9. A Theological Schools’ Course of Study
third of the three central issues about theological schooling that we identified in chapter 5: How to keep discussion of theological schooling as concrete as possible. We have done that through a sketch of the practices that constitute an individual school and make it the concrete particular reality it is, and through a sketch of the practices that constitute any individual Christian congregation and make it the concrete particular reality it is. We now turn to the first two of the central issues we identified in chapter 5: How to unify a theological school’s course of study; and, how to keep the course of study adequate to the pluralism of ways in which the Christian thing exists in actual practice. We can address those two issues by exploring how the practices constituting, respectively, a theological school and a Christian congregation relate to each other.
We noted in chapter 2 that differences on this point are one of the theological factors that pluralize rather than unite theological schools. Some have seen a theological school to be a Christian congregation; some have seen a theological school as distinct from but interrelated with congregations in ways analogous to the relation in the Reformed tradition between the congregation and its clergy; others have seen a theological school as related, not to congregations, but to a cadre of active clergy for whom it provides “in-service” or “extension” education.
Theological school and congregation
The sketch in the last two chapters of what constitutes a Christian congregation allows us to see how they are distinct in principle and yet nonetheless intersect in ways that are central to both. That will allow us to explain more exactly how a theological school’s study can be focused “through the lens” or “within the horizon” of questions about congregations. That, in turn, will allow us to show how theological schooling can be a unified course of study that is nonetheless adequate to the irreducible pluralism of ways in which the Christian thing is actually construed. A theological school and a congregation are distinct in principle. The rhetoric of practice brings this out. Each is a complex set of interrelated practices. However, for each there is an overarching goal that governs the practices, defining the set as the kind of set it is. These goals, I have argued, are different: The central practices of Christian congregations are ordered to the end of worshiping God; the central practices of a theological school are ordered to the goal of understanding God truly. Because the set of practices constituting each of them is defined by different ends, a theological school and a congregation are in principle distinct institutions of practice.
This might appear to rule out one traditional view, namely, that a theological school is a Christian congregation. It does rule that out as a conceptual identity. However, it does not rule out that the group of persons cooperatively engaged in the practices constituting a theological school might also at other times cooperatively engage in the practices constituting a Christian congregation, and vice versa.
The practical difference this makes is important. Each set of practices is, we have repeatedly noted, inherently institutionalized. The institutional structure that gives vertebrate and sometimes all-too-rigid form to the central practice of a school is not going to be the same as that which informs the central practice of a congregation. The well-being of neither is enhanced when one institutional arrangement is made to do service for both sets of practice. Either the doxological core of what makes a congregation will be subordinated to information communication (preaching as lecturing: “What John Calvin thought about this text was . . . “), to moralizing, and to posturing (“See, this is how to perform the liturgy with real ritual expertise”). This is a major cause of the thinness of much worship that does go on in theological schools. Or the quest for understanding that lies at the core of a school will be marginalized, trivialized (“Academics are all right for those so inclined, but are finally fairly irrelevant to the life of a congregation”), and unduly constrained. This is a major cause of de facto restrictions of academic freedom in theological schools.
To stress that theological schools and congregations are distinct institutions of practice is clearly consistent with each of the other traditional pictures of the sort of “community” a theological school is and how it is related to the community of the church. It coheres, for example, with the view that the school relates to churches in a way analogous to the traditional relation between clergy and congregations in the Reformed tradition. And it is coherent with the view that the school is a service agency in support of a cadre of clergy already engaged in ministry.
Now precisely because they are fundamentally distinct, a theological school and congregations can also genuinely intersect or overlap as sets of practices. Both, for example, engage in practices to raise money and maintain property. The point of intersection of central importance to us in this book, however, is the interest both theological school and church have to understand God truly.
We should pause for a moment to address an important question. Does this thesis mean that one has to be personally and existentially involved in the common life of a congregation in order to be capable of engaging fruitfully in the practices comprising a theological school? That is, need one be a “believer” or a “person of faith” to undertake theological schooling, on the description of a theological school sketched here? No. Clearly, if a theological school is going to focus its study through the lens of questions about congregations as the way to truer understanding of God, it is dependent on there being congregations to study and refer to. It does not follow, however, that the persons involved in the practices constituting a theological school must also be existentially engaged in the practices constituting a worshiping congregation.
From the side of a theological school, the possibility is always open in principle that persons who come to understand God will choose not to worship God. The most that can be asked is that persons involved in the practices that constitute a theological school also be thoughtfully involved in the practices that constitute a congregation as participant observers. There is, however, more than one way to be “thoughtfully involved” in practices. Failure to engage existentially in the central practice of a congregation may well make it more difficult to understand God because participation in the common life of a congregation is a common way to be capacitated, that is, to acquire the requisite concepts, for apprehending God. However, there is also the possibility of acquiring those capacities, or at least many of them, in an imaginative “as if”mode. If it were not so, it would be impossible to grasp in any degree the allegedly “true understandings” of God that one may take to be, not just partially mistaken, but wholly false. A theological school may require that Christian congregations exist, but it does not require students’ existential engagement in the practices of a congregation in order for the school to pursue its central project.
Conversely, a Christian congregation neither requires that a theological school exist nor that the members of the congregation be engaged in the central practices of a theological school. It may be that the relation of congregation to a theological school is like the relation some Anglicans say obtains between the churches and a bishop: Churches do not need a bishop for their being (esse) but they do need a bishop for their well-being (bene esse). I shall argue below that while a theological school is not of the esse of congregations, it is of congregations’ bene esse.
The fact that the practices comprising a theological school and Christian congregations intersect in their common interest to understand God brings out a further point about the relation between the two. It allows us to sharpen the fundamental difference between the two in regard to theology in particular. To “try to understand God more truly” is “to do theology” in the broadest sense. However, theology is not some one thing. It embraces a number of different practices.
