Robert E Johnson
Central Baptist Theological Seminary
in an Age of Transition:
Dr Johnson's expertise includes church history and the history of Western Christianity. He edits The American Baptist Quarterly, author of numerous scholarly articles, and author of A Global Introduction to Baptist Churches, issued last year (2010) to mark the 400th anniversary of the birth of the Baptist movement which now includes 110 million persons in some 225,000 congregations, the largest world-wide category of evangelical Protestants.
When a seminary professor is elevated to
dean, why not celebrate with a lecture of interest not only to the particular
school but to folks everywhere concerned with the future of religious leadership?
1. Your inaugural lecture
as Dean of CBTS begins with an account from 586 BCE when the worshipers
of Yahweh, captives, awoke to a land with strange rituals, and you trace
the twists and turns of the "theological vocation of spiritual ministry"
from that challenging situation through the present, as you develop the
theme of theological education in an age of transition.
Christian theological formulation has never been static. It has always been responsive to the questions, concerns, and challenges of people located within specific places, timeframes, and world views. Among the things subject to variation have been the speed with which change has occurred and the size of the world to which a particular faith community or tradition has been exposed. During an age when governments defined which version of Christianity was legal and enforced theological decisions by law, “the correct theology” could be taught with authority. This did not mean that no change occurred, only that the change could be more easily managed permitting theological education to approach its work with less ambiguity and greater assurance that the studied views and methods it imparted to its students would actually have relevance in the minister’s parish over a long period of time. Even amid the growing diversity of ecclesiastical traditions following the Protestant Reformation, as long as populations defined themselves rather rigidly according to denominational boundaries, denominations could develop their own particular theologies, practices, and methods and their divinity schools could teach them to their students with some degree of assurance that these would continue to be relevant for the local congregations they were preparing to serve. Furthermore, when social, economic, and cultural changes affecting religious life occurred at a slower pace, the possibility existed to teach students more definitive models for institutional life, worship practices, and fiscal management that had a reasonable chance of adequately preparing the student for vocational effectiveness that might endure for a lifetime.
Today, however, with institutions, worship preferences, and financial practices undergoing rapid and not easily predicted change, persons preparing for ministerial leadership need to be educated to meet a more complex, diverse, interconnected, and global world than ever before. Little hope exists for being able to offer a definitive model for constructing a successful faith community (church) that could endure in that particular form for more than a few years at best. Thus, divinity schools and seminaries must offer students theological and spiritual formation that is more longitudinal, flexible, adaptable, and renewable than ever before. The congregants and other persons with whom the future minister will work live in a world that is religiously diverse, subject to a global scope of information in decision making, and experiencing persistent change and adaptation. Whereas a seminary in the past might have been able to limit its theological perspectives to a regional or cultural constituency, the interconnectedness of the world today demands that theological education prepare the future minister to think in terms of how a theology or practice might impact persons outside her or his own immediate congregation or group. In addition to assisting persons within a particular parish or denomination to grow in faith, theological understanding, and service, the minister also must consider how the beliefs, practices, and systems he or she teaches might serve to build up or tear down the larger community in all its diversity, both locally and beyond.
2. You properly focus on the Western tradition of religious leadership. Do you have any speculations on how the "sage" (as in Chinese tradition) or the "guru" (as in Hinduism) differ from what Christian ministry in the near future might look like? Any possible parallels or differences among these models that might be interesting?
Historically, when programs of Christian theological and spiritual formation have been offered in specific cultures, the forms and models for that formation have been informed by and influenced by patterns that are familiar to that culture. The reason is simple; those teaching want their students to comprehend the message being shared in ways their students most likely will be able to comprehend, accept, and promote among their peers. Achieving this objective requires study of, openness to, and genuine interaction with the particular culture in which the program of formation is being offered. That interaction educates and transforms the formation leader as well as the students seeking training. The so-called “Jesus Sutras” are examples of this type of adaptation. These Sutras date to the seventh century, when Christian educators first tried to share their message in portions of the region today known as China. After studying the “Jesus Sutras, ”Thich Nhat Hanh remarked, “The Sutras show us the interbeing of Jesus, Buddha, Tao, peoples, cultures, transformation, salvation, and unity through deep and mindful living.” Sutras were not a traditional form through which Christians communicated their beliefs, but were developed out of sensitivity to the forms needed in order for their message to find a home in the Chinese context of the time. Roberto de Nobili illustrates a similarly novel approach to the communication of Christian spirituality during the seventeenth century when he utilized the methods of the Hindu holy man to communicate his message in India. Those experiments were as transforming for de Nobili as they were for the people experiencing spiritual enlightenment through his message. They also were seriously misunderstood by many of de Nobili’s contemporaries. Yet, his methods found unparalleled reception among upper caste persons of India. These are but two of many such examples in the history of Christianity.
On the other hand, Christian history also provides notable exceptions to accommodationist approaches in situations where programs of education and training have been introduced following the military conquest of a people and in which strategies of cultural annihilation and replacement have been employed. In many such instances theological educators and ministers did not considered it necessary to be sensitive to the host culture, and with cognizance only of the sensibilities of their mother culture they attempted to force the standards, forms, interpretations, and methods familiar to the conqueror upon the conquered. Most often this yielded a version of Christianity that remained foreign and unappealing to persons of the “other” culture.
