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Vocations: Shock of a broadening horizon through theological study

15 March 2024

Studying theology leads to a deeper and richer faith, but can be a challenging experience, Huw Spanner is told


The general secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, Tim Adams, at its world assembly in Jakarta last year

The general secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, Tim Adams, at its world assembly in Jakarta last year

CHRISTIAN tradition may say that there is no greater delight than contemplating God and his ways, but the academic study of theology can be a disorientating and discomfiting business.

Emily Reid, who is studying for a one-year Master’s degree at the London School of Theology (LST), describes the experience as “a huge culture shock” and “a roller-coaster”.

The first week of lectures was “terrifying”, she recalls. “Everyone was using words I didn’t know, and arguing about concepts I’d never heard of. Even first-years were arguing, about predestination or eschatology. I just sat there thinking: ‘I don’t even know what we’re arguing about.’”

In the Anglican church that she had grown up in, in Switzerland, “it was a given that scripture had authority, it was true, and the stories in it were real. And then, within the first couple of weeks, it was [put to me]: What does ‘authority’ mean? What does ‘true’ mean? What does ‘real’ mean?”

At breakfast, she might find herself sharing a table with “a Lutheran, loads of Calvinists, a couple of Anglicans, some Pentecostals, a random Greek Orthodox, and someone who had just finished their journey to Rome and had decided it wasn’t for them after all”.

She felt so much like a fish out of water that she did not unpack properly for a month, she says. She wanted to go back to her former career in nursing, “and pretend this had never happened”.

A former teacher, Tim Adams, recalls his own experience some 30 years ago at the same institution, then known as the London Bible College.

“I came from a rather pietistic background which took the Bible at face value, apart from its literary context, and, if your Christian faith has been grounded in the idea that the Bible is true, and it gives us the truth, it can be a shock to discover, say, that parts of the story of the Flood may have been borrowed from the Epic of Gilgamesh. It throws in the air what you had thought was solid ground.”

He remembers feeling “a little angry”. “It didn’t shake my faith in God, but I did worry: ‘Are these lecturers really Christians?’ Gradually, I began to realise that, yes, they were people of deep faith who had a lot of wisdom to impart to me; but that journey took me the whole three years that I was there.”

This kind of shock “is pretty common across all traditions”, the Vice-Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Canon Mark Chapman, says. “People from different backgrounds get challenged in different ways.”

For example, he says, “there is a great deal of emphasis now on experience, on feeling good or feeling moved, and often ordinands can’t understand why they should be thinking about things, because faith — to put it crudely — is all about a relationship with Jesus.”

Most ordinands, he says, have never been encouraged to ask a theological question such as: How can Jesus be fully God and fully man? “Often, they’ve not done a great deal of reading. People become really anxious lest everything should come tumbling down once they start to question things.

“There’s also a bit of fear that if they should have any doubts, they won’t get ordained, and their vocation will be thrown into question as well.”

The Academic Vice-Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, the Revd Dr Helen Collins

Canon Chapman has found “remarkably little biblical or theological literacy” among ordinands. “They may have been on an Alpha course, but frequently they have very little background knowledge of the Christian tradition, or of the Church. Fewer and fewer have been brought up in the Church, or have been to Sunday school. For many, it’s all very new. When they talk about being Evangelical, or Anglo-Catholic, usually [they are just referring to] the church they have been attending. There is very little rootedness.”

He also notes “the absence of a common hymnody”. “Hymns that one might expect people to know often you’re teaching them for the first time.”


NONE the less, he says, very few are challenged to breaking point. “I must have taught well over a thousand ordinands, and no more than three or four have left the college because they’ve lost their faith. Virtually every one discovers it in a new kind of way, and it becomes a more thinking faith. Almost everybody has been deepened.”

Dr Matt Knell, who is senior lecturer in historical theology and church history at the LST, contends that theology should always be studied “in a caring and formational community, so that when people are struggling, they don’t struggle on their own”. For this reason, he says, the increasing trend towards online learning can be problematic.

But so can studying theology in a secular university. The Revd Dr Helen Collins went to Oxford originally to study chemistry, but then switched to theology. She found the teaching “very cerebral, academic, historical, and non-confessional. Whether the tutors were Christians or not, and whether I was or not, was irrelevant to the work we were engaged in.

“No one walked with me through my questions: ‘How does this impact how I pray, or how I engage with God?’ That is not what universities are for.”

Emily Reid, who is currently studying for a Master’s degree at the London School of Theology

At the same time, she was attending “a Charismatic, conservative church, which had a super-high view of the scriptures. They did not quite read them literally, but they saw only a little gap between ‘then’ and ‘now’, because we have access to the same Spirit as the prophets and the apostles, and therefore we are inhabiting the same realities as them.

“In the university, the gap [between then and now] was so enormous it was impossible to bridge it.”

Dr Collins found the experience “very disjointed and disconnected”. “I’d sit in sermons thinking: ‘But if the Exodus is historically dubious, as my lecturers claim, what can it tell us about God?’ I’d sit in lectures thinking: ‘But if God’s revelation is a gift we receive, which doesn’t make sense except through the eyes of faith, the questions you’re asking seem virtually irrelevant.”

