by J. V. Fesko
When I went to seminary I packed up my belongings and drove half way across the country; but now going to seminary no longer requires such drastic geographic changes. Numerous seminaries offer on-line courses and degree programs so that students can learn from the comfort of their own homes. Yet as convenient and accessible on-line theological education has become, we should ask whether just because we can do something means that we should do it. I offer three important reasons why a seminary education should immerse you in a community of learning. First, technology can never replace community and face-to-face learning. Second, our theology must ultimately lead to face-to-face interaction. And, third, seminary education that occurs within a community enables students to learn how to build communities once they graduate and serve Christ’s church.
With wireless communication, the Internet, smart phones, iChat, Facebook, and the like, many people probably believe that face-to-face interaction is no longer necessary. Businesses offer video-conferencing services and tout the efficiency, convenience, and economical advantages of video meetings. In my own interactions with educators from other seminaries I regularly hear about new on-line course offerings and the installation of smart classrooms that afford seminaries the ability to transmit theological lectures around the world through the World Wide Web. While there are some benefits to these technological advancements, it may surprise us to learn that one of the inventors of this technology never believed that it was ever supposed to replace face-to-face interaction. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple and genius behind many technology innovations, rejected the notion that video-conferencing and e-mail could replace face-to-face meetings. In his biography of the tech mogul, Walter Isaacson recounts how Jobs believed that video-conferencing robbed his employees of creativity and serendipity. Jobs would go on walks around the corporate campus, find people, strike up unplanned conversations, and walk away with new insights and ideas into problems he wanted to solve. He believed that you could not schedule or plan such encounters. The same holds true in seminary education.
Students can log onto a web page, watch a lecture, turn it off and perhaps learn something. But what is missing in such a scenario is the context of community. How much is gained or lost, for example, when you stare into a screen and you can’t look at your fellow students? How much is lost when the professor can’t see or interact with you? A good portion of communication is non-verbal—it involves body language, facial expressions, or our posture. As a professor I have seen students look at one another with a confused look on their faces, which then prompted me to ask whether my lecture was sufficiently clear. Beyond the classroom, I can’t tell you how many times students approached me during class breaks with questions, which then prompted me to shift my lecture after the break.
“THE CONTEXT OF COMMUNITY IS VITAL TO SEMINARY EDUCATION BECAUSE EDUCATION IS MORE THAN LISTENING TO A LECTURE.”
The same dynamic holds true for out-of-classroom learning and interaction with professors and fellow students. The on-line student walks away from his computer and likely has no one with whom he can discuss his thoughts. Sure, he might be able to participate in an e-mail forum or text the professor, but scheduling and technology restrict such encounters—you stare at a blinking cursor awaiting your reply or look at a video image, but you miss a lot. Here at the seminary I regularly have students stop by my office to ask me questions. I regularly share meals with students or have them over to my home where we discuss doctrinal questions. Students routinely go out for meals or fellowship together and discuss the latest things they’ve learned. Moreover, there are a host of unplanned serendipitous encounters across campus when students are on break or eating their lunch in the student lounge. The context of community is vital to seminary education because education is more than listening to a lecture.
Why is seminary education more than listening to a lecture? Learning to know who God is involves far more than listening to information. God assuredly conveyed information through his holy prophets, but the pinnacle of his revelation came through the incarnation of his Son who walked, lived, and even died in the midst of his people. Consider two biblical texts together and the relationship between knowing and presence becomes clear: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son,” who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Heb. 1:1; John 1:14). God did not stand from afar but entered this world as a flesh-and-blood human being to live among us and give us his revelation, his gospel, the truth.
But when God entered this world, he did not come to redeem a dispersed collection of individuals but to gather individuals to form a body, a community, the church. God gives all of his revelation to the church, to the redeemed community. We neither learn this information on our own, nor do we retain the information for our own personal gain. The apostle Paul explains that when Christ ascended to begin his royal session at his Father’s right hand, that he dispensed gifts to the church: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12, KJV). Christ gave pastors and teachers so that the church, the whole corporate body of Christ, not merely disaggregated and separated individuals, would grow to maturity—to build the body of Christ. God entrusts his revelation to teachers for the sake of the body of Christ, the community. Paul makes this very point in his first letter to the Corinthians when he writes: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). The church is the arena for the dissemination of God’s divine revelation for the benefit of the community. Christ’s church knows nothing of disconnected, independent individuals.