What defines an inquiry as “theological” is its guiding goal to understand God simply for the sake of understanding God. What defines the inquiry as “theology” is its guiding goal, not the distinctive “methods” it employs (although it will be poor theology if it employs inappropriate methods), nor the distinctive subjectivity of the persons engaged in the inquiry (although it may be pretty thin theology if the inquirers are not personally “formed” by faith, hope, and love). To adopt this view is to set aside two alternative pictures of theology that are widespread. Both of them see theology as some one thing having a universal structure and movement. One is the view that what defines an inquiry as “theology” is that it employs the distinctive methods or disciplines required by its peculiar object or subject matter. Looked at that way, the essential content of revelation, or perhaps the very nature of God (whatever is the ultimate “subject matter” or “object” of the inquiry) dictates certain methods and movements of thought which, if followed, denominate the inquiry as “theology.” Also set aside is the view that what defines an inquiry as theology is a distinctive subjectivity or consciousness that the person who is engaged in theology is attempting to bring to reflective and self-critical expression. On this second view, insofar as persons have apprehended God through the medium of Christian myths, symbols, and rites, their subjectivity will be shaped by a distinctive dynamic and structure which then dictates the proper movement and structure of theological study. Both of these views bring with them the corollary that Christian theology is some one enterprise with an essential structure that is fundamentally invariant cross-culturally and historically. By contrast, the picture of theology sketched here implies that “theology” is not some one enterprise and may have no single core “essential structure.”
This brings us back to our point: the differences and relation between a theological school and Christian congregations in regard to doing theology. I urged in chapter 7 that Christian congregations be viewed as complex sets of practices ordered to the enactment of worship of God in Jesus’ name. I also stressed that doing theology is inherent and not just optional in that set of practices. In a congregation, however, practices of theology are secondary to the worship that is primary and constitutes the congregation as a Christian congregation. Practices of theology are required by the congregation’s enactment of worship and are in its service. In particular, I pointed out, worship requires a congregation to engage in constructive and critical theological practices. Because worship is a response in ever-new situations to God’s peculiar way of being present, especially in the ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection appearances of Jesus of Nazareth, it constantly requires fresh formulations of what it is it is responding to. That is, it requires constructive theology. For the same reason, worship constantly requires critical self-reflection testing whether what is said and done in worship, broadly understood, is faithful to that to which it is responding: critical theology.
More often than not theology is practiced in the common life of congregations in a piecemeal and ad hoc way. It is done ad hoc whenever any type of action or form of speech in any of the congregation’s practices becomes problematical. This will happen, for example, when the social and cultural context of its practices changes and seems novel and puzzling. When questions arise, such as, “Should we be doing and saying these things under these circumstances? What should we be doing and how should we express ourselves?” some judgments have to be made on the spot. In the course of making them, formulations of “Who we are” and “Who it is we are trying to be faithful to” will be devised, reexamined, and perhaps revised. Usually, of course, this sort of thing happens both quickly and informally. Nonetheless, to do it is to do theology in an ad hoc way. Theology may also be done within the common life of a congregation in a more sustained, methodical, and orderly way. When it is done in this way, attention focuses not so much on addressing particular quandaries about how to speak and act faithfully but rather on questions of coherence — coherence among various formulations of who and what God is, who we are and what our shared world is in relation to God, and coherence between all of these and beliefs widely shared in the congregation’s host culture. In any case, whether done ad hoc or in a more sustained and methodical way, doing theology is inherent in the practices constituting a Christian congregation; but it is inherent as secondary, done in the service of the central practice of worship.
Particular persons may be given responsibility for doing theology within the common life of Christian congregations, or for seeing to it that it is done. In the first five centuries it was often bishops who held this responsibility (consider how much of what is now called “patristic theology” was written by bishops: Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, Athanasius, Augustine). In the Reformed branch of the Reformation, responsibility was often assigned to the ordained minister or “teaching elder” of a congregation (hence in that tradition clergy were expected to be above all “learned ministers,” which meant that they had the resources of information and conceptual capacities that empowered them to fill this role).
The possibility this creates for theological disagreement and controversy within the life of a congregation is obvious. Accordingly, means have been devised by which to settle theological disputes. In the Roman Catholic tradition the ancient practice is preserved of making bishops responsible for doing theology; and then that tradition is developed to make bishops, and preeminently the Bishop of Rome, responsible also for discerning and authoritatively declaring the correct or “orthodox” theological judgments. Thus the practice of doing theology authoritatively is institutionalized in a teaching office, the magisterium. In other traditions the practice of doing theology authoritatively is institutionalized in the powers of constitutionally legitimated representative denominational assemblies elected to govern the church. In other traditions it is institutionalized as a responsibility of the governing board of particular congregations. In other traditions it is hardly institutionalized at all, being worked out through informal consensus processes.
However, what needs to be stressed is that even though certain persons may be made responsible for doing theology, or seeing to it that it is done, or even for declaring authoritatively what the correct theological judgment is regarding particular issues, a great many other people in Christian congregations are in fact doing theology. Insofar as people who make up a congregation are serious enough to be critically self-reflective about their own lives as acts of discipleship, they are doing theology, at least in an ad hoc and piecemeal way. The more clearly it is understood that ministry or, in the broad sense of the word we have adopted, that worship is the work of all the people (the laos, the laity), the more explicit will their doing theology be. Moreover, the more theologically educated the people are, the more self-critical will their doing theology be. The conclusion that follows, of course, is that it is critically important for the well-being, the bene esse, of congregations that the persons who do their theology be capacitated to do it as well as possible. This is true not only of those made responsible for doing theology, not to mention those responsible for declaring authoritatively the correct theological judgment about particular issues, but it is also true of everyone who commits to enact a more broadly shared practice of the worship of God in Jesus’ name.
In contrast to the congregation, among whose practices doing theology is inherent but secondary, in a theological school doing theology is primary and central among its constituting practices. Whereas theology is necessarily done “properly” in congregations in the service of their “worship,” that is, their response to the odd ways in which God makes Godself present, it is done not only “properly” but also “educationally” in a theological school. That is, it is done both in the interest of actually making theological judgments (“proper” sense) and in the interest of cultivating persons’ capacities for making sound theological judgments. Of the interconnected pair “making judgments/cultivating judgment,” the accent falls in a theological course of study on “cultivating judgment.” This is the force of characterizing a theological school, not simply as a group of people whose overarching goal is to understand God, but as a group of people whose overarching goal is try to understand God more truly simply for the sake of understanding God. The accent on “try . . . more truly” is an accent on cultivating more nuanced and perceptive capacities for judgment.
