ministry of the church is only to (1) propagate the gospel through evangelism, (2) having a congregation that attends the service/mass and cell-group once a week, and (3) keep the (1) and (2) running smoothly, then 'yes', TTC is apt at that. It is very good at equipping people to do these 3 things (though none of the leaders - Joseph Prince, Kong Hee, and Lawrence Kong - in local megachurches with congregations over 20,000 had such equipping).

Does TTC "provides a comprehensive curriculum which seeks to develop the faith through intellectual inquiry, spiritual formation and vocational training"? Again, depends on your understanding of these three qualities. Let's talk about each of them one by one.

"Intellectual inquiry". During lessons, I have heard lecturers made remarks like, "Being critical is okay but being over-critical is problematic," and, "the task of theologians is first and foremost to be faithful to what the church has been passing down, and not to be overly creative or novel." Now the question that I have is how does one measure the "overs"? Was Jesus being overly creative when he pronounced the forgiveness of sins, an office which the Israelites believe belongs to God alone? Were the apostles being overly novel to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus as the dawning of the eschaton? Were the church fathers like Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria being over-critical when they engaged Arius and Nestorius? Was the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea being overly creative to introduced terms like 'hypostaseos' and 'ousias' into the creed? Was Augustine of Hippo being over-critical to go against Pelagius on one hand, and being overly creative in formulating his theology of history and political theology in City of God? Was Benedict of Nursia being overly novel to set up a monastic order? Was Anselm being overly novel with his articulation of the atonement theology? Was Thomas Aquinas being overly creative to incorporate Aristotle's philosophy into his theology? Was Martin Luther over-critical with the Roman Catholic Church? Was John Calvin being overly creative to propose a new institution of Christianity? Was Friedrich Schleiermacher being over creative to write about religious nature of humans? Was Karl Barth being overly critical over liberalism? Was Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu being over-critical against the social condition of their time and overly novel to have done something about it? And finally, is not discouraging 'over-criticality' and 'over-creativity' (assuming they can measure the 'overs') among the students an over-critical and an overly creative suggestion which seems to go against all the listed events above and many more in the rich history of the Christian church?

"Spiritual Formation". In my first week at TTC, I have encountered this awkward term. And I still have not change my mind. At the end of the semester, each students required to fill in a document titled 'Spiritual Formation and Community Life Records'. There were questions ask about our practice of Bible reading, meditation on God's Word, intercessory prayer, holy communion, church worship, spiritual direction, etc. And there are these two weird questions at the end of that questionnaire: (1) What do you regard as the greatest difficulty in your spiritual development?, and (2) What activities do you find most helpful in your spiritual development? I answered something like, "I don't know what do you mean by 'spiritual'..."

"Vocational Training". Similar with what I stated above on "ministry of the church", it depends on what do you understand by 'vocation'. If you take it to mean to (1) propagate the gospel through evangelism, (2) having a congregation that attends the service/mass and cell-group once a week, and (3) keep the (1) and (2) running smoothly, then 'yes' TTC is good at that. But if you think vocation in the sense of how Jesus or the apostles thought about vocation, which encompasses much more than these three offices, then I don't think TTC (or any other local Christian equipping/training institutions) has such curriculum.

These are some of my more slanted observations. There are many good things that TTC has. The obvious one is the faculty members. All the lecturers are very helpful, patient, and deal with students in good-manners. They really care for each of us who are studying here. Each of them are well-trained in their own respective fields.

Though with these comments, I think the problem is not so much that TTC has not been comprehensive. Such similar phenomena is happening at all theological colleges, seminaries, and mission schools in this part of the world. Hence it is the Christian community at large in the local scene that barely grasps the extensive significance of 'intellectual inquiry', 'spiritual formation', and 'vocational training'.

Don't think that I'm just being nasty and skeptical, but a similar lament has been voiced by Kar Yong too: "Is something wrong with the Christ believing community when we are only interested in building physical buildings for the church at the expense of neglecting theological education in the equipping and empowering the people of God to serve and pastor the church?" Though Kar Yong commented in a different context, yet his diagnosis and mine are the same: A large part of the local church is still lost.

11 comments:

SHWong said...

Since none has given much comment on your 3 related posts, I'll share my thoughts on the matter.

