Between Scylla and Charybdis: Mapping Theological Education in “New-Normal” Indonesia

Amos Winarto Oei
Monday, May 2nd 2022
May/Jun 2022

The pandemic era has forced the world to undergo rapid changes. Some changes may be superficial, while others are much deeper, having become the “new normal” and reshaping the context in which theological education is carried out. How should seminaries particularly my institution, Aletheia Theological Seminary be doing their business, then?

In The Odyssey, Homer mentions two sea perils he calls Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla is a six-headed sea monster who eats men straight off their decks; Charybdis creates whirlpools that suck whole ships down into her mouth. They are placed close enough to each other to pose an inevitable danger to passing seafarers. Every captain needs to choose to either sacrifice a few sailors to Scylla or endanger the whole ship to Charybdis. This myth is an object lesson for discussing two current dangers within theological education. The Scylla of theological education is the danger of intellectualism, and the Charybdis is the danger of sentimentalism. For seminaries to safely navigate and pass these dangers within the ocean of theological education during this pandemic era and beyond, I will argue that they should recognize their nature and task. The nature of the seminary is a church school, and its task is to nurture Christlike servants of the Lord.


A Church School Against the Scylla of Intellectualism

The standards of accreditation for theological education are like other academic institutions. Higher education in Indonesia tends to underscore research, sometimes without regard for teaching and community service.[1] This is evidenced when there is a lot of competition in obtaining government research grants. Andrew Louth laments that for those who struggle financially, a research grant may become an economic prospect and transform theological values into economic values (“educational businesses”) such as marketable products bound by quality control.[2] This cry implies that while a research grant may turn a theological institution into a business corporation, the sole focus on the intellectual pursuit in theological education still appeals. In this case, to survive economically, a theological education should market its theology intellectually.

The danger of this intellectual emphasis is noticeable. Theological education may become a mere intellectual institution, an ivory tower, losing its touch with reality on the ground. It will no longer be a church school. An institution like Aletheia may overlook its purpose to be a school for the church. The intellectual quest may come at the expense of its churchly service and alienate its students from the churchly communities they are supposed to serve. It will slowly become an institution for intellectualism.

This is not to dismiss the academic character of such an institution. It is to say that intellectualism ought to be avoided. Theological training institutions succumb to the monster Scylla when their theological education process manifests itself as a culture of expertise, which exalts the power of know-how (intellect and skill). Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Know-how power corrupts as well. Here are some senses of the power associated with intellect and skill: “Our teacher said,” “My professor said,” “Your pastor said,” “Their minister said.” Hear the assumption of those people about the power embedded in their teacher, professor, pastor, and minister’s expertise. Theological education is no longer biblical when it rests on know-how pursuits. Many of us may know the abuses of intellect and skill powers in the seminary. Intellectually apt and skillful professors are, of course, most appealing! As a result, if one is intellectually apt and skillful, then one can do whatever one wants in the seminary. Scripture and theology will no longer apply because it is now based on experts and their expertise. We need to beware that as a church school, what happens at seminary institutions will transmit into the church.

In 2 Timothy 2:24, Paul does not ask Timothy to be an expert in teaching; instead he only asks him to be able to teach. Expertise is not required; ability is. Expertise tends to look down on others; ability requires humility in collaboration with others to continue developing. Expertise tends to rely on itself; ability needs to rely on others, even God, to grow. Scripture-based theological education does not seek to cultivate the culture of expertise. It does not, of course, completely dismiss intellect and skills. It only means that those should not become the final standards in doing theological education. Instead of a culture of expertise, we should promote a culture of biblically informed learning.

The Reformation slogan sola scriptura means that the text of Scripture is the ultimate foundation of preaching, teaching, and pastoral care in the church. The “ultimate” here does not mean that Scripture is the only authority, but it means that Scripture is the final authority.[3] All other authorities are to be assessed and questioned against the standard of Scripture, because even tradition and church may stumble. The Scylla of intellectualism poses the danger of switching the foundation of theological education to something other than Scripture.

