Systematic Theology at Covenant Seminary is Biblical and “Missional”
“A few weeks ago, we ran an interview on missional theology with Dr. Mark Dalbey, president of Covenant Theological Seminary. We’re grateful for the responses we have received as a result of that conversation. Some of the feedback has been appreciative; some listeners have raised further questions or concerns. In the interest of giving Dr. Dalbey a full and fair hearing, we wanted to follow-up by publishing an article he wrote addressing some of the same questions that the podcast raised. We post it not in the interest of either endorsement or criticism, but rather out of concern to give a dear brother in Christ the benefit of a full and fair hearing – for the building up of Christ’s body and the glory of His name. – JLM”
Covenant Seminary recently strengthened its systematic theology department by positioning it in a larger newly named area called “missional” theology. This change has prompted some questions from friends and others as to whether Covenant, as an historic Reformed seminary and the denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America, has in some way altered or diminished its commitment to systematic theology. The answer is not at all. In light of such questions and concerns, we present the following for consideration.
First, a bit of history. In 2010 the board of trustees of Covenant Seminary (whose voting members are composed of PCA ruling and teaching elders elected by the General Assembly) adopted a revised purpose statement with the primary adaptation being the inclusion of the clause “all for God’s mission” at the end. This reflected a deep desire to place seminary education into the Bible’s larger unfolding mission of God to reach the nations, the generations, and the people in our churches, and to restore all things in and through Jesus Christ.
Second, a definition of “missional.” Missional at its core means to be characterized by mission. God has a mission to unify all creation under Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10) and to reconcile all of creation through the cross and resurrection of Christ (Colossians 1:15-20). God invites his redeemed people into this mission, commissioned by him as ambassadors of our Savior-King Jesus Christ. The ascended Christ sent the Holy Spirit to indwell and empower his people to respond to his call to go forth into the world proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. This means our Savior-King sends us out with a message for sinners to trust in the finished work of Christ and be reconciled to God and neighbor. Our theological heritage from Calvin onwards motivates us to connect the theological task of the seminary to the missionary impulse of the church. Theology is for the sake of the church and its mission. This is what we mean by missional theology. In recent years some have taken the word missional and put it in opposition to confessional systematic theology. We actually think the opposite is true – deep theological reflection actually fuels the church’s mission.
Biblical Rationale for the Change
It is our commitment to God and his Word that has strengthened our passion for doing “all for God’s mission.”
- In Genesis 1, God creates man as male and female in his image and likeness with a purpose and mission to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and extend God’s glory over it as they reflect his good and gracious rule over all living things.
- In Genesis 2, God places Adam and Eve in Eden with a calling to work and keep the garden to the glory of God.
- In Genesis 3, the very agents of that mission of God become the obstacles to its accomplishment by their rebellion. They stand in need of God’s gracious provision of a promised rescuer who would be like them, yet without sin – in order to overcome their rebellion, reconcile them to God, neighbor, and creation, and empower them once again to fulfill God’s call on their lives.
God’s call now necessitates the proclamation of a both present and coming Kingdom of God’s beloved Son into which sinners are being transferred (Colossians 1:13-14).
- In Genesis 12, God calls and blesses Abraham into his covenant Kingdom mission so that all the families of the earth might be blessed through his offspring.
- In Exodus 19, God calls his rescued people from slavery in Egypt to be a holy nation and kingdom of priests on behalf of their God as a light to the nations.
- In Galatians 4:4-7, we see the sending mission of God himself on display when in the fullness of time God sent his Son to redeem his people and also sent the Spirit of the Son into the hearts of believers.
- In Luke 8:1-2, Jesus’s mission consists of his proclaiming and bringing the good news of the Kingdom of God through his preaching, teaching, and healing ministry.
- In Matthew 28:16-20, Luke 10:1-9, and Acts 1:8, Jesus sends his people out on a mission that will reach nations and generations and one day reconcile and restore all things, making peace by the blood of Christ’s cross (Colossians 1:20). We are now privileged to be part of this comprehensive missionary movement.
