Notes on L. Gregory Jones’ Beliefs, Desires, Practices, and the Ends of Theological Education

Jones, L. Gregory. “Beliefs, Desires, Practices, and the Ends of Theological Education.” in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life. eds. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2002.

L. Gregory Jones argues convincingly from biblical and patristic sources devoted to Christian initiation that belief, desire, and practice reinforced each other and functioned as a coherent whole in the early church. He re-imagines theological education broadened to include these three reinforcing elements, implemented in support of, and eventually by means of, a more fluid and complementary relationship between the church congregation, the theological academy, and the social setting.

Jones’ re-imagination of theological education begins with a particular vision of the Christian life in which belief, desire, and practice are all cultivated, and act synergistically to deepen the life of faith. Interpreting Romans 7, he argues that “embracing an authentically Christian way of live involves us in redirecting our desires toward God; unlearning wrongly held convictions in order to learn and discern the truth about God, the world, and our own lives; and reshaping our activities to enable faithful living in the world.” (189) Christian formation should include “mutually reinforcing pedagogical movements of catechesis, formal learning, and faithful living in the world,” (190) as existed in South Africa and were influential in the fight against apartheid.

His fairly detailed discussion of the process of Christian initiation in the third and fourth centuries, drawn largely from writings (of various genres) by and about Augustine, illustrates an underlying anthropological framework in which practice and desire embody belief; belief and practice form desire; and practice carries belief and desire. (194) This is contrasted with a modern understanding in which these three things are separated and thereby stripped of significance; the contemporary American situation in which church, academy, and society are more separated than they are coordinated contributes to the weaknesses of all three institutions. His vision (202) of how the three ought to function in a complementary fashion is inspiring and well worth reflecting on.

Jones does not quite map the triad of belief, desire, and practice onto the triad of academy, society, and congregation, but the symmetry induces the reader to try to create that mapping – at least, it did for this reader, which I found distracting. Instead, he identifies the primary functions of formal education, catechesis, and right living for the academy, congregation, and society respectively, but argues strongly that that these ought to be emphases rather than separated disciplines.

His discussion of the social context does not assume a fully Christian society; rather, he lifts up the social setting as the locus in which, after all, we are all called to put our faith into action: by living according to our convictions, by resisting the desires encouraged by worldly values when they run counter to Christian values, and by bringing the gospel to those we meet, whether explicitly, being willing and able to give an account of our faith, or implicitly, bringing God’s love to those around us by loving them. One does wonder whether there’s a bit of nostalgia for the romantic vision of pre-Reformation Christendom in which everything acted in a coherent whole.[1] However, his cogent analysis of the institutional failures that led to the collapse of biblical literacy among American Christians in contemporary society demonstrates a critical historical sense, at least of the modern era. The fact that he draws primarily from pre-Christendom sources also argues against such nostalgia.

The anthropological framework relating belief, desire, and practice from this paper is most relevant to my project. I note with pleasure that his closing vision of seminaries that “include academies of education and formation that could serve learners across the span of Christian life,” including both degree and non-degree programs (205), is a fine description of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology in which I am enrolled. 🙂

[1] See Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s reflections as quoted and then refuted by Eugene McCarraher, “Morbid Symptoms: The Catholic Right’s False Nostalgia,” Commonweal Magazine, November 23, 2012.

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1 Response to Notes on L. Gregory Jones’ Beliefs, Desires, Practices, and the Ends of Theological Education

  1. Pingback: Brad Rothrock on Practice, Power, and Neutrality | Gaudete Theology

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