In theological education, the ability to teach assumes some intellect and skills. It is imperative to develop that ability. There is nothing wrong, therefore, in learning new knowledge, expanding one’s intellect, and improving one’s skills. The current emphasis on performance and strategies in theological education—like the numerous procedures in developing curriculum, various techniques in psychological counseling, and several types of organizational management—is not of itself problematic. It only becomes problematic when this emphasis dismisses or excludes its biblical and theological basis.[4] When this happens, such institutions will no longer be distinctively Christian, and they will fail to convey the biblical values held by the church in its rich and long tradition.


Christlike Servants of the Lord Against the Charybdis of Sentimentalism

The other peril that theological institutions ought to carefully map in order to safely pass is the Charybdis of sentimentalism. This peril manifests itself in the culture of charisma. This culture is best represented by the term “influencer.” Influencers like social media celebrities have become a crucial factor for branding in social media marketing campaigns.[5] A recent study even shows that people tend to consider social media celebrities as more trustworthy than traditional celebrities.[6] These days, people can win trust by being popular and having a good deal of followers without even being physically present. This is where the Charybdis problem becomes apparent in theological education. It is the problem of conflating charisma with character; that is, good influence equals good character.

The problem becomes more complicated in the arena of leadership. If the proper indicator of leadership is, as John Maxwell argues, “influence—nothing more, nothing less,”[7] then the more influence a leader exerts, the more people will think at first glance that this leader has a good character. This is also the reason many leaders first focus on developing their charismatic skills—such as relationships, communication, and rhetoric—instead of their character. Without charisma, one cannot effectively influence others, and as such will never be competent to lead others. Listen, for example, to this leader’s speech:

Today, after two thousand years, with the deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before—the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian, I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice. And as a man, I have the duty to see to it that human society does not suffer the same catastrophic collapse as did the civilization of the ancient world some two thousand years ago.

Take these words at face value. Do they motivate us to engage in societal betterment? Many would feel the same. There are thousands of people who, upon hearing these words, would applaud and approve and even shout amen. Those words, however, were spoken by Adolph Hitler.[8] He sounds as if his words are driven by Scripture and Christian faith. Listeners, no doubt, would have assumed that a faithful and good-natured person stood before them. But Hitler’s words masked the deception behind them.

To safely avoid the trap of sentimentalism, we must pursue theological education as equipping servants of the Lord. Those engaged in full-time church ministry are also called verbum Dei minister, the “minister of the word of God.” The source of this phrase might be traced back to the Second Helvetic Confessions, authored by the Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger in 1562, who formulated a kind of motto: praedicatio verbi divini est verbum divinum (“The preaching of the word of God is the word of God”).[9] The business of theological education is about equipping servants, not church influencers, who administer God’s word to the church. Paul’s exhortations to Timothy in our text are to “the Lord’s servant,” and his list is about character formation: “must not be quarrelsome,” “kind,” “patient,” and “gentle.” A Lord’s servant demonstrates such depth of character not to exert some influence to have effective leadership. The depth of character is required so that God, by using this kind of servant, may lead others to “a knowledge of truth” or repentance. The power and glory are fully God’s. Servants have no right to claim any of it. Servants, unlike influencers, are not in the business of making followers to show the proof of their leadership. Their business is to serve others by teaching them to follow Jesus and not to follow them. Similarly, Eugene Peterson argues that the fundamental task of ministry is to “keep the community attentive to God.”[10] It is Jesus, God Incarnate, that servants and the community they serve must follow and be particularly attentive.

Theological institutions should not ignore this task in their theological education. Instead of the culture of charisma, they should promote a culture of character. To be more specific, it is the culture of Christlike character. Otherwise, they will sink into the Charybdis of sentimentalism. They will surrender their duty to serve others in a Christlike manner and become a power to master over others. If this happens, then theological education will be in the business of making charismatic leaders instead of equipping Christlike servants of the Lord.

Within the culture of charisma, the specific danger of emotional abuse always runs high. Emotional abuse also fittingly describes the Charybdis of sentimentalism. This may happen in two ways: economic and experience abuse. Rich leaders may abuse their economic power to exert their leadership, and experienced leaders may abuse their experience power to exert their leadership. Theological education will be conducive to these abuses when it relies on economic resources and seniority in doing its task. Instead of serving its students, such institutions may emotionally abuse them when they manage the resources in humiliating and controlling ways, leaving students feeling small and insignificant; or when they treat students unjustly and justify it by appealing to hierarchies or seniorities.