Today the Christian minister encounters “other” cultures without ever changing geographic locations. The culture in which she or he lives is changing rapidly, daily presenting unfamiliar challenges that demand interpretation and interaction. Christian theologian Thomas Merton in 1968 quoted the Dali Lama as saying, “In today’s world, we each must stand on our own legs.” What he meant by that was that, in the past, the various religions were supported by governmental and cultural systems that favored a particular faith tradition. That support is gradually declining in many if not most parts of the world, with the result that persons increasingly will have to find within themselves what they will believe and why they will believe. In addition, rapidly changing cultures and increased cross cultural interaction will likely augment the need for people of faith to listen more attentively to and learn from those of other faith traditions. In the process, it seems likely that the forms employed by Christina leaders for spiritual formation would include those that resemble (especially in certain cultural contexts) models traditionally associated with the “sage” or the “guru.” Merton also observed that his dialogue with Buddhism enlightened him to dimensions of his own Christian faith tradition that for him previously had remained undiscovered. I would not be surprised in the future to hear other Christians sharing similar experiences, as well as seeing forms of Christian ministry that model the fruits of such discovery.
3. Often I hear laypeople complaining that the folks in the pew are not benefiting from the scholarship their pastors have acquired in their theological training. Does this mean that academic study of the Bible, for example, is irrelevant to parish life, or that pastors are fearful of conveying scholarly research or approaches to their congregations because such scholarship would challenge folks to rethink their beliefs about the Bible, or why? Do theological students anticipate this problem? Or is this problem overblown? Does it vary from denomination to denomination or church to church?
I think the answer to this question is varied and complex. Among the likely reasons many pastors don’t adequately share the benefits of their own scholarship with laity are (1) the minister’s concept of authority, (2) his or her perception of what lay persons want, and (3) perhaps a sense of inadequacy to know how to approach or answer some of the most troubling questions lay people ask.
Some ministers seem to have the attitude that they are supposed to be “the authorities” and parishioners are supposed to receive from “the authority” the answers to any of the questions they might have. Thus it is the role of the minister “to know” and the role of the parishioner “to accept” as true what the minister teaches, especially in areas of morality and belief. The minister as “the expert” therefore needs to know more than the theologically novice lay persons; otherwise the minister could not be the expert.
In theological education today the “expert” is being replaced by an approach in which all engage in the process of learning together. Each parishioner has some area of expertise to bring to the table. The expertise of all is needed to address most of the complex issues of modern life. In this new paradigm the minister helps equip and coordinate the manifold types of expertise of the faith community in ways that invite everyone to enter into a journey of discovery, one that offers new theological and spiritual insight to all. No one person is the sole source of this insight.
If a minister perceives his or her role as that of being “the resident expert,” then he or she may conclude that “a theological egotist” is what lay persons want and expect. The notion may prevail that lay people don’t want to be bothered with heavy theological reading and study and would rather have a minister simply tell them the correct way to think about an issue or what to believe concerning a doctrine. “Don’t bother me with that doctrinal stuff, just reinforce what I want to believe,” may be the minister’s conclusion concerning lay expectation. If a minister thinks this way, then he or she will do anything to avoid challenging lay persons to engage seriously in the often ambiguous and situational explorations of modern theology.
Also, if a minister thinks that he or she is supposed to be “the parish theological expert,” then he or she likely will be reluctant to expose the fact the he or she does not have all the answers. A sense of inadequacy over how to approach or answer some of the most troubling questions lay people ask can cause a minister to try to avoid situations where not knowing the answer might be exposed.
It is likely that today’s minister needs new orientation. He or she needs to cast aside the notion of being the unassailable expert and replace that with the perception that he or she has the skills to assist lay persons and congregational communities in their pilgrimages of spiritual discovery. In many dimensions that discovery will be very intimate and personal; in other dimensions it will be shared and communal. In such a role the minister will need to share all the knowledge, insight, and skill she or he possesses, while being willing to receive from lay persons the expertise they possess for framing, exploring, and answering the very troubling questions of contemporary life. Together in community, pastor and laity journey together on a pilgrimage (or pilgrimages) of spiritual discovery in spite of ambiguity and uncertainty.
4. What question do you wish I had asked? Please answer it! What would you like my readers to know about the theological education in an age of transition?
Where is the locus of authority for confronting the troubling issues of contemporary life and what does that mean for theological education today?
If the locus of authority is no longer to be found in the resident “theological expert” where is the “authority” for addressing the troubling religious, spiritual, and theological issues of contemporary life to be found? Most likely it will be found in some complex concept of “global village.” We can no longer think only in nationalistic terms, or even in regional terms. In every instance the local and national has to be interpreted in relation to the global. Consequently, theological education cannot conceive itself only in local terms, but must pursue its tasks in light of the whole of humanity. The standard for truth, then, becomes holistic thought. Truth cannot reside complete in my group, my church, my denomination, my country, my race, nor in any one group, church, denomination, country or race. Neither can it reside fully in one discipline or one facet of knowledge. It must be pursued medically, theologically, socially, psychologically, historically, ethically, economically, and so on.
What does this suggest to us about appropriate
models for theological education? The dominant one I see is a process
model. The student cannot be given a definitive theology, but can
be assisted with the tools for the process of a lifetime of theological
exploration and development. The student cannot be given the definitive
model for devising the successful church, but can be assisted with the
tools for understanding the faith community in context and growing in leadership
skills that evolve over a lifetime of ministry.
in an Age of Transition:
Robert E Johnson
Endnotes in red
Paul Hanson, the Florence Corliss Lamont Research Professor at Harvard Divinity School, describes the situation faced by this faith community as one of chaos. He writes: “The sacred center that formerly had held together an ordered universe, the temple in Jerusalem, was destroyed. The concentric circles of institutional structure that had unified the diverse spheres of human activity into a harmonious whole . . . had ruptured.”1 Rushing in to fill the void were religious strangers, worshipers of foreign gods, cultus innovators, victors with a different theology. The familiar center could not hold. Anarchy had been loosed upon the world. 2
In America’s history, exile has meant two very different things for varied categories of people. For one category of outcasts, exile has meant the depravation of treasured places, societies, and customs, but also the opportunity to shape one’s future in a different way, often with greater possibility than would have been the case in the former setting. This was generally the case for those descended from the Puritan tradition. Enforcement of religious uniformity in England forced many into exile, but exile was empowering and filled with new possibility.
