Why Emmaus? An Appeal for Ecclesial Theology

Emmaus is a powerful image. In Luke 24, the risen Christ appears to two disciples on the road. They were speaking, no doubt, about whether these things that the women reported could be true. Could their hopes that Jesus might redeem Israel still be true? Could this beloved prophet, mighty in word and deed, truly have risen from the tomb? Could death be defeated? 

Christ’s questions prepare their hearts for his coming instruction. What are you discussing? What has happened in Jerusalem? And then, his rebuke, “‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 4:25–27).

It is a beautiful thing to receive the instruction of Christ—to know that the Scriptures concern him generally, point to him specifically, and are fulfilled in him ultimately. Christ offers the content of theology and truth, and he does so to the church.

There are practical reasons to walk together. It is safer. The conversation is livelier. It also fulfills a base function of the image of God. We are made for community. We are made to walk together, looking to the ways that Christ has made himself known. We are made to come to the table together, to recognize Christ when the bread is broken before us, as at Emmaus. 

This is an aspect of theological education often overlooked when considering the purpose of training. It is not found on the syllabus, in the required reading, or heard in the lectures. It is the formative community which grounds all instruction. Formative, embodied, in, for, by, and with the church. 

Emmaus Theological Seminary was founded by three pastors, each serving in distinct contexts of Northeast Ohio—urban, suburban, and rural. When we first sat down in an industrial coffee shop, as equidistant to our churches as possible, the united vision was one which echoed Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s time in Finkenwalde, an image frequently referenced. We wanted life together to be that driving force in our students’ experience, and we wanted it because of the underserved market in which we minister. 

Frankly, the existing options in our region because of cost and social location had either been to move to a residential program (from which they may not return to the region, or is never an option because of active ministry), or get training where they can through conferences, books, and exclusively online classes. To adapt another idea from our German influencer, this is the difference between cheap and costly grace—it is cheap education. Emmaus wants to be in the business of costly education. We want to do it at an accessible financial cost, but we want the experience and product itself to be formative and robust. 

This comes from our emphasis on the priority of the local church. Different pastors, serving in different contexts, with a shared vision of ecclesial theology, expressed through a humble orthodoxy. That is, theology in service of the church. Emmaus is not displacing or replacing the church. We are seeking to serve it. Like a good bridesmaid, we are not trying to upstage the bride, but to make her more beautiful. Emmaus aims to be a good bridesmaid of Christ’s bride, the church. 

Because we believe that the best theological education happens in partnership with and for the mission of the Local Church, all students are required to be members in good standing of a local church. It is our conviction that the church calls and commissions her workers. If a student wishes to study at Emmaus, they must be sent by their church, where they are using their gifts and capacities to serve the body of Christ. 

This commitment is also reflected in our faculty. No doubt, there are gifted academics who are doing important work, but have never served a local church. These academics will not be found at Emmaus. Our faculty are required to have ministry experience, to know personally how and why theology works in the church. We believe this creates a better classroom, better training, and better churches. Ecclesial theology serves the church well because it knows the church well.

Theological education is a weighty task with a rich history. At the core of that task and that history is the church, and it should always be so.

Paul J. Morrison (PhD, Southwestern Seminary) is the Provost and Co-founder of Emmaus Theological Seminary, where he teaches in the fields of Christian Ethics and Biblical Theology. Paul also serves as Theologian in Residence at City Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Paul and his wife Sarah have called Cleveland home since 2015 and have one daughter. You can find him on Twitter @PaulMorrisonPhD

Photo by Karl Fredrickson