Editor’s Note: We are celebrating Dr. David Turner’s 32 years of ministry in the Bible department at GRTS. After the Spring 2018 semester, he is stepping out of his full-time role as Professor of New Testament. We asked him to reflect on his time here and to offer a parting word for students, alumni and colleagues. This is the first of three posts.
Distilling (can I use that word here?) thirty years of thinking and teaching with valued colleagues at GRTS is not easy, but here goes. Let me center my thoughts on three key terms, identity, constituency, and mission. This post will engage identity, and my subsequent posts will explore the other two.
INSTITUTIONAL IDENTITY: WHO IS GRTS? WHAT IS OUR BRAND?
When I did my M.Div. in the early 1970s at another seminary (I know, my bad . . .), we tended to think that a seminary education was mainly about theory—learning how to do biblical exegesis would enable us to prove orthodox doctrines, leading to sound teaching, God’s blessing, church growth and nearly everybody living happily ever after. We tended to believe this until we began to practice ministry and suddenly it wasn’t that simple.
Almost 50 years later it seems to me that for many incoming seminarians things have flipped. More often than not students tend to think that seminary is about learning what techniques work best in current cultures. In this view success in ministry comes from packaging of a modicum of biblical and theological content in a way that resonates with one’s culture.
At GRTS back in the late 1980s–early 1990s (it was GRBS then), Jim Grier got us thinking about the relationship of theory and practice in theological education. Jim was influenced by Edward Farley and Thomas Groome, who articulated a view of theological education as ecclesial reflection in a context of shared praxis. In this model, theory (biblical exegesis and systematic theology) informs practice (preaching, mentoring, counseling), and, in turn, ministry practice leads us “back to the drawing board” to reexamine our biblical and theological roots. In other words, seminary education isn’t merely receiving biblical and theological truth in a passive mode. Neither is it learning how to analyze and assess current cultural trends. Rather, within our confessional stance, we rethink our views about Scripture, theology and culture in an atmosphere of ministry engagement, leading to reaffirmation, revision and refinement. Even more importantly, the process renews and refines us. As we refresh our grasp of the word of God, the God of the word grasps us more closely through the Spirit and equips us to relate biblical revelation to people
This way of thinking about ministry was all new to me at the time. It led me to reject what I had thought in the 1970s as well as what many seem to think today. To do theology well—so that God will be glorified, the church edified, and the world changed—we need foundational theory based on close reading of the Bible, both in its original context and in conversation with those who closely read it centuries before we were born. This sort of ongoing biblical-theological reflection informs, revises, and renews the practice of ministry, and the practice of ministry in contemporary cultures leads to renewed impetus and direction for biblical and theological study.
This view of theological education has implications for a seminary’s curriculum. The Cornerstone Confession expresses the foundation for academics at GRTS, and we loyally affirm it. As heirs of the protestant reformation, we are “reformed,” at least in a generic sense. Yet our classroom ethos is not simply about reaffirming our historic beliefs but about exploring Scripture, tradition, and culture, and how ministry should be done with all three in mind. With our current constituency, we need to equip students for a wide range of denominational and vocational settings. Accordingly, we emphasize method, not just content, and investigation, not just indoctrination. Most of our students are already “fishing for people”—we had better help them learn to do it better.
There have been some significant developments at GRTS since we began to articulate our work in terms of ecclesial reflection in a community of shared praxis. Bob Lehman began what is now a nationally ranked program that produces licensed professional counselors who know how to think biblically and theologically. John Lillis brought an emphasis on community-based spiritual formation. Doug Fagerstrom introduced ministry residency as a required locus of formation during theory-informed, mentored ministry practice. Royce Evans led us into a cohort program where urban ministry leaders reflect together on theory-based practice. An annual study trip to Israel where understanding the land of the Bible leads to a better understanding of its message.
So, who is GRTS? What is the GRTS brand? The school seal puts it succinctly in words dating back at least to the seventeenth century: Ecclesia semper reformanda: “the church always being reformed.” A more complete way of putting this describes the church as “reformed and continually being reformed by the word of God.” We can’t truly say that our lives and ministries are normed by the Scriptures unless we are continually being reformed by them. May God’s grace continue enabling GRTS to be a place where students flourish under the norming and reforming power of the gospel of Jesus in the power of the Spirit!