Focusing theological study
If what makes a school “theological” is its effort to understand God, albeit indirectly by studying something else whose study is supposed to lead to understanding God; and if what makes it “Christian” is that in order to understand God it studies “the Christian thing,” then where is a school concretely to find the Christian thing? My proposal has been that it is to be found in a wide variety of Christian congregations. The Christian thing is to be encountered in concrete actuality in and as Christian congregations. Perhaps not only there; but at very least there. However, that proposal needs to be elaborated.
We have used G. K. Chesterton’s expression “the Christian thing” to name a complex set: scriptures in various traditions of interpretation and use, God as described in those traditions, Jesus as described in those traditions, theological doctrines in various traditions of interpretation and use, patterns of worship, “social action,” structures of polity, moral codes, exemplary persons, and so forth. These matters constitute the Christian thing insofar as they are held together and interrelated in complex ways in certain practices in which people actually engage, communally and individually, and engage in such a way that their identities are significantly shaped. One major place where the practices (as well, to be sure, as major and demonic distortions of them) may be encountered is the common life of Christian congregations. That is why the effort to understand God Christianly, which must in the nature of the case proceed indirectly, might best proceed indirectly by way of study of the Christian thing in and as Christian congregations.
That procedure would provide both a large array of subject matters for theological schooling to study and a way to focus study on the theological significance of those subject matters.
Indeed, this procedure would largely retain the range of subject matters or content conventionally found in theological schools’ curricula. Every course ever found in a theological curriculum could be justified by this proposal. Recall the array of possible objects of inquiry implied in our discussion of Christian congregations in chapter 7.
1. That a congregation’s defining practice of worship is a response “in Jesus’ name” implies study of that to which it is a response: Just how is God understood to be “present” is Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection appearances; what understanding of God follows from this; who is Jesus; what are the sources and the warrants of these characterizations of Jesus and of God (scripture, tradition, history of doctrine); what understanding of these sources makes them not only sources but also authoritative for these understandings of God and Jesus?
2. That a congregation is constituted by enacting a more broadly and ecumenically practiced worship that generates a distinctive social space implies study of what that space is and how it is formed: What are the varieties of the shape and content of the common lives of Christian congregations now, cross-culturally and globally (synchronic inquiry); how do congregations characteristically define who they are and what their larger social and natural contexts are; how do they characteristically define what they ought to be doing as congregations; how have they defined who they are and what they ought to do historically (diachronic study); how is the social form of their common life nurtured and corrected in liturgy, pastoral caring, preaching, education, maintenance of property, service to neighbors; what is the role of scripture in all this, the role of traditions of theology, and the role of traditions of worship?
3. That a congregation is constituted by publicly enacting a more universally practiced worship that generates a distinctive social form implies study of that public form: What are the social, cultural, and political locations of congregations of Christians and how do those locations shape congregations’ social form today (synchronic inquiry); what have been the characteristic social, cultural, and political locations of congregations historically and how have those locations shaped congregations’ social forms (diachronic study); in what ways do congregations engage in the public arena as one type of institutionalized center of power among others?
4. That a congregation is comprised of a set of practices that necessarily include critical self-reflection implies study of its mechanisms and criteria for self-criticism: How do congregations govern, criticize, and reform themselves; by what criteria; subject to what influences from their host societies; in the light of what historical and cultural changes in their settings?
Thus, the very nature of congregations directs inquiry into a large array of types of subject matters: Texts, patterns of communal and individual life, traditions of thought and of ritual practice, moral codes, and so forth. Each of these can be the subject of perfectly legitimate scholarly inquiry taken by itself. Moreover, study of each of them may involve the use of any or several of a variety of well-established types of inquiry: sociological, anthropological, psychological, philosophical, or – the dominant mode of inquiry in theological schooling today — historical. Left at that, the study would lack theological significance. What makes these objects of inquiry theologically significant is that together they constitute the Christian thing whose study is believed to lead to truer understandings of God. They constitute the Christian thing insofar as they are held together in various patterns of interrelationship with one another in certain practices. How shall study of these subject matters be so focused that it attends to them in their theological significance?
My proposal is that exactly the same thing that implies the array of subject matters for theological schooling also implies the way to focus study of that subject matter: The complexity and pluralism of Christian congregations solicit three broad types of questions. These questions are solicited by congregations’ own self-descriptions. We may call pursuit of each type of question a different type of theological inquiry as long as that does not suggest either that they are like links or successive moments in a single extended inquiry or that they are somehow variations or aspects of some postulated “theology as such.” The three questions can serve as horizons within which to conduct rigorous inquiry into any of the array of subject matters implied by the nature of congregations, disciplined by any relevant scholarly method, in such a way that attention is focused on the theological significance of what is studied:
a. Explicitly and implicitly in the practices that comprise this Christian congregation, how does it construe the Christian thing and how is it like and unlike the construal implicit and explicit in the practices constituting these other contemporaneous and historically distant, and very different, congregations? More generally, what different overall construals of the Christian thing are there, and on what issues do the fundamental differences among them turn? Thus far the inquiry is descriptive, analytic, and comparative of congregations’ implicit and explicit self-descriptions. It solicits a further normative question: In conversation with these others, what overall construal of the Christian thing seems most adequate to you the inquirer, and on what bases? Call this combination of descriptive and normative inquiry constructive theology.
b. Given its construal of the Christian thing, what types of speech and action in the practices constituting this congregation are faithful enactments of its self-described identity and what are not? How would these judgments differ were its self-description changed to be like that implicit in the construals of the Christian thing by other congregations (and vice versa), each very different from the other? Thus far the inquiry is descriptive, analytic, and comparative. However it solicits a further normative question: What types of speech and action in the practices constituting the array of Christian congregations seem to you the inquirer to be, in their cultural content, faithful, and what ones unfaithful, to the Christian thing? Call this combination of descriptive and normative inquiry critical practical theology. It embraces both what is often called “practical theology” and “moral theology.”
c. What criteria are there in this congregation’s construal of the Christian thing by which to assess whether the Christian thing is true? How would the criteria differ were this congregation to adopt the construals of the Christian thing that are explicit and implicit in the practices constituting other congregations that are very different from one another? Thus far the inquiry is descriptive, analytic, and comparative. It solicits a normative question: How do you the inquirer assess the truth of the Christian thing, in what construal of it, and by what criteria? Call this combination of descriptive and normative inquiry apologetic theology.
