Our world, with its pressures and distractions, has succeeded in derailing many would-be students of the Bible and theology. As a former student of theological education and now as a professor who counsels students in these areas, I understand well how life’s pressures and distractions thwart even the best intentions. However, with today’s world becoming more complex—not less—Christians must regain their heritage of methodical, disciplined, and practiced education in the face of these pressures and distractions. Our wider culture tempts us to view theological education as a product to be purchased or consumed from a theological institution. But our heritage teaches something else entirely. Learning comes as a prize to be won through the training of the mind. When it comes to education today we have lost even the proper vocabulary to describe it. We must look to the past to regain it and appropriate it to our situation once again.
Amphilochius, the Bishop of Iconium in the fourth century, wrote a didactic poem, Ἴαμβοι πρὸς Σέλευκον, who was his young nephew, in order to encourage him in his learning. At line 181ff he wrote:
But, you, instead of these, take joy in your lessons,
Out of which you will exercise (ἀσκήσεις) the most excellent way.
Now since you should train (προγυμνάσῃς) your mind moderately beforehand
As in school (παλαίστρᾳ) with various treatises,
Contend (ἐνάθλει) with the divinely inspired Scriptures themselves
Collecting the great wealth of the two covenants,
On the one hand, the Old, but, on the other hand, always the New.
For the New has been written second
And after it there will be no third.
Allot (νέμε) all diligence (σπουδήν) to these (i.e. the two covenants),
From which you should learn to practice (ἐξασκεῖν) the useful way (χρηστὸν τρόπον)
And to worship (σέβειν) the true and only God.
Amphilochius loads these twelve lines with images from the world of athletics. He encourages Seleukos to “exercise” (ln. 182), “train beforehand” (ln. 183), “contend with” (ln. 185), “allot all diligence” (ln. 190), “practice” (ln. 191), and all of these images would be carried out in the metaphorical palaistra or wrestling school (ln. 184).
In Greece and the surrounding Hellenistic culture, the palaistra (παλαίστρα) referred usually to a wrestling school (the noun is derived from the verb palaiō “to wrestle”) and it also metaphorically referred to a school—no doubt to emphasize the struggle and discipline involved in the learning process that happened there.
In line 186, these activities pertain to and result in the collecting of the great wealth of the Scriptures. Seleucos is not to wrestle with another human, rather he is to train his mind beforehand with many works of literature. These works are to prepare him for engaging in and contending with an object no less worthy of his greatest efforts: the divinely inspired Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. And although the Scriptures are in themselves great wealth, Amphilochius shows that wrestling with them and allotting all diligence to them will cause one to learn how to practice the useful or worthy way of life and how to worship the true and only God—the supreme end to all Christian theological education.
How now shall we view our lessons? Rather than viewing theological education as something to be purchased, we will benefit more from it by envisioning it as a wrestling school where the activities of training, exercising, practicing, and contending with God and his Scriptures take place. Like a wrestler, the theological student should engage the professors, the reading, the writing, and most of all the Scriptures with the same pushing and pulling of mind and thought. At the foundation the student must wrestle with the languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. These subjects build the necessary muscle to do the heavy lifting of biblical exegesis and theology.
This world needs trained, disciplined men and women who are prepared to live the most excellent way and to worship the true and only God. The Christian tradition has always taught that there is no glory except through the way of the cross. The same appears to be true for its theological education. There will be no mastery of the Scriptures or theology without discipline, practice, and training in them and wrestling with them. But the good news is this: the prize of a well fought for theological education far outweighs the struggle to learn them. The hard training gives way to an even greater wealth of knowing the divinely inspired Scriptures for the purposes of practicing the worthy way of life and worshipping the true and only God.
About the Author:John D. Meade
John D. Meade (Ph.D., M.Div., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assitant Professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary.