Stellenbosch Theological Journal 2023, Vol 9, No 3, 1–18

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17570/stj.2023.v9n3.a12

Online ISSN 2226-2385 | Print ISSN 0028-2006

2023 © The Author(s)

Exploring online theological education at Hugenote Kollege

Annette Potgieter

University of Pretoria, South Africa

annette.potgieter@up.ac.za

André du Toit

Hugenote Kollege, South Africa

afdutoit@Huguenot.com

Abstract

Theological education has come all the more under the scope as economic challenges and pressures of a changing society calls for renewed thinking on what theological education should entail. As Reformers, the quest is constantly realigning and adapting to communicate the gospel as effectively as possible. Within the broader purview of Reformed theological institutions in South Africa, Hugenote Kollege offers a unique BTh degree. The degree is fully online and follows an integrated curriculum with the main aim of educating lay ministers. This article explores the online BTh Hugenote Kollege as well as the benefit of online integrated education.

Keywords

theological education; online teaching; integrated curriculum; theology for a South African context; lay ministers

  1. Introduction1

Once upon a time, theology was known as the queen of the sciences. Much has changed, and theology’s role and place at universities have come under the scope. Whether theological education is being conducted at a seminary or a university, theological education is under pressure. In the past century in South Africa, from having having eight theological faculties, it has changed to having only four theological faculties remaining at universities (Buitendag 2014:1). Faculties have been amalgamated into humanities with frustrations rising as university management does not always understand the role theology has to play.

However, the need for theological training has not diminished, especially the transformational role theologians have to play in South African society. It is widely known that Christianity has moved from the global North, West to the global South, East. The majority of Christians will be found in Africa, Asia, and South America. Issues such as climate change, gender, justice, and poverty just to name but a few have not evaporated. The shift underlines the need to critically reflect on theological education as it also implies a cultural shift concerning worldviews and practises (Wahl 2013:267). This is especially so in light of reported practices in South Africa of churches where congregants are sprayed with insecticide, drink petrol and eat snakes and rats.2 Knoetze (2020:1) underscores the necessity to engage the culture. Ethical critical thinking and adeep authentic response to the Gospel on a personal and cultural level should be developed (Wahl 2013:267). The need for good leaders is undeniable, but also the need for “fresh educational tools” (Wahl 2013:267).

In the Dutch Reformed Church, the Taakspan Navorsing 2019 report indicates the changing profile of ministers. Ministers in the Dutch Reformed church are drastically declining and changing, but the report also indicates that all the more tentmakers and contract positions will play a bigger role than the formal traditional ministerial position. Accordingly, the question of how we do theological education is all the more of vital importance.

Apart from the classical tension of theological education, namely that what is taught at university, even seminary, does not apply to the church context, as regards theology, on the one hand, there is scrutinization of theological education at universities as being too scientific and on the other hand, there exist questions concerning seminary education often criticised for not engaging with the sciences enough. Theological education requires a balance between scientific engagement and ecclesiological tradition. The fragmentary nature and isolation of disciplines have also been identified as a systemic problem of theological education (see Farley 1983, Naidoo 2016). After all, theological education concerns the holistic being of a student. It engages the body, mind, and soul in searching for a balance of reason and faith. Studying theology begins with a calling.

In 2020 Hugenote Kollege started with an online BTh Missional theology degree. The College had undergone a period of restructuring and in line with its mission of “head,” “heart,” and “hand”; thus the college developed a flexible BTh degree focussed on integrated theological education, moving away from the classical six theological disciplines. The goal of the degree is to train lay ministers predominantly for the Dutch Reformed Church and also to provide an integrated theological education alternative.

This article aims to reflect on online theological education at Hugenote Kollege and explore online theological education in an African context.

  1. Defining lay ministers

The General Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church received a report in 1998 on the broadening of the offices in the church and then instructed several commissions to make the necessary adjustments to the church order and ministry practice to lead the implementation process. When in 2013 the Framework for Missional Ecclesiology was accepted, a proposal for a “four-track framework for Missional Theological Training” was also approved by the Synod and the General Curatorium was instructed to implement it.

Although the new framework for theological training initially called for four tracks of training, further investigation and discussions led to the addition of a fifth track for teachers with specific competence to serve, for example, the hearing impaired or specific groups such as the San in Namibia. The five tracks of training were then established as:

This framework was approved for implementation at the General Synod’s meeting in 2019 and the office of a Service minister was defined as follows:

A service minister is a person:

  1. The story of the Hugenote Kollege

Although the current Hugenote Kollege was only opened in 1951, the College’s roots go back to the Huguenot Seminary (1874), the Mission Institute (1877) and Friedenheim (1904). All these institutions came about thanks to the zeal and vision of Dr Andrew Murray, pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church Wellington, and the sentiments of his vision for these institutions are still part of Hugenote Kollege’s thinking. Training of the head, the heart and the hand directed to vocation, prayer and service can be noted as key elements of it.

Since its foundation in 1951, the College has been under the wings of the DR Church in South Africa. The College is currently registered as a non-profit making company (NPC) with the General Synod of the DR Church, the General Synod of the Uniting Reformed Church of South Africa, the synod of the DR Church Western Cape, with the DR Congregation Wellington and the URCSA Congregation Wellington being the members of the company.

With the establishment of the College in 1951, cooperation of the Huguenot University College (predecessor of the Hugenote Kollege) with the University of South Africa was continued for the sake of Admission Students from the Missionary Institute who were, following its closure, enrolled via the College at Unisa. Although this association ended in 1959, a new agreement was entered into with Unisa in March 1975 under which students from the Hugenote Kollege obtained degrees and diplomas in Social Work, Missionary Work, Youth Work and Community Development from Unisa. In 2012, the latter agreement was finally phased out as a result of a decision by the central government that cooperation between public and private training institutions would no longer be allowed. Consequently, the Board of Hugenote Kollege began in 2013 with the repositioning of the College as a private, Christian training institution with SAQA-accredited degree courses in Missional Theology and Social Work as well as skills courses in Early Child Development, Community Development, Child and Youth Care Work and Social Auxiliary Work. The concept of “lifelong learning” was a fundamental building block of the repositioning strategy and the continuous integration of faith, knowledge and skills of the students and staff remains a core matter for the College.

  1. Huguenot’s BTh integrated curriculum

Reference will be made to three facets of integration which are experienced as the biggest shortcomings in current curricula of theological training, namely 1) integration of learning material; 2) integration of theory and practical learning and 3) importance of missional theology.

Concern about the fragmentation of theological education has been expressed for more than 100 years and several attempts have been made to do something about it. However, it was only in the post-modern era during which the shortcomings of the modernist teaching theory were recognized, and with the shift of the centre of gravity of Christianity to the global south, that the need for integration was addressed (Shaw 2014:93).

The origin of the fragmentation in teaching systems can be traced back to the embrace of the Greek philosophical systems and, as regards theology in particular, to the work of Thomas Aquinas. Based on the Aristotelian philosophy, Aquinas systematized theological reflection into distinct categories (Cannell 2006:126). This tendency was reinforced during the time of the Enlightenment with the development of the scientific method according to which the truth can only be determined through a process of rational reflection. As we know, this principle was applied to all fields of study during the modernist period.

However, if we read the gospels, it is clear that the New Testament was written within a missionary context. In the first century CE, theology was not a luxury with which the church occupied itself. It came about as a result of the state of emergency in which the sent church found itself at that time (Kӓhler 1971:189f). Amid this state of emergency, “mission” developed as the mother of theology. However, when Christianity was recognized as the official religion of the Roman Empire, theology lost its missionary dimension (Bosch 1991:489).

In pre-modern times, theology was primarily understood in two ways: on the one hand as a term that describes the real, individual understanding of God and everything related to it and on the other hand as the discipline with which students of the subject occupied themselves. For many centuries there was only one subject “theology” without subdisciplines. Under the influence of the Enlightenment, the one subject was divided into two subsections viz. theology as a practical skill required for church work and theology as a technical and scientific discipline – thus theology as practice and as theory. From this also developed the “fourfold pattern” (Farley 1983:74-80) of biblical disciplines, church history, systematic theology, and practical theology. Each of these sub-disciplines corresponded to parallels in secular science. Under the influence of Schleiermacher, this pattern was firmly established first at the University of Berlin in 1810 and thereafter at Protestant theological training institutions worldwide (Farley 1983:101). Practical theology was regarded as the discipline that should help the church to function and the other disciplines were regarded as “pure science”. Despite the missional context of the Gospels and early church, there was no mention of a missionary intention in either of these two categories and this state of affairs continued in both Roman Catholic and Protestant circles.

The European teaching system emphasizing scientific methods and focusing on parts to understand the whole has been admired and imitated in the rest of the world since the early 1900s. This has contributed to the institutionalized fragmentation of theological study into several disciplines and the disciplines were in turn further compartmentalized in e.g., Old Testament and New Testament study. The Old Testament study was then again divided by way of example into the study of the Pentateuch, the Prophetic Literature, and the Wisdom Literature. Lecturers were expected to specialize, and this led to research specialities on very limited research questions. In the process, the leadership in theological training was transferred from scholar-pastors to academics (Shaw 2014:94).

When we look at the development of theology in Africa, Shaw (2014:94) points out that theological schools were mainly established by North American missionaries. The curricula in these theological schools mostly followed in the footsteps of those at Princeton, Dallas or Fuller, and even followed the American Carnegie credit system under which courses of 2 or 3 credit hours were offered. The curricula consisted of the four basic disciplines which were studied concurrently by students, often with little or no indication of the connection with each other.

As mentioned earlier, the loss of the claim to dispassionate objectivity has seriously damaged the credibility of the Enlightenment approach in the post-modern era. Yet we find that it still largely determines the shape of higher education. This is even though in our century great emphasis is placed on the holistic understanding and approach of human beings. Effective teaching requires that both the cognitive, affective, and behavioural dimensions of the person are involved in the process. New paradigms for integrated theological education must be sought. This requires a reconceptualization with multiple layers of integration at its core.

The second facet that deserves our attention is the integration of theory and practice. A disconnect between theory and practice leads to ivory tower theology that is out of touch with the lives of church members and to practice which is uninformed and driven by culture rather than careful theological reflection (Shaw 2014:95). The “Global Survey on Theological Education” (Esterline et al. 2013) considers greater integration between theory and practice as a core need for the promotion of reflective ministry practice.

The process of integration of theory and practice must be bi-directional. What happens in the teaching situation must speak to life›s realities and circumstances and when teaching in the workplace or practice must be reflected on, it must be done in the light of biblical, historical, theological, social, context and ministry perspectives as well as what is taught in the class.

Most theological programs include workplace training or practical training, but the tendency for the assessment of this training is to focus on the practical lessons learned rather than on substantive theological reflection. Thereby the fragmentation between theory and practice is strengthened rather than reduced. Students must be helped to be able to form a connection between theory and practice by asking questions such as for evidence of God›s presence in a specific experience or to ask if the experience testifies to sound ecclesiology. This can also be supplemented by asking students to reflect theologically on life experiences.

Priest (2000) thinks that the focus in reflective practice should be more on the practice than on the reflection, and when it comes to assessment it should be focused on the student›s ability to lead a congregation reflectively (reflectively) in evangelism, the pursuit of justice, discipleship, and spiritual growth. Andrew Kirk (2005:33) reinforces the thought when he says: “It is now commonplace of much theological endeavour in the church of the global South that the verification of genuine theology is determined not so much by criteria formulated within the parameters of the academic community, as by its ability to liberate people for effective involvement in society. If it does not have this effect, it is considered an alienated and alienating force.”

The final aspect of integration to which I3 want to refer is the implications of the missional character of the church. By the sixties of the last century, it was accepted in all the confessional church families that mission belongs to the essence of the church (Bosch 1991:493). The church was no longer seen as something against the “world”, but as sent to the world for the sake of the world. A further important insight that followed was that the world outside the church is also the work site of the mission. “Mission means serving, healing, and reconciling a divided, wounded humanity” (Bosch 1991:494). The implication of this is that just as the church ceases to be a church if it disregards its missional essence, theology is also no longer theology if its missional character is lost … “for theology, rightly understood, has no reason to exist other than critically to accompany the missio Dei” (Gensichen 1971:250). Cracknell and Lamb (Cracknell 1986:2) insist that all theological questions must be conceived from the perspective of missional theology.4 “Only in this way can a “better teaching” of every subject come about” (Cracknell 1986:25).

4.1. Integrated curriculum

Hugenote Kollege developed a theological curriculum that is essentially missionally based and focuses on witness and care from the Missio Dei. The usual “fourfold pattern” or sub-disciplines were therefore being done away with. The three-year course is divided into 5 subjects namely Revelation of God, Theology of God, Spiritual Formation, Kingdom of God and God, Cosmos, and Humanity. The theory and skills already developed by the traditional theological sub-disciplines and other social sciences (as far as this is appropriate) are treated as integrated knowledge based on core themes of missional theology. With the integration of knowledge and skills, the traditional theory-practice distinction is united in creative tension. Theology cannot help but be in conversation with the context. It is therefore influenced by the context but also has a transformative effect on the particular context. Theology and context can be distinguished, but not separated. Theological training at the College is directed towards the praxis of discipleship/community. The curriculum includes the skills that the student must master to be a collaborator of God in a specific context. The content of the curriculum is therefore worked out in the creative tension of who is the God who is active in the world and the skills that His children must develop to testify and serve with Him.

4.2 Distance, the Divine and digital

Reformed theology at its core is concerned with a constant re-examination of itself as described in the slogan “Semper Reformanda.” Hugenote Kollege’s online curriculum is an attempt to offer a new model of theological education in service of the church, one that is moulded for constant reflection. It is a move away from what Steve de Gruchy (2003:457) describes as “the straitjacket of the classic theological disciplines” to give way to a more holistic and integrated approach. At the core of this integrated approach is a deep awareness of missional identity. It’s in line with what Aleshire (2011:384) predicts regarding the theological education of the future, namely that it will be deeply missional and entrepreneurial. Hugenote Kollege’s curriculum is designed to move students to think critically about poverty and to bring transformation in their context, but simultaneously acutely aware that it is from a theological approach.

In the following section, we elaborate on some points of discussion in light of the Hugenote Kollege online BTh degree. 5

4.3. Educating from below

It might seem superfluous to mention, but Hugenote Kollege is located in Wellington, Western Cape. In recent debates, Africanisation and the importance of decolonising curricula have come to the fore. Africa has to contend with the post-colonial and globalising context (Naidoo 2016:1). Maile (2011:111) mentions that Africanising the curriculum involves developing scholarship and research established in African intellectual traditions so that knowledge and wisdom are valued with multiple theoretical frameworks. The notion is to aid students in interpreting their context and experience without being forced to try and apply Western ideas that might be foreign to their contexts. Graham Duncan (2000:27-28) also makes the case for the necessity of the transformation of theological education to engage with the actual context, which according to him should focus on the poor in society.

Although Hugenote Kollege did not set out to decolonise the curriculum, the focus on missional theology has brought an emphasis on local networks. Knowledge from ministers who are already in ministry are employed, for example, the third-year Spiritual Formation module (TLH 333) is lectured by a lay minister who is already doing and practising the theology that is being taught in the online classroom. The module focuses on spiritual formation, Missio Dei in the community and imitating Christ. The first-year module God, Cosmos, and Humanity (TLH 135) which emphasises community development, pastoral care, understanding contexts and being agents of change is lectured, for example, by a minister who lives in a township as part of the Interchange network and working from within the community to make a difference. This changes the teaching environment, as the lecturer is applying the theory he is teaching and demonstrating the module’s theory. Another example is seen in the second-year module God, Cosmos and Humanity (TLH 235). The module especially focuses on pastoral care in communities taught by a lecturer who is a minister working in the upliftment of poverty and actively involved in empowering communities which changes the teaching to be a constant remembrance that the theological theory needs to relate, be embodied, and lived. Part of the module is a focus on collective lament. This is specifically directed to a South African context where congregants are exposed to copious amounts of violence and traumatised. The use of lament guides students and develops a language set for students to address injustice and create spaces of healing. God, Cosmos, and Humanity was developed by a thinktank of younger theologians who are all involved in ministry with diverse backgrounds and worldviews. This resulted in a hands-on module with diverse input focused on local South African and African lay ministers.

