The Purpose of the Church and its Ministry
by H. Richard Niebuhr, Daniel Day Williams, & James M. Gustafson
Chapter 1: The Purpose of the Church and its Ministry
I. THE CONTEXT OF THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION
When teachers examine themselves and their schools for the sake of discovering how to overcome difficulties or how to improve their work they are quickly led to ask far-reaching questions about the nature and the purposes of education. And in the course of that inquiry they quickly discover that education is so closely connected with the life of a community that queries about the aims of teaching and learning cannot be answered unless ideas about the character and the purposes of the society in which it is carried on are clarified first of all. This was illustrated a few years ago when President Harry S. Truman appointed a Commission on Higher Education which later issued its report under the title Higher Education for American Democracy and began its discussion with definitions of the dogmas and the goals of democratic society. Similarly a Harvard committee appointed to explore the basis for the reorganization of college teaching was instructed to concentrate on the Objectives of a General Education in a Free Society. No other approach to an educational problem seems possible, since a school is never separable from the community in which it works, whose living tradition it carries on, into which it sends citizens and leaders imbued with that tradition and committed to the social values. Moreover, being itself a part of the community the school expresses the common purposes directly. In democratic society it values every individual and maintains academic freedom; in genuinely aristocratic society it seeks to cherish and nurture the excellent persons and to maintain their leadership. Of course the school also usually finds itself involved in the conflicts and confusions of purpose that appear in society.
It may seem that professional schools are an exception to the rule; that social context and purpose need to be considered only in the case of so-called “general education.” Studies of medical, legal, engineering and theological education, unlike the inquiries referred to above, frequently ignore the community and raise few questions about social purposes. There are books on legal education in which such words as "nation"and "justice" rarely occur; studies of medical education that scarcely mention “health” and make no allusions to its place in a social system of values; discussions of theological education which seem almost studiously to avoid references to the Church or even to God and neighbor. Doubtless it is often necessary to abstract special from general purposes, and immediate from ultimate problems if progress is to be made toward overcoming irritating difficulties. But it is equally necessary, particularly at critical junctures, to attend to the wider context of special problems and short-range goals. For two reasons this appraisal of immediate against ultimate ends is necessary in theological education today. In the first place such education, now as always, is concerned with the nurture of men and women whose business in life it will be to help men to see their immediate perplexities, joys and sufferings in the light of an ultimate meaning, to live as citizens of the inclusive society of being, and to relate their present choices to first and last decisions made about them in the totality of human history by Sovereign Power. It would be anomalous were an educational work directed toward such an end not under the necessity of considering itself in the same light, of living in such a universal community and of relating its decisions to first commandments and final judgments. In the second place, theology, as expression, understanding and criticism of the life of faith, is today, like that life itself, in a critical situation. At least in many parts of Christendom the quest for meaning, the revival of historic religious convictions about man’s nature and destiny, about his lostness and his salvation, and the need to realize the significance of these convictions in relation to contemporary world and life views, have led to a renewal of the theological endeavor. In school and pulpit theology today is not simply an affair of translating ancient ideas into modern language, but of wrestling with ultimate problems as they arise in contemporary forms. It carries on its task in continuity with a great tradition and on the basis of convictions implanted historically into historical men; it works in a community that has a structure and a definable faith. Nevertheless it functions in a situation where many, though not all, things are fluid; education for the ministry must take place in this situation. Under these circumstances it seems imperative that churchmen considering their task in educating men for the work of the Church take their general bearings and try to state in what large context, with what definable orientation, they are going about their task.
To be sure, there are those who argue that the reform of theological education cannot wait on the reformulation of theology. The latter process is likely to be a long one and in the meantime many immediate questions must be answered. Whatever the fundamental problems of theology are, and whatever lines of inquiry may turn out to be most fruitful, the present curriculum is overloaded and the student must be relieved of some of the burden. Whatever the function of the ministry is, theologically considered, ministers must preach, organize churches, counsel the distressed, teach the immature, and they need to be trained by practice for the exercise of these functions. Whatever the Church ought to be, it is expected of schools that they furnish men well prepared to carry on the kind of work demanded of ministers by churches as they are. Again, it seems clear that many more or less technical questions of education cannot be answered theologically. Psychology of learning; social analysis of the societies in which students will work; statistical methods applied to the economic facts of ministers’ salaries and the cost of tuition, and the like; and many other relatively precise procedures applied to limited data can give guidance to perplexed administrators that no amount of hard thought about the large question of man’s life before God will yield. Those who urge these considerations upon us are plainly justified in criticizing procedures that begin only with questions about ultimate contexts and final goals.