Clearly, the proposal that a theological school’s study be focused through the lens of questions about congregations does not mean that somehow congregations become the sole or even the central subject of disciplined inquiry. To the contrary, all the traditional subject matters remain in place, including, of course, study of particular congregations. Rather, the proposal is that study of every subject matter that is selected for study (using whatever academic disciplines are appropriate) be shaped and guided by an interest in the question: What is that subject matter’s bearing on, or role in, the practices that constitute actual enactments, in specific concrete circumstances, of various construals of the Christian thing in and as Christian congregations?
In this way a theological school’s study would be against and for Christian congregations, and only for that reason also in a way would be about them. It will be “against” congregations in that its study will be inherently critical. It will constantly bring to light the ambiguity of what Christian congregations “are” and the incoherence of what they say they are responding to in their worship. It will persistently disclose congregations’ faithlessness to who they themselves say they are, and the scandal of the roles they actually play in North American social and cultural life. It will consistently probe the softness and question the dubiousness of congregations’ claim to witness to truth. The picture of a theological school developed here implies that inherent in the defining interest of a theological school is a certain distancing and even alienation from Christian congregations.
At the same time, and without modifications of the “againstness,” a theological school’s study may be “for” Christian congregations because it is the place where people can be helped to acquire the capacities for theological judgment that, as we saw, congregations inherently need in their common life. By engaging people in the effort to understand God by focusing study of various subject matters within the horizon of questions about Christian congregations, a theological school may help them cultivate capacities both for what Charles Wood  calls “vision,” that is, formulating comprehensive, synoptic accounts of the Christian thing as a whole, and what he calls “discernment,” that is, insight into the meaning, faithfulness, and truth of particular acts in the practice of worship (in the broad sense of worship that we have adopted for this discussion). As we have seen, having persons with such capacities in its midst is critical to a congregation’s well-being. A theological school can be for congregations’ bene esse, even though it is not of their esse.
In being “against” and “for” congregations, a theological school’s study would also be in a certain way “about” them. Not that Christian congregations become its central, let alone its sole, subject matter. Rather it would be “about” congregations in the sense that everything it does study is studied with regard to that subject’s relation to, or role in, the Christian thing as that is present in and as the common life of different types of congregations. In this way we appropriate the truth of H. Richard Niebuhr’s contention in The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry that a theological school should be seen as an “intellectual center of the Church’s life,” but with major reservation that a theological school can be that only if it is not defined by being that. By being at once against and for congregations a theological school can be an intellectual center for them. However, it cannot be for them without being inherently against them too. Theological schools ought not to disguise their distancing from congregations, and congregations ought not to be dismayed at signs of it. Indeed, what ought to dismay would be the absence of distancing tensions in a theological school’s relationship with congregations. For a theological school cannot simply be “for” congregations. It cannot be a useful intellectual center for congregations if it is defined as a center for research and development to promote church growth. Nor did Niebuhr suggest that it could. A theological school can be “for” congregations only by also being “against” them.
A theological school can be about them in being both for and against congregations but not if it is defined by an interest in being “about” them. It is “about” congregations only contingently and, as it were, accidentally. A Christian theological school is defined, we have repeatedly stressed, by its interest in truly understanding God by focusing study on the Christian thing; but as a matter of contingent fact it happens that the Christian thing is most concretely available for study in and as Christian congregations. Hence a theological school does focus study on congregations, but is not defined by an interest in doing so.
There is a parallel here with a paradox about clergy education that we noted in chapter 5. Competent church leadership requires theological schooling; but a theological school will not adequately educate church leadership if its defining goal or interest is to educate future church leadership. So too, congregations may require theological schools as their intellectual centers, but a theological school cannot be an adequate intellectual center “for” Christian congregations if its defining interest is to be an intellectual center for congregations.
Unity and pluralism
We can now see how the two remaining issues on our agenda can each be addressed without undercutting the other. We noted in chapter 5 that two major issues have arisen from the current discussions of the nature and purpose of theological education: (a) the unity of a theological course of study and (b) its adequacy to the pluralism of the Christian thing. Not only does the pluralism in question characterize past and present construals of the Christian thing and their respective social and cultural locations; it also characterizes particular theological schools, the practices that constitute them, and their respective social and cultural locations. Within individual schools, it may characterize groups of faculty and students and their various social and cultural locations.
We noted how difficult it is to resolve both issues at the same time. It looks as though the bases on which fragmentation of the course of study might be overcome all explicitly or implicitly deny the reality or importance of “apparent” pluralism in the Christian thing. On the other hand, to make a theological course of study adequate to pluralism is to acknowledge within the course of study not only that there are differences among various construals of the Christian thing but also that tensions and the possibility of conflict are inherent in the very practices constituting the school and, in particular, inherent in its course of study. Consequently, we need to be clear about what sort of unity, what model of integral oneness, we are adopting when we discuss these issues. Otherwise, adequacy to pluralism will necessarily work against unification of the course of study, and vice versa.
Strictly speaking a theological school’s course of study is its curriculum. “Curriculum” is a metaphor. It is literally a running course. Used metaphorically, curriculum ought to designate something singular, a unified movement of study. In North American higher education a curriculum is usually divided into discrete units or courses. This permits us to quantify the educational process by ascribing value units, or credits, to each course. A given number of course credits is the quantifiable criterion to determine whether a course of study has been completed at such a level of competence as to have earned an academic degree. No one of the courses is itself the course of study. Each course may have an internal integrity, some rationale governing the selection of subject matter and choice of appropriate methods or disciplines. That does not guarantee that any given set of these courses has any rationale or internal integrity. The ever-present danger is that a given number of such courses adds up only to a clutch of courses and not a course of study.
When there is a deep dissatisfaction with a school’s course of study, theological educators characteristically undertake a reform of its curriculum. The conventional way to analyze the faulty curriculum is to ask either or both of two sets of questions. The first set addresses the issue of the unity of the curriculum: Which courses are so central to an adequate theological schooling that they ought to be a core that all students take? And in what order should they take them? The other set of questions addresses the issue of pluralism in the curriculum: Granted that students represent a variety of life-worlds and Christian traditions, and granted that many of them will become leaders in congregations situated in a variety of social contexts, what range and variety of courses should there be? How much freedom should individual students have to fabricate their own course of study out of the array provided by the curriculum?
