Sydney Anglicans VII: The value of theological education

Posted on August 6, 2012 
Filed under Sydney Diocese

Mark Thompson writes part seven of his series on Sydney Anglicans –

“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that you will not understand the Diocese of Sydney unless you’ve understood its theological college…”

Read it all here –

Without a doubt the single most important resource God has given to the diocese of Sydney is Moore Theological College. Opening in 1856, thanks to a marvellously generous bequest by Thomas Moore, an early settler in Sydney, it has provided theological education for the vast bulk of Sydney’s clergy over the last one hundred and fifty-six years. 

Today Moore College is known the world over as a leading centre of evangelical reformed theology and as a place where men and women are equipped to exercise gospel ministry with confidence in the truth, authority and relevance of the Bible. It is also integral to the life of the diocese. It is no coincidence that often when the diocese is spoken about, it is immediately associated with the College. The diocese has guarded and resourced the College since its foundation. Conversely, the College has served the diocese and is largely responsible for its current theological complexion. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that you will not understand the Diocese of Sydney unless you’ve understood its theological college.

During its 156 years, Moore College has been served by some extraordinary principals. Undoubtedly the three most significant have been Nathaniel Jones, Thomas Chatterton Hammond, and D. Broughton Knox. Jones trained a generation who would resist the rise of modernism after the First World War. Hammond was recruited by Archbishop Howard Mowll to recover the College and set it on a strong footing after the theological compromises of the second and third decades of the twentieth century. Knox created the modern college, extending its program to four years, articulating a clear philosophy of theological education and building a highly qualified faculty and a first rate library collection. Since his time the college has continued to develop (under Peter Jensen and most recently John Woodhouse): teaching its own four-year BD program, integrating the ministry training of women alongside that of men, offering its own MA (Theol) and MTh as well as supervising PhD students in cooperation with two of the local universities, and taking its correspondence course to the world and online. The College is always seeking to be more effective in its service of the churches of the diocese and further afield. Moore College is never standing still, though one thing remains the same. Recognising the complexity and pressures of Christian ministry in the twenty-first century, the College is resolute in its determination not to short-change either its students or the churches they will serve, but instead to provide them with the best preparation to face today’s challenges and tomorrow’s.

A Moore College theological education has a number of distinctive features.  Its core is an extensive study of the biblical text in the original languages (Hebrew, Greek, and yes there is a course on biblical Aramaic as well) as well as of the theology that arises from the Bible. Since the late 1950s a particular approach to biblical theology (the unfolding message of the Bible), one usually associated with Donald Robinson and Graeme Goldsworthy, has been a prominent feature of the College program, allowing students to see how the whole Bible holds together with the dynamic of promise and fulfilment, a focus on the person and work of the Christ, and a basic threefold framework (the promise foreshadowed in Israel’s history, the promise reiterated by Israel’s prophets, the promise fulfilled in Israel’s Messiah). The teaching of the Bible understood in this way informs and evaluates all other parts of the program. All theological systems, including our own, must be analysed and evaluated in the light of Scripture’s teaching. All ministry theory and practice (and all mission studies) must be measured against this standard also. Even Church History and Philosophy are studied with a conscious commitment to the final authority of the Bible’s teaching.

Students, particularly those in the College’s degree programs, read widely across the entire theological spectrum. Reading lists are not restricted to those books or authors who share the confessional stance of the College. Students read Augustine, Calvin, Warfield, Stott and Packer but also Schleiermacher, Newman, Barth and Moltmann. There is a heavy emphasis in the College courses on direct engagement with primary sources. So rather than being satisfied with what others say about Augustine or Calvin or Barth, students are encouraged to read these massive theological contributions for themselves. In other words, the confessional stance of the College (its commitment to the truthfulness and authority of Scripture, the centrality of the cross and of penal substitution in our understanding of the meaning of the cross, election by God’s grace and justification by faith alone, etc.) is not a defensive one. There is nothing to fear from subjecting each evangelical conviction to scrutiny and testing everything against the teaching of the Bible. No question is off-limits and no books or authors are banned. I remember being horrified in the 1990s to realise that some students studying undergraduate theology in the University of Oxford were given reading lists on the atonement that contained Vincent Taylor and C. H. Dodd but totally ignored Leon Morris and John Stott. In contrast, when I studied at Moore, Morris and Stott were read on the cross but so were Taylor, Dodd, Macleod Campbell and Jurgen Moltmann!

