A Book Review from Books At a Glance
Reviewed by Casey G. McCall
In Theology, Church, and Ministry: A Handbook for Theological Education, David S. Dockery brings together a gifted group of scholars from a diversity of theological disciplines to pen an apologetic for theological education. Dockery notes in the preface that this book “has been designed to introduce readers to the place that theological education plays in preparing God-called ministers for service in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ” (xv). The book accomplishes its purpose and makes a convincing case for theological education while accurately and honestly warning of many of the dangers often associated with it.
The book’s first section situates theological education historically, defines what the authors mean by “theological education,” and makes the biblical case for the value of theological education. This section also includes a helpful chapter on ministry calling and another valuable chapter on the relationship between theological education and personal spiritual formation. The second section covers the various disciplines (biblical languages, systematic theology, hermeneutics, etc.) within the curriculum of theological education, allowing each author to argue for the importance of his or her discipline in preparing ministers for the church. The third section moves the book toward practice by exploring how the theological curriculum is applied within the context of the church (preaching, pastoral ministry, evangelism, missions, etc.).
Overall, this book would prove helpful primarily for potential or current ministers of the gospel who are exploring the possibility of pursuing theological education and for theological educators who would benefit from the reminder of theological education’s role in equipping ministers for the church.
Whenever I interact with books like this (edited volumes with multiple authors advancing a single agenda), I look for several things in determining the book’s value. First, do the various essays flow smoothly and complement one another? Second, is new ground being broken that advances the stated purpose of the book? Third, does the book do a good job anticipating and answering the questions of the reader? The remainder of this review will answer each of these questions.
First, do the various essays flow smoothly and complement one another? Dockery as editor does an admirable job of ensuring the major bases get covered. The book flows smoothly from big picture to practice and is nearly comprehensive in addressing the major components that comprise its topic. He even includes a very eye-opening chapter by Timothy C. Tennent entitled “Theology and the Global Church” which challenges many of our theological blind spots in the West. Tennent contends that our context shapes our chosen topics in theological reflection and that other cultures are asking different theological questions that we need to consider. Tennant writes, “The truth is, we need the whole church engaged with the whole church to produce good theological education” (419).
However, this book predictably suffers from repetition and overlap and even some unintended tension between some of the various authors. To take one example, the two chapters on biblical languages, “The Languages of the Old Testament” and “The Study of the Language of the New Testament,” make similar cases for each language. The same can be said about several other chapters in the book.
Also, because of the nature of the book (having various authors), the careful reader will be able to pick up on some key differences among several of the authors. For example, in chapter ten, Daniel I. Block argues that “it is misguided to impose upon the First Testament [Old Testament] the theology of the new,” and, “First Testament texts do not all point to Jesus Christ” (199). Two chapters later, Kevin J. Vanhoozer writes, “The error lies in thinking that the meaning of the text is wholly a function of its grammar and original context…To follow rightly the way the biblical words go requires us to do justice not only to the sense they had in their immediate historical context but also to their redemptive-historical and canonical contexts. Sometimes only by taking these other contexts into account can we read the Bible Christianly” (249). The reader is forced to walk away without any further dialogue on this point of tension.
Second, is new ground being broken that advances the stated purpose of the book? As a basic introduction to theological education, the book holds up to criticism. Some chapters are stronger than others, but taken as a whole, the book achieves its goal of convincing the reader of the value of formal theological education by successfully making a biblical, historical, and practical case.
Third, does the book do a good job anticipating and answering the questions of the reader? Here is where my biggest criticism lies. When I initially saw “Church” in the title of the book, I got excited. As a seminary-trained pastor who received years of mentoring in a local church context, I have long wanted to see more conversations taking place about the relationship between theological education and the local church. However, as I read this book, I wrote one question in the margins over and over: “What about the church?” Besides the acknowledgment that theological education has local church ministry as its goal, is there a place for the local church in the actual training program of theological education? I was hoping this book would further explore this question. Aside from a few chapters (especially Daniel L. Akin’s), this question largely goes unaddressed, leaving the reader with the impression that many of the authors of this book do not consider the local church as playing a vital role in theological training.
Akin’s chapter, however, is one of the highlights of the book. Akin begins his impassioned plea for prioritizing the local church by stating: “God did not ordain or give [the Great Commission] to institutions of theological education. Such institutions are servants to the churches. To the extent that they fulfill that assignment of providing a well-trained and equipped minister, they justify their existence. To the extent that they do not, they forfeit their right to exist” (389). Later on, he quotes D.A. Carson’s response to the question, “What is one thing you would change about seminary?” Carson responded, “[We need] close integration with an expanding apprenticeship program in our best churches, led by pastors who believe in theological education but who will also train our MDiv. Graduates in relationships, spirituality, consistency, hands-on ministry, street smarts.” Akin notes that Carson called such a vision “utopian.” Akin responds, “I believe what Carson calls utopian should be a reality in all seminaries” (394).
I would like to see Akin’s chapter moved to the front of another book which invites the same list of scholars to interact with what he’s proposing. How does the systematic theology professor partner with the local church pastor in training ministers of the gospel? How can the Greek and Hebrew professors point their students back to the local church to practice what they are learning? How can seminaries break down the wall that has been constructed unintentionally between the academic hall and the fellowship hall?
In conclusion, Theology, Church, and Ministry: A Handbook for Theological Education achieves its primary purpose of making a convincing case for theological education. However, if you are looking for a deeper conversation exploring how theological education can improve itself by tethering itself more strongly to local church ministry, read Akin’s chapter and pray for a companion volume.
Casey G. McCall
Lead Pastor at Ashland Oldham County
PhD. Student – MBTS