- In Revelation 21-22, we see this grand missional story of Scripture fulfilled in the new heaven, new earth, and New Jerusalem where all things in heaven and earth are reconciled in Christ.
A Deeper, Richer Commitment to Systematic Theology
We believe that all aspects of the seminary curriculum as well as its co-curricular activities must constantly answer the following two questions: (1) “How is this rooted in and faithful to God’s inerrant Word?” and (2) “What does this mean for life and ministry today?” We strive to be uncompromisingly faithful to God’s Word and its historic and confessional Reformed theological expressions while at the same time faithful to equip our students to apply God's Word and our theological commitments to real people and places today.
At Covenant Seminary our faculty, board, and president annually sign a pledge of subscription to the Westminster Standards. We highly value the place of systematic theology and the Reformed tradition in the seminary curriculum. We are more committed than ever to taking our students deep into the Bible and its theology in order to have a strong and solid foundation from which to proclaim courageously and bring the good news of the Kingdom of God to his people and the world amidst the challenging issues of our day. This foundation is essential in order to resist being conformed to the world while at the same time serving as effective ambassadors of God’s transforming grace in the world.
I grew up in a denomination that has now lost its commitment to the infallibility and inerrancy of the Scriptures and historic Reformed confessions. I have seen firsthand how a loss of this commitment begins to erode the firm foundation of what it means to study the Scriptures, and watched with great sadness as the transforming power of God’s holy Word gets replaced with therapeutic sentimentalism.
At Covenant Seminary we continue to uphold our historic practice of placing systematic theology firmly on the foundation of solid exegesis and within the unfolding narrative of biblical theology. We love God, his Word, and our theological heritage.
Turning to the specifics of our curriculum, we strive to keep “all for God’s mission” in view throughout the entire curriculum. The area we have historically called systematic theology is uniquely situated in an area between exegetical theology (with its study of the original languages of the Bible combined with Old and New Testament classes) and applied theology (with its preparation for preaching, worship, educational ministries, evangelism, counseling, Christian formation, ministry leadership, etc.). In addition to systematic theology classes, this missional theology area of the curriculum also includes classes in church history, apologetics, Christian ethics, and world missions. Bringing all ten required courses of the MDIV curriculum in this area together under the general heading of “Missional Theology,” will, we believe, give better intentionality, cohesion, and integration that will deepen and strengthen systematic theology. This reflects the missional orientation of the Biblical narrative out of which they emerge while serving the goal of theological reflection for the sake of the church and its mission.
These ten classes – six of which are systematic theology courses – make up nearly one-third of our total curriculum hours for the MDIV degree. That will not change. We are keeping the same classes and same course headings for our systematic theology classes while situating them in this larger area of missional theology. The change is not substantive but the nomenclature describes the teleological end of theological reflection. Mission is always the forward movement that results from deep biblical and theological study.
Education for the Good of the Church
One of our deeply-held beliefs at Covenant Seminary is that theological education is not an end in itself but a means toward the greater end of equipping and preparing our students to have a missionary-minded passion for God’s glory and his unfolding redemptive and restorative plan. We tell all of our new students at orientation “You are not the end of your education. The church is. You are here to serve the good of others.”
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. This model prayer reflects the very heart of the mission of God: that his people – in union with Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit – are empowered by his grace to bring glory to God by embracing, embodying, and living out God’s Kingdom mission as co-laborers with him. We long to see biblical theology take deep root in the lives of our students and to bear much fruit in the ministries and callings of those who train at Covenant Seminary as they go forth from this place to equip others to fulfill their manifold callings before God in his unfolding gospel mission.
Our sovereign God will accomplish his mission to redeem nations, generations, the people in our churches, and reconcile all things in heaven and earth. He calls his people to co-labor with him as redeemed people through whom he does this. His sovereign call and provision of salvation in union with Christ is never at odds with nor threatened by our participation with him in his grand and glorious mission to establish his eternal kingdom. His sovereign
grace in Christ actually establishes our work as we strive by all his energy in us to learn, love, and live – “all for God’s mission!”
Mark Dalbey is the president and a Faculty member of Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, MO.
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