Should going to theological college come with a warning sticker? Justin Brierley explores what happens when students put their faith under the academic microscope.
When Amy Orr-Ewing went to Oxford University to study theology as an undergraduate, she arrived as an evangelical Christian. However, she soon discovered that her professors at Christ Church College expected her views to change by the time she finished her course. Few before her had managed to survive with their evangelical faith intact.
But that didn’t deter her. Week by week she fought for an evangelical view of scripture, in spite of the liberal disposition of her tutors, having to work harder than her fellow students in order to defend her position in one-to-one tutorials.
After sitting her final papers, she was called back for an oral examination, known as a Viva ‐ something almost unheard of for an undergraduate student.
‘I had to defend my views in that context,’ she says. ‘It was pretty intimidating ‐ 14 dons of the university and me. NT Wright’s book Jesus and the Victory of God had just come out and I was using some of his thoughts and arguments around the historical Jesus in my Gospels paper, which were quite controversial at the time.’
Orr-Ewing, now director of programmes for the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, was eventually awarded a First for her degree. She recalls sitting down at a dinner with the head of her college, a theology tutor.
‘He told me, “We haven’t cured you of your evangelical views, have we?” and we laughed and talked about some of the reasons. I spent three years being quite thrown by the questions and having to investigate for myself whether it was true and stood up to scrutiny. By the end of those three years I was more persuaded than before.’
Many a young Christian leaving their home church for university has been told, ‘Don’t study theology…you’ll lose your faith.’ Orr-Ewing’s experience raises the question of whether theological college can be a danger to evangelical thinking. So, can a student’s faith survive the intense questions about the Bible and doctrine that it often involves? Or can the testing of your worldview lead to a stronger faith than before?
Evangelicals: the unlikely key to liberal survival
US mega-church pastor Rick Warren took to Twitter in early 2013 to launch an outspoken attack on liberal theology. He wrote: ‘Liberal theology cannot sustain a local congregation. It kills churches. In fact, it only survives due to tenured academics.’ His point was that academia tends to be the place where liberal theology reigns. Questioning Christian orthodoxy won’t get you removed from an academic post (apart from in the most conservative institutions). However, liberalism does not produce offspring in local churches, where growth is always among evangelical groups.
Dr John Hayward, a mathematics lecturer at the University of Glamorgan who researches church growth trends, agrees with Warren’s point that, in general, liberal theology tends not to produce church growth. ‘On the whole, conservative churches tend to be stricter in terms of what they require people to believe and their demands upon them, something which generally makes an organisation stronger. They convert more people and the converts tend to be more enthusiastic. In contrast, many of the liberal churches do not have a conversion rate and so most of the dynamics are of decline and ageing congregations.’
Part of the reason that liberal churches continue to survive, according to Hayward, is because a proportion of the evangelicals who go to theological college end up adopting a liberal theology. Conservative churches turn out to be indirectly ensuring the survival of liberal churches this way ‐ a proportion of their ordinands become more liberal and go on to pastor liberal congregations, or turn evangelical churches into liberal ones. He cites the Welsh chapel he grew up in as an example: ‘In common with many Welsh Presbyterian churches, it was rooted in the conservative evangelical theology of the 18th century revivals. When the 1960s started, a liberal minister came, who taught people to doubt the orthodoxy they had received. In ten years the church emptied from a few hundred to only a handful of members, as people left and found other conservative churches. After another decade the church was closed.’
The study vacuum: Theology without God
However, whatever the statistics may say, there’s no need to assume that studying theology is a one-way road to liberalism, even within a secular university. Chris Sinkinson, a tutor at Moorlands College in Dorset, was converted to Christianity while studying archaeology and philosophy as an undergraduate. He then decided to pursue a theology degree within a secular university environment, something which he says ‘challenged and stretched’ him. ‘I did find the questions challenging, but I can honestly say I didn’t find the alternative to a biblical Christianity particularly appealing,’ he says.
Nevertheless, like Orr-Ewing, he found that sustaining an evangelical view in such an environment meant students would have to work twice as hard.
‘If they were serious about their faith, they had to read twice as much as their non-Christian friends. The standard reading list given was probably giving one particular perspective (with some valid insights), but in order to counterbalance that with an evangelical view they’d have to double their workload as that material was probably not on the set reading list.’