For another category of outcast, exile became an experience that both deprived the displaced person of his or her treasured homeland and compatriots, but also denied him or her power to have much voice in shaping his or her future. This was the experience of the African slave and the American Indian, among others.
The researcher does not need to dig very deeply to discover that the biblical narratives of exile (and its resultant loss of center) were interpreted differently and valued differently by these two categories of exiles. Yet, even for the politically and culturally disempowered, exile could only enslave a person to a certain degree. The inner spirit, imagination, drive to overcome, and dream to become something different than what the power holder was imagining also empowered and shaped the future for the exile. Thus, exile (or loss of center) ultimately can become either a place of victimization and disempowerment, or it can become a place of imagination and new empowerment, and the outcome does not finally depend upon the power holders, but upon the self-empowerment that of the exile discovers for himself or herself.
Giving spiritual and theological guidance and formation to a generation caught in exile, and thereby having lost its center, was the task of Second Isaiah. Military conquest and exile had forced a mega paradigm shift upon the world views of sixth-century B.C.E. Hebrews. Those changes compelled serious and unsettling theological questions to surface. We can extract some of the theological confusion experienced by those Hebrew exiles from the pages of Second Isaiah, the author of Lamentations, the writers of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and the author of Ecclesiastes, besides numerous other sources. Among the questions we find there are the following:
1. Former generations of religious leaders taught us that Israel is a people chosen by a loving God who will care for its needs. Were they wrong? Did they know what they were talking about, or were they simply passing on superstitious traditions or wishful thinking?
1. Some advised turning to other deities, having become convinced that cosmic forces more powerful than Yahweh were responsible for shaping humanity’s future. Jeremiah 44:16-18 offers an example of this line of reasoning.
A Cheyenne chief in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, while trying to explain the pillaging and slaughter of his village by European settlers, declared: “They are strange and do not seem to know where the center of the world is.” 5 Whenever a people lose a sense of center it is easy to “wreak havoc among other peoples.” 6 For those of us who live out our vocations in theological education, whether that be in a seminary, a college, or a local church, it often seems that we live in a world that has lost its center and is wreaking havoc in the spiritual lives of congregations, communities, and families that we seek to encourage in finding healthy lifestyles of Christian faith. But, as new and unsettling as this experience may seem to us, it is not unique in the history of theological education. Second Isaiah’s experiences seemed to me a good place to start this exploration, but the larger story of Christianity’s history of doing theological education in a period of transition offer additional insights of value for comprehending better today’s challenges and opportunities. I now would like to explore some of the salient aspects of that story.
A Brief History of Theological Education in Transition
The centuries between the Common Era and the twenty-first century have witnessed several major shifts of context for Western Christianity, each with monumental implications for the task of theological education.In this section I will use the model Hans Küng presents in Christianity: Essence, History, Future as a means for dividing this story into six parts. 7 In each part I (1) first shall present some of the major shaping cultural elements for that period as my starting point, then (2) briefly examine the dominant methodologies for deciding truth during that period, followed by (3) consideration of the central locus of authority upon which Christian truth claims generally were being based together with (4) the major cultural forces shaping theology during the period. Finally,(5) I will present the primary models of theological education that evolved to fit the needs of ministerial training for that epoch in the life of the church. [See column one of Figure 1] If I can adequately accomplish these goals, a basis should thereby be provided for the summative observations regarding theological education in an age of transition offered at the end of this paper.
The Jewish Apocalyptic Period
The initial cultural elements that shaped Christian theological education were derived from Jewish faith communities that became convinced that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled in some unique sense the messianic expectations held by at least a part of the first-century Jewish population. [See column two of Figure 1] Those communities drew heavily upon the exodus and exilic traditions of the past as conveyed through the cultus and theological formation offered both through the Jerusalem temple and the local community synagogues. In addition, there were the additional shaping forces of Hellenic culture. The education of those communities was heavily dependent upon concepts of apocalyptic anticipation which had convinced them that God was doing a unique thing in their day. But that thing, while new, also was connected integrally to Israel’s past and rooted in God’s promises. Thus, for the adherents of the “Jesus Movement”(or as John Crossan labels it “Jesus’ Kingdom-of-God Movement”), 8 the activity of Yahweh associated with and interpreted through the life, teaching, and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth became the dominant cultural shaping element—an element derived from Jewish apocalypticism.
Jesus was an itinerant preacher. No record exists to indicate that he committed any of his teachings to writing. Neither is there indication that his followers kept written journals of his teachings as they traveled. Jesus preached, they listened and remembered. After Jesus’ death, those followers passed on their memories by word of mouth. Those memories helped shape the earliest sermons, debates with unconvinced fellow Jews, and the words and actions that shaped the rituals of primitive Christianity. This type of oral education was likely the only means for theologically educating the “Jesus Movement” communities’ leaders for at least two decades after Jesus’ death, and remained a major method of theological education for many decades afterward.
