Do Christian Writers Need Formal Theological Education?
Medical doctors deal with life and death situations. They need a massive storehouse of information about the human body, how to diagnose diseases, knowing when to treat patients themselves or pass them along to a specialist, and knowledge about drugs or other therapies that could bring relief or a cure.
To be able to treat patients, a doctor needs lots of formal training. It starts with a four-year college degree, and then an additional four years in medical school. They get a year or more of on-the-job training in a hospital before they are free to practice on their own.
Christian writers also deal with life and death situations. Many may think their nonfiction book, novel, or blog post is just information or entertainment. However, our books and blog posts have eternal consequences in the lives of readers.
With such a responsibility, do Christian writers need formal theological education?
Christian Writers Treat Souls
In the Christian world, it seems that anyone who has read the Bible or been to Sunday School thinks they are an expert equal to any theologian. But we know that’s not true because we see the results in the glut of poorly written, theologically questionable books and blog posts written by well-meaning Christians.
The problem of self-anointed spiritual writing is exacerbated by the fact that many Christian writers claim that the Holy Spirit directed their writing, just as the Spirit directed Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul.
If the Holy Spirit did direct them, the result would probably be the best. But often we see that the writing is less than great. If the Holy Spirit was really involved, the results would have been better. I discuss how God speaks to Christian writers here, and the focus is on the difference between inspiration and illumination.
We cannot automatically accept that the Holy Spirit generates the idea or the words either as a writer or reader. We must accept the fact that God is working in and through the intellect, emotions, experiences, and training he has provided in our lives.
That brings us back to the question of whether Christian writers need a formal theological education considering the gravity of their work?
From the earliest days, Christians have placed a high value on formal education, and there is value in understanding why that was true.
The presupposition is that Christian writers should be far more than just an educated laity. They have the greater responsibility of being educated spiritual leaders.
The More Theological Training, the Better
Some Christian writers don’t think they need formal theological education. After all, they reason, Peter and many of the other disciples were just fishermen. If a fisherman can become a teacher and spawn holy writing, then anyone can do it, right?
Maybe that’s true. But the next wave of disciples had formal educations. The Apostle Paul was tutored by Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), which was a formal education in the context of those times.
The leaders who followed Paul, the so-called Apostolic Fathers, knew the early disciples firsthand and were picked for leadership positions by them because of their depth of knowledge and spirituality. These men were:
• Clement of Rome (selected by Peter)
• Ignatius of Antioch (selected by John)
• Polycarp of Smyrna (also chosen by John)
These men wrote the primary texts that gave structure to Christianity. It’s always easier to write something amazing when you have the best sources available as your friends and colleagues, and that was the case with the Apostolic Fathers.
Formal Theological Education Expanded
The next group of Christian leaders and teachers were the Church Fathers or “Doctors of the Church.” Each had a formal education in the context of their times.
• Tertullian (b. 155 AD) was trained as a lawyer and used his skills to synthesize early Christian doctrine.
• Ambrose (b. 340 AD) studied literature, law, and rhetoric in Rome. He then became the governor of a Roman province before becoming a church leader and theologian.
• Jerome (b. 347) was a scholar who translated the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament into Latin, which was then the dominant language in the western world. He also wrote commentaries on the Bible. His scholarship strongly influenced the spread of Christianity.
• Augustine (b. 354) studied rhetoric formally in Carthage, one of the most famous learning centers of his time. He went on to teach in Milan and Rome before rededicating his life to Christ and becoming a theologian and writer.
Even though the first disciples were uneducated fishermen, Christians soon came to value scholarship. They chose scholars as leaders. And these leaders encouraged believers to become educated in the things of God.
Theological Education in Modern Times
Almost all Christian groups have historically put a premium on an “educated clergy.”
As noted, many of the early Christian leaders had formal education in law, teaching, or rhetoric. Each provided a solid foundation for conveying Christian truth. Law required logic, and teaching required the ability to share knowledge. Rhetoric is persuasive speaking or writing and is the academic basis of preaching.
Early on, young Catholic clerics dedicated themselves to a long spiritual apprenticeship. The Protestant Reformation used a different model for educating clergy. In the Counter-Reformation, Catholics adopted many of those same standards. The Council of Trent (1545-63) established seminaries along the lines that are common to both Catholics and Protestants today.
The first theological seminary in the U.S. was Andover Theological Seminary, established in 1808. Within 100 years, there were over 160 schools for clergy training, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Soon these schools for ministers expanded their curriculum to offer a classical education, and theological education was spun-off to sister institutions such as Harvard and Yale Divinity Schools and Princeton Theological Seminary.
Higher education in America sprang from a desire of Christians to have educated spiritual teachers.