Sinkinson now teaches within an evangelical college setting. Students coming to Moorlands are studying as part of a worshipping community ‐ something which makes a big difference to the way the theology is implemented.
‘I love teaching theology in a confessional setting, because I see a constant sense of eagerness and hunger to grow and to learn. We’re not just studying for exams or to tick boxes. There’s a real healthy sense that this matters.
‘We put a big emphasis on applied theology. Even during their studies, students must be involved in a placement church. We have students who go out to India or China to do a placement. They are constantly making the effort to see how the rubber hits the road and asking, “How is this theology useful for ministry?”’
What is Liberal theology?
Liberal theology tends to see the Bible and Jesus in human rather than divine terms, and is more likely to question the historicity of the Old and New Testament scriptures. There is less emphasis on substitutionary atonement, with greater openness towards pluralist views of salvation and a liberal view of morality.
What is Evangelical theology?
Evangelical theology views the Bible as the central authority for Christian doctrine and ethics. It upholds core doctrines such as the Incarnation, God as Trinity, Christ’s physical resurrection, and the necessity of Christ for salvation. It also tends to promote a more conservative position on moral issues such as sexuality, abortion and euthanasia.
Graham Tomlin, principal of St Mellitus, a training college for Anglicans, also highlights the importance of connecting personal faith with theology: ‘Doing theology without prayer means that you end up talking about God. Do theology with prayer and you end up talking with God. It becomes a conversation and a journey into understanding God rather than a dry academicsubject where you put God in a test tube and try to examine him. Continuing the habit of prayer throughout theological study is a crucial thing if you are going to keep your faith alive.’
Destroying and Rebuilding
Whatever the type of institution, the effect of studying theology can be a testing one for a student’s faith. They may be challenged to reconsider their view of the authority of scripture as they learn how the biblical canon came into existence and the different literary genres it contains. Students are likely to encounter a range of views on atonement, Christology, salvation, creation and more. Many Bible college graduates refer to a process of their theology course ‘deconstructing’ the worldview they had arrived at college with as they put their beliefs under the microscope. The level to which they then rebuild their worldview varies from person to person.
Richard Stein, an ordinand in his final year of training for ministry, described the process as an enriching one that led him to embrace a more evangelical theology than the one he had arrived with: ‘I came into college with a fairly open view towards homosexuality, and even said I’d be happy to perform gay marriages. However, after thinking, studying and praying through it, I’m now on the other side.’
Lucy Snell, a graduate of London School of Theology (LST), said that while she wouldn’t change her experience, she and her peers went through a challenging time trying to make sense of their beliefs: ‘Bible college is basically like your whole worldview being broken down into tiny fragments and then slowly being rebuilt, but not fully. Some of the rebuilding is done at college, but a lot isn’t.’
I wish I could say that everyone graduates as a more convinced believer, but that wouldn’t be true
There are also examples of those who lose their faith altogether. Des Williamson suddenly found himself an atheist at Bible college after what he described as ‘my emotions catching up with my intellectual questions’. Derek Tidball, former principal of LST, acknowledges that there is no guarantee that Bible college will cement the faith of a believer.
‘I can think of students of mine that I had great hopes for who ended up drifting in the faith. Sometimes that’s purely because of what they brought with them ‐ maybe they came too young and were doing their growing up at college. I wish I could say that everyone graduates as a more convinced believer, but that wouldn’t be true. But it happens the other way round as well. I know of a number who went to very liberal colleges who have come out as very convinced evangelicals.’
In reality, those who lose their faith are a small minority. The vast majority of those who are studying within a confessional college appear to emerge with a robust faith, albeit with the ‘sharp edges knocked off’. Tomlin points to his own positive experience as an example. ‘When I came out of theological study, some things that I had thought were terribly important I began to think were not as important, while there were other things that came to centre stage, and my faith in those things deepened and strengthened as a result of academic theology.’
The evangelical renaissance
Just as recent decades have seen growth among evangelical churches and overall decline among liberal congregations, so a sea change has also begun in the respect accorded to evangelical theology within academic circles.