Yet it remains true that if educational questions cannot be answered theologically, neither can theological questions be answered by use of the techniques of social or behavioral sciences however relevant the insights derived from these sciences may be to theology. The situation in theological education is comparable to the one in which every minister finds himself daily. When he deals with a mentally disturbed person he cannot take the place of the psychiatrist, but neither can the psychiatrist take his place; when political issues are involved, he cannot fulfill the functions of the statesman, but neither can the statesman, as statesman, illuminate a civil crisis by bringing only ultimate perspectives to bear on it. Similar ambivalences characterize every human situation; ultimate and immediate concerns, long- and short-range goals, big and little questions, theological and technical perspectives are involved in it. The approach can never be from one direction only. No simple inductive or deductive procedure is sufficiently fruitful. Yet various approaches can meet; various efforts to understand can support each other as well as be at cross-purposes. When the question is one about the education of the ministry it will not do to ignore either the general—the theological— nor the particular—the educational—approach; the theologian as educator or the educator as theologian cannot carry on his theological and his educational critiques separately and independently, nor can he reduce them to one inquiry with one method in the hope of gaining one single answer.
II. DENOMINATION, NATION OR CHURCH?
Under these circumstances we must ask and answer questions about the social context of theological education and about the objectives of the society while we also define special problems and seek their solution. The general question is: What is the community in which the theological schools carry on their work and which they in part represent? Corollary to this is the question about the objectives of the community which the school will serve directly and indirectly.
The first, superficial impression is that the Protestant theological schools in the United States and Canada do not consciously count themselves members of one community but function as though they were responsible to many different societies. They are all “church schools” rather than state institutions in distinction from many European theological faculties; but the word “church” may mean denomination. Most of the seminaries seem to function within the specific context of that peculiar American order of church organization, the denomination. Their very number indicates that other reasons than the desire to perform an effective task in a single community have led to their establishment and maintenance. While some ninety medical schools seem sufficient to supply the United States and Canada with well-trained physicians twice as many theological schools, besides Bible colleges and institutes, are at work in these nations to educate ministers. In their control, in the statements of their objectives, in the composition of their faculties, these seminaries for the most part reflect their dependence on, and their loyalty to, denominations. The context in which theological education is going on is the baffling pluralism of Protestant religious life in the United States and Canada. (The pluralism is somewhat less characteristic of Canada than of the United States. The Ninth Census of Population in Canada lists 28 religious groups, whereas the last published (1936) census of Religious Bodies in the United States listed 256 denominations and the 1956 Yearbook of the Churches 254. The numbers are not quite comparable, however, since in the Canadian census some of the group evidently include several separately organized bodies).
Yet despite their number, their denominational affiliation and their service of denominational purposes the theological schools usually give evidence of sharing in a community of discourse and interest that transcends denominational boundaries. And this is true of the denominations themselves. What then is this common life in which schools and denominations participate? One is tempted to define it as American or Canadian national existence or—since the schools in the two nations have much in common—as “the free society” or as “Western democracy.” Something is to be said in favor of the suggestion. The separation of Church and state and the legal recognition of the principle of religious liberty in both nations have led not only to pluralism through the protection of established religious groups and the encouragement of spontaneity and inventiveness; but have also fostered voluntarism in church organization and made the clergy largely dependent on lay support. Churches so thrown on their own resources have become responsible to the felt needs of the people to an unusual degree. Spontaneity and the need for adaptation in a competitive situation have helped to give them a popular, “grass-roots” and sometimes vulgar character that removes them a long way from establishments which still bear the traces of historic alliance with privileged classes. They have had to learn the arts of popular appeal and business efficiency. So they and their schools have come to be very much alike; they seem to be the religious representatives of the American societies.