These conventional questions, however, do not address the fundamental issue, and frequently lead to a revised curriculum that still yields only a clutch of courses. The basic issue is indeed how to unify a clutch of courses into a course of study that honors and is adequate to genuine pluralism of construals of the Christian thing and to profound pluralism of the social situations in which the Christian thing is practiced. However, that will not be achieved merely by rearranging the courses already present into a new sequence, restricting the number of courses to a core, enlarging the number of courses, or increasing or decreasing students’ freedom of course selection.
Rather than attempting to resolve our two issues by concentrating on questions about content (Which courses ought we to include in the curriculum?), structure (Which courses ought to be considered central and which more peripheral?), and movement (Which courses ought to be in the beginning, middle, and end of the course of study?), it would be more fruitful to concentrate on the question of the overarching goal of the course of study and the interests it generates to guide inquiry.
My proposal has become increasingly more defined: The overarching goal of a Christian theological school is to understand God more truly by way of study of the Christian thing in and as Christian congregations. That goal generates an interest in studying all that goes to make up congregations as enactments of the Christian thing; and congregations, in turn, invite three types of questions to focus and guide study of all that goes to constitute the Christian thing in and as congregations:
1. How is the Christian thing construed in practice here — just what is it? What would we have committed ourselves to were we to become existentially engaged in it? How, and for what reasons, is it different from other available construals of the Christian thing? Descriptively, what construal seems the most apt one, and why?
2. What would count as faithful enactments of it in its current social and cultural location? How do different construals of the Christian thing correlate with different judgments about faithful-ness in speech and action?
3. Is the Christian thing as construed here true? On what grounds is this decided? How would the grounds and the judgment about truth vary as construals of the Christian thing vary?
This yields a combined resolution for both the issue about recovering unity in a fragmented course of study and the issue about making the course of study more adequate to the deep pluralism of the Christian thing.
On the unity side, the proposal here is, quite simply, that a theological course of study would be unified if every course in it were deliberately and explicitly designed to address centrally one of the three questions about the Christian thing in and as Christian congregations (What is it? Is it faithful to its own identity? Is what it claims true?). Since the three questions in their interdependence simply refract the overarching and unifying interest of a theological school, they would thereby unify a course of study.
Theological schools’ courses of study tend to become fragmented when they consist of clutches of courses each of which is, at best, an internally well-ordered and coherent intellectual world of its own but has little or, at worst, no clear and intellectually significant external relationship with other courses. Even when the courses in a single field, say New Testament, are significantly related to one another, they will together still notoriously tend to be a self-contained intellectual world having little intellectually significant relations with courses outside their own field. In large part this fragmentation is the result of the types of interests governing courses, one by one. Assuming it is internally ordered and coherent, each course has such a governing interest, implicitly if not explicitly. Indeed, a course is internally ordered and coherent precisely to the extent that its design is governed by some central interest. The interest may be to convey to students a certain range of information, or to cultivate in students certain capacities for research, or to “form” students in certain ways, or to advance the instructor’s research agenda, and so forth. These are all perfectly legitimate interests. However, when the courses comprising a curriculum are ordered to a large and incoherent range of interests, it follows that the curriculum itself will be a clutch of courses rather than a course of study. The suggestion here is that the dominant interest unifying every course in a theological curriculum ought to be the interest guiding one of the three sorts of theology (constructive, critical practical, or apologetic), that is, interest reflected in one of the three ranges of questions congregations invite about their construals of the Christian thing (What is it? Is it faithful? Is it true?). Naturally, that does not mean that the courses comprising a curriculum will all tend to give the same answers to these questions. The unity of the course of study does not rest on agreement in judgment. It only means that the unity of a theological course of study would be grounded in the fact that in all its parts it raises and addresses the same three interconnected types of questions which are themselves simply three refractions of the one overarching goal to understand God more truly.
On the pluralism side, the proposal here is, quite simply, that a theological course of study would be much more adequate to the “pluralism of pluralisms” characterizing the Christian thing if every course in it were deliberately and explicitly designed to address one of the three questions invited by Christian congregations and the array of types of congregations were broad and rich. The proposal that study of various subject matters be focused through the lens of questions about congregations introduces pluralism into the heart of the course of study. The proposal has been that study of the conventional variety of subject matters (scripture, doctrine, sociology of the congregation, etc.) be kept tied to questions about their bearing on particular construals of the Christian thing in and as different types of Christian congregations. The richness of the variety is what is crucial. If the congregations are genuinely different from one another, the study will be made more adequate to pluralism precisely as it is being unified. The differences in the actual practices of speech and action between one congregation’s construal of the Christian thing and other congregations’ construals of the Christian thing are not only a function of their belonging to diverse “theological traditions,” although that is certainly an important aspect of the difference. It is also a function of differences in the congregations social and cultural and ethnic locations. Moreover, the differences among congregations’ construals of the Christian thing is also partly a function of different sorts of pluralism within each of them in regard to their members’ location not only according to class and ethnicity but also according to gender.
The differences among their construals of the Christian thing are simply . . . differences. A background conviction to this book has consistently been that there is no one underlying “essence” of Christianity that can be explicitly defined and to which these differing construals can be reduced as mere variations. Another background conviction has been that there is no one underlying pre-conceptual (in the quasi-technical sense of “concept” we sketched in chapter 6) religious experience of which differing construals of the Christian thing are simply alternative “symbolic expressions” or “thematizations.” Rather, we have insisted that congregations’ differing construals are genuinely and profoundly pluralistic. They bear important family resemblances to one another. They are plural responses to the odd ways in which God has been and promises yet to be present, especially in Jesus’ name. They share a number of things, notably scripture and practices of worship, that they use in identity-shaping ways. But the theological, historical, cultural, social, and gender-generated pluralisms are as profound as the commonalities.
Thus, if a theological course of study focused inquiry into its various subject matters within the horizon of questions about the bearing and role of those subject matters on the practices constituting a rich diversity of types of congregations, and did not abstract from the diversity or claim somehow to go “behind” it, it could be more adequate to pluralism in the Christian thing without threatening to fragment the course of study.
