Can you become a theologian and apologist in one year?

Here’s the post at TaylorMarshall.com: Become An Expert Catholic Apologist With NSTI This Year and the NSTI webpage: New Saint Thomas Institute. Taylor’s latest post: How to Make a Catholic Theology Resolution for 2015

Overall, my impression of NSTI is favorable; they offer some good material that will improve their students’ understanding of the Catholic Faith. However, I have a few moderate criticisms. I should note that I have not participated in any of their online courses; I am commenting based on material on the NSTI and taylormarshall.com websites.

One year of study does not make someone an expert in anything. You don’t become an expert apologist, in my opinion, after only a year of study. And the claim that you also become a theologian is absurd. How much time is involved in this one year online course in apologetics? The NSTI website says:

“At the New Saint Thomas Institute, you can spend as much or as little time as your schedule permits. 30 minutes per week is average for our Member students.”

One half hour per week for 52 weeks is 26 hours. Let’s compare that to college courses. A semester credit hour (SCH) is 15-16 contact hours per semester. A “contact hour” is the amount of time spent in the classroom with the professor. It doesn’t count study on one’s own, nor time spent writing papers. Most college and university courses are 3 Semester Credit Hours (SCH) or 45-48 contact hours, so they typically meet for three hours per week over a 15 week semester. [source: Wikipedia]

So if we equate the online apologetics course to a college course, and if the student spends the above stated “average”, then those 26 hours is equivalent to just over half of one college course, or less than 2 semester credit hours. Suppose that a student puts in much more than the average time, raising the time spent to almost an hour a week for a year. Fine. But that is still only the amount of contact time of a single one-semester college course: 3 credit hours. And that’s a generous evaluation of the value of the NSTI program.

And an online course is not quite the same as an in-person college course. The NSTI website has a video saying that there are “no papers” to write in this course work. You watch the videos and make use of the other resources, then you take a single test for apologetics and another single test for theology. Pass with 80% or more, and you get each certificate.

If you took a single college course in apologetics or any other subject, you would not be an expert. And if you took a single college course in theology, you would not be considered a theologian. So that is quite an exaggeration. Approach your pastor, after you receive your “certificate of Mastery in theology” (as the FAQ section of the NSTI page says) and tell him you are a theologian now. He will enjoy a good laugh.

Now what are these Catholic apologetics supposed to do with their training? I suppose some will go online to spread the Gospel and defend the Faith. That is an excellent purpose; it’s part of the apostolate of the laity discussed by Vatican II. And I think that the graduates of each certificate program could do some good for the Church.

But in my opinion, it’s a mistake to tell people they become an “expert” or simply a “Catholic apologist” from this level of study. There are many persons calling themselves “apologist” online. Some apologists are telling other Catholics that they too can become an apologist without any formal training. You just hang out your “apologist” shingle and start teaching and preaching.

And the claim that you become a theologian after a year of study online, is wholly unsupportable, in my humble opinion.

Announcing our new Certificate in Catholic Theology and Certificate in Catholic Apologetics! Make a New Year’s Resolution to take Catholic classes online and become a theologian and apologist.

The course of study at NSTI is not accredited. Let’s compare their offering to CDU (Catholic Distance University). They are accredited. Their online BA in theology program requires 80 general education credit hours and 40 theology credit hours. Compare those 40 credit hours in theology to NSTI’s 2 or 3 credit hours (estimated, unaccredited). You are not a theologian if you complete the CDU BA degree in theology, with 10 to 20 times more credit hours in theology.

In one place on the NSTI website, it is called “a Certificate of Mastery in Theology”. The latest post at TaylorMarshall.com says:

Earn a one-year Certificate of Mastery in Theology and/or Apologetics. The Institute will offer a continuing education program. Premium Members will be able to work toward a one-year Certificate of Mastery in either Theology or Apologetics, or for this special launch: both Certificates if you wish.

The courses at NSTI are unaccredited; these are not online college courses. I sincerely and charitably believe that a devout Catholic who puts in the time and effort can take away from this type of certificate course a similar level of knowledge to a single one-semester college course in the same subject, even though NSTI is unaccredited.

But the term “mastery” is another exaggeration. You don’t master theology after getting a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree in the subject.

Over-emphasis of St. Thomas

I would criticize some of my fellow conservative and traditionalist Catholics for over-emphasis of the work of St. Thomas. On the far right in Catholicism, the theological opinion of Thomas is treated like dogma. Taylor Marshall is not one of those traditionalists who rejects Vatican II. But his approach to theology over-emphasizes past theological opinions, and treats modern theologians as if they don’t exist, or aren’t worth considering. There’s very little development of dogma, or open questions, or possibility for constructive debate. Any question answered by Thomas can’t possibly be subject to debate, as they treat Thomas as if he cannot err. The fact that the NSTI is named after St. Thomas does nothing to dissuade me from the impression that the NSTI will over-emphasize and ultimately dogmatize the opinions of St. Thomas.

The NSTI website speaks of the living Magisterium. But the course work emphasizes the theological opinions of St. Thomas from over 700 years ago, not the recent documents of the Magisterium.

Learning to do Theology

The NSTI apologetics syllabus covers a great deal of territory, in what is arguably about the space of one college course. You can’t really teach people to do theology, over all those topics, in that short time. In a BA theology program, you write many essays and papers; this helps you to learn to write theology. You also take many tests. A single text certificate program with no papers to submit does not make you a theologian or an expert in apologetics, in my opinion.

I’m concerned that the apologist program merely tells students what to say to others. It’s rather like the approach of some fundamentalist Protestant groups. They give you the list of talking points and tell you what to say. But the fundamentalist isn’t really thinking about these issues and speaking from his own understanding. You watch videos that tell you what to say when arguing the faith (in apologetics).

Is there any opportunity to disagree with the course material, or to propose your own theological insights and answers? I’ve notice that the further to the right one goes in the spectrum of Catholic theology, the less room there is for development of doctrine, new theological insights, varied opinions, open questions, and possible errors in non-infallible teachings.

Traditionalist Catholics tend to see almost all theological questions as having a definitive answer. Sometimes the answer they imagine to be definitive is their own interpretation or misunderstanding of a dogma. Other times they have found a non-infallible magisterial teaching on a point and dogmatized their interpretation of it. Worse still, they tend to dogmatize whatever the prevailing opinion is among traditionalists on any question.

So what happens when these very conservative Catholics teach theology? They might tend to tell their students what to believe on each point, glossing over the fact that a range of theological opinions exists among faithful priests and theologians today.

The apologetics syllabus covers moral theology. In a college setting, a degree candidate would likely take several courses in that field of study, and perhaps still not be ready to teach or argue the subject. In the NSTI program, it’s only a fraction of the material. It’s just hard for me to believe that such brief presentation of moral theology would properly equip Catholics to defend the Faith or to do theology on that topic.

Should You Teach the Faith?

What does Sacred Scripture say about who should teach the Christian Faith?

[James 3]
{3:1} My brothers, not many of you should choose to become teachers, knowing that you shall receive a stricter judgment.

In order to spread the Gospel, you must first study, learn, and live the Gospel. In order to defend the Faith, you must acquire a thorough understanding of magisterial teaching on faith, morals, and salvation. Apologetics can do much good, but it can also do much harm. I have read material from some Catholic apologists claiming that grave sins condemned by the Church are moral, claiming that abject heresy is actually Church doctrine, and promoting many other errors on faith and morals.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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