1. You are right about the correct nuances of mission. Unfortunately most in church history has been more concerned about salvation than re-creation. I also don't see any improvements in recent history (and certainly not prosperity gospel thought it is more this-worldly). As long as seminaries and churches remain market-driven and consumer orientated, it looks like nothing much is going to change for the better in the near future.

2. Even if theological education in seminaries and churches do become more missional (in the broad sense of the word), I'm not sure if it can be done right.
a. My exposure to the usual crop of Christians is that they are too ill-equipped in the study of economics, sociology, ethics etc to be competent to do a theological discourse on these subjects. To bear any good fruit, one has to be well-versed in both theology and social science and the usual Christian is normally good in neither.
b. Which brings the point to the second part that I'll rather they learn to practice love and community more, than to engage in activism (like in the Aware incident) which they know nothing about. Without good training, Christian activism is reduced to just the hot topics of homosexuality, creationism, abortion which is an extremely pale version of the essence of Christianity.
3. Everything is relative. Though TTC still has room for improvement in this area, but it is already far ahead compared to what else in locally available.

Maria said...

Keep asking the questions but find a way to direct it to the institution, too, so that they can hear and by God's grace act on becoming more of what God would have them be and not that of what some accreditation board requires them to be.

reasonable said...

quoting SHWong: "I'll rather they learn to practice love and community more, than to engage in activism (like in the Aware incident) which they know nothing about. Without good training, Christian activism is reduced to just the hot topics of homosexuality, creationism, abortion which is an extremely pale version of the essence of Christianity"

I too rather certain Christians practice more love and less judgmentalism, instead of doing things such as what they did to AWARE, and triggered Christians like me to oppose them. From then on I have been telling different non-Christians to organise themselves to oppose to certain types of Christains, and to tell those non-Christains to get themselves better organised to deal with those types Christians who will from time to time try to reduce the freedom of these non-Christians. Some Christians apparently even tried to sneak Creationism into the classroom by dressing it up as science in Singapore! (too much bad things being imported from the American fundamentalists and American "Creationists").

Sze Zeng said...

Hi SH Wong,

Thank you for your comment. It's comforting to know that there are people who are in ministry (like yourself) aware of such unhealthy trend in the Christian community.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Maria,

Thank you for your comment. Any suggestion how to direct that to the institution?

By the way, while recognizing that the institution is a union college under the governance of the big 4 denominations, it seems that I'll have to raise this to the big 4 too...

Sze Zeng said...

Hi reasonable,

Don't just talk to non-Christians. Tell also to:
1) Certain Christians who are bringing more harm than good in the society.
2) Christians who are not yet informed of such issues within the church.
3) And finally Christians who knows their stuffs and want to make a difference but don't know how. You may suggest to them what you suggest to non-Christians too: get themselves organized to do something together.

Gilbert Sim said...

As you've just finished the first semester from TTC, you already know most of the church history happened in the past 2,000 years, TTC is absolutely not bad at all. It took me 3 quarters just to cover about the same stuff you mentioned in your blog. Excellent reflections!

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Gilbert,

The first semester Church History module only narrates until 1453 A.D. So I am not aware of the much events after that. Next semester I'll get to open my eyes on those latter period.

I have to say that our lecturer Andrew Peh has comprehensive knowledge over the subject. So I get to learn a lot from him.

Still learning, and looking forward to that.

Thank you for your comment! :)

pearlie said...

Remember your post here when I came across this article :) http://christianbooknotes.com/2009/10-questions-to-diagnose-your-spiritual-health-by-donald-s-whitney/

Maria said...

Do excuse me for this tardy reply to your question as to how to direct your questions to the institution. One way as a student is to get yourself into the Student Council and into the right sub-committee where you are able to meet with the faculty or administration and raise your questions. You are of course well aware that how you raise the questions will also determine how they will (or will not respond to you). Another way I can think of is to go back to your church, share this with the pastor, church council/elders (whatever the governing board) as a matter of concern. See how you can get involved with ecumenical groups or get to know the Board of Governors of TTC and work from top-down. Then of course, work from the bottom-up, from among your class- and course-mates and convince them of your concerns that they are and should be shared concerns of every student preparing for any kind of ministry - lay/ordained/missionary/tent-making/etc. What I have learnt is that the base community is crucial is affecting and effecting the institution since the institution exists to serve the people (and not vice versa).

Alex Tang said...

Thanks for this interesting post. I have written an article on a proposed model for theological education in Asia and will value yours and your readers' comment