Let’s not give short shrift to the role of theological study in spiritual formation. This has always been an indispensable ingredient in the church’s recipe for healthy Christians. When we turn our eyes to the example of those who came before, I will argue that historically theological instruction played a much more prominent role than it does now. Christian schools ought to ll the gap left by our churches in
To start with, I take spiritual formation to mean “having a healthy Christian life.” For most of Christian history, it was believed that growing to spiritual health primarily occurred in the church. In the Reformation, this view still pertained, but the Eucharist no longer was understood to have the same spiritual value as the preaching of the word. Exploring this shift helps us to answer the question of how to do spiritual formation.
The Reformation theologians fundamentally taught that God’s central and complete gift to us, through Jesus Christ in the Spirit, was Himself. As the Westminster Catechism famously states, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” God bestows Himself on us, so healthy Christianity means realizing more and more fully the consequences of that profound gift.
“But,” it might be objected, “surely the Reformation intended to decrease the significance of the institutional Church in light of this gift. How can the Church’s role diminish and yet remain the primary place in which believers are sanctified?”
This objection is only voiced on the other side of the triumph of individualism in the modern and post-modern period, and it would strike the mainstream Reformers and their Protestant heirs as strangely misguided. The Church—and the family as an extension of it—should continue to be the focus of the believer’s spiritual formation. It is in the church that we more deeply come to understand the divine self-disclosure through the preaching of the word, worship, the sacraments, and fellowship. Remember that individual “quiet time” is a relatively recent phenomenon. We should surely pray and read the Scriptures on our own, but such practices do not dislodge the local church, our primary community, as the source of our spiritual formation.
One of the practices that has traditionally been a crucial part of church life—Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox—was catechization and the recitation of creeds in the church service. In addition, sermons tended much more toward what we would now call “abstract” theology (the nature of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, etc.) and derived moral exhortation from it. All of these factors compounded reveal that the Church highly values theological teaching as an important means of sanctification.
Theology is the contemplation of who God is. Churches affirmed the creeds each Sunday and expected everyone to go through a catechism class in order to learn about God’s character, illustrated especially through the dramatic narrative of His saving work. If sanctification means more deeply grasping God’s gift of Himself to us in salvation, leading to forming our characters as we learn to live in His kingdom, then what better way to achieve this goal than learning theology?
Many of us think of theology as dry and boring. When properly understood as engagement with the loving God of the universe Himself and taught by someone who loves God and can communicate this passion, it will be anything but dull.
For a host of reasons, which I need not rehearse, our contemporary churches have mostly neglected the teaching of theology. If Sunday School (for adults and children) is failing to give God’s people what they need in terms of theological confessions, creeds, and catechisms, then this is a void into which the Christian school must step. Classical schools are especially well poised to fill this gap since they often already have faculty capable of dynamically teaching these things. The ethos of our schools is take knowledge per se and the past seriously.
I grant that this has not traditionally been the role of the school. However, the Christian school exists for the sake of the church; its task is to educate the next generation of members of the body of Christ.
Let me offer some brief suggestions about how theological teaching should be done. In the lower grades, students should memorize the Lord’s Prayer, the doxology, the Ten Commandments, the Apostle’s creed, along with a denominational confession if the school has one. Memorization should be accompanied with age-appropriate instruction regarding the meaning of these items. In the upper grades, students ought to take time in Bible class or chapel services to work through the meaning of the creeds, which is best accomplished through a catechism. Presbyterian schools will choose the Westminster Catechism, while more broadly Evangelical schools can affirm nearly everything in the oft-overlooked and underestimated Heidelberg Catechism.
I will admit: it is tough to sell this to parents as a solution to the demand for “spiritual formation.” Teaching theology is not the only way to accomplish this, of course, and it will be essential to integrate service to the community, corporate and private prayer, modeling by faculty and staff of a well-formed spiritual life, and the relevant practices I am sure other responders in this issue suggest.
Whether in the school, church, or home, though, let us do well by our students to see them as God’s beloved children who need to be nurtured in his life-giving truth. Let us study theology.