In the early 20th century, ‘Higher Criticism’ became the mainstay of academic theology. It was a movement that viewed the Bible as a purely human product, with the Gospels having little or no connection to Jesus of Nazareth. The Jesus of history could only be accessed by peeling away the theological invention of the Gospel accounts, while whatever spirituality could be drawn from scripture was in the category of myth and metaphor. Influential academics such as Rudolf Bultmann ruled thetheological roost and the rest of the establishment followed suit.
However, in recent decades a new generation of evangelically minded scholars has been overhauling the assumptions of Higher Criticism, showing that the Gospels have a lot more going for them than Bultmann and his movement were willing to give credit for. Modern methods of textual criticism have increasingly been able to verify the reliability of early scriptural sources, and respected academics such as Richard Burridge, NT Wright and Richard Bauckham have been showing why the Gospels contain the hallmarks of reliable first-century Jewish biography.
Tidball notes that evangelicals are in the ascendancy even in the theology departments of secular universities.
‘In Biblical Studies I can think of many key academics in university departments who are evangelical in their approach to scripture in ways that would have been difficult to think of 40 years ago,’ he says. ‘There isn’t the same level of scepticism that there once was.’ By the same token, even within liberal theological institutions, the number of evangelical students is on the rise. Sinkinson recalls the situation at a college that he spent time at.
‘It was very noticeable to me that not one of the lecturers would describe themselves as evangelical, but probably 90% of the students would have described themselves as evangelical. The students didn’t lose their faith but they got enormously frustrated with the slanted teaching they were getting.
The theology barrier
The effect that theological questions can have on the faith of a young student is not a new one. Billy Graham tells the story of how he was faced with a similar dilemma in 1949. His friend and Youth for Christ co-worker Chuck Templeton had been challenging him with questions over the authority of the Bible. The ‘modern scholarship’ that Templeton had recently come to embrace was threatening the foundations of the young Graham’s ‘old fashioned’ faith.
After a time spent wrestling with the issues, Graham went to pray in the woods. He recalls placing his Bible on a tree stump and declaring, ‘Father, I am going to accept this as Thy Word ‐ by faith! I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts, and I will believe this to be your inspired Word.’
Graham credits that choice as a catalyst for his ministry. Soon afterwards he held his famous Los Angeles rally which propelledhim onto the international stage as a world evangelist. In contrast, Templeton eventually lost his faith altogether.
Perhaps Graham didn’t act in the most theologically sophisticated way in the woods that day. But then the evangelistic message he has preached, bringing hundreds of thousands of people to faith in the process, has always been a simple one. As Tomlin notes, in the end theology must always act as a handmaiden for the transforming power of the gospel.
‘Bad theology can get in the way,’ he says. ‘Good theology increases a sense of zeal for evangelism. Theology can, if you are not careful, complicate your own speech and language. Sometimes evangelism needs a simplicity which theological language doesn’t have. But everyone, evangelists included, need to understand the faith we proclaim so that we proclaim it authentically and faithfully.’
Charles Hodge, who was head of Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1830s, said, ‘The gospel is so simple that small children can understand it, and it is so profound that studies by the wisest theologians will never exhaust its riches.’ Almost 200 years later that saying remains true, as students still attempt to grapple with making sense of faith so that they can pass it on faithfully to the next generation.
"I lost my faith at Vicar School"
In some sense training for ordination was a practical decision as our vicar was retiring. I’d already been at our church for eight years and was asking myself, ‘What do I want in the next ten years?’ If a new person came straight in from being a curate, he would be my boss and yet I would have 20 years’ experience on him. That made no sense, so that pushed me to get ordained.
I had already done a Masters and had four small children. To be honest I could have done a better job at the lectures than some of the tutors. I’d already been training people in the church how to do the job. So, there was a sense of ‘What is the point of me being here?’
I was reading through the creed during a Communion service. As I was reading, I thought, ‘I don’t believe this, it’s nonsense.’ I felt like I was standing on a precipice, right on the edge, and looking down I couldn’t see the bottom. I could either step forward and go into freefall, or I could step back and pretend that I believed this stuff.
I’m pathologically honest, so I took the metaphorical step and went into freefall. I suddenly had a very clear sense that there is no God. I asked myself how I had got to this point. There were no particular things that triggered it, but I think I had been wrestling with some of the intellectual issues, and then my emotions caught up. Emotionally I’d been holding onto a faith that I’d been having questions about.
