Theological Education for Christians

Michael Allen
Thursday, July 1st 2021
Jul/Aug 2021
Introduction: Learning Theology in Ongoing Wartime

Theological study might appear to be a distraction in times of crisis, but such tumultuous times actually demonstrate the need for that kind of doctrinal formation. It’s a perennial reality that great unrest raises the question of justifying the investment of time, money, or passion in preparing for the future when things are so dire now. We should explore that sense of needing justification as well as the unique opportunity presented in such times.

First: On a Sunday in October 1939, Oxford don C. S. Lewis offered a sermon to university students titled “Learning in War-Time.” He said that they might be wondering why they should study Tennyson or Thucydides when a second war with Germany had just started. Lewis then reminded them that, in one sense, it’s always wartime and that education involves real worth no matter what the circumstance. Crises don’t make learning a luxury that can’t be afforded; otherwise, no one would ever be educated (for truly the crisis, the pressing need, and the call to action never recede).

Second: Pandemics, social unrest, political polarization, racial injustice, and severe economic challenges all demonstrate the need to think with wisdom and prudence, yes, but also with a deep sense of priorities and principles. Political societies might turn to first principles (watchwords being “freedom,” “equality,” or “the rule of law”), and yet Christians will want to turn to distinctly Christian language to order our thinking and action. Crises don’t make theological formation moot. They demand its mature functioning.

In this essay, I want to explore why theological education matters for Christian men and women, not simply for ministers or elders but specifically for laypersons. Then I want to address at least some significant aspects of how that theological education happens.

Why Does Theological Education Matter to Laypersons?


Laypersons don’t need to administer sacraments or preach sermons, but they are called to any number of Christian actions. In fact, one angle would be to say that all they are ever called to do are Christian acts. Christian store clerks are meant to follow their vocational training, show common courtesy, and the like, but much more importantly, they’re called to do everything to the glory of God. Their life and work are meant to express love for neighbor, yes, but as an extension of the love of God. How can their diligence manifest love for God? How can the way their conscience guides their business decisions manifest devotion ultimately to God? Wisdom is needed here.

Wisdom helps one apply principles and convictions in an appropriate and fitting way. When does this medical concern guide treatment, or when should that other malady be kept front and center? A wise physician knows how to foreground and background various matters in diverse circumstances. Wisdom not only knows principles and rules, but it can also think proverbially about the best contexts for putting each to work. For Christians, wisdom enables them to know how to bring the love of God to bear on various situations or duties or, put otherwise, how to bring those opportunities and challenges to the love of God.

Fear of the Lord”

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10). Those words are repeated regularly in Scripture, in both the Psalms and the Wisdom literature. When Scripture speaks of a “beginning” to wisdom, it doesn’t mean to draw our attention primarily to the first moment in which we may have exercised wisdom. This isn’t about the first experience of prudence. It’s rather a statement about the abiding fundament or ground of all wisdom, from the moment of conversion to the final breaths of a Christian’s earthly life. This fear of God always serves as root and rock for any act of Christian prudence and discernment.

What is this “fear of the Lord” that always grounds Christian wisdom? Well, we may begin with what it isn’t. “Fear” can mean anxious demurral owing to the anticipation of judgment or ill treatment; that kind of “fear” is talked about in the Bible. Yet, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). What is this wise fear of God? It’s a fear that is “clean” and “endures forever” (Ps. 19:9). To be most specific, it is single-minded attention given to God in any and all circumstances.

Theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas would distinguish between those kinds of fear. A fear of God’s judgment is “servile” and keeps one away from any intimacy with God, ever worried that his hand of embrace will be replaced with a smack from a hidden hand behind his back. That’s the fear the gospel of Jesus Christ casts out, now and evermore. It’s telling that two of the most repeated words of our Lord are “fear not!” And yet fear isn’t gone, for a “filial” fear remains and endures and even ought to aid us in “bringing holiness to completion” (2 Cor. 7:1). The kind of fear that endures and helps bring us to our intended end could be characterized as devotion, awe, and reverence. It involves a God-centered gaze that ever and always seeks to remember the Lord.

Why does this fear help work or ground the practice of wisdom? Well, we are prone to forgetfulness and to distraction. The urgent can tyrannize. The immediate can dominate. The evident can fill our gaze. The work of theological education, therefore, fills a unique need in helping us remember to always center our thoughts, our perception, our attention, and our imagination on the living and true God. The fear of the Lord helps us consistently center our being and action—our whole being and every action—on the Lord. To help parse out the kind of formative power involved, we can explore how training in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love requires theological education.


The apostle Paul says that these three virtues abide. There are many wonderful gifts and provisions. There may well be diverse ministries and roles in the kingdom. But three marks endure into the eschaton, and three virtues mark the Christian: “So now faith, hope, and love abide” (1 Cor. 13:13).

How does faith involve or require fearful attention to God? Faith or belief involves the trusting wager that there’s more than the empirically obvious—that the unseen is as real and determinative, as significant and serious, as the seen. We live by faith not sight, then, when we journey trusting God, his works, and his covenant promises.

The call to faith constantly alerts us to the need to avoid the narrowing of the circumstances and return trustingly to the broad, good way of God. That diagnosis may seem to leave you alone in a room with your cancer, eating away at your organs, bone, or blood. Faith, however, calls your attention back beyond yourself to that most interesting of characters in just this situation—to One who is neither cellular nor human but divinely transcendent. Faith doesn’t involve the denial of our finite limits and losses, but it does demand of us that we see more than those would suggest. We see not only bodily decay and a road to death. We also see a divine healer and comforter who has placed his name on us, whether he takes it up now or in the life hereafter.


Not simply faith in the perceptions of this day, but also hope and our imaginations of the future put the fear of the Lord to work. History won’t unwind, and it sure won’t simply progress to some apogee. The end of history will come when this divine One intends for it to reach its fitting conclusion. We don’t look for the denial of time or the triumph of time but always for the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4). To say that Christians are called to a gospel hope reminds us that our aspirations and desires must also be centered on God. Other things are well and good—sin excepted—but they are never primary, never ultimate, never desirable entirely for their own sake. God alone can be desired or aspired to for his own sake.

So many other visions swoop in to settle in our desires and yearnings. Advertisements and marketers spend billions of dollars and employ detailed algorithms to feed and direct various wants. Politicians cater to and sometimes call us toward different visions of the good life. Competing eschatologies can be relatively benign matters of preference (such as my desire to avoid some foods and feast on others), but they can also enter significantly weighty terrain (such as the presence of worship in that eventual bliss, whether worship of the one true God or of competing gods). The fear of the Lord helps us always consider the benign as well as the cataclysmic in light of God’s own presence and action. Only in so doing can we look with yearning to other things without thereby turning them into idols.


Not merely thought, or even simply yearning, but also our agency must be shaped by the fear of the Lord. There are three ways by which fear of God helps shape our agency. First, it reminds us that all action should tend to God’s greater glory rather than our own lesser glory. Second, all action should be guided by God’s word, not simply by our own intuition. Third, all our action should be sustained and strengthened by our trust in God’s promises; this is why Paul summons the Roman Christians not merely to action or obedience but more specifically to the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:23).

In other words, fearing God helps shape our end, our intuition, and our motivation for love and good works. Seeking to love apart from fearing God will invariably twist and turn toward building up our own reputation or glory. Trying to love without the fear of the Lord distorts our action in objectively wayward patterns, hurting and calling it “helping” or telling lies in the name of truth. Finally, any attempt at love that’s not ultimately fearful of God rather than humans will eventually be motivated by some creaturely promise of blessing or curse. Loving agency can turn into works righteousness just as much as anything else, and all it takes is for us to shift our gaze from the promises of our covenant God toward our own ability to manipulate, control, and provide for ourselves.

Intentional Formation in Wisdom

We need wisdom to act like Christian men and women. Doing so involves fearing God above all else, whether in terms of our perception, our imagined end and desire, or our active agency. And yet, we have to admit that this fear of the Lord and this Christian wisdom are a summons, not the natural status quo. They demand formation and intentionality, not least because they’re unaided and often abetted by extraneous forces or the sheer tyranny of the urgent. To remember the Lord and his ways, the living and true God and his promises, involves a repentant turn from forgetfulness and a trusting, hopeful, loving posture of intentional attentiveness to this Holy One. To fear the Lord—whether shaping thought, desire, or deed—requires a real and holistic education, the sort of formation that shapes every nook and cranny of our being.

