MA in Theology student, Andy Gemmill

What’s It Like Studying Theology In Our MA Program

Andy Gemmill, current MA in Theology student, has the unique perspective of not only being a student but also overseeing a cohort of students taught in collaboration with a pastors training course in Cornhill, Scotland.

Andy lives in Glasgow and is in the dissertation phase. Serving as a pastor who also previously had a career in healthcare, he offers his perspective on the programme as someone in ministry, returning to higher education, and in charge of training others for ministry. Below are his insights from a recorded interview with programme coordinator Dr. Dennis Greeson.

Who is the MA in Theology Programme for? Who benefits from this type of programme and who ought to take it?

The programme has the potential to touch the ministry training needs of a whole range of different people in different settings. It is an excellent programme for ministers and missionaries. But also, I think a Christian who is serious about learning more theology, who is just doing a regular job and living a regular life would very much benefit from this if they have time and energy to do it. It is a very good introduction to systematic and doctrinal thinking for those in ministry, and is accessible to people from a range of existing learning.

It is an excellent programme for ministers and missionaries. But also, I think a Christian who is serious about learning more theology would very much benefit from this [programme]

Regardless, it will stretch you no matter what your background. You have to be serious about your studies, as this is not a lightweight course, and you have to have a strong commitment to learning. You don’t have to be an expert, but you do have to be willing to work hard.

You have to be inquisitive because you are not spoon fed as you go. You’re given loads of resources and encouragement, and lots of advice about ways you proceed with assignments, but you really have to dig in and keep yourself going in it.

If you can find someone to study with, that might be helpful. Also you have to be reasonably open-minded. Much of the material we look at is not just “let me tell you things so that you can remember them.” Instead, it’s dealing with areas about which there is either significant contemporary debate or there is debate within the Reformed tradition generally. It is not good for you to say everything there is to say about something but rather for you to be selective and to intentionally engage in an argument with the most important contrary opinions.

What are the type of skills someone needs to have to succeed in this programme?

There is quite a lot of reading, so you must be able to keep up with that. An average week of reading varies a bit, but you should expect to devote at least a full day’s work a week to reading and writing during the course of the module. Most people don’t do one solid day at one time, but it is a day’s worth of work at least.

In addition, you need to be a competent writer, and committed to grow in your writing skills. Students write 4500 words for each module. This is on par for many postgraduate degrees, but the nature and quality of the writing required is where the effort is spent.

The course is designed to help you write thoughtfully, to help you pursue an argument, and to do that with economy of language. The topics are broad and the expectations for arguing a particular point are high, so you can’t say everything and need to choose your words wisely. This takes practice and skill, which you learn over the course of the programme.

If this course is preparation for ministry, why might writing be so important?

In whatever area of Christian ministry you are in, the ability to think with clarity, to communicate in a clear way, and to make complex things easy to grasp is right at the heart of the job. You need to know what scripture says, and you also need to be able to articulate that.

In whatever area of Christian ministry you are in, the ability to think with clarity, to communicate in a clear way, and to make complex things easy to grasp is right at the heart of the job.

I have found that it is massively helpful in everyday preaching and teaching because it helps you to think clearly about anything. Although the course’s content is theology from the Reformed tradition, at its heart the course offers a deep dive into how to think clearly, and that’s just wonderfully beneficial to any ministry you find yourself in.

Doing theology is knowing God as he has revealed himself, and thinking God’s own thoughts after Him. The need for precise language and critical thinking in this task is not insignificant. These are at the heart of what it means to know Him as a Christian, and to introduce Him to others. These skills are necessary for task of telling others about God.

What has been one of the most challenging things about the programme?

My challenges have been both course-related and personal. Course-related challenges are especially to do with things like, “What am I going to choose to focus on out of all the things I could choose?”

When people begin the course, they feel a great pressure to read everything, to know everything, to be comprehensive about all of it. That is not possible! Rather, it’s helpful to not try to be comprehensive here but to try to think clearly about an aspect of something relative to the question. The amount of ideas available out there on these theological topics are at times overwhelming, and yet you have to focus in on one thing.

On the personal level, I have a great desire to know everything. I can be a bit obsessive over knowing everything about an issue before writing an essay. But that tendency really has to be kept in check—because you can’t know everything, and at some point you just need to commit yourself to an thesis and argue it in an essay as best you can.

This programme has been a great exercise in humility, because you find out that you cannot possibly know everything.

What might you recommend prospective students do to prepare? 

It is good to start reading some theology beforehand. It doesn’t need to be very technical, but it is helpful to read theology from the Reformed tradition especially just to orientate yourself to way this programme is taught.

For example, the Short Studies in Systematic Theology series published by Crossway are short but not trivial, and that is really useful. Just begin to read something you find accessible, but which will stretch you a bit.

Additionally, become as familiar with Scripture as you can be with the time you’ve got. Not just what’s in the Bible, but also the unfolding story across the Bible as a whole and how it all fits together. Begin to learn how Biblical themes develop, how stories develop, because systematic theology sits on top of that. It’s really helpful to have a good grasp of the shape of Scripture.

A few of my favorite resources include Vaughan Roberts’ book, God’s Big Picture, on the accessible level, and on the more technical level, Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum’s God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants. It’s very valuable to think about how the story fits together. Graeme Goldsworthy’s books, including According to Plan, offer great surveys of the biblical story, as well as Bartholomew and Goheen’s True Story of the Whole World.

Beyond reading, see if you can find someone to do the programme with you. It is helpful to have someone to meet up with and talk through it together.

If you are interested in learning more about the MA in Theology programme, or would like to schedule a time to talk with the programme coordinator, please let us know of your interest here.