An English theologian, well-acquainted with the American religious and theological scene, has remarked on these and similar characteristics:
"I suppose that the strongest impression that the visitor from this country receives is of the immense vitality and vigor of American Church life. In this the Churches do but share in the vigor and vitality of American life generally. They seem to be an integral part of the American “way of life”—a vague phrase, but one which does signify something to the feelings of Americans even if hard to analyze in terms and propositions. This is perhaps one reason (only one) why a much larger proportion of the population are attached to Churches, and “go to Church,” than in this country. It is a “done thing,” not as mere adherence to accepted conventions, but as flowing spontaneously from the “Volk” or community levels of consciousness. One result of this vigor and vitality, this sense of being integrally one with the movement, drive and energy of the community generally, is the admirable efficiency with which, on the whole, the Church organization is run, an efficiency which is made possible by, and itself helps to make possible, a sufficiency of funds for the purpose. I will not say “business” efficiency, for that might be taken to imply a derogatory value judgment which I do not intend: nevertheless it is the counterpart in Church life (there is no reason why there should not be such a counterpart) of the business efficiency which on the whole does characterize the secular side of American life generally. As organizations American churches strike one as being on the whole marvelously well run. There throbs through them the mighty pulse of American life; and it is a very American pulse."
In other ways also the churches in the New World seem to be “American” or “democratic” and to participate primarily in the common life of the “free society.” The pluralism of denominationalism seems to be a reflection of the pluralism of democracy. When we think of the overchurching of hamlets and cities, or of the great varieties in training and ability among the ministers, or of the regional character of theological schools, or of any other manifestation of this religious heterogeneity, and then look for a parallel or parable that will make this confusion somewhat intelligible we are led to think of the form in the formlessness of economic and political activity in New World democracy. We cannot helpfully compare this “church-system” to the school system or this Protestant ministry to the profession of medicine. The “church-system” looks more like the “filling-station system,” and the clergy in their varieties of responsibility and excellence seem most to resemble democratic political leaders—from town selectmen to governors, from demagogues to statesmen, from ward heelers to national party leaders. The unity present in this diversity is like the unity in the diversity, rivalry and tension of democratic political and economic life.
Yet the principle of unity in this Protestantism is not the democratic principle. Despite the American and democratic character of Protestant churches and the theological schools that serve them, an interpreter who tried to understand them primarily in this context would need to do violence to them, to twist the meaning of their affirmations of purpose and to misconstrue the character of the work that goes on in them. Canadian and American denominational and sectarian as they are in coloration, in function and objective they are churches and their schools are church schools. The community in which they work is the Church; the objectives they pursue are those of the Church. Only one among the schools, and that one unofficially and incidentally, refers in its statement of purpose to “the American way of life.” About half of them, to be sure, define their purpose by reference to a denomination which they serve. However, the other half do not mention denominational ties, and even those that do so rarely name the special organization without referring to a wider Church of which the denomination is a part. (The following statements are somewhat characteristic of such schools: Bethany Theological Seminary affirms that its object is “to promote the spread and deepen the influence of Christianity by the thorough training of men and women for the various forms of Christian service, in harmony with the principles and practices of the Church of the Brethren”; Augustana Theological Seminary “prepares students for the ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church with the special needs of the Augustana Church in view”; the charter of Berkeley Divinity School begins, “Whereas sundry inhabitants of this state of the denomination of Christians called the Protestant Episcopal Church have represented by their petition addressed to the General Assembly, that great advantages would accrue to said Church, and they hope and believe to the interests of religion and morals in general, by the incorporation of a Divinity School for the training and instructions of students for the sacred ministry in the Church aforementioned.")