“But when God entered this world, he did not come to redeem a dispersed collection of individuals but to gather individuals to form a body, a community, the church.”
When Christ gave these teachers and pastors to train the church in the knowledge of God, he never intended them to do so from a distance. The whole question of distance education is not a matter of historical anachronism. In other words, Paul could never conceive of things like on-line education, and if he could, he would have used it. After all, he sent letters to churches that he did not personally visit. Aren’t his epistles a form of distance education through the Internet of his day, through letter writing? Whatever similarities we might detect dissolve upon the consideration of two important factors.
First, even though Paul wrote to churches he nevertheless visited them as often as he could (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:5; 2 Cor. 1:16). Paul was not an absentee apostle but one who wanted to teach the churches both through his letters and his physical presence. Second, in our own day we may think of reading Paul’s letters all alone because we have our own personal copies of God’s word. As common as such a thought may be, it was impossible in Paul’s day. Christians did not own personal copies of the Scriptures until the sixteenth century. In Paul’s day, he sent letters to entire congregations. The church would gather together and listen to someone read the letter. The thought of isolated individuals learning about God’s word was both technologically and theologically unthinkable. People did not have individual access to God’s word. Moreover, there are multiple references throughout Paul’s letters that indicate that doctrine and practice took place within a communal context, within the church.
The church was supposed to select elders, for example, based upon their ability to teach (1 Tim. 3:2). But who was the recipient of his teaching? The church (1 Tim. 3:5). As the elders taught the church, the various members of the congregation were supposed to teach one another: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Co. 3:16). The older women, for example, were supposed to teach younger women how to love their husbands and children (Tit. 2:3-5). In fact, the elder was supposed to teach and personally model his doctrine-informed life: “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned” (Tit. 3:7-8).
All of these facts point to the reality that learning is a communal event—theological education occurs within the context and life of the church. This means that, while on-line education captures some beneficial educational elements, it ultimately falls short of a community-based learning experience. To borrow an analogy from the doctrine of Christ, on-line and distance education is the word without a body. Good doctrine is not simply knowledge but ultimately knowledge embodied in the life and community of learners.
Westminster Seminary California is committed to face-to-face education. We firmly believe in the importance of personal interaction with our students. We interact with them in class, we share meals together, pray with one another, and invite students into our homes for fellowship. But in the not-too-distant future, face-to-face education will take on a richer significance with the construction of student housing. Our students presently live scattered about the local Escondido community; but once we complete the construction of student housing, they will be able to live, study, and pray together. As students learn about God’s word, they will be able to discuss it with one another—they will be able to learn through serendipitous encounters. Families will be able to attend chapel and even audit evening courses. Students will form a tight-knit learning community unlike any other, where for a brief period they can immerse themselves in God’s word, learn, and grow as a community. Equipped with this unique learning experience, they will then be able to go to their churches and teach others how to learn and grow as a community, as the church.
“EQUIPPED WITH THIS UNIQUE LEARNING EXPERIENCE, THEY WILL THEN BE ABLE TO GO TO THEIR CHURCHES AND TEACH OTHERS HOW TO LEARN AND GROW AS A COMMUNITY, AS THE CHURCH.”
Rather than logging in, listening, logging off, and submerging beneath the waters of an isolated life, students will be able to go to class, personally meet with their professors, discuss the things they’re learning with their friends throughout the day, and share the experience with their families. Students will have the context to learn and immediately apply their doctrine. While the seminary community is not the church, students can nevertheless learn many unique lessons for their future service to the church. Theology is ultimately for the church, which means that we must learn and study it in a context that as much as possible looks like the church. We learn theology in community, not merely because we seek to mimic the church. Rather, we learn theology in community because we have been created for community, for fellowship. Our theological education, therefore, should never forsake community for the sake of speed, efficiency, or increasing revenue. Our theological education should never be a collection of disembodied words, but should ultimately embody knowledge in community for the sake of Christ, his gospel, and his church.