Unexpectedly, however, radically changed circumstances following the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the alienation of the Jesus Movement from that center, forced a major shift in theological education for that community. This shift occurred at least as early as the movement’s fifth decade. A brief excursus on the Matthew community (or communities) offersan example of the tasks theological education faced at this stage. David Bosch in his book Transforming Mission argues that the Gospel of Matthew reflects the concerns of a Jewish Christian community that had been forced out of Judea into a predominantly non-Jewish setting. Residing in a world totally foreign to everything they had previously known, the Matthew communities faced a religious identity crisis: who are we? What are we doing here? Do we have a mission to the people among whom we now live? And so forth. Bosh suggests that Matthew, therefore, is seeking to help a community of believers in Jesus to discover a new identity as “Jews with a mission to Gentiles.” The purpose of Matthew’s gospel, therefore, was to enable this “JesusCommunity,”which was deeply rooted in Jewish heritage, to engage anon-Jewishsociety that unexpectedly hadbecome its primary ministry context. However—and this is significant—they no longer encountered that world primarily as Jews, but rather as “messengers of God’s good news.”
For these “messengers” accepting this witness meant a monumental transformation of identity because in the new paradigm Jew and Gentile were placed before God as being of equal value. In their new context, these two groups of human beings, who previously had been categorized as synonymous with “children of God” (Jews) and “enemies of God” (Gentiles) are considered as being alike before God. The arriving kingdom proclaimed by Jesus had redefined everything. The inbreaking kingdom had ushered in a new “cosmic reference point.” Any person, regardless of race, who was correctly oriented to this reference point (i.e. the lordship of Jesus, the Christ) was transformed into a disciple. It is important to note here that a new political and social context hadforced major changes in the Matthew communities’ understating of its task of theological education— the community now found itself being called upon to undergo a major transformation of outlook both in understanding of and preparation for its mission. The Matthew communities did not expect the outside society first to accommodate totheir world view in order to receive the message the communities wished to share. Rather, they recognized that their owncommunities’ viewpoints had to expand somehow to become sufficiently inclusive of the views held by the larger society if communication of its message was to become possible. This illustrates the fact that whenever the cultural, philosophical, and social worldviews of Christian communities change significantly, the requirements of theological education can be expected to change as well, and sometimes in ways that might be uncomfortable and even frightening.
Based on the dominant cultural elements shaping the Jesus Movement’s assumptions about truth during this period, the greatest authority for deciding truth was granted to those persons closest to the center of the valued apocalyptic event—the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The most reliable authority for conveying that truth — according to the movement’s generally accepted standards — resided with the eyewitnesses to the teaching and work of Jesus, which were the Apostles. Consequently the locus of teaching authority wasto be found in the Apostles themselves and the standard for judging truth was the teachings attributed to the Apostles. In this setting the model of theological education was that of rabbi-disciple. [See column two of Figure 1] This model was expanded somewhatafter mid-century as conditions changed and new questions were confronted; yet, word of mouth transmission of apostolic eyewitness reports was given greatest authority. Any other accounts of God’s activity in relation to Jesus of Nazareth were valued relative to the degree of proximity of the source to one of the Apostles.
Hellenic Orthodox Period
By the end of the first century, the faith that had initially emerged among a sect within Judaism had passed beyond those boundaries and begun to find acceptance from new sources, mostly persons of Greek cultural heritage. As the second century opened, Judaism had all but ceased to be a source of new adherents for what now could be identified as Christianity. With this, the Jesus Movement found itself located in a new world – one that demanded new definitions and new explanations that would be derived from a new set of questions. For groups like the Ebionites, Cerinthians, Symmachians, Elkesaites, Hemerobaptists and Nazoreaeans, the new definitions entailed crossing theological boundaries they could not accept. As a result, those Christian communities gradually died out when the cultural sources upon which they drew either evaporated or grew hostile toward them. They were only the first of many movements in Christian history to suffer this outcome due to an unwillingness or inability to be transformed into something new.
Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen were among the new breed of theological educator who helped Christians—who were nowalien to Jewish culture—to find a new theological home. For better or worse, these theologians enabled Christianity to utilize the methods, language, and concepts of Hellenistic rhetoric and philosophy to defend, advance, and deepen their faith. Through their work Christianity entered the intellectual mainstream of Greco-Roman culture, which opened the doors for Christianity to claim the brightest and best in paganism for its own purposes. Inadvertently, it also cleared a path that allowed paganism’s systems of valuing to penetrate Christian doctrine and ethics. Their accomplishments laid the foundations for later Hellenic Christianity to frame Christological debates in terms of the Logos.
For the person of Hellenic culture, the starting point for discovering truth was right thinking. This was especially true in Platonic systems of thought. Christians soon found themselves caught up in struggles over how to appropriately conceptualize God – Father/Creator, Son/Redeemer, Spirit/Sustainer. Correct belief about the divine-human nature of the Christ was also important, along with myriad other issues. Backed by the power of the Roman government, church councils produced authoritative declarations defining correct belief which faithful Christians were bound to affirm. Thus, the teaching of the so-called “Fathers of the church” as interpreted by the church’s ecumenical councils became the standard of truth. This truth took the form of church tradition which was passed on from master to disciple in an authoritative succession. [See column three of Figure 1]
In this cultural context, theological education emphasized mastery of the teachings of the Fathers.In the process of doing this, teachings were extended, enhanced, and “created,” but always under the auspices of conforming to the tradition of the Fathers. Consequently, as Christian Orthodoxy developed, a significant shift from the forms and methods characteristic of the first-century Jesus Movement are observed. For example, no longer was it sufficient simply to affirm the basic apostolic witness that Jesus is Lord. It became essential also to affirm an understandingthat properly defined the ground upon which that lordship rested—that Jesus was of one nature with the father and possessed “two natural wills and two natural operations, without separation, without change, without division, and without confusion.” And that was only for starters.