Theological institutions should be grateful that even during the pandemic, the Lord kept providing us with human and nonhuman resources. We should, therefore, keep promoting the culture of Christlike character and avoid being sucked into the Charybdis whirlpool of sentimentalism.


All Hands on Deck!

Apart from on ongoing study of God’s word written and lived in a Christlike manner, theological institutions have no true compass to map and navigate the ocean of theological education. The Scylla of intellectualism and the Charybdis of sentimentalism are always there, in and out of season, to take hold of those who have lost their bearings. Hold close to Scripture and cultivate the culture of biblically informed learning to steer away from the Scylla of intellectualism and the culture of expertise. Let us live out the task of serving the Lord and nurture the culture of Christlike character in equipping fellow servants of the Lord, to avoid being sucked in by the Charybdis of sentimentalism and the culture of charisma. In short, in mapping theological education in the “new normal,” I urge theological institutions to strive for a biblically learned and Christlike servanthood institution. In this way, seminaries can stay true to their path as a church school and nurture fellow servants of the Lord.

Theological education will thrive, even in the hardest storm of life. The power to thrive, however, is not found in our expertise and charisma. Paul says that we can speak with an angel’s tongue, understand theological mysteries, and give everything to those in need, and yet not look like our Lord in character (1 Cor. 13:1–3). Brilliant intellect and attractive sentiment are not fruit born of the Spirit in our lives (see Gal. 5:22–23). Let us not become a fake or be fooled by one, but instead strive to become biblically learned and Christlike servants of the Lord.

This article was adapted from a convocation address delivered to Aletheia Theological Seminary in 2021.

Dr. Amos Winarto Oei (PhD, Calvin Theological Seminary) is the dean of Students at Aletheia Theological Seminary in Lawang, East Java, Indonesia, and the author of The Perilous Sayings: Interpreting Christ’s Call to Obedience in the Sermon on the Mount.

1. Higher education, according to the Indonesian Government Law, consists of three duties (Tri Dharma): education (teaching), research, and community service. Undang-Undang Republik Indonesia no. 12, tahun 2012, tentang Pendidikan Tinggi pasal 1 ayat 9.
2. Andrew Louth, “Theology, Contemplation and the University,” Studies in Christian Ethics 17, no. 1 (April 2004): 76 (69–79).
3. Arnold Huijgen, “Alone Together: Sola Scriptura and the Other Solas of the Reformation,” Studies in Reformed Theology 32 (2018): 85 (79–104).
4. To further study the unity of theory and practice in theological study, see Richard Muller, The Study of Theology: From Biblical Interpretation to Contemporary Formulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991).
5. Marijke De Veirman, Veroline Cauberghe, and Liselot Hudders, “Marketing through Instagram Influencers: The Impact of Number of Followers and Product Divergence on Brand Attitude,” 36, no. 5 (2017): 798–828.
6. S. Venus Jin, Aziz Muqaddam, and Ehri Ryu, “Instafamous and Social Media Influencer Marketing,” Marketing Intelligence Camp; Planning 37, no. 5 (July 19, 2019): 567–79.
7. John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You, 10th anniversary ed. (Nashville: Nelson, 2007), 30. To be fair to Maxwell, he includes character as one of the many factors for leaders to exert their influence. Still, even though it is mentioned first, it is only one among many other factors.
8. Adolf Hitler, April 12, 1922 speech, in “Adolf Hitler Collection of Speeches 1922–1945: Hitler, Adolf : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive,” accessed August 8, 2021,
9. Christoph Markschies, “Reformation ist die normative Zentrierung auf Jesus Christus: Was wollen wir fünfhundert Jahre später feiern?” in Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD), Perspektiven 2017 : Ein Lesebuch : Luther 2017, 500 Jahre Reformation (Frankfurt: Hansisches Druck- und Verlagshaus, 2013): 59–63.
10. Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 2.
Monday, May 2nd 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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