Is there not sufficient evidence in the Scriptures that the Apostles saw the legitimacy of theological instruction from a distance? And is it not clear that they believed their apostolic authority was communicated even through epistolary form? It is not very hard for us to make the leap from first century letters, then, to twenty-first century digital means of communication.
I remember a time when online dating was new; and people who met their spouse through a website would sheepishly explain how they first made the connection. Voices would lower, eyes would go to the floor, and bashfully they’d say, “we met online.” As if the medium itself made the now-blossoming relationship somehow less valid or somewhat less blessed. Nowadays, however, I no longer detect such embarrassment. The online platform has become part and parcel to our way of life—an element of the everyday providence the Lord sees fit to use in the routineness of our lives. “Online” is how business is conducted, the way people stay in touch (or meet for the first time), and perhaps most relevantly at our present juncture in history: how education happens. More and more schools this academic year will utilize a digital platform for education—and there is no sign of this trajectory being walked back anytime soon.
Online learning is here to stay.
But just as the stigma of online dating is dissipating, so too some of the controversy surrounding digital education is becoming a thing of the past. However, we should at least consider the theological legitimacy and underpinnings of conducting school via distance. As a seminary professor, this post primarily focuses upon theological education, but what biblically applies to a Divinity degree should certainly have application to other forms and subjects of instruction.
Apostolic Instruction and Authority from a Distance
Let us first consider the way in which the Apostles saw their authority and instruction from a distance. In the first century, the notion of instantaneous communication through fiberoptic wires which span the globe was nowhere in the Apostles’ minds. Instead, their means of “Distance Education” was handwritten letters, delivered via courier, through all kinds of weather, over various terrain, and hundreds of miles, to reach their intended recipients. From such a remote position, Jesus’ followers conveyed their understanding that they were instructing the church with Christ’s authority from a distance. They said via letters, things like:
“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you” (1 Cor. 11:23), and then Paul goes on to provide instruction for instituting the Lord’s Supper as properly conducted.