But what is more, it is easy to forget that theological students are predominantly already engaged in churches simultaneously whilst studying. Theological training is not only about the transference of information, but also about critical engagement with what is known and needed to transform the knower and create a responsibility towards what is known (Cloete 2015:151). The students are not bound to a faculty far away from their homes but are already embedded in a network where the information transforms them. The focus of the degree is missional; accordingly, the notion is not that the Church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a church (Knoetze 2020:2). The church does not exist as a distinct linguistic community separated from the secular society that surrounds it (Garrett 2004:2). Most of the students (one or two as the exception) are already busy with ministry in their local congregations and are doing the course to obtain extra skills to continue doing what God is already doing through them. Healthy church structures also play a critical role in the formation of the students; for example, one student is part of a congregation where all of the town’s congregations’ leaders come together weekly to discuss the lectionary text. This serves as an integral forming opportunity between theory and praxis.

4.3. Digital dichotomy

Online theological education is not a new idea. It’s been discussed for years as part of the fourth industrial revolution, but COVID-19 has accelerated online teaching.6 The Hugenote Kollege BTh was always planned to be online, thus when COVID-19 occurred, the programme merely continued as business as usual. However, the rise of more institutions teaching online has helped shape thinking about how we teach and rethinking the duration of the lectures. In the past, the concern has been raised whether online teaching and learning can produce the same outcomes derived from the traditional classroom (Delamarter & Brunner 2005:145). Of course, we encountered the initial suspicions of online teaching. Questions concerning: how can formation take place without meeting face to face, how can students learn if the lecturer is not with them and how can a community be formed? (see Delamarter 2004:137). Within our experience, a community can be cultivated online. For example, the module spiritual formation in the second year (TLH 233) concerns spiritual disciplines and is taught online. There is a great deal of trust between lecturer and student to practise the disciplines on their own, but also during Zoom classes a significant bond forms especially between the students. This module specifically is immensely successful in terms of the connection the students communicate among themselves and the community. The students form WhatsApp groups for all of the modules and apart from uploaded pre-recorded lectures, there is usually a Zoom lecture once a week. Of course, the Zoom lectures are like any class, sometimes, the experience is that all students share and participate, even students who normally would not have shared. But other times, poor internet connection creates frustration for both student and lecturer and there are sometimes classes in which the students do not speak. As a rule, videos have to be turned on when engaging in Zoom online classes; this prevents students to merely tune in but are busy with other things. Unfortunately, the rule cannot always be enforced as slow internet connections force some to turn off their videos.

Online teaching is not like in-person teaching and it should also not be. With toggles for interlinks and pop-up screens, online teaching can be interactive. For the student who can do more than the average expectation, online teaching enables such a student to excel and surpass. Naturally, the flip side of the coin is also true that some students will not engage as they should. Hugenote Kollege draws on various continuous assessments throughout the module to keep students engaged and aid in forming a discipline of going through the material constantly. As with any theology course, the moment the material is not read daily, the material becomes too much and attempting to do everything at once overwhelms the students. The students who usually do not make the course, are the students that do not continually participate and drop out as catching up is very difficult, due to the course schedule and reading requirements. Online teaching is intrinsically dependent on the student’s ability to be disciplined and work a bit every day.

Technology provides a vast world to engage students with different learning styles as well as to accommodate students with learning disabilities. The fact that the lectures are uploaded and can be replayed as many times as the student desires, helps the student who learns differently. Online lectures try not to mimic real-life teaching, but rather repackage ideas in a shorter time as effectively as possible. The greatest challenge for a lecturer is discerning what to add to the lecture and what not. The integration model makes it tricky to discern what to teach, as multiple combinations and varieties of integration are possible. How we communicate knowledge in today’s world is a topic that needs further investigation, and specifically in relation to online theological education.

In this light, one of the greatest obstacles to online theological education in South Africa is “load shedding”.7 The interruption of the internet and access to computers creates chaos with online classes as our students are from all over South Africa as well as Botswana and Namibia. This means some students are excluded from participating in an online live discussion. In this sense, the recordings are a great help, as the main lectures are available to students when they do have access. But the online Zoom classes are essential in community forming and creating the atmosphere of participation.

