Constant study is a core discipline for everyone called to minister in the Word of God (2 Tim. 2:15). But constant study, especially on one’s own, poses a number of significant challenges (Eccl. 12:12). It was a kind providence, therefore, that led me to enrol on the MTh in Reformed Theology at Union Theological College (UTC).
I am a teaching elder of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland. Ordained in 2012, I became increasingly convinced during the early years of my pastorate that I would benefit from further theological education. I enrolled at UTC first for a Graduate Diploma in Theology, and then on the MTh programme. Both of these courses, but especially the MTh, met and exceeded all my expectations.
At the heart of the MTh programme lies a commitment to reformed catholicity and the conviction that the Great Tradition must be retrieved if our theological mind is to be renewed. There are, of course, many varieties of retrieval—at UTC retrieval is sought along Protestant and Reformed principles.
The MTh programme comprises four taught modules, and a two-module capstone dissertation. Each of the taught modules is assessed by several short essays and a longer assignment. These written pieces not only require thoughtful engagement with the topic in hand, but also drive the candidate to learn how to craft a concise thesis, argue a clear defence, and present a substantial conclusion. The staff who coordinate the modules provide timely and detailed feedback on coursework. I engaged positively with this feedback and the quality of my writing improved over the course of the four taught modules. The taught modules are essential preparation for the capstone dissertation, which employs all the reading, thinking, and writing skills previously developed.
These written pieces not only require thoughtful engagement with the topic in hand, but also drive the candidate to learn how to craft a concise thesis, argue a clear defence, and present a substantial conclusion.
I have the privilege of living just outside Belfast, and the journey from home to UTC and the Gamble Library takes about half an hour by car. However, the MTh is an online course, and all the core resources needed are made available via the BibleMesh™ website and/or the ATLA database to which UTC subscribes. I found the UTC library staff always very responsive to my requests for help.
I was surprised by the amount of fellowship I enjoyed with other students on the MTh programme. The module coordinators go to considerable lengths to facilitate online meetings among the students—so-called MTh café sessions. In addition, candidates taking the same module are required to submit written pieces on the module portal so that they can provide written feedback on one another’s work. In my experience this was not an easy exercise—but it was a valuable one. Just as valuable for me were the discussion forums through which students are ask questions, share resources, highlight passages in articles they have read, etc. I made an effort to engage with these forums as fully as possible, and I found that they not only helped me understand the topics of study better, but also greatly increased my sense of companionship with the other students.
I took the MTh part-time, and completed it just inside three years. I found it intellectually challenging and immensely rewarding. As an extended exercise in retrieval it has taken me back to the Great Tradition, exposing and correcting errors and lacunae in my theological mind, and helping me to better order my understanding of the Reformed faith. By introducing me to some of those, both old and new, who contributed to the Great Tradition, and helping me to read them in a more intelligent fashion, the MTh has greatly broadened the ‘thought world’ I inhabit. This has enriched my own ministry, and given me greater confidence to preach from the foundation of a more theological interpretation of Scripture. Moreover, the MTh has developed in me the habit of trying to identify and express as clearly as possible the ‘big picture’ each time I preach or teach, and I believe that this is helping my congregation grow in the faith.
The ministry of the Word of God demands study, and study expends energy. The MTh in Reformed Theology at UTC requires the commitment of a considerable portion of each week’s working hours. But for me it was worth the effort, and I have no hesitation in recommending the programme to those who are called to labour in the Word.
John Watterson is an aeronautical engineer by training, and he taught aerospace engineering at Queen’s University Belfast for 13 years before training at the Reformed Theological College in Northern Ireland for the ministry of the Word.