This proposal clearly rejects three other ways to remedy curricular fragmentation. It clearly rejects proposals to solve the problem by designing sequences of courses in which some courses are the required prerequisites for admission to others. Within certain “fields” this may be a useful move. Regarding the course of study as a whole, however, this is too rigid to be practicable except in schools with relatively small and very homogeneous student bodies. However, if the student body is that homogeneous, it is doubtful whether the school is adequately addressing genuine pluralism. The more pluralized the student body becomes in regard to age, previous experience, earlier education, sex, race, social location, and vocational self-understanding, the less workable is a single, prescribed sequence of courses.
This proposal also rejects the suggestion that fragmentation is a consequence of the disciplinary variety that has crept into theological schooling, and can be solved by minimizing the importance of schooling in the various disciplines. On the contrary, the various disciplines at their most rigorous are required by the complexity of concrete congregations. What is needed is not to soft-pedal them but to harness a diversity of academic disciplines to a single interest by employing them within the horizon of a single set of interdependent questions.
Finally, this proposal clearly is different in principle from the view that fragmentation is rooted in the course of study’s inadequacy to the integral structure and movement of its proper subject matter. No, it is not the subject matter that makes theological schooling either “theological” or unified; rather, it is its overarching interest to understand God, an interest refracted in three interdependent questions that may order each course’s inquiry and unify them all into a single course of study.
Is this proposal coherent?
A little reflection might raise questions about whether this proposal really holds together. I have proposed that fragmentation in a theological course of study could be overcome if each of its constituent courses were unified by a controlling interest in one of the three questions Christian congregations invite about their construals of the Christian thing (What is it? Is it faithful? Is it true?), and that the course of study could be more adequate to the pluralism of the Christian thing if the construals of the Christian thing that are studied comparatively are the construals of very different congregations. However, we might ask whether these three types of questions about congregations do not in fact fragment a course of study, and in at least two ways. Do they not, in the first place, reintroduce the distinction between “theoretical” and “practical” (or “academic” and “professional”) which, once adopted as a way to organize the world of a theological school, ends up alienating the “theoretical” or “academic” and making it functionally irrelevant to the “practical” or “professional”? And, in the second place, does not the introduction of a distinction among three questions guiding theological schooling simply fragment the so-called theoretical or “academic” inquiries themselves into self-contained and unrelated enterprises? No, none of the above — not if we keep clear what we are proposing.
The proposal consistently employs a conceptual scheme in which the conceptual disjunctions “theory/practice,” “academic/professional,” “reflection/action” simply have no work to do. We characterized “understanding,” not in terms of formulating true “theory” nor in terms of the results of disciplined academic “research,” but in terms of acquiring competencies to do certain things, capacities for certain types of action. We characterized congregations (about whom these three types of questions guide “understanding”) as sets of practices; and we characterized “practices” as patterns of intentional bodied action. Inquiry guided by our three questions, then, entails acquiring capacities for and active engagement in (even if only in an “as if” mode) activities comprising the concrete reality of congregations.
If we think of “theory” as the forming of generalizations or synoptic judgments and think of “practice” as requiring judgments about particular cases, then inquiry guided by these three types of questions will always require capacities for doing both. As Charles Wood points out in Vision and Discernment,  inquiry always involves both capacities for “envisioning” (making synoptic judgments) and capacities for “discernment” are exercised directly in regard to concrete practices of Christian congregations. The proposal that the unifying interest governing theological schooling factors into three types of questions does not subtly reintroduce into the discussion of theological schools the stultifying “theory/practice” divide.
Nor does it reintroduce a fragmentation of the subject matter of a theological school’s course of study. The reason it does not is that the three questions are logically interdependent. No one of them can be pursued without exploring the other two also.
Consider the array of questions that arise when we ask, “How do we best understand this particular congregation as ‘the Christian thing’ in concreto?” As the Christian thing concretely present, a congregation is a complex of practices comprised of bodily and mental acts regarding ourselves, our neighbors, our shared social and physical contexts, and God. In order to answer the question, “What is this construal of the Christian thing, how do we best describe it?” we have to discover what concepts, what capacities for action, we need to acquire in regard to the congregation in order to enter into its grasp of itself, its social and physical worlds, and God. We have to ask what sorts of comprehensive, synoptic pictures of the Christian thing appropriately characterize this congregation (entailing capacities for “vision”). For example, what is this congregation fundamentally: The local outpost of an international institution for the preservation of an intellectual, moral, and aesthetic tradition? An agency for social change? A community of mutual support and solace for the psychologically wounded and spiritually broken? Something else altogether? If more than one of these, in what sort of combination? We have to ask what the most adequate characterizations are of particular practices and action by the congregations in particular settings (entailing capacities for “discernment”). For example, how shall we characterize this congregation’s “healing service,” especially in relation to its clergy’s prayers in hospital rooms? And we have to do all this in a comparative mode, contrasting this congregation’s construal of the Christian thing with other, very different congregations’ construals.
To offer answers to this array of questions is to make constructive theological proposals. Some will be comprehensive and highly structured: This is how this congregation’s construal of the Christian thing is best characterized concretely as a whole in contradistinction to other congregations’ construals. Others will be more particular: This is how best to characterize this congregation’s construal of who Jesus is; this how best to understand “faith”; this how best to understand “creation,” and so forth.
However, exploration of these questions must rest in part on the results of the exploration of two other questions. It will have to rest in part on the results of exploration into how faithful congregations’ social space and social form are to the congregations’ self-described identities. For when we set out to ask how to characterize “it” we need to be clear how far the concrete “its” in question are, on their own criteria, authentic or inauthentic, faithful or faithless, as the Christian thing. Also, exploration of how best to characterize particular Christian congregations’ construals of the Christian thing will have to rest in part on the results of exploration of whether their practices involve truth claims and, if so, whether they are true and under what circumstances. For when we set out to characterize a congregation we need to be clear, among other things, whether what we are trying to understand does itself make and logically require certain particular fact claims (Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and raised from the dead”; “God had called Abram to leave Ur and promised him certain territories in Canaan”) and universal truth claims about reality in general (“All of ‘nature’ is radically contingent on God for its reality”; “all historical events are governed by God’s providential rule”).