We’re called to grow in a wisdom that involves knowledge of God as well as the prudent application of that knowledge to real-life circumstances. In other words, we’re called to know ourselves and our world as they relate to God, to our love for self and neighbor as it relates to our love of God and, even more importantly, his love for us. Wisdom therefore involves all sorts of knowledge, and we dare not minimize or trivialize that calling. It’s a real summons, and it’s a challenging one for those like us who live in an anti-intellectual age and likely experience a religious culture that’s often bought into that anti-intellectualism. But wisdom not only sees, it also raises knowledge by putting that knowledge to use through the application of genuine know-how. It’s engaged knowledge that can offer focused attention on God and also fix our sights on how God relates to anything and everything else.

How Does Theological Education Happen for Laypersons?

God is Lord of all and provides for all. That’s the claim of the famous Shema from Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (6:4). God doesn’t only reign over Israel or certain areas of life. God is the one God over all, by way of contrast with the lesser gods of Egypt behind and Canaan ahead. But the global nature of this God’s reign leads to the equally global imperative of his lordship: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might” (6:5). Because God reigns in every area of life, all aspects of our being should be given over to him in loving devotion. Abraham Kuyper helped us appreciate that “every square inch” of the globe comes under God’s rule, and we need only match that cosmic emphasis with a paired personal word—namely, that every nook and cranny of each Christian self ought to be given to this Lord in loving devotion.


Theological education happens as part of a common project of growing in maturity and being built up in this love, bringing holiness to perfection in the fear of God. Training involves generational commitment to passing along knowledge of the works of God and commending the praise of God. God can work miracles, of course, but even Damascus Road incidents tend to bring fresh light to long-given instructions that one would have received from a scriptural and moral formation (as Saul had received in his Jewish upbringing). Communal training isn’t primarily or exclusively defined by the biological family unity, though it may most frequently occur there. It is the people of God, the temple of the Spirit, the body of Christ that passes along to the next generation the good news of the gospel and the all-consuming summons to kingdom living.

Ordained officers play a key role in that educational community as they “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:11–12). They teach the word, whether in starting or sustaining a church, and they do so in such a way that laypersons are equipped to discern and dispense Christian wisdom. In that model, ordained officers don’t make all the decisions or coopt the responsibilities of laypersons, but they provide the imaginative and moral lineaments within which that kind of Christian judgment and intuition will be exercised. They train them in the basics, drill them in the rhythms, and then send them out to actually practice the Christian faith. Not only that, but they also train them in the word of the risen Christ rather than in their own words. Ordained leaders aren’t gurus, and they don’t build codependency. They are emissaries or ambassadors, and they train more attentive hearers and doers of the word. Even Paul, for all his moral and theological accomplishment, refers to himself simply as an “apostle” or a “sent one” from Christ Jesus when he addresses Christians.

The “communion of saints” also plays a role in terms of the ongoing witnesses of the now-departed men and women whose lives and words continue to testify to God’s truth. Intergenerational commendation of Christian wisdom surely happens locally, in most contexts or at least in well-functioning ones, but it also takes place historically. We can glean from the successes and failures of those saints who lived in other times and diverse places: How did they attend to God? What did they hear in his word? In what ways were they led to lives of service and mission? What sort of perception, imagination, and wisdom did they model, for good or ill? We dare not let any “chronological snobbery” lead us to believe that we’ll fare well apart from tending to their chorus. They are a “great cloud of witnesses” and help equip us not merely to repeat their lines but to “run the race set before us” (Heb. 12:1).


Education really does involve the training of every aspect of the human life to be devoted in love to God. To do so requires the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:28). Paul felt a sense of comfort in leaving Ephesus, only after he had commended the whole word to the church there, knowing they wouldn’t be left ill-prepared or underequipped.

