Where is the Divinity in the Degree?
Some years ago, I was drawn to consider the subject of Godliness. After all, I was teaching at a Reformed Seminary that was known for a pretty decent standard of theological education. Our graduates who proceeded for further studies invariably did very well in the institutions they attended, thanks to the solid preparation they had received.
I also was for about fifteen years a visiting teacher at a large interdenominational Seminary that was essentially charismatic. Both institutions had residential students, a norm in India. Non-resident students are an exception.
However, one problem seemed to lay under the surface of our excellent programs: spirituality or godliness. What is divinity? According to several dictionaries, it is “godliness,” “spirituality,” etc. When we give degrees such as Bachelor of Divinity (BD) or Master of Divinity (M Div.), there is a need to assess the curriculum of these programs. Do we emphasize enough study on spirituality or godliness?
My own experience while serving at the seminary was that there was something missing in our own curriculum or expectations, or an over emphasis on academics that produced a stream of graduates whose identities were shaped by their GPAs and academic distinctions. Why do I say something was missing or lacking in our curriculum?
While serving as Dean of Students, I have listened to scores of students about their life on campus. Some common feedback is that the volume of work is so much. Just too many assignments and deadlines. I would then ask them about their spiritual life, their devotions their prayer life, etc. The responses first shocked me, but then I got used to hearing them –“Sir, I think I was closer to the Lord while at home, I was more consistent with my devotions and prayer, and I longed to walk close to the Lord, but here on campus it is different. My faith has gone from warm to lukewarm and now cold. Sir, I do not know what to do about this!” Responses such as these were not uncommon.
My desire to see what the Bible taught led me to preach on the subject of godliness, under the title “The Need for Godliness” based on I Tim 6:3-11. Later, a unique opportunity arose to address heads of theological institutions accredited to the Asia Theological Association (ATA) of which our seminary was a member. I was asked to step in for the devotional speaker, a well-known NT scholar in India and my former professor, who was indisposed and unable to attend the meeting. While ruminating what I should speak on I settled on the sermon on godliness. The response to my devotional talk was overwhelming – many of those present came up to me to thank me for reflecting on an unspoken need in our curriculums.
The ’lack,’ ‘problem,’ or whatever label we may choose to give it, probably is more pronounced in certain systems of theological education. We can safely assume that the Episcopal, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches have built-in expectations that fall in line with some meditative and contemplative practices of those denominations. I understand that having years of training in Roman Catholic seminaries, some lasting as long 8 to 15 years is no guarantee that the student will be able to join the priesthood, the church may refuse the candidate the opportunity to be ordained to priestly office. I also understand that a student who has completed his basic studies in seminary is given a one-year break to decide for himself whether he is called to a celibate life and orders / priesthood or to be part of the laity.
Personally, I like the Orthodox approach to the priesthood and its related callings. I understand that the candidate, after completing his theological training, is given two choices that he would need to decide on: 1) the opportunity to choose to serve as a parish priest. To fulfil this role he is allowed to marry and raise a family, and exercise his shepherding gifts. 2) The opportunity to become a monk and join a monastery. This requires him to be celibate and lead a monastic life. The uniqueness of this system is that bishops will only be chosen from those living in the monastery – thus eliminating candidates who have family obligations.
How do the Protestant denominations fair in the matter of spiritual preparation for the ministry? Well, for starters, some evangelical Episcopalian denominations, and even individual priests, in the wider mainline episcopalian denominations, place much emphasis on the Book of Common Prayer and daily exercises in spirituality. To the extent that these are taken seriously and practised sincerely there can be scope for growth in godliness. How about other Protestant denominations?
I had mentioned earlier that I was a guest teacher for several years at a large interdenominational (Charismatic) theological college in our city. How did they handle this matter of godliness or spirituality? Spiritual exercises were monitored carefully, with periodic fasting days, and compulsory dawn prayer. In addition, there was also a dedicated Prayer Room for any students who wish to pray. I must add that this seminary is accredited by the evangelical ATA and affiliated to Serampore University, which was founded by William Carey. The Serampore University curriculum is heavy on theology, academics and scholarship, but has some courses that touch on spiritual growth. Notwithstanding this seemingly incompatible association with two opposite poles of theology, the Institution itself uncompromisingly follows a regimented and supervised system of monitored spiritual practices that are compulsory for all students.
How do the Reformed churches, including Baptists and Congregationalists, address this issue? I can only speak from my own experience at a seminary with Reformed and Presbyterian roots, whose beginnings reach back to influences from the Presbyterian controversy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that led to the founding of the Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Bible Presbyterian Church and the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.
At our seminary, there was always a consciousness of the need to encourage students in spiritual growth. How well did we succeed in this is hard to say. Teaching our students how to grow in their spiritual life, how to be honest, and a host of other things was usually done at the opening orientation exercises of the seminary. For about one week, various aspects of personal and communal seminary life were touched on. Though at first these sessions primarily concentrated on rules, a new concept of “Responsible Freedom” was introduced, which is still in practice. Briefly, this means that you have the freedom to adhere to the rules not out of fear of punishment, but out of fear and love for the Lord. Apart from these days we had two practices aimed to promote spiritual life. 1) During the early years of the seminary, for about 15 years, we had a weekly Friday night all night prayer, during which students and staff would pray throughout the night in blocks of 30 minutes and groups of 4 to 5. One group would remind the next group of their turn to pray, sometimes with the added encouragement “The Principal is there!” This practice has since been discontinued. 2) Also, for decades, each semester we had a Day of Prayer, which included messages on spiritual life and prayer. This has been extended to two days per semester.
The question is, “Are following certain observable spiritual exercises a guarantee of growth in godliness?” I doubt it; as I observed from my own experiences of listening to the frustrations of students who failed to grow in the knowledge of Christ. How can we attempt to make a difference? I have a few suggestions: 1) Spirituality should be modelled by teachers. I think more than and emphasis on helping students to grow in godliness, teachers should be encouraged to grow in godliness and model Christ-like behaviour. This means that faculty members must make every effort to attend chapel and prayer times, thus conveying the message to the student that this activity is important for our spiritual growth. Moreover, they should be consistent in their personal devotions, prayer, and worship. 2) All teachers, should be involved in the ministry of at least one local church, and, if possible, be part of that local session. Even though the workload of faculty members may be demanding, they should assist in the church in whatever way they can. 3) Teachers must disciple students. This means they should take every possible opportunity to pray with them, spend time with them, and make themselves available to them. I cannot here spell out what this would look like;, but institutions can brainstorm how best this could be done in various global contexts.
Perhaps if we do some of these things, and some more, we may rediscover the ‘divinity’ in the degree.
Dr. Matthew Ebenezer is a Member of the WRF Board of Directors. He is an ordained teaching elder of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of India (RPCI). He has served on the Board of the WRF since 2006. Matthew began teaching at Presbyterian Theological Seminary (PTS), Dehra Dun, India in 1982. Between 2004 and 2014 he was engaged in other ministry opportunities that included serving as Country Director for Mission to the World (MTW) in his native Sri Lanka, overseeing Tsunami rehabilitation; Director for Theological Education for MTW’s church planting work in India, and Adjunct Professor of Church History and Practical Theology at the New Theological College, Dehra Dun. He is now Interim Principal of PTS (from August 2014). In addition to his administrative duties, Matthew teaches Church History and Practical Theology at PTS.