Spiritual Formation and the Purpose of Theological Education

I have personally heard the president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Dennis Hollinger, quote a famous saying twice: “As goes the seminary, so goes the church.” Theological education has a huge impact on the church; therefore, it is crucial for theological educators to always bear in mind its correct purpose. I hope to reflect here on the purpose of theological education and how we should do it.
The content and task of theological education is inseparable from its purpose. The purpose decides the content, and the content serves the purpose. In a speech to the first Chinese seminarian conference, Hollinger used three components – the head, the heart, and the hands – to represent thought, passion, and action respectively, and he noted that Christians historically tend to gravitate toward one or the other. Seminaries tend to draw people who are head oriented and most professors are oriented toward working with ideas and concepts.

Little attention was given to spiritual formation by seminaries in the past. According to Edward Farley from Vanderbilt Divinity School, this was the influence of the Enlightenment. The purpose of theological education as a way of living has been replaced by the study of theology as a subject. It happened with the birth of modern universities at the opening of the nineteenth century. In his opinion, “…present-day theological schools simply cannot provide theological education.” Therefore, it is pivotal to recover the nature and goal of theological education.

Gary Parrett, a professor at Gordon-Conwell, defines Christian education saying, “To teach is to come alongside another, in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the company of the faithful, to seek an encounter together with the Truth; taking aim to perceive it more clearly (perception), consider it more critically (cognition), embrace it more passionately (affection), obey it more faithfully (behavior), and embody it with greater integrity.” Theological education has several dimensions and it involves the heart, mind, and hands of the individual. In other words, the person as a whole is involved. It is a personal encounter with the Truth, the Word of God. And it is done with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Christian education essentially is not about passing on knowledge; rather, it is about people and their relationship with God. For this reason, academic ability is not the most important qualification. Teachers of the faith can be said to be a sort of living Torah, according to Parrett. They do not only familiarize themselves with the Word of God, but also live out the Word. They need to have a good relationship with God in order to lead students close to him.

Marva Dawn, retired professor from Regent College, considers daily immersion in the Word and prayer as the most important component required for a pastoral heart and warns that young people will reject a Christianity that is hypocritical. Relationship requires relationship. A teacher who does not have a personal relationship with God can hardly draw people to God.

This should also be held true for theological educators. As Elizabeth Conde-Frazier from Eastern University writes, “As a Christian educator, I realize that transformational teaching needs to make use of personal experience. This is because transformation entails bringing together affective and cognitive dimensions.” Theological education is not like courses such as science, engineering, mathematics in which people who are morally corrupted can still make great achievements with their gifted intelligence.

Community is essential to Christian education. The Bible emphasizes the importance of teaching God’s Word to children as in Deuteronomy 6:7. Parrett argues that parents are to be the key players in teaching. And on the other hand, as Dawn points out, “…it is impossible for parents to raise Christian children alone.” Both church and home are important settings for Christians to grow in faith. It should be done as a community and within the community of the believers.

How can future ministers learn the importance of community? Seminary should be a place for them to enjoy and to learn. Jackson Carroll from Duke Divinity School concludes in the book Being There, “The culture of educational institutions plays a powerful role in how students are actually shaped.” According to this, distance-learning programs are not effective in shaping students because it prevents building a culture together. Such programs are helpful for those who cannot become full time students due to distance, finance, or ministry, but they should not replace traditional education.

God’s Word is the center of theological education. It is not to be studied as merely an object. The primary purpose of studying God’s Word is to encounter it in our lives, and let the Word of God shape us. The secondary purpose is to teach students so that they can teach in their field of ministry (2 Timothy 2:2). If we solely emphasize academic training, the Bible becomes an object of research rather than “…the Living Word of God.” If we primarily target training students to teach and they are not spiritually mature, their ministry can be in danger of running like a business rather than building relationships with God and people.

Perhaps the most important factor to consider is the Holy Spirit. If we truly believed the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, that the Holy Spirit is the Teacher who leads us into the Truth, and that only the Holy Spirit can change the hearts of people, how would it affect theological education? One thing it would change is our view of prayer. We need to take more time to pray. It is not only a ritual we practice before we start each class. It is the key. It is very possible that students may learn knowledge in the classroom, without their lives changing at all. Teachers and future teachers must learn that we cannot change people’s hearts unless the Holy Spirit works. We need to open ourselves in prayer and ask the Holy Spirit to work in us. Therefore prayer is important, both privately and publicly.

Would You Pray With Us Today?

Sign up to receive our weekly prayer emails with requests for the house church in China

The challenge for prayer sometimes is the matter of balance. Most Western seminaries make prayer meetings optional. They do not want to fall into the pit of legalism by making prayer meetings mandatory. On the other hand, Asian seminaries think that students will not automatically give enough attention to prayer and make prayer meetings mandatory. They believe that although it could be legalistic for those students who do not know how to pray, they will eventually learn to pray by praying.

The focus of teaching ministry in the church is to form the Christian to be Christlike (Galatians 4:19). The objective is spiritual formation rather than merely passing on Biblical and theological knowledge. Seminary as a place to train church leaders should not deviate from that purpose. Seminaries at the graduate level might assume that incoming students are spiritually mature and familiar enough with the Bible, ready for academic training. But the reality contradicts the assumption. Jack Fitzmier, director of the American Academy of Religion, reveals that an appalling number of the new students have never read the entire Old Testament. Of course, reading the Bible several times does not automatically make a person spiritually mature. But how can students be spiritually mature if they haven’t read the Bible once?

Some schools may admit that students do need spiritual care, but not all. John Frame of Reformed Theological Seminary says that some schools do not take spiritual formation as their main focus. Those schools claim that “…training in spiritual character was the work of the church, not of academic institutions; it was illegitimate, therefore, for the seminary to try to take over the work of the church by introducing spiritual nurture into its curriculum.”

I think this is too idealistic. Like most seminaries, the church also tends to assume that seminary students are spiritually mature enough to be church leaders. They expect seminary students to take care of others rather than being taken care of themselves. I think both the seminary and the church should discard this assumption.

As a place to prepare students for ministry in order to help the church fulfill its mission, seminary has many tasks. It is therefore helpful for students to understand the mission of the church. We start with general questions: Why are we in the world? What is the purpose of our lives? Both the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechism begin with the question: What is the chief and highest end of man? The answer they provide is “…to glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him forever.”

How, then, do we glorify God and enjoy Him? We glorify God through worship, through obeying His Word, and through bringing more people to do so. From this derives the three basic tasks of the church: worship, Christian formation (teaching) and outreach (evangelism). These ministries are all primarily relational. The existence of the seminary is to help the church realize its purposes. Seminaries should not exclusively focus on only one aspect and neglect the others.

We need to face the reality. More and more students come without much Biblical knowledge and church life. Seminary should be a place for them to grow spiritually before they enter fulltime ministry or they will be quickly spiritually drained. Spiritual formation should be the main purpose of Christian education. When we separate spiritual formation from Biblical training, Christian education will inevitably fail to fulfill its purpose.


Martin is a Chinese international student studying at an Evangelical seminary in North America. He is passionate about the theological education of the Chinese house church and will return to serve in teaching ministry upon the completion of his education. You can visit his personal blog here.



Share This Story

Further Reading

How I Prayed For Instruction
Read More
God's Love in Trials: A Letter of Encouragement
Read More
A Chinese Immigrant’s Reflection on American Holidays
Read More


A short message about partnering with us.