Something old, something new: Innovation in theological education

Why is theological education necessary? What are the conditions of its fruitfulness? Such questions are both basic and perplexing. Several years ago I posed these questions as conversation starters to a group made up of seminary presidents and deans of university-related divinity schools. I was surprised and more than a little disheartened by how much difficulty we had in addressing these topics. I had naively thought that such basic questions were regularly on our minds as we interpreted our institutions to students, faculty, staff, donors, congregations, judicatories and the broader culture. I discovered that I was less articulate than I should be in answering my own questions.

Answering the “why” question about theological education is urgent. It will involve creative experimentation rooted in traditioned innovation. I coined the term traditioned innovation several years ago to distinguish life-giving innovation from approaches that treat change as good in itself—an approach that suggests that we are just making things up as we go along. Traditioned innovation, Duke New Testament professor Kavin Rowe has said, is a biblical way of thinking.” It is a way of thinking desperately needed in theological education today.

Many experiments in theological education have not drawn on the best wisdom of the past. Meanwhile, many people have put their heads in the sand, refusing to ask the “why” question, pretending that we don’t need much innovation. Leaders may undertake a few incremental changes and experiments but try nothing truly disruptive of current realities.