For us, it might be tempting to think we’re well provided for, so long as we have our Bibles. But possession of a Bible isn’t the same as being equipped with the word. We can and should always ask about the functional canon of a person, church, or tradition. What is the actual canon that is read, prayed, sung, preached, and meditated on by that person or congregation or denomination or school of thought? A church can turn to the red letters of Jesus or the Pauline Epistles or the New Testament only, and they will be emaciated and malnourished. Paul himself told us of the importance of wholeness. When offering counsel about Scripture itself, he famously said,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

(2 Tim. 3:16–17)

Notice that he begins with the word all and concludes there by using every. We might paraphrase: “All Scripture” serves to prepare or equip the Christian for “every good work.” To the extent that we don’t prayerfully meditate on the whole word of God, we won’t be readied for every circumstance and loving act of service to God and neighbor.

Christian theological formation, therefore, must involve wholeness by seeking to equip men and women, adults and children, for faithfulness in every area of life and every fiber of their being by commending to them the entire word of God. (This is why plenary, or full, verbal inspiration matters so much to the Christian doctrine of Holy Scripture.)


Training shapes one for the journey and inevitably involves progress. The Christian is a pilgrim on a journey, no longer dead in Egypt to be sure, but also far short of Canaan’s fair and happy land. Theological education marks the walk of the one who’s on that way or path. The real goal in the here and now, then, can be identified as increasing maturity (not conclusion but also not mere repetition). Paul gives us words to clue us in to what’s desired: equipping with the word and ministry by the saints is intended to “build up the body of Christ” until they experience “mature manhood, the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12–13). That language variously and repeatedly summons us to grow up in Christ (which was Eugene Peterson’s favored phrase for the message of Ephesians as a whole and the Christian life by consequence).

Now, evangelical progress never ends. Gregory of Nyssa tells us that perfection will never cease, precisely because it’s a sharing in the very life of God. Since God himself is infinite, our sharing in his life as creatures will never come to an end. The very nature of Christian perfection will be unending growth in enjoying God’s presence. That’s the main message of Gregory’s book The Life of Moses. Yet Moses didn’t simply experience a homogenous kind of spiritual reality; rather, his life was marked by ups and downs (portrayed more often than not by literal ascent or descent of mountains) and had a demonstrable trajectory across it.

Christian theological education will involve perceiving limits and even sins more pointedly over time. That’s one of the great gifts of Martin Luther—namely, his development of a spiritual perception and a real intimacy with God that involved a growing, not shrinking, sense of his own sin. He wasn’t sinning more, mind you, but he was all the more aghast at how tragic were his failings, precisely because he was maturing in his knowledge of who God is and what God intends for us.

So, one of the great signs of Christian maturity is an increasing ability to lament pointedly and powerfully. Lament needs to be pointed because it’s not mere tears. Lament is sorrow over fissures between creatures and their God (a far greater tragedy than mere inconvenience or personal disappointment). But that kind of renewed focus on lament inevitably leads to a more powerful sorrow in this life, as we bear the burden of knowing how little we enjoy and return God’s favor. One day we should know fully, love completely, and lament no more. In this life and in our theological education now, however, we need to remember that growing maturity will involve not merely a clearer sense of God’s deliverance but also a greater gut-level perception of our tragic condition as we are still walking with God through a real wilderness.


Mindful that we’re no longer dead and cognizant that we have a way to go, Christian theological education is intentional and directive. God gives us a “broad place” or a safe way in which to walk, something the psalmist as a young man understood so poignantly because he tried to guide sheep through treacherous, small mountain ways. God gives us the peace of a wide berth, and he does so in granting us his law. That term means not merely his command (though it can sometimes mean just that moral imperative, as is crucial for us in rightly distinguishing law and gospel, a remarkably important theological need). That term refers to all of God’s instruction. We delight in his law, or instruction, because we long to know more of him.

Christians also learn to delight in aids that help them better hear, meditate, and follow that word. Traditionally, they have found that three such tools are needed. The creed (or broader confessions) helps them glean what is to be believed. The Lord’s Prayer (and the Psalms more broadly) provide a pattern for what is to be desired or hoped for. Finally, the Ten Commandments (and the general equity of the wider legal teaching) provide a sketch of what’s involved in love or the good life of action before God and neighbor. For centuries, Christians of various traditions have used those three texts—the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Decalogue—as instruments of discipleship, or catechesis, for new Christians. Like CliffsNotes or a Wikipedia entry, they help sum up the main headings of a larger book. Although they don’t replace reading the book itself, they do give us categories drawn from the book to help us better engage the book on its own terms.

