Sunday, October 26, 2008

D.A. Carson on Training the Next Generation of Evangelical Scholars

Thanks to Andy Naselli for posting D.A. Carson's 1998 ETS address about training the next generation of evangelical scholars (which is available in MP3).

A number of important points are raised by Carson. Let me mention a few:

1. I agree that evangelicalism must be defined theologically (as opposed to defining it sociologically or as a post-enlightenment religious renewal movement). For me the centre of evangelicalism must be the evangel, rather than things like inerrancy or complementarianism, while a number of theological corollaries follow from the evangel, nothing must displace the evangel as the theological center. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the distinctive element of an evangelical theology would be the setting out of the gospel as part of it's prolegomena.

2. I concur fully on the primacy of learning the content of the Bible. For me, there is not much point teaching the current academic debates or subltleties of NT background if one does not know the basic gist of each biblical document. And Carson is right, you cannot assume that seminary or college students have this basic knowledge of content any more because (a) many Christians who were converted in their teens or twenties never had any exposure to the Bible before (myself included here), and (b) many churches have dumbed down their biblical teaching This is why I included a chapter summarizing the content of all of Paul's letters in my book Bird's Eye-view of Paul and why I pain stakingly drive into my students the outline of the biblical books. Indeed, making students read a basic text book on Christian doctrine as an entrance requirement for seminary might not be a bad idea either. I recollect with horror an experience whereby a first year theological studies student [not at my current institution and a relatively new covert I must add], upon hearing the mention of the Trinity in a lecture, asked: "I didn't think that WE believed in that Catholic stuff?".

3. I could not agree more with the importance of biblical theology as something that needs to be taught in order to provide an over-arching meta-narrative for evangelical students and scholars. The sad fact is that it is not taught in a number of institutions and it desperately needs to be.

4. The issue of integrating subject areas is a real challenge and Carson identifies the need for this area to be given further thought. The role of the local church in mentoring and fostering a distinctively evangelical spiritual formation in training of students is another area worthy of consideration too.

5. Carson is also right that theological curriculum needs to be updated and reflect the challenges of the cultural context. That means adding courses and dropping courses as required. If I were ever to be made president and dean of my own imaginary seminary (located just off the Great Barrier Reef in central Queensland) I would include a multi-disciplinary module on "A Theology of Sexuality and Gender" taught jointly by a theologian, a sociologist, a psychologist, and a medical doctor (since these are the prevailing issues of the day, esp. for the conservatives in the mainline churches) and make every student take language courses in either Arabic or Chinese to make them eminently employable on the foreign mission field and on the cross-cultural mission field in their own cities.

Carson's lecture is worth listening to for anyone interested in theological education (even if you're not an evangelical). Soon I hope to read Dale B. Martin on Pedagogy of the Bible: An Analysis and Proposal which may well provide a very different perspective on theological education.

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