The Medieval Roman Catholic Period
By the sixth century, Christianity had negotiated much of theadaptation necessary to satisfactorilyanswer the major questions raised by adherents of Hellenic culture. Methodologies advanced by Ireaneus, Origen, Tertullian and others had become deeply embedded qualities of Greco-Roman Christianity by the late classical period. Like his Greek theological predecessors, Latin theologian Augustine of Hippo, also, interpreted his theology in terms of Greek world views. David Knowles in The Evolution of Medieval Thought writes: “There is a practical rule which rarely fails the commentator on Augustine’s philosophy; it is that when a source for his thought is wanting, the Enneads of Plotinus should be searched.” 9 Neo-Platonism influence can be found in his understanding of the Trinity; his notion that reality resides in ideas, not in things; his belief in the superiority of spirit over matter, soul over body, and humanity’s duty to transcend the earthly realm of matter to reestablish harmony with God. If medieval Christianity can be characterized by its preoccupation with heaven at the expense of earthly concerns, that conviction can be traced to Augustine. Moreover, for at least five centuries after his death, most Western theology was based largely on Augustine’s teachings.
In a general sense, one could say that from the fifth through the eleventh centuries, most theological education was derived rather than creative. The massive social, political, and economic disruptions generated by the Germanic invasions had severely crippled educational institutions in the West. Theological education degenerated in large part to preserving the traditions of the past, and Augustine of Hippo was the centerpiece of that tradition. Besides the theology of Augustine and similar theologians, theological education was guided by works like the Rule of St. Benedict, Ambrose’s De Officiis Ministrorum, and Gregory I’s Liber Regulae Pastoralis, and similar works. Also important for theological education during this period were the rudiments of classical knowledge, which the few Western philosophers who surfaced from time-to-time during these centuries managed to keep alive. The connecting links between the Greek Paideia, together with the trivium and quadrivium—which were considered essential pillars for knowledge during the centuries between Augustine and Anselm—included Martianus Capella (fl. 410-439), Boethius(c. 480-526), Cassiodorus (c. 480-575), Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636), and Alcuin (735-804).
By the mid-point of the Middle Ages, theological education was centered mainly in two institutions: the monastery and the cathedral school. The major cultural elements shaping Western Christian theology by this time were monarchs and ecclesiastical authorities. Theological educationwas expected to take place within parameters set by those authorities.
In the tenth century, as a degree of social and political stability began to emerge in the Frankish kingdoms, several theological schools were established on the left bank of the Seine River to address a growing need for better trained church leaders. Two themes emerged as goals for these schools, one being the need to systematize and expand Christian theology, and the other being the need to demonstrate the inherent reasonableness of that theology. These schools wrestled with the necessity to somehow systematize Augustine’s views, and beyond that to develop them further to address new issues that were confronting the church. The question emerged regarding how this might be done — a theory of method was needed. And with this the scholastic quest for a unified theory to explain reality was born.
Over time, and with the introduction of Aristotle, scholasticism emerged as the primary methodology for deriving truth within this context. A process of inquiry that utilized the lectio, quaestio, and disputatio to achieve authoritative sentencia became the driving methods for doing theological education. Once again, theological education underwent major transformation.John Scotus Erigena (of the palace school at Laon), Gerbert of Aurillac (master of the Cathedral School at Reims), Fulbert (of the school at Chartres), Paschasius Radbertus and Ratramnus (both of the school at Corbie), and Anselm (from the school at Bec) became early developers of the new methods, which soon pushed beyond the limits of Augustine and explored new theological territory, which some thought to be inappropriate. Fulbert of Chartres, for example, insisted that reason and dialectical method could never push beyond the limits of truth set by the church’s authorities. 10 Berenger, on the other hand, represented those who refused such restrictions and, even though pre-scholastic, used methods of reasoning indicative of the dialectic to challenge traditional interpretations. For example, Berenger believed that traditional views of the Eucharist were too materialistic and used dialectical methodologies to demonstrate this. 11 Lanfranc, on the other hand, insisted on traditional interpretations. 12 Debates of this sort continued through theologians like Roscellinus, Peter Abelard, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, and William of Occam, to mention but a few. Although the debates remained mostly in house, theological educators who held stubbornly to Augustinian tradition found themselves increasingly alienated from the theological mainstream that employed the new line of thinking to address ever more complex questions about the nature of reality. Still, the established political and ecclesiastical institutions remained the brokers of acceptable theological parameters and public exploration of reality could not go beyond those limits without risking condemnationas heresy.
As a consequence of the trends generated by the cultural elements that were shaping Christian theology during the Middle Ages, theological education took on stronger institutional qualities. The locus of authority came to be posited ever more substantially in the church as an institutional expression of God’s Kingdom visibly present on earth. More specifically, this authority was personified in the head of the church – the Pope, Peter’s representative on earth. The means for authenticatingtruth by the end of the period had become the methods associated with scholasticism. The standard for measuring acceptability of an idea or practice had become canon law. The dominant models for theological education by the Late Middle Ages are found first in the monastic schools and cathedral schools, and later also in the universities, all of which valued respect for and obedience to the teachings of the church as the trustworthy content for theological education. [See column four of Figure 1]
Also, it is worth noting that the model for medieval university education was the guildsystem. In the university, students came under the supervision of a master who followed their individual progress, just like the guild master did with an apprentice. The course leading to the baccalaureate corresponded to the apprentice training leading to journeyman status. The journeyman scholar could teach students under the direction of a master. The master’s degree was conferred only after producing and defending one’s “masterpiece,” demonstrating one’s mastery of the craft of theology. So, lest we be tempted to think that utilizing methods associated with secular education are inappropriate accommodations for theological education, we should also take note of the fact that the very system that forms the basis for classical theological education itself is derived from such a source.
