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‘Irrigating Deserts’

August 8, 2023 | Dr. Joshua Schendel

Over this past year the faculty at YTI has been evaluating its Master of Arts program with the aim of updating it. This process of review is standard practice for educational institutions. But this year’s review uncovered an insight—an insight into what we are trying to accomplish with our MA program and why. And so we began to develop that insight.

YTI began because it saw the troubled state of theological education in America not as a problem to bemoan but as an opportunity to seize. For the past decade or so, YTI has probed, considered, experimented, discovered, and revised as it sought to better understand our culture, the state of theological institutions, and our own vision for theological education.

What we’ve learned over the past decade is that the current state of theological education calls for something less like the reforms of Josiah (2 Kings 22-23)—a wholesale deconstruction and an utterly new beginning—and more like the recoveries of Ezra (Ezra 3)—where the heritage and the resources of the past need only be brought back to the fore and made central to and integrated with the building of the new.

The Tasks of Theological Education

As an educational institution, the task of YTI remains much the same as it has been throughout the church’s history. Augustine of Hippo (4th-5th century), for example, boiled the tasks of Christian theological education down to two: first, one must come to understand Christian teaching; second, one must learn to teach what has been understood. And what comes at the end of this process? Augustine makes it clear that true understanding of the Christian faith builds up in the student the love of God and neighbor; if this does not happen, the student does not yet understand as he ought. YTI is committed to helping students through this two-fold process. To learn well students must listen to the sacred Scriptures, to the church’s teachers of the past, and to the sages of the present. While they listen, they must learn to think, inquire, distinguish, and prove. To teach well they must learn to speak—truthfully and persuasively, humbly and in love—and to lead with wisdom and grit, in service and as they follow Christ.

Yet, this ancient task is faced with a modern difficulty. As C. S. Lewis memorably put it: “The task of the Modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” Students are coming to theological education eagerly and full of zeal, but often deficient in knowledge of Scripture, church history, theology, ethics, in spiritual discipline, and in the skills of communication and leadership. This is very often not the fault of the student. They are victims of a lackluster educational system that has let them down.

A Three-Fold Curriculum:
Foundations – Engagement – Capstone

Again, YTI sees this as an opportunity to seize. So, we’ve honed our MA program to accomplish the ancient task of theological education in such a time as this. The MA programs will now follow a sequence meant to guide the student from learning to learn through to learning to teach, and to build them up in love of God and neighbor. The first portion of the sequence is what we are calling “foundations.” This consists of six courses which, when completed, will give the student foundational knowledge of the Scriptures and theology, provide practical knowledge of character and spiritual formation, and develop basic skills in communication and leadership.

In the second portion of the sequence, our engagement courses, students will build upon the foundations by extensive engagement with texts­—biblical, historical, and theological. These courses are designed specifically to develop the art of thinking, the discipline of spiritual formation, and advanced skills in communication and leadership.

Finally, students learn to teach with their capstone course, either a thesis or ministry project. In this final portion, the student collects, reviews, and synthesizes the knowledge acquired during the course of study, and then applies himself or herself to conveying that knowledge in service to others.

This sequence is beautifully expressed in Ps. 78:1-4. Our vision for the MA program is that students entering YTI will become humble hearers: “Give ear, o my people, to my teaching…” (Ps. 78:1), and that they will leave YTI as competent doers: “but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD…” (Ps. 78:4).

Dr. Joshua Schendel

Professor of Theology

Joshua D. Schendel grew up in Montana. After completing degrees in classics, philosophy, and theology, he took a position as executive editor of […]

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