What is true of the schools is true of the denominations in general, though one cannot escape the impression that both schools and parish ministers are often less intent on peculiarly denominational objectives and more disposed to think of themselves as first of all responsible in the whole Church for the work of the Church than are many denominational executives. This is not to discount the importance and value to them of their denominations. Few preachers or teachers feel that they can work in the Church, or have loyalties in it apart from work and loyalty within a particular order. But it is to say that they are concerned with the function of the genus—the theological school or the Christian ministry—and that the function of the species—the American or denominational school and ministry—is of subordinate significance to them or at least to increasing numbers of them. It is to say further that they tend to be more aware of the temptations which arise for them as members of the species than of those which come to them as representatives of the genus. Not a few, while rejoicing in the vigorousness of that “American way” of church life which the English visitor comments on, also accept his warning when he follows his statement about the “business efficiency” and popular character of Christianity in America with reflections about its dangers. This “very American pulse” that beats in these church organizations, he believes,
"inevitably and unconsciously affects the minister’s apprehension of, and attitude to, his task, as it does also those of the theological stu- dent. The latter is apt to be rather more aware of himself as primarily a person being professionally trained to fulfill a key-office, as an administrator, executive and leader in a vast and important department of the community life of the American people, than as a man on whom God has laid an arresting hand calling him out of that life in the first instance in order to be sent back into it on that basis to a ministerial and prophetic task. This unconscious approach is perhaps fostered to some extent by the great emphasis placed in the seminary curriculum on “practics,” and by the comparison I have not infrequently heard drawn between the minister’s training and that of the medical man; that the former’s work springs from, and is sustained by, a deep and continuous interior transaction with God, is apt to be somewhat overlooked."
As for the temptations which arise out of the denominational organization of the Church, warnings against them are frequent; many ministers, students and teachers become restive when the primacy of denominational loyalties is urged upon them. The denominational-interdenominational type of church organization is doubtless with us to stay, rooted as it is in the history and structure of North American life. But as its modification by means of institutional arrangements for co-operative work constitutes an enduring concern of American churchmen, so efforts to transcend the provincialism to which it tempts ministers and seminaries constitute a striking feature of the contemporary religious scene. Denominational organization and American life are both conditioning elements in the work of the ministry and of the theological schools; from them the latter derive both strength and weakness. Yet the primary context in which the ministry and theology do their work is neither denomination nor nation but the Church in its wholeness.(The lively interaction of denominational and catholic interests in many theological schools with accompanying enthusiasms and tensions makes a variety of interpretations of the situation inevitable. A member of the Advisory Committee, commenting on this section of the report, writes: “When you write of the denominational seminaries you seem to fail to grasp the ecumenical spirit that characterizes so many of them. This fact of the ecumenical spirit in the denominational school is a tremendous thing with great possibilities for the future. It should be played up more.” A colleague, however, comments: “My one question of emphasis concerns the characterization of the schools as accepting the ‘whole Church’ and an ecumenical context as their real base of operations…. I think the denominational tensions are a little more pervasive and difficult than you seem to suggest…. There is still a long way to go.” The slight modifications and qualifications which have been made in the essay as a result of such comments, have been made in the direction suggested by the second critic. The “ecumenical spirit” in the schools today is indeed remarkable but the distance still to be traversed is more impressive than the distance covered.)
Certain direct evidence of this sense of context is given in those academic statements of purpose to which reference has been made. Either in connection with some mention of their purpose to train men for a denominational ministry or without such allusion, the theological schools tend to define their objective in such phrases as these: “spreading and deepening the influence of Christianity; promoting the “interest of religion and morals”; “training Christian leaders who are wholeheartedly committed to Jesus Christ and able to share his gospel in all its relevance through the Church and all agencies of God’s kingdom”; “to provide leaders capable of bringing to others the saving knowledge of God in Christ Jesus”; “training leaders competent in this age to interpret truth and to direct activities of the Church in its related institutions at home and abroad”; “the preparation of men for the ministry of the Word and the sacraments.” The schools work in the context of the Church even though they do not frequently mention that fact. They may not be as conscious of the Church as they are of its objectives, yet when they serve the latter they participate in the life of the whole Church and are moved out of the confines of sectarianism. Their libraries are neither highly denominational nor highly American or Canadian. The denominational “Fathers” doubtless have a place on many shelves and lists of reserve books, but it is also the ambition of every destitute librarian to acquire a set of Migne’s Patrologia (it will have at least several kinds of symbolic value); and writings of the Protestant “Fathers” as well as of their sons, almost irrespective of denomination, are everywhere to be encountered. Wherever the theological student is at work he is challenged—at very least by those most catholic of teachers, the competent librarians (It is not implied that all theological librarians are competent any more than all the members of other faculty groups are so. But a heartening sign in the present situation is the increase of interest among these librarians in their work as teachers and the increase of concern among faculties for the development of school libraries as teaching centers)—to enter into conversation with a continuous if not identical group of thinkers. To an increasing extent Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians are included in that company.