Moore College has continued to value full-time residential theological education in an era when many seminaries and theological colleges around the world have found it impossible to maintain. Sure, there are part-time options, distance education programs, and the first steps in online education at Moore, but at considerable cost the College still insists that the kind of intensive transformative learning that takes place when students are studying full-time and in a residential community best fits the subject matter and the learning objectives of theological education. Broughton Knox was fond of saying that the dining room was as important as the lecture room and the chapel. The Christian faith is not an abstract set of ideas but a network of relationships centred upon a relationship with the living God made possible through the life and work of Jesus Christ.

Today Moore College has a student body of around three hundred full-time undergraduate students, with another one hundred and fifty graduate students and thousands doing its correspondence courses. It has a faculty of 20, most of whom have spent time in full-time pastoral ministry as well as having completed advanced theological studies in some of the leading universities overseas. They combine a passion for gospel ministry in the churches with the highest standards of biblical and theological scholarship. Its library holds more than 220,000 physical format items, including a rare book collection and important archives. The college is regularly visited by oversees theologians and has a steady stream of overseas students. The multi-ethnic character of its student body increasingly reflects the multi-ethnic character of Sydney but also the College’s keen interest in assisting theological leadership in other parts of the world.

Two published statements of the College give an insight into the ethos and convictions that shape its life.

The first is an expression of its values. The College is committed to:

Christian faith: trust in God and his purposes as these are revealed in Jesus Christ and conveyed to us by the Holy Spirit in the canonical scriptures of the Old and New Testament;

Integrity: honest, transparency, fairness and accountability in all personal behaviour and community practices;

Grace: generosity and compassion in dealings with each other reflecting the undeserved mercy of God in Christ;

Service: placing the welfare of others above personal interests and convenience, using the gifts and talents that God has graciously given;

Community: loving personal relationships, developed through regular meeting and a common focus, as the proper context for learning about the triune God and his purposes;

Scholarship: Rigour of thought characterised by a careful use of primary evidence, breadth of research and appropriate inferences, resulting in fresh and readily accessible approaches to both classic issues and contemporary questions;

Gender Complementarity: Affirmation of the fundamental equality and mutual dependence of men and women as image bearers of God, while recognising proper differences in roles and responsibilities in life and Christian ministry;

Freedom of Inquiry: the freedom to subject all ideas to honest inquiry; and

Integration: growth in the knowledge of God is best conducted for, and in the context of, life application and active participation in Christian service.

The second statement concerns the College’s principles of teaching and learning (each of these is followed in the College’s Student Handbook by a series of consequent commitments in the practice of theological education):

1. We accept the Christian Scriptures (constituted by the Old and New Testaments) as the written word of God, authoritative, clear, sufficient, without error in all that they teach, and containing all that is necessary for salvation and the informed practice of the Christian life of discipleship. We confess that God can only be known in Jesus Christ as he is presented to us in the Scriptures and therefore the study of Scripture and its ancillary disciplines is indispensable in training for Christian ministry, since the central function of such ministry is to make God known.

2. We believe the teaching of the Christian Scriptures is faithfully reflected in the historic creeds and in the Protestant Reformed tradition as expressed in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion.

3. We are committed to the integration of theoretical and applied aspects of knowledge. We understand that the knowledge of God cannot be isolated from the application of this knowledge to all aspects of life, thought, and conduct, and that the proper expression of the knowledge of God is found in a life lived in accordance with his will, seeking to extend the reach of his kingdom through teaching and proclamation. We acknowledge that the life of Christian discipleship is lived in the midst of, and engaging with, a diverse and complex world.

4. Our conviction is that, in keeping with the personal nature of Christian truth and the relational nature of our God expressed in his being and his plans to bring to himself a people described in family terms, theology is best learned in a community that is both a Christian family and an academic fellowship.

5. We are grateful for the rich diversity of God’s gifts to his people and acknowledge that this diversity is expressed in a variety of abilities, interests and learning styles.

So why is Moore College such a vital part of the life of the diocese of Sydney? Why does it get such attention and such support? A number of factors can be identified.

Firstly, God’s people are precious. The students who come to theological college do not materialise out of thin air. They are disciples of Christ and members of churches who have been loved and nurtured in the faith, often over many, many years. Others have prayed for them, shared the gospel with them, taught them and mentored them. The churches of the diocese (and elsewhere) send their precious gifted young people to theological college with the expectation that they will be strengthened in faith, deepened in love, and be properly equipped to be faithful pastor-teachers (of various kinds and in various different types of ministry). It is not surprising that the fellowship of churches which is the diocese should be concerned to ensure that its theological college meets this expectation.

