Erin’s blog

Students and friends of Union College may wish to catch up with one of our first year students, Erin Burnett, who blogs here. Erin has an interesting perspective to share on what it’s like to begin studying for a degree in Theology and living in Union College.

The Doctrine of the Church



As a blogsite, we have been inactive for a while, but we are trying to get started again!

Part of the report on Relationships with Other Denominations at the PCI 2017 General Assembly included an appendix on the reformed doctrine of the church. The Assembly commended this appendix to the church at large and especially to those training for ordained ministry. It will also be of interest to all ruling elders in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. So we have published it here.

Continue reading “The Doctrine of the Church”

Bonhoeffer on Theological Education

Paul R. House has written this helpful reminder about Bonhoeffer’s commitment to theological education.

A Most Treasured Vocation

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) died 70 years ago this month.

As recent bestselling biographies by Eric Metaxas and Charles Marsh indicate, Bonhoeffer is usually remembered as university professor, pastor, spy, and martyr. Yet he served as a seminary director from 1935 to 1940, longer than he did in any of these other important roles.

Seminary work was his most treasured vocation. He returned to it from America in 1939, and stayed in it until he had no other option. As director, he insisted on face-to-face, community-based pastoral formation for theological reasons he gives in The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, which he wrote during these years. As I survey the landscape of seminary education these days, especially as practiced by evangelicals, I pray that Bonhoeffer the theologically-driven seminary director will be taken seriously.

Rooted in Ecclesiology

Bonhoeffer’s commitment to face-to-face, community-based pastoral formation grew from his understanding of the church, the subject of his first two books. In those books he argued from Scripture and sociological theory that the church is a living community of practicing believers. This community is a flesh-and-blood body—the body of Christ on earth. This body moves, speaks, and takes up space. It is not abstract. It is not invisible. Thus, where there is no body there is no church.

Bonhoeffer believed that a seminary shaping future pastors is a ministry of the church, not a credentialing service selling credits. So it must include the hearts, minds, and bodies of students, teachers, staff members, and church people. All are responsible to their brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus and Paul shaped ministers this way, and so should all who wish to be biblical.

A Powerful Warning

Bonhoeffer’s accurate understanding of the church and its seminary ministry offers a powerful warning to us. Where there is no body, there are no disciples, no church, and thus no seminary. Since a body cannot exist on a screen or online, neither can churches or seminaries. Being physically present is essential for ministerial preparation.

As we mark Bonhoeffer’s death, let us celebrate Christ’s body by giving up disembodied seminary education. Let us help donors see the importance of supporting face-to-face formation. Let administrators and teachers commit to in-person education. Let students insist seminaries provide biblical formation. Let mission boards send people—not videos—to international seminaries.

Let us all commit to costly discipleship and life together for Christ’s body’s sake.

Paul R. House (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) has been a pastor-teacher in churches, Christian colleges, and seminaries for over 30 years. He has served as a department chair at Taylor University and Wheaton College, and as academic dean at Beeson Divinity School, where he currently teaches. He is a past president of the Evangelical Theological Society and an active member of the Society of Biblical Literature. He is the author of Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together.

Reflection on “I Believe in Preaching”

Seth Wright is a first year ministry student at Union College. As part of an assignment for a class in Homiletics he was asked to read a book on preaching and then identify key lessons he learned from it for his preaching ministry. Seth chose John Stott’s book, “I Believe in Preaching”. This is his reflection.


In I Believe in Preaching, John Stott makes a case in favour of contemporary preaching.  As he does so, he gives the theological and historical basis for preaching before describing the content, methods, and virtues that produce good preaching.  I found the entire book useful in its clarity and insight: Stott has the rare gift of making a reader think, “That’s so true!  How did I never think of that before?”  Reading I Believe in Preaching has given me a much firmer grasp on why preaching is important, what it’s meant to do, and what makes preaching good.  Whilst I could discuss several ways in which Stott’s work has sharpened my thinking, I’ll focus here on the chapter entitled “The Call to Study.”

My reflections begin with a brief history of my relationship with preaching.  In short, the preaching I received until my mid-twenties did not meet Stott’s high standards.  By that time, however, my understanding of the preacher’s task had been shaped by the failures of the various preachers I had listened to.   I Believe in Preaching confronted my misunderstandings of the intellectual preparation that lies behind good sermons.

When I was thirteen, my parents had become dorm-parents at a missionary boarding school in a small town in Venezuela, where I lived until I left school and moved back to the States.  Our ecclesiastical situation during those formative years was anomalous, to say the least.  Consequently, I acquired many unthought assumptions about preaching during those years, soaking up as ordinary a highly unusual situation.

Continue reading “Reflection on “I Believe in Preaching””


This semester, the Ministry Formation Seminar is exploring the theme of disciple-making. As part of that seminar, teams of students are preparing and delivering sermons on the theme of discipleship from Colossians. Altogether, there will be eight sermons on aspects of discipleship based on the Fruitfulness on the Frontline sermon outlines. The sermons are entirely the work of the students in the ministry course at Union College. The first sermon seeks to present the big picture of our relationship to Christ as being foundational for our Christian discipleship. You can read the full text below the fold. Continue reading “Disciple-making”

Culture of Life or Death?