The courses of study in denominational as well as interdenominational schools are even more indicative of their participation in the common life of the whole Church. Wherever they are being taught, by whatever methods and with whatever preconceptions, theological students are everywhere being asked to enter into long and serious conversations with the persons and communities of the Old and New Covenants of the Bible. The emphasis may be on the Word of God to men through that book (“Thus saith the Lord”); or on the words of men to God (“Out of the depths have I cried to Thee”); or on the words of men to men about God ( “Him whom you ignorantly worship I proclaim to you”). But whatever the emphasis, theological students in classroom, study and chapel are introduced to the great historic reasoning of God with men and led to participate in it. It is not to be denied that there are many contentions about proper methods of instruction, about the possibility of understanding the Bible without the use of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek; and about its ultimate meanings. Yet it becomes clear to one who listens sympathetically and attentively to what is going on in the classes that there is a great common denominator among these conservatives and liberals, these strict and latitudinarian constructionists. There is more of the whole Biblical content in the thought of most “Fundamentalists” than “liberals” believe. Not only Genesis 1 and Matthew 1 but Isaiah 40 and I Corinthians 13 are inscribed in their minds and hearts. Conversely there is far more Biblical knowledge and conviction in the liberal mind than ultraconservatism imagines.
General participation in a common life appears also in the extent to which church history forms a part of almost every theological curriculum and in the tendency to study it as a single history of one Church with many branches, subordinating the history of the denomination and even of Protestantism and of Christianity in America to the story of the whole Christian society. The community in whose history teachers and students find their orientation is wider then denomination or country. Here again there are variations. The teaching of church history is sometimes made the occasion for developing a sense of alienation from other groups rather than for developing a sense of unity. Like every other history, it is used at times to promote indoctrination in a peculiar tenet. Yet fundamentally and generally it is taught as church history.
In the study of theology proper the whole-church orientation of the schools may be less evident, yet differences are less of a denominational or national than of a party character. Conservative theologians, who were Presbyterians, are studied more widely in some seminaries belonging to new evangelistic groups than among the heirs of John Knox; modern theologians belonging to Lutheran churches, such as Aulén and Nygren, may be used more faithfully in an Episcopalian seminary than in many a Lutheran school less sympathetic to Lund. With a few exceptions teachers and students do not engage in a denominationally restricted discussion but participate in a Protestant and a Christian conversation or debate about the ultimate problems of faith and life. In the so-called practical fields the unity is even greater; here there is common concern for developing relevant, effective preaching in the local church on the basis of Scriptures; for a religious education Christian rather than either humanistic or denominational in character; for guiding men into pastoral work that meets human needs.
Other factors in theological education also point to this participation in a common life. Important among these is the work of the interdenominational schools, staffed by members of many denominations, necessarily teaching church rather than denominational doctrine, history and practice. They are attended by students coming from many church groups who return on graduation to their denominations. While these schools supply only about 15 per cent of each year’s B.D. graduates they represent American Protestantism to a larger extent than such numbers indicate. A large proportion of the teachers in the denominational seminaries has had its doctoral training in these schools; and a considerable number of widely read theological treatises come from the pens of their scholars. In such schools and elsewhere the supradenominational and supranational character of theological education is also significantly indicated by the increasing enrollment of students and the employment of teachers from other areas of Christendom.
