The Seriousness of Theological Learning – Moral Formation Not Just Education

Greg Strand – March 11, 2013 1 Comment

Stanley Hauerwas, The State of the University: Academic Knowledges and the Knowledge of God (Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007), 46, writes that what we study and learn forms and shapes us. This is why he prefers to speak of learning as moral formation rather than education. In this section of the book he bemoans the lack of theological education and compares how differently we view it from medical education.

I  think this is particularly true in courses that are not officially thought of as “ethics.” For example, consider the moral seriousness of medical education in comparison to the training seminarians receive today. Students in seminaries too often think it more important for them to take courses in counseling (after all that is how you help people) rather than to take courses in Christology. In medical school, however, no student gets to decide whether she or he will or will not take anatomy. If you are going to be a doctor, you will take anatomy. If you are going to be a doctor, you will take anatomy or give up your ambition to be a doctor. Anatomy may not sound like a course in ethics, but the kind of work young physicians are required to do if they are to study anatomy, I think, is rightly described as moral formation.

The intellectual and moral seriousness of medical education compared to seminary education, I think, can be attributed to a set of cultural presuppositions that are crucial for how we understand the training of students for medicine and for the ministry. Quite simply, no one believes in our day that an inadequately trained priest might damage their salvation; but people do believe an inadequately trained doctor can hurt them. Thus people are much more concerned about who their doctor may be than who is their priest. That such is the case, of course, indicates that no matter how seriously we may think of ourselves as Christians we may well be living lives that betray our conviction that God matters.

I have often explained/described it in this way: if one were to go to a medical doctor to get a diagnosis for a physical problem, if through the exam it became obvious the physician had not read any journals or books since he completed his educational training, and if he had to seek his desk reference manual (or Google) to answer all your questions and to figure out the diagnosis, you would quickly seek a second opinion.

If one were to seek counsel from a pastor (referred to as a soul-doctor by the Puritans, a reference I appreciate), and through his counsel it became obvious he had not kept up through reading theology, and he had to check his desk reference manual for everything (a concordance or even Google!), that person quickly ought to seek a second opinion.

As pastor-theologians, as soul-doctors, it is vital for us to remain fresh, first in the Word, and then to continue to learn from others, the great cloud of witnesses, both living and dead. This brief quote is an excellent reminder of the importance of biblical and theological learning and training, which is, at its heart, moral formation.

Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

One response to The Seriousness of Theological Learning – Moral Formation Not Just Education

  1. I too have used a similar example i.e. I often ask, “would you want the opinion of your auto mechanic or your neurosurgeon when seeking advice on how to treat a brain tumor?” Every neurosurgeon recognizes that there is far more that we do not understand about how the brain works compared to what we do understand but the fact that there is so much that we don’t understand about the brain doesn’t lead us to falsely conclude that nothing can be understood or that the opinions of the auto mechanic and the neurosurgeon are equally valid. People intuitively recognize the fallacy of the idea that all opinions are equal when speaking about medicine, why don’t they also recognize the same fallacy when speaking about theology?

Leave a Reply

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>