Those instruments of catechesis aren’t simply a one-time affair either, because we’re pilgrims still seeking ever-greater maturity. That’s why I pray the Lord’s Prayer repeatedly every day, trusting it will prompt and redirect my own desires, fears, and yearnings that find expression in my own daily prayer. That’s why I recite the creed at home and in gathered worship, knowing that no matter how long I’ve been reading the Bible and theological texts, I still need to be returned to matters of first importance. That’s why I’ll read and pray over the Ten Commandments, searching out ways in which, decades into my Christian journey, I still need to turn in gratitude to God when I’ve loved and in repentance before God when I’ve failed to do so. In using these tools, I’m equipped to engage the wider resources of Scripture. John Calvin reminds us that Scripture itself serves as a set of lenses or spectacles, by which we’re equipped to engage wider aspects of human existence in a truly Christian manner. Catechesis or intentional discipleship training helps guide and shape that kind of perception and preparation.

Contemplation and Activity

In his essay “Meditation in a Toolshed” (found in God in the Dock), C. S. Lewis differentiated between “looking at” and “looking along” a beam of light. Looking at the light perceives its brilliance and force, standing out against the background. Looking along such a beam enables sense of other things, as they are illumined more fully by glancing from that newfound clarity. Both are vital, though they are truly distinct ways of seeing.

Christians have traditionally identified the importance of both the contemplative and the active life. They are summoned to contemplate God, to remember him, to study his great works, and to fear him above all else. Such theological and spiritual work requires focused attention (among other things). God must be the direct object of our gaze. But such contemplation doesn’t absolve us from the task of loving our neighbor; indeed, it equips us to do so more effectively as a mode of expressing our ever-deeper love of God (who is loved in our neighbor). That act of love, however, itself requires Christian thought and intentionality, so that it’s not an animal or irrational act.

We also need active or practical reasoning, seeking to perceive neighbor and circumstance as occasions of engaging God in everyday life. As the medievals might have put it, we need to trace back or reduce (reductio is the favored Latin term) all things to God, so we can know how to love all things appropriately and not idolatrously. If we don’t look along with God at everything else, then we’ll have far too diminished a notion of what God wants. But if we move from looking at God to looking along with God at ourselves and our world, then we’ll perceive how God—who is all glory in himself—also delights to share that glory and calls us to live as befits that glory in all manner of circumstances. Theological formation involves preparation in tasks both of contemplation and action, in looking at God and looking along God at everything and everyone else.

Why Theological Formation Matters: 2020-21 as Case Study

Far from negating the call to theological formation, might I suggest that recent tumults each reveal the significance of that intellectual and spiritual discipleship? Sadly, churches don’t always manifest the kind of maturity we might wish for. Mind you, churches don’t have a monopoly on immature behavior, which seems to strike everywhere, but it’s especially improper coming from Christians. When Paul spoke of the equipping role of training in the word, he identified these learning objectives:

Until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

(Eph. 4:13–14)

This past year has provided enough evidence of cunning, craftiness, and deceitful schemes, which oftentimes professing Christians have fallen into. In recent times, fright, falsehood, and fads surely marked much of purportedly Christian life. These are sad signs of a lack of equipping among many Christians.

But Paul commends a “mature manhood” for which God has intended us and also a design by which “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15). In recent times, there have also been witnesses to that fullness, maturity, and community. They avoided the deceitful schemes of the conspiracy theorists. They acted out of conviction, not flippant fads of the Left or the Right. They appeared in public witness—sometimes overtly, but often quite underappreciated—which reveals a real confidence in the word of Christ. They stood up to the crowd when needed. They refused to call evil “good” and insisted on gracious and truthful integrity. They are here, and even if they aren’t clickbait, they’re not silent.

If ever there were a year that showed the need for intentional theological formation of every facet of Christians’ lives, then the past year or so has been a remarkable matrix for revealing the presence or absence of true discipleship. Let’s seek training so we’re better equipped for the next crisis.

Michael Allen (PhD, Wheaton College) is the John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando.

Thursday, July 1st 2021

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

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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