The Protestant Evangelical Period
In the fifteenth century, once again a major cultural paradigm shift occurred. This one was associated most with the printing press and with Renaissance interpretations of reality. Renaissance humanism introduced a distinctive literary and cultural program that eventually had significant impact on biblical studies. This approach is summed up in the term Ad Fontes. Alister McGrath describes the atmosphere of Renaissance Europe as an age of geographical, physiological, and scientific discovery. Humanist literary endeavors led these scholars to the realization that much ancient literature bore a similar spirit of discovery. Homer, Virgil, Galen, and others offer descriptions of such discoveries. A sense of immediate connection between the discoverers of the fifteenth century and those of antiquity emerged. Over time this gave birth to the conviction that returning to the original literary sources in their original languages offered a unique means for discovering truth. Humanist scholars believed this approach held the potential of mediating authentic experience to posterity. 13
These cultural changes also brought profound alterations to theological education. The conviction emerged that if the Bible were approached in the proper way and in the original languages then contemporary readers could personally encounter the risen Christ as had the original apostolic witnesses. This offered an alternative to the Catholic Church’s emphasis on historic succession and an authoritative teaching office. Soon scholars were hard at work producing the textual and philological tools needed to enable this venture, methods that were soon incorporated into theological studies and basic ministerial training. Erasmus, who is considered by many the premiere ecclesiastical Renaissance humanist scholar, added to this his own belief that the laity was the key to a much needed reform of the Catholic Church. He became convinced that their ability to read the Bible for themselves was essential for a proper lay spiritual formation. 14 This added further incentive to the already centuries-old efforts by persons like John Wycliffe and groups like the Waldensians to make the Bible available to the masses in vernacular languages. 15
Sola Scriptura identified a widespread Protestant way of valuing the Bible that is built upon the Ad Fontes tradition. This doctrine refined further the methodology reformers believed the faithful should employ when approaching the scripture. All authority (whether that of popes, bishops, councils, theologians, or creeds) was subordinate to the teachings contained in the Bible. This meant that any authority exercised within the church was neither derived from the office held, nor from the longevity of the institution’s existence, nor from extra-biblical traditions, but from faithfulness to God’s Word.
In this cultural context, the written word began to gather authority apart from the authority of ecclesiastical officials to interpret it. Protestant reformers rejected Catholic assertions that tradition constituted a separate and distinct source of revelation in addition to the Bible. However, they did acknowledge a doctrinal continuity that was accepted as an authoritative tradition. This tradition spoke of a “fixed interpretation” that originated among the early Christian teachers as recognized by the church and extending to the present. 16 Some groups, like the early Baptists, tended not to acknowledge any such authoritative tradition. Every individual was believed to be competent to interpret the Bible according to the dictates of conscience and subject to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 17 Therefore, early Baptists recognized no authoritative revelation outside the Bible itself and no authoritative tradition of interpretation. The numerous harebrained and half-baked interpretations that have been born out of this practice have caused some Baptists to wonder whether this position needs additional reflection. Other Baptists have argued that the individual’s interpretation is accountable to the gathered community of faith and must be exercised within such boundaries.
A significant outcome of the cultural forces at work during this period was a focus on the value of personal experience in religion and the importance of education and preaching to make clearer the teachings of Scripture. As a result, interpretation of the bible became less centralized. Greater responsibility was placed on the minister to correctly interpret and apply the Scriptures for the life of parishioners. As constellations of common convictions emerged out of this new context, confessional families began to form, enabling individual Christians to have greater choices in deciding which confessional emphases fit him or her best. Thus, theological education began to follow confessional lines. The locus of authority was the Bible and the dominant methodologies for discovering truth involved careful biblical exegesis and the science of hermeneutics, often guided by either published or assumed confessions of faith.[See column five of Figure 1] Systematic theologies became a norm for most of theological education, and those theologies tended to be confessional in nature, each teaching “the right” theology in contrast to the others who fell short or erred in some fashion. Fierce denominational loyalty and often unkind competition characterized much of Western Christianity as a result.
Modern Enlightenment Period
Still, the elements of Western culture that shaped the world views within which Christian theology was formed continued to change, and at an ever accelerating pace. A quick overview of some major components of that change between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries might be helpful at this juncture.
Over the course of the eighteenth century, the role of reason in relation to religious claims took on new dimensions. [See column six of Figure 1] John Locke opened the door to this shift in his Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) when he argued that Christianity’s beliefs are rational and therefore able to stand up to critical examination. He made these arguments at a time when scientific methods for determining truth had begun to challenge many long- and commonly-held beliefs,categorizing them as superstitions. Western Christians seemed fully prepared to relegate the claims of other religions to the realm of superstition, but what about the claims of Christianity? Locke offered a way out; or at least initially he seemed to have done so.
A second stage in the shift came with John Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious (1696) in which he argued that since the basic ideas of Christianity are reasonable, they can be derived by reason alone. There was no need for divine revelation. Again, this helped preserve Christian claims from the slagheaps of superstition for a longer period, but pushed it further in a theological direction many adherents of traditional theology found uncomfortable.
Finally, Hermann S. Reimarus (1694-1768) took the final step of arguing that reason is the judge of Christian truth claims. Wherever Christian claims contradicted reason, he believed Christian claims would either have to be reinterpreted or jettisoned altogether. Theologians and subsequently theological educators responded to these developments in varied ways. Some eagerly embraced these views, and began serious theological reinterpretation to make Christian belief more amenable to the conclusions of Enlightenment reason. Others totally rejected the claims of Enlightenment reason, attempting to posit the “scientific” proof of orthodox Christianity against the challenges of scientifically and experimentally based conclusions. Still others took varied positions between these polarities.