One of the big issues facing us in 2015 is whether it will be the year when our society becomes more a culture of death rather than a culture of life. The proposals to change our local law on abortion, as well as Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill at Westminster, will force us to think again about the “edges” of human life, and how such life can be protected. If you haven’t yet signed up for The Church in the Public Square conference on 22 January, you should do so now. Telephone 028 9020 5080 or email to register.

While some notable writers and clerics have claimed recently that an “overwhelming majority” of the public now supports a change in the law on assisted dying, many Christians have serious reservations about a bill that would license doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to people who choose to end their lives. The traditional Christian view is that we contribute to a just and compassionate society when we devote ourselves to care, not killing, and to building a community where the weakest and most vulnerable people are protected, whether they are innocent babies or vulnerable people who are frail, sick or elderly.

Up until now, the absolute principle has been the safeguarding of human life both at the beginning and end of life. A change in the law with regard to assisted suicide will significantly affect the moral landscape of our society. A new law will be open to abuse or, as those who have experience of nursing elderly relatives will recognize, to the fear of abuse.

These legal challenges come as we look back on years of conflict and violence when so many precious lives were lost. Yet the tragic loss of human life continues to dominate our local headlines. Just as the infant Christ was born into a world where innocent babies were slaughtered by an evil tyrant, we recognize that our world remains a place where there is too much darkness and death. Whether it is violent men massacring defenceless schoolchildren in Pakistan, or the beheading of innocent aid workers in Iraq or the attempt to kill a committed Christian medical missionary in Congo, the culture of death continues to threaten us. And the events in Paris last week were the most potent reminder that the kingdom of darkness and the culture of death is a huge threat to all of us.

Against that background, the Christian gospel announces that in Christ there is life and that life is the light of men. The continuing witness of Christians here and across the world means that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). The best efforts of the Prince of Darkness did not, and will not, extinguish the true Light.

Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10).  The gospel is life-affirming and life-enhancing, and looks forward, through faith in the Crucified and Risen Christ, to life that will last forever. As followers of Jesus, we need to re-double our efforts to resist the culture of death and to affirm and support a culture of life.


Living and Dying Well

In recent months there has been increasing debate on whether or not the law should be changed in this country to permit a doctor to kill his terminally ill patients or to assist them in their suicide should they so request. The big questions that many lawyers, doctors and pastors are facing are these: Does medically-assisted death have a place within healthcare? Is medically-assisted death just another end-of-life choice that some people have to make? Would a change in the current legislation put pressure on vulnerable people to consider assisted dying because they were making demands on their carers? These questions raise major theological and ethical issues which cause much concern for individuals who are directly affected, as well as for legislators and those in the legal, medical and caring professions.

Union Theological College, in cooperation with the Church and Society Committee of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, is hosting the third The Church in the Public Square Conference on Thursday 22 January 2015 on the theme “Living and Dying Well”. The conference will address the ethical, pastoral and legal issues surrounding the attempts to legislate in favour of assisted suicide. As an ordinary church member, or as a professional person concerned about these issues, we encourage you to attend this event.

We are delighted to welcome three well-qualified speakers to lead our discussion of these critical issues.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff is chairwoman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Dying Well. She is a professor of palliative medicine at Cardiff University and a past president of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Robert Preston worked in Whitehall as a civil servant for 30 years. In that role he examined Lord Joffe’s Private Member’s Bill, “Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill” and he is now Director of the think-tank, Living and Dying Well, which works to examine the objective evidence surrounding the controversial end-of-life debate and publishes research to help inform Parliament and the public.

John Wyatt is Professor of Ethics and Perinatology at University College, London. He has lectured widely on issues in ethics from a Christian perspective and his most prominent book is Matters of life and death: Today’s healthcare dilemmas in the light of Christian Faith. Professor Wyatt has been a member of All Souls Church in London since first coming to London as a medical student and has worked as a specialist in the medical care of newborn infants for more than 20 years.

These keynote speakers will help us to think through these important issues so that we will be able to make good and wise decisions.

To book your place, download a booking form from the Union Theological College website, or email the College or telephone 028 9020 5080. The conference fee is £20 (including lunch), and full-time students can register for £12. Early registration before 1st December is just £15 and the closing date is 15th January.

The Church in the Public Square

The Church in the Public Square is a conference organised jointly between PCI’s Church and Society Committee and Union Theological College.

Following on from the last successful conference in January, the theme of the upcoming autumn conference is Equality, Freedom and Religion. It will be held on Thursday 9th October 2014 in Assembly Buildings, Fisherwick Place, Belfast from 10 am to 3.30pm. Registration from 9.30am.

The equality agenda is important in building a just and equitable society. Yet this raises many very important issues which have scarcely been debated, never mind satisfactorily resolved. Whilst freedom of religious belief is widely accepted, there is much less consensus on the issue of freedom of religious expression and practice within a modern democracy. This is one of the core themes that will be explored at this day conference, with the help of our three key speakers.


Religious Freedom in a Secular Society  Professor Roger Twigg, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Warwick

Faith in Human Rights and Equality       Professor Colin Harvey, Professor of Human Rights Law, Queen’s University, Belfast

Facing Equality – What’s the Story?         Dr Michael Wardlow, Equality Commission for Northern Ireland 


To register, please visit  or telephone 028 9041 7203.


Conference fee, including lunch, £20. Full-time students £12.