In the beginning, theological education was a three-or four-year course. The curriculum included a small amount of general knowledge and a large dose of theological studies. The prevailing view was that spiritual leaders should be well-rounded.
In later times, a university undergraduate degree became a requirement to enter seminary. University was where clergy candidates received their broad education. Seminary became like a graduate school where the emphasis was on theology, church polity, and practical ministry skills.
Yes, some church groups don’t value advanced education. Many of them have exotic ideas about healing, how to gain prosperity or proofs of faith that may involve snake-handling.
As expected, these people often disparage formal theological education. They think it leads people away from faith rather than leading them to it. However, being uneducated, how else could they argue? The real point is to become educated in the things of God and to live and teach them. It is not to be uneducated or to be educated and lead people astray.
Why Formal Theological Education Became Important
Lack of scholarship has always been the gateway to heretical thinking. That’s still true today. Lack of learning and understanding is still a problem in the church.
Early theological mavericks like the Gnostics, Marcionists, and Montanists were among the early inventors of religious ideas that they tried to pawn off as Christian ideas. But they had no basis in the teaching and work of Christ, so they were rejected by the early church.
Today, anyone with word processing software and the ability to upload a book to Amazon can publish anything and call it “Christian.” That is why we find so many bizarre ideas branded as being Christian, but in reality, bring dishonor to the name of Christ.
There are many examples of this sort of thing, but one of them is the allegedly Christian book called the Trumpocalypse: The End-Times President, a Battle Against the Globalist Elite, and the Countdown to Armageddon. It is based upon the specious “Babylon Code.” It is an odd blend of sensationalized contemporary American right-wing politics and alleged biblical prophecy slanted to embrace that ideology.
In cases like this, even educated men do no better at representing Christ than those who are uneducated and blind to what the Bible teaches. They shape scriptures to fit their pre-existing bias.
Trump is not mentioned in the Bible. Not even the American continent is mentioned in the Bible. It took the creative fiction of Joseph Smith in his Book of Mormon (1830) to reinforce the false belief that America is somehow linked to Israel.
Years later, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard parlayed his novels, including his first ideas about “Thetans” into the religion known as Scientology. Thankfully, Hubbard did not plagiarize and subvert the Bible, as Joseph Smith did. However, he recycled his pulp fiction into pseudo-psychiatry, and then into a religion, through the influence of his book, Dianetics and other writings.
Theological education is vital because it is a barrier against false teaching.
How Christian Writers Miss the Mark
Today, even well-meaning Christian writers miss the mark in communicating Christian truth in fiction and nonfiction writing. This happens because most writers have a superficial understanding of the Bible and theology.
What shall we call this kind of writing? If it is not an act of intentional heresy, perhaps we can politely call it accidental heresy.
Accidental Heresy #1
Today, the heresy of far too many Christian writers is overriding objective Christian truth with subjective feelings and experiences. Rather than interpreting Christian principles for readers, they rely solely on what they “feel.” That has a corrosive effect on the truth of the Word of God.
A college ministry called Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru) has distributed over 100 million copies of a booklet called “The Four Spiritual Laws.” It summarized the gateway to faith in Christ. This booklet used a train to illustrate the idea is that “Fact” (the Word of God) empowers us, not “Feelings.”
As the booklet explains, “The train will run with or without the caboose. However, it would be useless to attempt to pull the train by the caboose. In the same way, we as Christians do not depend on feelings or emotions, but we place our faith (trust) in the trustworthiness of God and the promises of His Word.”
Far too many Christian writers don’t understand this. They mislead people by putting their emotions above the objective truth of the Word of God.
Accidental Heresy #2
The second modern heresy of many Christian writers is adopting contemporary social and political ideas and writing about them as if they were Christian values. We see this especially in books, fiction and nonfiction, about relationships, medical treatments, or newer ideas like animal rights or climate change. Many Christian writers are just baptizing non-Christian ideas, and the church has always called that heresy.
As in the case of the Trumpocalypse book, blending current events and prophetic proclamations is prevalent but problematic. Some Christians seem fixated on any end-time speculation, and it sells books. But many question if it honors Christ or edifies the Body of Christ. They think these kinds of books are a downright embarrassment to the Christian community.
The blending of all non-Christian values with Christian values is called syncretism. That is defined as “the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.” Christian writers most go to extreme lengths to avoid syncretism.
Christian writers should want to share the message of Christ in the purest way possible. Even though Christian nonfiction writers focus on a particular topic, and fiction writers put words in the mouths of their characters, there must always be fidelity to the Word of God.
If writers are going to present exotic ideas, they should not pretend they represent Christian values.
Accidental Heresy #3
“God tells me what to write, and I don’t care what anyone thinks or says.”