Part of enrolling for the degree is acknowledging that a student has internet as well as a computer. However, even with this requirement, data costs in South Africa are immensely expensive, as well as in the continent of Africa in general. This poses a problem for expansion into Africa. Within South Africa, Hugenote Kollege works closely with the church. The church has been integral in overcoming barriers as students who struggle with data and a silent space to work are welcomed at churches to use their facilities. It is often not students from the specific denomination providing aid, which fosters new networks and forges friendships and mentorships within local communities. Often the local minister’s input for an assignment is enlisted enriching the formation of the student.

4.4. Flexibility

Theological education takes time. The traditional university route takes six years for the DR Church. Usually, a student would have to travel to the university away from their hometown, support structures and context to a university context to function in a vacuum. Theological education is often criticised as it does not bear function for the context it is supposed to serve. But one of the greatest contributions Hugenote Kollege makes to theological education is a renewed focus on flexibility. The way the modules are structured means that any person can start theological training at any stage. There are five modules per year for which a student can enrol when the module starts. Thus, there is no requirement to wait until the next year February when most universities begin.

Moreover, students are already in communities where they receive support. They are confronted with new ideas and already begin to think about how to implement these ideas in their community. This also means that students start to investigate how to adapt theological ideas in their context, especially when they give feedback that it doesn’t work. The process of implementation forces them to look for solutions. The flexibility also translates into the curriculum design as students curate the information to their needs as well. Usually, the same theological education is offered to ministers that will serve in an Afrikaans or English middle-class congregation or a poor African congregation in a rural area or central city of Johannesburg train, all in the same manner (Knoetze 2020:7). Within the Hugenote Kollege curriculum, it is very specific that the students are being educated from a missional lens as well as a deep understanding of calling to bring transformation. This means for example, that Hugenote Kollege is not necessarily the place for a person who is interested in Bible translation as ancient languages are not a prerequisite.

As a side note: there is also often the misconception that lay ministers take the jobs away from classically educated ministers. This is not the case, as Hugenote Kollege fills a niche of being a place that educates people who are already in ministry, busy with ministries that were previously not noticed within the imagination of the church.

4.5. Economic benefits

The financial strain of a six-year theological education is well-known. This especially creates a barrier for a student who receives a calling later in life. For some students enrolling at university for a formal training programme is not an option. They simply can’t uproot their family or give up a steady job. In this regard, Hugenote Kollege’s flexible model provides a solution. The courses are affordable and work on a “pay as you go” model. Accordingly, as long as the study is completed within seven and a half years, a student can complete the course as their finances allow. They do not need to move or quit their job. Naturally, the ideal is to do the course full-time, but as online Zoom classes are taught at night, it is possible to study whilst working.

  1. Conclusion

Hugenote Kollege’s online BTh degree provides an alternative option for theological education with a specific focus on lay ministers. Within the purview of theological education, Hugenote Kollege plays an important role in casting a wide net for students, students who could not study previously, students who cannot leave their context to go to university and students who want to be in ministry whilst keeping their profession. It also functions as a space that funnels students who would like to do PhDs and alternative training to other universities, as Hugenote Kollege does not offer post-graduate degrees.

It is a niche degree that is not for everyone. It is meant for the disciplined student rooted in their calling and wanting to bring transformation to their local community. Students work and study simultaneously preparing them for ministry, but also installing an awareness of sustainable models of generating an income independent from the church. It’s a degree embedded in Reformation principles, curious and introspective to educate students to thrive in constantly changing conditions. It reflects and mirrors an ever-changing South African context constantly calibrating and aligning with the missio Dei. Students flourish whilst being embedded in their local support systems and church networks.

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1 This article was presented at the Mirrors and Windows conference held at 17–18 November, at Stellenbosch 2022.

2 Writers such as Oduro et al (2008) and Bediako (1995) has mentioned the rapid growth of the church in Africa is a problem due to a lack of theological integrity (Knoetze 2020:2).

3 I refer to André du Toit.

4 Here it has to be mentioned that the interpretation of “missional theology” from Cracknell in 1986 is much different than what is intended by the term in current discourses.

5 The following sections intensively draw on Annette Potgieter experience as hands-on developing and implementing the BTh degree during her time as lecturer and programme coordinator from February 2020–August 2023.

6 Hugenote Kollege is not the only online institution as SATS, TEEC as well as Unisa also provide online theological education.

7 “Load shedding” is the current term in South Africa for the periodic easing of electricity by Eskom, the national energy provider.