Renewing the Church by the Spirit
Theological Education after Pentecost
- ISBN: 9780802878403
- Published By: Eerdmans
- Published: November 2020
In Renewing the Church by the Spirit, Amos Yong sets out to revise and revitalize theological education (or TE). This book is not aimed at the academy in general, but at the church and the subsection of the academy which has the life of the church in view.
Yong has a fairly modest aim for this short book. Rather than setting out a new paradigm for TE, or a full-fledged program of reform, this is a “pneumatological reimagining of the task of theological education” (xi). The book neither proselytizes for Pentecostalism nor speaks only to a closed Pentecostal huddle. All Christians live after Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit narrated in the book of Acts, and so Yong invites the church (he seems to have the Protestant tradition mainly in view) to consider TE in the light of this salvation-historical lynchpin.
The brief Introduction leans upon Thomas Friedman’s metaphor of “flattening” to describe our current sociohistorical position. Our world is now marked by connectedness and networks rather than institutional hierarchy and the mediated transfer of goods, services, and information (1). Yong argues that the way theological education is “opening up” along these lines presents one of our most critical challenges and opportunities (3).
The three sections which follow are organized around church (the who of TE), mission (the why of TE), and TE itself (the how). Only the last third of the book directly addresses theological education. For Yong, the setting of TE in the church and its mission is important enough that their state and direction need not only to be demarcated but also exposed to pneumatological reimagining themselves. In the third section Yong organizes his suggestions for TE around curricular, pedagogical, and scholarly poles.
Unsurprisingly for a scholar of Yong’s stature, he makes a number of valuable insights. His take on the digitalization of theological education avoids uncritical acceptance and overly critical avoidance by recognizing theologically that “digitality in and of itself is not a threat to theological education” (45). There is a particularly valuable section where Yong works out the implications of the “multilinguality” of Pentecost. He argues that the many tongues invite “consideration of the dialogical character of the church’s participation in the missio Dei” (81). Yong develops this line to criticize the hegemonic Western dominance of TE and to insist on the inclusion of the voices and perspectives of the young (82–86).
But these are the highlights of a book which does not fully live up to its promise. If there is a major contribution which brings the book together, it is that theological education needs to be overtly theological in all its facets, rather than only in its curriculum. So, Yong insists that doing “business only as educational institutions rather than being drawn to the basiliea tou theou [kingdom of God] sets us on a slippery slope, if not a straight path, toward bankruptcy both theological and financial” (69). But Yong did not set out to write a book justifying an overtly theological framework for TE. This was meant to be a set of particularly pneumatological insights into TE and there is simply not enough of that happening to fulfill the book’s stated goal.
Even where the discussion is overtly tied to Pentecost and the Spirit, the connections being drawn can be overwrought. For example, Yong urges educators to encourage their students toward being lifelong learners: “What we are teaching is thus not only theological content but also a charismatic disposition toward learning and being receptive to what can be learned by and through the Spirit in any new situation” (106). This is a good thing, but is it necessarily pneumatological? We could remove reference to the Spirit and the adjective “charismatic” and be left with essentially the same point.
I suspect that Yong’s insistence on centering this book on Pentecost, rather than in Pentecostal theology, has hindered his project. There are too many intermediate steps to take when you start with the Pentecost event and move toward saying something about theological education. I suspect it would have been more valuable to have Yong more fully develop insights from his distinct perspective as a Pentecostal theologian which focus more directly on TE itself. Working even with only the distinctive elements of the fully orbed Pentecostal tradition could also have prevented Yong from certain doctrinally disjointed proposals. Early on, he argues for redefining who TE serves because “traditional notions of the church are no longer dominant” (40). But we never get ahead by robbing Peter to pay Paul. Yong is edging toward this by collapsing ecclesiology for the sake of expanding pneumatology, even if he is correct on a practical level.
Yong is well placed to help us develop a pneumatological imagination and it is our loss that so little time is spent doing just that. Much of the material surveying the current place of church and mission is probably not necessary for those most likely to read the book. Using such a limited page count to cover such a wide area means that space is lacking for Yong to compelling develop his pneumatological insights.
I should also point out that the book can be a difficult read. There are em-dash phrases nested within one another and entire paragraphs made up of a single sentence. Many of the endnotes simply reference an entire book and the sections can read like big, but underdeveloped ideas strung alongside one another. The principal impediment is that many paragraphs are buzzing with theology-speak. My involvement in theological education is more on the biblical studies than the theology side so this may be mostly an issue of my own lack of familiarity, but Yong has not made his thinking accessible to those very far outside his own circle of academic theologians.
The book could still be of interest for administrators and faculties of TE, which is the primary audience of the series (Theological Education Between the Times) it belongs to. Perhaps this would even serve as a good introduction to the current state of TE for newer members. But the expectation should be that this will be the opening of a conversation rather than the gleaning of well-developed conclusions.
Tyler Horton is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge – Faculty of Divinity and theological educator with Serving In Mission (SIM) Canada.Tyler HortonDate Of Review:October 5, 2021