Secondly, gospel ministry is at its heart a teaching ministry and so the preparation of those charged with teaching the Scriptures in the diocese and elsewhere as representatives of the diocese is paramount. We long to see people come to hear the gospel, believe the gospel and grow mature in the gospel, thoroughly prepared for the day of judgement and for life in the meantime. The teaching of Scripture is critical in all of this and so ensuring that those given responsibility for gospel ministry know the Scriptures well, teach them effectively, embody that teaching in their own lives, apply it appropriately in the contemporary context, and recognise and effectively deal with each new challenge to what Scripture teaches, is a concern not just for the diocesan leadership but also for the churches in which these pastor-teachers will serve.

Thirdly, there is immense pressure on theological colleges to place other priorities above faithfulness to the teaching of Scripture. This pressure might come from a wide variety of directions. A concern for academic respectability could see a shift from focussing on the churches to focussing on the theological  academy and its prestigious publishing houses. A concern for financial viability could lead to efforts to appeal to a wider and wider constituency leading to modifications in what is taught in order to fuel that appeal. A concern for relevance in the eyes of the community could lead to adopting the intellectual framework and moral commitments of the community. It is important to realise that evangelical theological colleges do not usually make a single decision to abandon the gospel for revisionist liberalism. Yet by one small compromise after another theological convictions can be — and too often have been — abandoned. Often it begins with a call to be more inclusive, more generous, to allow a broader range of opinion on the college’s teaching platforms or amongst its faculty. Littered throughout the world are the tragic successors of evangelical foundations, sometimes indistinguishable from theological faculties in the secular universities, sometimes now themselves bastions of liberalism. And the transformation, though sometimes remarkably swift, is almost always incremental. The oft remarked upon classic instance of this is Princeton Seminary, a Presbyterian institution in New Jersey. Once the platform from which Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield nourished evangelical thinking around the world, today its theological complexion is vastly different. This and other examples are well known in Sydney and the diocese through its leaders has long determined to do all that is necessary to assist the college in resisting this pressure.

Fourthly, drift in theological education destroys the churches within a generation. This has been the testimony of churches the world over. In a recent conference in London, Christian leaders from all over the Anglican world explained that their current dire circumstances began in their theological colleges. The disaster in The Episcopal Church did not begin in its General Convention but in the seminaries and their abandonment of biblical orthodoxy years before the controversial decisions were made. What begins in the theological colleges plays itself out in the churches, because the colleges provide the next generation of pastor-teachers for the churches. So from this perspective a diocese cannot afford not to take an intense interest in theological education and the health of its theological college.

Fifthly, Moore College has been cherished by the diocese of Sydney from its opening. For around one hundred and fifty years, an important role was played in the governance of the College by the trustees of Thomas Moore’s estate, one of whom would always be the Bishop (later Archbishop) of Sydney. The trustees no longer exist, but with or without them each bishop and archbishop has had a keen interest in the college, making the appointment and support of the principal of the day a key priority. Bishop Barker was instrumental in the appointment of the first Principal, William Hodgson, and of an acting principal, William Macquarie Cowper, who opened its doors on the 1st March 1856.  The Sydney synod has also been vitally involved, providing legislative support (the College is established through an ordinance of the synod) and, from time to time financial support as well. Again and again the leaders of the diocese have testified to the value and importance of the College to the continued health of the churches and the fellowship.

The importance placed on a thorough pastorally-driven and biblically-centred theological education in the diocese of Sydney has helped to shape the diocese. For all the richness of variety in personality and interest in the diocese there is a remarkable theological cohesion that has a great deal to do with the influence of the diocesan theological college. The synod and the leaders of the diocese remain convinced that the evangelical character of the diocese is first and foremost a theological commitment and so evangelical Anglican theological education must be guarded and resourced. If it is not this fellowship of churches will undoubtedly suffer.

– First published at Theological Theology, 05 August 2012.
Dr Mark Thompson is the President of the Anglican Church League.

Earlier articles:

Sydney Anglicans I. Biblically confessional
Sydney Anglicans II. The congregation as the centre
Sydney Anglicans III. Complementarian ministry
Sydney Anglicans IV: The Primacy of the Word
Sydney Anglicans V: A commitment to mission
Sydney Anglicans VI: An evangelical episcopate