Why We Need Theological Training (Part 1)

‘Bible schools are unnecessary.’ So thought the early British Pentecostal leader Donald Gee. Of course, he changed his mind long before he went on to become the principle of a Bible college. But that view he had before he saw the light and recanted the error of his ways wasn’t unique to him. Many Pentecostals and Evangelicals in his day thought the same. And many still do today. So, still today, many say things like: ‘it’s the Spirit’s anointing we need, not a college course’, or ‘we need to equip leaders, not train theologians.’ Still today serious theological education can be viewed in some quarters as either a waste of time or an unnecessary luxury. Now, I’m sure there is a way to mess it up and turn it into one of those, but most things in life can be messed up to become either a waste of time or an unnecessary luxury without doing away with the goodness of the thing itself. And theological education is, in itself, not only a good thing, but a necessary, beneficial, and even life-giving thing.

Donald Gee, as I’ve mentioned, changed his mind about Bible schools. When he’d become the principal of one, he wrote:

‘Bible Schools are unnecessary. That is exactly what I used to say for many years; and I believed it too! It is a fitting revenge that in the providence of God I now find myself installed as the Principal of such an Institution. What made me talk like that? …. Looking back I now know that in my case there was an unrecognised tincture of pride in what I said. I foolishly felt that I was doing pretty well as a pastor… in my heart I was saying, “see what I have done without going to any Bible School”.’ (Redemption Tidings, 15th Feb, 1958)

Gee left school at the age of 14 and went on to become a Pentecostal pastor without any theological study. But when he became a pastor, he discovered the need for the study he hadn’t had. To make up for it, he devoted all his mornings to systematic study, culminating in writing a new essay every day. Not an essay for examination or publication (although he did publish lots years later), but an essay consigned to the bin, simply to teach himself to think, to reason, and to argue a case.

In the course of his pastorate in Leith, Gee discovered some of the dangers which could arise among Pentecostals when serious critical thought isn’t cultivated. And from his experience of Pentecostalism both in this country and around the world he concluded that:

‘There is a need for the Pentecostal churches to … add to our fervent testimony of experience … a more determined intellectual effort to define our faith. We ought not enjoy deep emotion at the expense of shallow thinking.’

Donald Gee went from being an opponent of theological education for Pentecostals, to a hearty advocate. And not just for others, but for himself as well. For his own development and benefit he continued his theological studies throughout his life. And he didn’t limit his reading to other Pentecostal and Evangelical writers; Gee engaged with the latest prominent theological thinkers. For example, he studied the Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich (at a time when it would have been virtually unheard of for Pentecostals to read scholars like that!).

As Gee recognised, healthy Pentecostal experience and emotion cannot properly thrive if rooted in shallow thinking. The intellect is not the enemy of Pentecostal faith and experience. Rather, the intellect – the life of the mind – is a vital aspect of a flourishing Christianity.

On the night of His arrest, Jesus prayed to His Father, saying, ‘This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent’ (John 17:3). So, according to Jesus here, eternal life – salvation – involves knowledge. Now, of course, this isn’t mere intellectual knowledge: to know someone is more than to know about them. Yet knowing someone does involve knowing about them.

And so Jesus tells us that our love for the Lord is not limited to our emotions or our actions, but involves our intellectual life as well. For we are to: love the Lord our God, not only with all our heart and all our soul, but also with all our mind. (Mt 22:37/Mk 12:30/Lk 10:27).

And that is precisely what we do, when we engage in the hard work of theological and biblical studies! As C.S. Lewis put it:

‘Many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.’ (Introduction to Athanasius, On the Incarnation, p.8)

Perhaps Pentecostals might demur when it comes to a pipe between the teeth, but we can certainly get on board with getting out our theological books and pencils, as a way of loving the Lord with all our minds!