Theologically, Friedrich Schleiermacher set the tone for one constructive response to Enlightenment challenges. After becoming a chaplain in Berlin and later professor at the university, Schleiermacher found that educated people there despised religion. Many felt that religion had been discredited thoroughly by rationalism and was not worth serious intellectual consideration. In Speeches on Religion to the Cultured Among its Despisers (1799) he attempted to counter that mindset. Schleiermacher argued that the essence of religion resided neither in knowledge (as rational philosophers and orthodox ecclesiastics had taught) nor in a moral system (as had been suggested by Immanuel Kant), but in “feeling.” In Der christliche Glaube nach den Grundsätzen der evangelischen Kirche im Zusammenhang dargestellt, better known among us as The Christian Faith (published in 1821-22) he set out to define this “feeling.” It is the sudden, profound awareness of depending on something outside the self in which all of life is grounded, he argued. It is the common human experience of “absolute dependency.” This early effort to bridge the gap between Christian faith and Enlightenment culture justly earned him the title “father of liberalism.”
Later in the nineteenth century, Charles Hodge became the most notable advocate for a reaction against the prevailing culture’s conclusions about reality. Christian fundamentalism argued that an infallible Bible was the cornerstone of Christian faith and must be defended at all cost.
Consequently, in addition to confessional (or denominational) theology, Western theological education also began to reflect degrees of accommodation to scientific conclusions about reality. In this context, the locus of authority was human reason. The dominant methods for discovering truth became the historical-critical methods on the one hand, or their repudiation and attempts to have Christians revert to a pre-Enlightenment world view on the other. The dominant model for theological education became the classical-vocational (or dialectical) model. [See column six of Figure 1]
Insights from this Historical Overview
We have now reached a point where hopefully sufficient historical groundwork has been laid to support adequately a few summative observations about theological education in an age of transition.
One thing we might observe from this survey of theological education in historical context is the fact that theological education has had to function in a world shaped by a varied array of cultural forces. Extending from the apocalyptic outlook of the earliest community, through Greek philosophy in the late classical period, and monarchical and ecclesiastical authorities in the medieval era, and humanist world views of the Renaissance, to Enlightenment philosophies—and these represent only a portion of the full spectrum of cultural settings— theological education has flourished in a variety of contexts. [See row two of Figure 1] The idea that theological education today faces new views of reality is not novel. Shifts in world view that also require adapting to new cultural forces are part of the vast history of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Second, the task of Christian theological education has frequently been compelled to accommodate its work to new methodologies for discerning truth. [See row three of Figure 1]Among the epistemological shifts we have noted here were the moves from faithful transmission of eyewitness accounts of apocalyptically-charged experiences, to nurturing and abiding by patristic tradition, to engaging medieval scholastic processes, to operating within the parameters of Protestant confessional orthodoxies, to utilizing the methods of historical-critical studies. Each transition was made in an effort to help prepare the church and its leaders to be messengers of God’s good news in language that people of that age could understand.
Third, theological education has been obliged repeatedly to adapt to a changing locus of authority—that is, the central source of authority that authenticates in the minds of listeners the value of what is taught. [See row four of Figure 1]Over the history of Christianity that locus has varied from apostolic eyewitnesses, the church councils, to the papacy, to the Bible, and finally Enlightenment reason. Despite the wide variation among these authority centers, somehow the transitions were successfully accomplished.
Fourth, theological education has found it necessary to accommodate a wide variety of standards for authenticating truth. The diversity of standards has included fidelity to apostolic teaching, consistency with the teaching of the Church Fathers, obedience to canon law, compliance with governing confessions of faith, and appropriate consistency with scientific hypotheses and proofs.[See row five of Figure 1]
Finally, Christian theological education has developed and/or adapted a wide range of educational models to accomplish its task of educating the church and training its leaders for the work of Christian ministry. These have included the rabbi-disciple model, the monastic novitiate model, the cathedral school and university model, the confessional education (or denominational seminary) model, and the classical-vocational model.[See row six of Figure 1]
What do these observations possibly tell us about the nature of theological education that we need to remember amid the chaos of change and challenge today? I would like to suggest several possibilities.
1. Theological education is not new to the church. The need to educate the church’s leaders and guide the church through the hard work of negotiating tough transitions like those noted in this historical overview has had a place in Christian community since the earliest days of Christianity, and even before in its Jewish roots. Not only do the early Christian communities provide models for us, but also early Jewish faith communities furnish important insights for today’s tasks oftheological education. Extending the history from which we draw our insights, visions, and models for facing thechallenges confronting theological education today has the potential to equip us better for the hard work that lies ahead.
So, where does Western theological education find itself today?
One does not need to search very far to discover that theological education, if not Christianity itself, faces a rapidly changing world (especially in Western society), one that increasingly tends not to see the value or relevance of the church, Christian explanations of reality, and, consequently, of theological education itself. Declining church attendance and diminishing resources—both human and physical—and disillusionment, even of some former stalwarts of Christian faith, force us to admit that a serious challenge lies before us. Studies have shown that the fastest growing religion in North America today is “no religion.” This is a new world for the churches, denominations, and seminaries we serve. What might we surmise about this new world?
First of all, the dominant methodologies for discovering truth seem to be changing. [See column seven of Figure 1] While naturalistic explanations of reality abound, many people today seem to have less reluctance to unite scientific truth claims with belief in ghosts, spirits, and related phenomena than was the case in the day when Enlightenment rationalism (i.e., modernism) reigned supreme. The influences of globalization have convinced many that truth is relative to the context of the seeker, so, many paths and varied explanations might co-exist without creating any sense of disharmony for the individual. Postmodern methodologies for deriving truth seem to include an amalgam of global scientific, humanitarian, ecological, religious, and economic factors.