Or consider the array of questions that arise when we ask, “Are these congregations being faithful to their self-described self-identities in their current forms of speech and action?” To ask this second type of question is to raise a variety of issues: “Are the forms of speech and action in question a traditional legacy from an earlier social and cultural setting? If so, were they faithful then? If conditions have changed significantly, are they faithful now, even if they were faithful in the past? Have social, cultural, and intellectual conditions changed in ways that introduce issues not addressed at all by these congregations current forms of speech and action? If so, is that itself a type of faithlessness?” Clearly this array of questions cannot be explored without identification of some criteria of “faithfulness.” Since that is precisely what inquiry guided by the first set of questions provides, clearly exploration of congregations’ “faithfulness” to their own identities depends on the results of exploration of how best to characterize them, just as we saw the latter inquiry requires the former.
Or consider the array of questions that arise when we ask, “Is the Christian thing, concretely present in and as these congregations, true?” To characterize some congregations’ construal of the Christian thing is not yet to establish the truth of the Christian thing as construed. Stackhouse in Apologia  rightly stresses the importance of the “truth” question. Nor is exploration of congregations’ faithfulness in concrete cases necessarily the same thing as demonstrating the truth of the Christian thing. It is at least a logical possibility that a belief or action may be both authentically or faithfully Christian and false. One condition under which this would be the case, for example, would be if the entire Christian thing were false.
Criteria of truth must be relevant to the sort of inquiry one is engaged in; criteria of truth in historical inquiry are of little relevance in physics. The types of criteria that are relevant are largely internal to the interest that define a given inquiry. It may be that what is normatively Christian includes or implies criteria beyond the criteria of faithful “Christianness” by which the truth of Christian theological formulations may be assessed.
Accordingly, to ask about the truth of theological proposals is in part to raise questions about the “logic” of the types of speech and action that comprise the Christian thing. In this way it raises questions about its rationality, its ways of meaning, and the character of its various claims to truth in order to identify the criteria the Christian thing itself entails as relevant for assessing its truth. Among these is the conviction that the Christian thing can illumine our lives in all situations. Hence part of the critical task of assessing the truth of theological formulations is to ask how those formulations help us to understand our lives in historically novel contexts. Another part of the inquiry into the “logic” of the types of speech and action that comprise the Christian thing is to ask about the relations between apparently particular claims about unique historical events and persons, on the one hand, and universal claims about reality as a whole. None of this, of course, will demonstrate the truth of any aspect of the Christian thing, or of the thing itself, by knockdown argument. The apologetic task is to test for truth, not necessarily to vanquish opponents.
Already it is clear, however, that inquiry into the truth of the Christian thing depends in part on the results of inquiry into how any particular construal of it is best characterized, for we cannot really ask whether something is true unless we understand it in the first place. And when part of the inquiry into truth involves asking how the Christian thing helps us understand our lives in novel contexts, it clearly depends on the results of inquiry into which forms of speech and action in the novel situation are genuinely “faithful” ways to live the Christian thing.
Thus, rather than fragmenting a theological course of study, the three basic theological questions can serve to unify it precisely when it is focused on a genuine pluralism of concrete Christian congregations. We have argued that the unity of theological schooling arises from its having a single overarching goal. That goal is defined by its interest to understand God by focusing study on the Christian thing. The Christian thing is concretely available for study in and as Christian congregations. It is the self-description of those congregations that demands they be studied along three lines of questioning. The threeness of the types of questions does not so much fracture as refract the unifying overarching interest that guides the inquiry. Taken together in their interdependence the three questions provide a single framework or horizon within which a multitude of inquiries can be unified into a single course of study.
The content of the course of study
According to this proposal the fact that Christian congregations are sets of practices both defines an array of subject matters to be studied in theological schooling and provides the way to unify the course of studies in a fashion adequate to the pluralism of the Christian thing. However, not everything that might justifiably be treated as subject matter in theological study can be selected for study. There are simply too many possibilities. To get down to cases, just which types of congregations ought to be selected as the variety of construals of the Christian thing by reference to which the course of study can be unified and made adequate to pluralism? And just which aspects of them shall be studied, and by what methods? Just which possible courses dealing with these subjects and methods should be included in the course of study? (New Testament courses? Yes. Qumran studies? Well, maybe. Greek, in order to read New Testament texts as carefully as possible? Yes. The social and cultural setting of Hispanic churches in whose common life the New Testament functions importantly? Perhaps. Spanish? Hmmm.)
It is clear that the proposal to focus theological study of the components of the Christian thing through the lens of questions about a variety of Christian congregations does not itself give us a basis for answering this question. The proposal does not imply any particular organization of the courses making up a course of study. The three theological questions may unify the course of study, but in their interdependence they cannot define three “areas” or “fields” into which a curriculum could be organized. Every possible subject matter might fruitfully be studied by inquiry guided by each of the three questions. Hence subject matters cannot be neatly parceled out among the three types of questions. Nor can the three questions be the basis on which to decide the sequence or movement of a theological course of study, that is, which subjects should be studied first, which second, and the like. The interdependence of the three questions rules that out; no one of them is “prior” to the other two.
Moreover, the proposal has explicitly ruled out two frequently suggested bases for the organization and movement of a course of study. The proposal has rejected the supposition that there is some one underlying essential structure to Christianity, on the grounds that such a supposition requires denial of the depth and importance of the pluralism of Christianity. Therefore we cannot adopt the suggestion that the structure and movement of a theological course of study should simply reflect the essential structure of Christianity. The proposal has also rejected the “clerical paradigm,” the suggestion that the defining goal of theological schooling is the education of church leadership. Therefore we cannot adopt the suggestion that the structure and movement of a course of study be dictated by the skills and capacities needed to fill ministerial functions.
How, then, shall the organization and the movement of a course of study be decided? At this point our discussion of the institutionalization and polity of a theological school in chapter 8 comes to bear on the discussion of a theological school’s course of study in this chapter. Decisions about the organization and movement of a theological course of study are, I suggest, largely a matter of prudent judgment by the theological school itself.
To put it that way is to stress respects in which a theological school is self-regulating. Some of its institutionalized practices, such as its polity, are practices of self-examination, self-criticism, self-regulation and self-change. Individual persons can be self-reflective and thus by entering, in a sense, into a relationship with themselves, effect changes in their own practices; so, by analogy, can schools in their own fashion. Theological schools do so through practices of self-governing that, as I argued in chapter 8, must be qualified in certain respects by the fact that they are theological schools. Thus, just as the range of possible subject matters, unity, and adequacy to pluralism of its course of study are decided by a theological school’s relationship to congregations, so selection, organization, and movement of a course of study are decided by the school’s relation to itself.
