Reenvisioning Theological Education: Exploring a Missional Alternative to Current Models
If you have an uneasy feeling that all is not well with the prevailing models of theological education, then Robert Banks's Reenvisioning Theological Education may both encourage you and further unsettle you. On the one hand, it may encourage you because Banks and the many authors with whom he interacts note many of the same problems that you likely see. On the other hand, Banks's contemporary relevance may discourage you when you note the publication date and realize that not much has substantially changed in almost twenty years. In his introduction, Banks explains that a deficient theological education is not just a problem for pastors-in-training who hope to lead churches, but it is a problem for the churches, that is, all the Christians, that these pastors-in-training eventually hope to lead. From his vantage point in 1999, he believed that the discussion had helpfully shifted away from merely operational and logistical concerns and had become centered on theological concerns, yet he lamented that even this progress "has not yet changed the way most theological institutions operate" (10). Therefore, he aimed not to articulate his position "idealistically," but to "talk about concrete ways it can be realized" (3). In this way, his approach mirrors his ultimate aim: calling and motivating educational institutions to embrace a missional alternative in order to actively move toward reunifying theory and practice, knowing and doing, reflection and action.
Banks divides the book into four major parts, each containing four chapters and a conclusion, followed by a two-chapter conclusion to the book as a whole. Part one comprehensively orients the reader to the primary players involved in the discussion. Chapter 1 introduces the "classical" or "Athens" model primarily via Edward Farley's Theologia, which Banks credits with sparking the theological education debate. Chapter 2 discusses Joseph Hough and John Cobb's practical theology and Max Stackhouse's Apologia as representatives of the "vocational" or "Berlin" model. In chapter 3, Banks examines Charles Wood's "visionary discernment," David Kelsey's emphasis on "knowing God truly," and Rebecca Chopp's Christian feminist approach as attempts to help Athens meet Berlin in a "dialectical" model. Finally, Banks summarizes his analysis of and personal reservations with respect to each of these proposals in chapter 4 before considering the efficacy of what he calls the "confessional" model in the work of Catholic theologian George Schner and evangelical theologian Richard Muller. This somewhat counterintuitive pairing seems to have the intended effect of silencing those who would suggest that this is only an issue in more liberal, mainline denominational institutions. In part one's conclusion, Banks makes perhaps the most startling and disheartening observation in the entire book: the theological education debate has for the most part either ignored Scripture or denied its relevance to the conversation.
This observation is the launching point for part two, where Banks aims to fill this significant void with a biblical vision for theological education. The first chapter makes a case for the Bible's role in the discussion, and chapters 2, 3, and 4 look at ministry formation before Christ, by Christ, and after Christ. Unfortunately, this is the weakest section of the book. While Banks's effort to bring the Bible into a conversation largely devoid of it previously is commendable, many of Banks's biblical references are either incorrectly cited or not relevant to his point. This makes assessing many of his claims difficult. He makes many keen observations about certain biblical texts along the way, but he has a tendency to ignore their historical and canonical contexts and rather jump straight over their original meaning to applying those observations to the present practice of theological education. His conclusions seem to be eisegetical rather than exegetical.
Although Banks begins to outline his model on the basis of somewhat shoddy text work, we would do well to remain attentive for there is much to learn from his unique perspective. Part three exposes the deficiency of educational models that fail to actively integrate theory and practice. Chapter 1 mines the best aspects of "mission-oriented" and "missiological" education in pursuit of the "Jerusalem" or "missional" model and critiques them for thinking "too much in terms of reflection on rather than reflection in ministry and life" (137). Chapter 2 defines the missional model as being "primarily though not exclusively concerned with actual service –– informed and transforming –– of the kingdom and therefore primarily focuses on acquiring cognitive, spiritual-moral, and practical obedience" (144). Banks then elaborates upon the missional model by succinctly contrasting its goals and practices with those of the other major models. Finally, chapters 3 and 4 describe how the tasks of learning and teaching must change if an institution adopts the missional model. Banks concludes with a brief look at three examples of innovative theological schooling in order to motivate the reader to ask the question he answers in part four: "How do we do that?" These include the "school" of Alexandria, educational practices during the Reformation, and the reflections of both R. Paul Stevens and Banks himself on their own experiences with education.
Part four demonstrates that the task of reunifying theory and practice consists of more than altering the curriculum. While Banks discusses curriculum reform in chapter 4, he emphasizes the need to adjust to the changing demographics of students pursuing theological education, including greater numbers of non-traditional students as well as women and ethnic minorities (chapter 1), the need for both personal and communal dimensions in formation (chapter 2), and the need for broad-spectrum changes in the institutional culture of schools, churches, and the academy (chapter 3). Being aware of the comprehensive scale of this proposal, he preemptively prepares the eager reformer for either institutional inertia or outright opposition, but offers only light rebuttal to some of these anticipated objections. He also provides more examples of missional community education, schools for servant leadership, and interdenominational ventures in an effort to prime the imagination for those who need a more concrete picture of what this kind of education might look like.
Contrary to claims in some other critical reviews of the book, Banks does warn against the potential for anti-intellectualist interpretations of his thesis (149–56). His negative reception among some academics may be the result of establishment-challenging statements like this: "Too much research and writing focuses on in-house concerns, and too much of this is purely technical, epistemological, and methodological" (217). Banks could have strengthened his thesis by devoting more space to articulating the purpose of the church and its role in theological education. Although a well-argued definition of the church's mission seems basic to his effort in this book, he instead assumes his theological footing is firm. He suggests that the church is responsible for setting the theological agenda, yet he misses the opportunity to show how church-based theological education provides both theological oversight and the appropriate arena for action-oriented learning. Next, Banks states that the church's "prime task is to undergird its people's vocation in the world" (219). This demonstrates his good and necessary temporal concerns, but unfortunately, these seem to remain disconnected from the ultimate end of education. As John writes, "Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen" (1 John 4:20 NIV). Therefore, Banks could have drawn more tangible lines between the love of neighbor and the love of God. Although Reenvisioning Theological Education is hampered by some significant weaknesses, its equally significant strengths continue to make it an invaluable contribution to present day conversations about the proper mode(s) of theological education.