The major cultural elements shaping theology in the emerging paradigm are those of postmodernism. [See column seven of Figure 1] While not easy to identify, postmodern cultural elements include a mix of post-colonial awareness, global justice concerns, human rights (including gender, ethnic, sexual orientation, and economic concerns), environmental consciousness, and individual freedoms. This is a polycentric world, and communities that emerge amid difference best express the ethos of this global humanity. 18 Susan Simonaitis offers a helpful description of the postmodern experience when she examines the postmodern experience of the “other” in terms of inscrutability and inaccessibility. In a world that is filled with people, the “others” are the unapproachable persons all around us who are part of the environment, wanting what I want, yet remaining distant and “undiscoverable.” In this context people are becoming skilled at “connecting” by utilizing that distance between themselves and those in proximity as a vehicle for linking. In this world community emerges among persons who, though not threatening, are also not accessible. 19
Where is the locus of authority for thisnew world? [See column seven of Figure 1] It is most likely to be found in an as yet not clearly defined concept of “global village.” We can no longer think only in nationalistic terms, or even in regional terms. In every instance the local and national has to be interpreted in relation to the global. Consequently, theological education cannot conceive itself only in local terms, but must pursue its tasks in light of the whole of humanity. The theological educator can no longer be satisfied to make truth claims based solely on what the Bible says or on the grounds of reason, but also must include the authority claims of the “global village” if she or he is to be heard beyond the limits of a few faithful. The standard for truth in the emerging paradigm, then, becomes holistic thought. [See column seven of Figure 1] Truth cannot reside complete in my group, my church, my denomination, my country, my gender, my race, etc. Neither can it reside fully in any one discipline or any one facet of knowledge. It must be pursued medically, theologically, socially, psychologically, historically, ethically, economically, cum multi aliis.
What might this suggest to us about appropriate models for theological education?Over the past decade as I have studied and tried to evaluate the position of theological education in light of what seems to be the emerging paradigm, the most promising models that emerge for me are process models. [See column seven of Figure 1] A process model recognizes that our global context does not enable theseminary to offer its studentsTHE DEFINITIVE theology, not if that student is going to have a relevant ministry for more than a decade or so. The theological educator’s goal, then, becomes that ofequipping the student with the tools (spiritually, cognitively, affectively, and professionally)for the process of a lifetime of theological exploration and development. The student might not graduate knowing all the “right” answers to the traditional theological questions, but she or he will graduate with the ability to derive biblically, ethically, theologically, historically, socially, etc. well informed answers to the myriad of evolving theological concerns that emerge over a lifetime of ministry in a rapidly changing world. The student cannot be given THE DEFINITIVE model for constructing the successful church, as much as we might wish that a “Forty Days of Purpose” approach could do the job. The professor, however, can assist the student in gaining the insight and tools needed for understanding faith communities in their varied contexts and growing in leadership skills that can evolve over a lifetime of ministry. Curricula might no longer be adequate for a decade, but might require continual updates, modifications, and delivery adjustments. These are only a few of the characteristics of a process model for theological education, and in my next lecture I would like to explore this topic further.
Questions of faith guide us in reflecting on the centers of value and power that sustain our lives. James Fowler writes: “Faith is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives.” 20 Faith is “a person’s way of seeing himself or herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose.” 21 Thus, to change the content of that shared meaning and purpose disorients everyone involved and requires a process of reorientation for all involved. This is part of the challenge theological education faces in our context today. In light of this, I would like to offer a few concluding observations.
Dangers to be avoided
The road ahead for theological education
harbors some dangers of which we should be mindful and for which we should
1. We should be mindful of the danger that in the midst of chaos and change we could easily lose sight of our core purpose and identity. I have visited numerous formerly faith-oriented institutions of higher education where this has happened. Perhaps the schools’ new purposesare expansions of their earlier identities, but in many cases it seems the school has become the antithesis of what it once was and now, in reaction, is able to foster anything except its original vision. How can we nurture the changes we need to make in order to be what God calls us to be without losing the core of what makes us unique and worth preserving?
The road ahead for theological education also offers some opportunities that we certainly do not want to miss.
1. These times offer opportunities to break free of stagnation and inertia. We are located at one of those occasional junctures in history where creative engagement is possible. The problems and challenges before us offer opportunities to participate in processes of change that will determine the future of theological education’s place in the world that is emerging. Theological education must continue to evolve if it is to accomplish its work for the church and for the kingdom of God.Concluding Thoughts
Christian theological education is not
likely to cease in our day in spite of the observations by some that we
are employed in a dying industry (at least within the European and North
American contexts). While it is probable that theological education
will be transformed so that it will utilize methodologies for doing its
work that are currently unknown and begin to address questions that are
very new and different from anything the church has known in the past,
it is not likely that theological education will cease to exist altogether.
This observation challenges us, then, to consider how we need to change
rather than how we might hunker down and fortify ourselves to keep doing
what we have been doing the way we always have done it for as long as we
can do it that way before we face extinction. Transformations could
occur that, from the perspectives of some, might make theological education
so different from anything we have come to expect that it becomes unrecognizable
by today’s standards or perspectives. We have seen many examples
of this in Christianity’s history. However, as long as Christian
faith exists in some form there will necessarily be some method for doing
theological education with a Christian focus. We want to find a way
to be a vital part of that ongoing work of discovery and enlightenment.
(c) copyright 2010, Robert
E Johnson, Kansas City, MO. DIsplayed here with permission.
D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching
and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1995, 5.