It is in regard to a school’s own identity and ethos that its governance practices can have the most important implications for its course of study. Theological schools are concrete and quite singular social realities. Each stands in some historical tradition (at the junction of the Berlin Turnpike and Augsburg Road or the road to Trent; Azusa Street or Canterbury Road, etc.) which shapes its distinctive identity and ethos. That concrete, singular identity is one of the major contingencies shaping the course of study. It is the context within which a school will make decisions about the specific content of its course of study. Granted, its concrete identity is an historical given; nonetheless, a theological school is not simply the creature of its heritage. It actively reshapes its identity all the time. As it does so, it may change some of the contingencies that determine the content and shape of its course of study. This is a dimension of its self-governance that is of major importance for the school and is usually of minor visibility. More often than not these changes in identity and ethos come about incrementally and slowly. (Indeed, fascinating histories might be written of major changes in the identities of both denominational and university-related theological schools that came about over the past thirty years not by grand vision and masterful decision but through the accumulated impact of individual decisions about particular proposed courses, programs for this and centers for that.)
At bottom, changes in a school’s concrete identity come by decisions it makes, deliberately or inadvertently, about three factors we noted in chapter 2 that distinguish schools from one another: Whether to construe what the Christian thing is all about in some one way, and if so, how; what sort of community a theological school ought to be; how best to go about understanding God. Judgments a school at least implicitly makes about these three questions deeply shape its identity and will almost certainly be reflected in the decisions it makes about the content and movement of its course of study.
One entirely legitimate exercise of a theological school’s governance practices is to decide to own and honor its inherited identity rather than merely to perpetuate it tacitly and passively. That will mean that the ethos of its common life as a school will tend to privilege certain answers to the questions about construal of the Christian thing, community, and understanding God. Through the exercise of its governance practices it will have decided to be a distinctively Pentecostal pietist theological school, for example, or a distinctively Roman Catholic school. That is certain to shape the school’s decisions about which subject matters to stress relatively more than others in its course of study, which courses to include in what sequence. A school located on the Geneva Road might be expected to include more courses on Reformation history than a school on the road to Canterbury. A school whose concrete identity is that of a church-like community tending to understand God by way of contemplation is likely to include more course work in spirituality, especially ascetical theology, than is a school whose ethos is that of a cadre of clergy tending to understand God by the activist way.
From the point of view of this proposal, there would be no cause for alarm in such decisions. In the nature of the case every school has some concrete identity and ethos, and in the nature of the case that identity will be one of the contingencies shaping decisions about the content of the course of study. It is not a goal of this proposal to develop criteria by which to judge that some theological schools’ identities are theologically more equal than others. What this proposal does high-light in this regard is that by virtue of their being “self-related,” theological schools have the capacity within historically imposed limits to decide about their concrete identities. In that way they may to some considerable extent shape some of the contingencies on which the content of their courses of study will depend.
The one constraint this proposal does lay on decisions about the content of the course of study is that it be focused by rigorous and sympathetic study of a pluralism of types of Christian congregation. Even when a school explicitly and firmly adopts one construal of the Christian thing as its own, it should study it in comparison with others. That a theological school inescapably has some concrete identity and ethos does not mean that it schools by focusing study only on congregations whose own identities bear the strongest family resemblances to the school’s identity. To the contrary, the proposal urges that the best way to affirm any school’s theological identity is through study focused on as a wide theological and social-cultural diversity of Christian congregations as possible.
A quite different, but entirely legitimate exercise of a theological school’s governance practices is to decide to embrace within its ethos several contrasting answers to each of the questions about how to construe the Christian thing, how to go about understanding God, what sort of community to be. This is the decision made when schools with quite diverse identities merge or “affiliate” or “cluster.” It is, presumably, the decision inherent in university-related theological schools’ efforts to become more genuinely “interconfessional.” This decision becomes the context within which such schools will make judgments about which courses to include in their courses of study and in what sequences (if any!). This interconfessional identity is obviously quite a different context from that created by a school’s decision to ground its identity and ethos in only one answer to each of our three questions. That is, by deciding to embrace several different answers to these three questions a theological school changes some of the major contingencies shaping the content of its course of study. It is no part of this proposal to declare this type of decision either more or less theologically legitimate.
It is central to this proposal, however, to stress that when a school makes such a decision to be “open,” “interconfessional,” or whatever, it should not delude itself into claiming that it merely provides a “theologically neutral arena” and “level playing field” for free theological inquiry and exchange of opinion. It too has a very concrete identity and ethos. It has some specific historical location, probably more extensively on the Berlin Turnpike than on the Athens Highway. It has some particular location in its social and cultural setting. It is ordered to some distinctive arrangement of power and status. It is only realistic to suppose that as a result it will not give equal weight to all of the answers to our three questions that it seeks to embrace. Just how a plurality of ways to construe the Christian thing, ways to go about understanding God, and ways to be in community will be related to one another is finally an internal political matter settled through the school’s governance practices. The exact configuration of these matters will play a decisive role in shaping its distinctive identity and ethos and therewith shaping the content of its course of study. Here too the particular ways in which any given school is self-governing carry important implications for the actual content of its course of study.
 This structure of three basic theological questions has historical roots in Schleiermacher’s organization of theology and, more proximately, is very similar to Charles Wood’s way of organizing theology in Vision and Discernment. Unlike Wood’s scheme, this one does not make a point of separating “moral theology” as a distinct inquiry in its own right; here it is a mode of”critical practical theology.” More significant, perhaps, is the fact that my proposal does not call for the synoptic, synthetic inquiry Wood terms “systematic theology.” Cf. Wood, Vision and Discernment, ch 3.
 Ibid., ch. 4.
 Niebuhr et al., The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, p. 107. Recently James Gustafson has argued anew for this picture of theological schools in “Reflections on the Literature on Theological Education Published Between 1955-1985,” Theological Education, vol.24 (Supplement II, 1988).
 Wood, Vision and Discernment, ch. 4.
 Stackhouse, Apologia, Part 3, esp. ch. 9.