Sadly, I have met many Christian writers with that attitude. I believe it is an error for any Christian writer to think they are detached from the Bible, doctrine, Christian history, or their brothers and sisters in Christ. If we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16), then we will be cumulatively sharing his thoughts and not be self-absorbed theological gunslingers.
Writing based on emotions, intuition, unconfirmed facts, or even the force of your own will, is not the way of Christ. That was part of the point James was making when he said, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).
Christian writers are teaching people about faith in nonfiction, fiction books, and blog posts, and so this caution applies to all of us. Christian writers are using the same spiritual gifts as a pastor-teacher. The integrity of the message, and the spiritual strength to share it, are all part of God’s plan for communicating the faith. 2 Timothy 2:1-7.
This third “accidental heresy” is an old heresy wearing new clothes. It is found in Isaiah 14:13-15 and is the source of the great rebellion against God. A Christian writer cannot be an unorthodox free spirit when they get to the part in their writings that deal with the person and work of Christ.
How Christian Writers Can Hit the Mark
Theological education is important to Christian writers. How much is enough? A one-year online survey of the Bible? Three or four years at a Bible College? An undergraduate degree, plus three years for a seminary degree?
We can only say, the more formal education a writer has, the better it is for him or her and their readers.
I think we must conclude that sitting in a Sunday School class, even for decades, is not enough. In most cases, neither the curriculum nor teaching is consistent and comprehensive enough to help Christian writers very much.
So, how can Christian writers “Keep the Faith” and not swerve off the road and crash into accidental heresy? Here are two practical suggestions. They do not replace a formal theological education, but they go a long way toward offering content that is true to the gospel.
Have a Trusted Theological Fact-Checker
The first practical step every Christian writer can take is to have their manuscript vetted by someone who has a good formal general and theological education.
The first impulse of many Christian authors is to ask their pastor to read their book or blog post. That’s probably not a good move. Not only is your pastor busy, but he will have you in mind as he reads, and all objectivity is lost.
It may seem outlandish, but the best person might be someone who doesn’t know you well, and whose theological position may be slightly different than your own. You want to hear what they have to say, and then reflect upon the parts that may be helpful to you.
At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I offer professional manuscript assessments (also called Substantive or Developmental editing), and I read scores of Christian manuscripts every year. I use my formal Bible and theological training, and specialized publishing knowledge, to offer the kind of helpful insights that many Christian writers want and need to remain faithful to biblical principles.
It is good to have a qualified theological fact-checker. It will keep you out of gray areas and enhance your work.
Be a Commissioned Christian Writer
The second practical step requires some out-of-the-box thinking. What is the common thread between Christian writers and other Christian workers? Pastors, missionaries, and others are commissioned by others to fulfill a particular ministry. A Christian writer should be no different.
Formal theological education is important to learn the Bible and develop ministry skills, but it is also a place where character and ability are measured. Those who pass academic and spiritual vetting are recommended for ordination.
Ordination is nothing more than an approval and commissioning process. It is a group of like-minded believers saying, “We approve of your life and doctrine and give you our endorsement to enter public ministry.”
It is like Peter endorsing Clement of Rome, and John commissioning Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna.
When the Christian community attests to the biblical knowledge and spiritual integrity of an individual, they are empowered in a unique way to serve God. Other believers confirm what you believe to be God’s calling to write. This kind of commissioning is valid for both men and women.
This approach is the opposite of Christian writers who write in isolation, self-publish, and often unknowingly (or uncaringly) publish their heresies large and small.
Christian writers can and should be evaluated by a committee and commissioned by their local congregation. They should be tested on their biblical and theological knowledge, their understating of church history, their ability to communicate Christian concepts as writers, and their personal spirituality.
Upon successful completion of this examination (and possible recommendations for further training before approval), the candidate should undergo a public commissioning ceremony.
The commissioning ceremony is when the writer, man or woman, kneels in front of the congregation, and the pastor and other leaders lay on hands and pray God’s blessing on the writer. It signifies that the candidate is not a self-absorbed maverick, but is publicly recognized and commissioned as a person fit for broader service to the worldwide community of faith.
The Way Ahead for Christian Writers
A well-rounded education will make your writing better. Also, I would say that travel is helpful. The more of the world you see, the more you realize and appreciate God’s plan for us all.
Also, I would say formal theological education is important. Lacking that, Christian writers must make a special effort to systematically acquire knowledge about the Bible, theology, Christian history, and spirituality. You open yourself to the vain imaginations that are a part of the kinds of heresy’s I mention if you do not comprehend the big picture.
A Christian writer should not be afraid to have a third party do a theological review. It is just as important as any other kind of editorial review.
Do not think of yourself as a person who can trust their intuition and is free to write any kind of theological doggerel? The news for you is that you are not an island. You are connected to Christ and other Christians. Christian writers must be both educated and wise.