Exploring Theological Education as Discipleship: The Role of Content & Information

Several series within these blog pages have covered seminary education as discipleship.

As the idea has been discussed with faculty and staff at Winebrenner Seminary, several major questions repeatedly arise. One such question is “what is the role of content in the classroom context?” Answers range from seminary education as discipline of the mind to various integrated approaches. Certainly, discipleship always includes content in a variety of forms. However, we grow only when content becomes “information”; in other words the content we experience needs to become meaningful for us in ways that go beyond just adding knowledge. It may be experiential information, that which comes from painful situations, new academic insight, or a variety of other means.

An early twentieth century theorist named Jean Piaget offered a model for growth. He theorized that everyone seeks internal equilibrium. View that as an internal way of standing on a balance ball. When we get new information, it creates an unbalance internally as we integrate the new information. We are forced to respond in some way, often promoting new growth. Further, the role of education becomes providing new information that creates an imbalance; subsequently, education helps integrate that new information.

From Piaget, let us attempt a brief (and extreme reduction) of theologian Bernard Lonergan. He started with our continual experience of new things. We then go in search of explanations to make sense of that experience. While many Evangelicals are only comfortable with theology starting with biblical information, it is reasonable to say that even the study of scripture is an experience that might prompt further investigation.

The role of information, then, is always central. The only questions are how information helps, the ways it might serve as a formational catalyst, and models that might help explain how it works. Educators today talk a great deal about information literacy. Essentially, it is a term used to help us understand how to find, evaluate, and utilize information. A sound model of information literacy helps a great deal in understanding seminary education as discipleship. Seminary is discipleship in that it helps people find new information, often in new ways; it teaches evaluation of information through various levels of sophistication, and creates understanding of how to utilize that information.

Quality evaluation of information essentially guides solid growth or one finds imbalance created by inaccurate information. Certainly, Evangelicals believe that such an evaluation (within a Christian community) could have corrected theological errors from Joseph Smith (Mormons) to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many other examples. Seminary education, then, seeks to help students determine the validity and accuracy of information. It seeks to provide ways of evaluating information (using critical thinking skills), as well as the information itself. All of that is in service of new information forging new pathways of being like Christ. There are various ways of applying information. In Winebrenner’s Pathways Collaborative track, we focus on information that is more immediately applicable. In graduate classes, we tend toward information where the application may take several more steps (biblical languages or church history). The goal is to produce transformation of students, immediate contexts, and the larger world.

– Dr. Bruce Coats, Academic Dean

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