Even though I had become an atheist, I was still having strange spiritual experiences where I would walk around the college and suddenly feel like I was in touch with the universe. I had a really deep desire to talk to people about how they understood life and faith. There I was, training to be a vicar and I was looking for answers from other people. I tried to explain to my tutor what was going on. He was a very loving, caring guy but didn’t get it; he clearly had never come across someone who had lost their faith at college.
For a long time I felt completely in the dark. My faith had been deconstructed and needed reconstructing. Today, I’m discovering that faith is about how you behave and what you give allegiance to, not what you believe. I still don’t believe there’s a God looking down on us. I think I’m what’s called a ‘panentheist’, which means I believe God is in everything but not limited to everything ‐ God is beyond as well. But, to be honest, you could ask me tomorrow and I’d tell you I’m an atheist. I vacillate between the two.
Des Williamson spent several years as a youth worker and then a lay assistant minister in an Anglican church before training for ordination
"My faith got deconstructed and I’m still putting it back together"
The first thing I remember about my fellow students was how strange some of them were! I was among people whose approach to the Christian walk was very different from mine. Accountability and pristine accuracy governed over a relational and personal approach to faith.
I had the benefit of coming from a church where my faith was built upon my understanding of God. Some of my peers came from churches where their faith was built upon believing what their leaders said without question. So, when something that they had been taught to believe was thrown into question, it really disturbed them.
There were a surprising number very firmly against women being in leadership (mostly men). A huge number of them (though not all) changed their mind on the issue. There was no single line of belief among the lecturers, but they were all dedicated to teaching us how to investigate scripture and doctrine for ourselves.
When you are questioning everything constantly, it can be hard to keep going. Some people found it tough; where they had thought there were fundamental facts about the Christian faith, now everything was up for debate. Bible College is basically like your whole worldview being broken down into tiny fragments and then slowly being rebuilt, but not fully. Some of the rebuilding is done at Bible college, but a lot isn’t. It had an effect on my personal faith. Praying, reading the Bible and going to church was harder to do, because now I had so many questions.
One of the most common things is disillusionment with church. It’s very difficult to snap out of that. You can’t go into a church service without assessing the music, the songs, the words they use, the prayers, who they chose to pray, how biblical it was, and then of course the sermons... You almost have to relearn how to worship.
It’s a tough process, but I can’t imagine not doing it now; it’s such a huge part of who I am. It’s part of my personality to now question everything. I’m a different person to the one I was before Bible college.
Lucy Snell studied music, worship and theology at Bible college with a view to being involved in church ministry
"I’m now more evangelical than when I began"
Studying theology has been an incredibly positive experience for me. Being immersed in scripture and discussions has enabled me to have a broader and deeper understanding.
You are exposed to so many different views and interpretations. I see that as a positive thing. It’s good to know what others think, be they secular, liberal or evangelical. It’s forced me to think through why I believe the things I do and has led me to be firmer in my views rather than having a theology that was passed down. A big issue for me was universalism. Is everyone destined for heaven? I hadn’t met that view before. It forced me to reread the scriptures, and take it seriously. I’ve now moved to a position where I really hope that is the case, but I still wrestle with it as I can’t see that scripture justifies universalism. It’s still ultimately about accepting or denying Christ and heaven and hell.
Then there’s homosexuality. In the four years I’ve been training, the leading voices inside and outside the Church seem to have increasingly affirmed homosexuality.
I came into college with a fairly open view and even said I’d be happy to perform gay marriages. However, after thinking, studying and praying through it I’m now on the other side. I don’t feel that is the biblical perspective and I could not perform a gay marriage in good conscience.
I’m very open to other views and understandings (more so than I was before) but I’m more thought-through on my own position too. I don’t like labels, and I’m not defined on all the issues, but overall I’ve moved more towards the evangelical end of the spectrum. It’s ironic, given I am at a fairly liberal college in terms of the academic staff, and a lot of the people who have done theology here have gone the reverse to me.
Theological college gives you a grounding in all the views that are out there. That’s very different to the South African system that I came from, where you were told what to believe. The great thing in the UK is that you are given the tools to go and sort it out for yourself.
Richard Stein is in his final year training for ministry in the United Reformed Church