Subsequently, she did further studies at Trinity College, Bristol, where today she is Academic Vice-Principal. “That was quite a healing process for me,” she says.

“In a confessional setting, where worship and faith absolutely matter to how we read these texts and understand these traditions and seek to live them out, these [different aspects of the faith] can be held together. We can be rigorous and critical and analytical, we can engage with the best of scholarship, and the resources of sociology and other disciplines to better understand the text and the traditions, but we can do so in a worshipping environment as the gathered body of Christ.”

In any context, Dr Collins says, the study of theology entails “the constant disruption of our certainties, the things we think we know about God and about faith”. Even at Trinity, she says, there were times when she found herself thinking, “What on earth does it mean that Jesus died for my sin? And what difference does that make?

“Often, the certainties we bring to theological study are the opposite of faith and need to be disrupted, so that we might receive afresh the gift of faith.”

This is not an issue only at the more Evangelical end of the spectrum. More liberal students may be certain that everything about God is uncertain, she points out, or may insist that some parts of the Bible no longer need to be taken seriously. These certainties, too, she says, may need to be “disrupted”.


HOWEVER varied their experience before coming to study theology, Dr Knell says, students will have been “largely conditioned” by the churches that they have been part of. “We get into patterns: this is how I read the Bible; this is how I talk about God; this is how I pray; this is how I worship. It becomes a kind of bubble in which each of us lives.”

When people study theology, he says, those bubbles are burst “pretty quickly”. “People discover that what they believe is only a part of the revelation of God; but also, as they look at theology through other eyes — biblical, historical, from different traditions and different parts of the world — they begin to recognise that a lot of what they believe and do is culturally and linguistically informed as much as it is biblically and theologically.

“All sorts of things need to be ‘deconstructed’ out of them which are controlling how they read scripture and how they talk about God. And they find that the God who is revealed in scripture is much more complex and beautiful, but also, often, much more challenging and convicting than what they had seen previously.”

Phil McDermott did both a BA and an MA at the Luther King Centre (LKC), Manchester. He belongs to a “very small and quite conservative denomination”, the Independent Methodists, but at the LKC found himself training alongside “Anglicans, Pentecostals, Methodists from Zimbabwe, even some Catholics and Quakers”.

In such an ecumenical environment, he says, “you suddenly realise that not everyone thinks the same. I remember being asked what I meant by ‘salvation’. I had a very narrow understanding of it, but some others had never even thought of it in my terms.

“You find yourself wondering: If we’re all on a different page, does that mean that truth is relative? It made me question everything; and when it is something so personal and so foundational as faith, obviously those questions can be quite uncomfortable.”

Dr Knell is one of those tutors that students in difficulties turn to. “People come into my office and cry a lot,” he says. “The issue might be academic, it might be pastoral, but once you start talking it through, it’s apparent that their whole lives are involved in the struggles they are living through.

“There is an incredible amount of brokenness in almost everybody who comes to study theology, because almost everybody has been broken, by things that affect their view of themselves, of God and of neighbour. Often, these are things they have forgotten about that are suddenly brought up by something that comes up in class, in study, or in conversation.”

Phil McDermott, academic administrator at the Luther King Centre, Manchester

What are the most common fault lines? The biggest, he says, “and the most convicting one for the Church”, is that they realise that the God they have been taught about in church is not the God of the Bible. “The Church has created the God that it wants him to be, or is willing to allow him to be, rather than the God that scripture and experience actually reveal him to be.”

Most students, he says, will also have “eye-opening moments when they go: ‘Wow, this is incredible!’ So, there is often both challenge and joy.”

Another issue is that, often, students are unwilling to allow the God they discover in theology to be God. “Our culture says that faith has got to be something that ‘works for you’, and too much of church tends to follow that kind of narrative,” Dr Knell says.

“I have had students who have struggled because, basically, they want God to be tolerant rather than holy and gracious. That’s normally the nub of it.”


WHILE a community of learning may be essential in studying theology, the diversity of the student body can itself be challenging. “When you have to engage with people with different views from your own, different readings of texts, or different interpretations of traditions,” Dr Collins says, “it obliges you to ask: Are we getting at the same thing but using different language? Are there fundamental disagreements here? If so, how do we stay in relationship, in community?

”How do we love those who think differently from us, who live differently from us, and yet seek to hear the prophetic voice of the Spirit speaking through the other, allowing them to be other; receiving and delighting in them?”

When a theological college is “honouring voices from Catholic and Pentecostal, Orthodox and Anglican, modern African and Asian thought”, Dr Knell says, it can be both unnerving and exhilarating. “A lot of students who once regarded the faith as a rock suddenly find that it is an ocean they are swimming in.”

Today, Miss Reid leans towards Catholicism, “because of people that I’ve encountered and listened to”. She is now intent on a career in academic theology. She says it is “very much in my heart” that her research should not just sit on a bookshelf, but should serve the Church.

Mr McDermott now works at the LKC as its academic administrator. Mr Adams is now general secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. “My journey to where I am now shows that studying theology doesn’t have to undermine faith,” he observes. “For me, it was ultimately an enriching and life-shaping experience.”

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