Thus implicitly and explicitly the denominations in their concern for the education of ministers, and the schools entrusted with the task, make it evident that they think of themselves increasingly as branches or members of a single community, as orders and institutions with special duties or assignments to be carried out in partnership with other branches of one society. The idea of Una Sancta, of One Holy Church, is very pervasive despite relatively rare expression. There are exceptions; denominations and even more frequently small parties in them, contend for the sole validity of a particular form of creed, organization or liturgy.(0ne school characterizes its attitude toward other denominations as magnanimous; another recognizes only two church bodies—one of these in Europe—as soundly Christian; some denominational programs for the development of theological education move easily from praise of the ecumenical spirit to exclusive concern for the advancement of the denominational ministry. Catholic interest in the whole Church does not always lead to radical change of the denominational mind.) Rivalries and contentions also exist. Sometimes these are reminiscent of the tensions to be found in the relations of states and provinces to nation as a whole, sometimes to the more acerbic dissensions among the branches of the armed forces, all equally pledged to the defense of the country; sometimes they seem very similar to the tensions found among Roman Catholic religious orders; sometimes they seem like economic competition. In the permissive atmosphere of freedom apparently wild and individualistic doctrines flourish; new founders and new religions with new schools appear; false or true prophets rise in protest against established and bureaucratized organizations of religious life; zealous groups maintain that all others are out of step except their select company. But to the sympathetic observer the increasing unity of American Protestantism is more striking than its apparent diversity. He notes that the primary context of Protestant theological education in the United States and Canada is the Christian community in its wholeness. The contention for this orientation of thought and life continues indeed to go on in many a school and poses for it its deepest problems; but the movement toward participation in the universal Church is the dominant one.
III. TOWARD A DEFINITION OF THE CHURCH
The definition of the Church—even the awareness of its actuality—constitutes one of the main concerns of modern theology. Thus we have arrived at one of those points where the reform of theological education apparently must wait on the reformulation of theology. Much confusion and uncertainty in theological schools today seems to be due to lack of clarity about the community—the Church; about its form and matter, its relations and compassion. Without a definition of Church it is impossible to define adequately the work of the ministry for which the school is to prepare its students. It seems impossible also to organize a genuine course of study including the Biblical disciplines, church history, theology, the theory and practice of worship, preaching, and education on other grounds than those of habit and expediency unless there is clarity about the place of these studies and acts in the life of the Church. It is impossible to achieve more than superficial correlation of studies in the history and philosophy of religion, in psychology and sociology, with the older disciplines, unless the relations of the Church to religion in general, to the particular religions and to secular culture have been intelligibly defined.
The results of the inquiry into the nature of the Church in which theologians and churchmen are engaged today cannot be anticipated. The contributions on the one hand of Biblical, historical and systematic theology, of history, the sociology of religion and the theology of culture; and on the other, the practical experiments and experiences in ecumenical, national, municipal and parish organization of church life, will, one may hope, eventually be brought together in some kind of temporary historical synthesis. For the present the question what the Church is in act and potency, remains largely unanswered. The problem is new in many ways; at least it is posed in new forms at the present juncture of history. Thus questions about theological education which arise because of uncertainties in the conception of the Church may be due less to failure to maintain traditional conceptions than to a situation in which new implications of traditional ideas and new possibilities of historical institutions dawn on the horizon.
Nevertheless, we must try to take our bearings; try to formulate some of the nascent agreements about the character of that Church in which theological education goes on and for the furtherance of whose objectives the ministry is being educated. In his effort to state tentatively and in his own way such apparently dawning agreements the author of this essay must employ the method of polar analysis; that is, he must try to do justice to the dynamic character of that social reality, the Church, by defining certain poles between which it moves or which it represents. Such a method is the best one available to him.
By Church, first of all, we mean the subjective pole of the objective rule of God. The Church is no more the kingdom of God than natural science is nature or written history the course of human events. It is the subject that apprehends its Object(The objection that God is never object but always subject often arises from a confusion of the word “object” as meaning “thing” with “object” as meaning the Other toward which sensation, thought, appreciation, worship, et cetera are directed.) that thinks the Other; worships and depends on It; imitates It perhaps; sometimes reflects It; but is always distinct from its Object. It is integral to the self-consciousness of such a subject that it distinguishes itself from its Object. Several things are implied in this understanding of the Church: negatively, the Church is not the rule or realm of God; positively, there is no apprehension of the kingdom except in the Church; conversely, where there is apprehension of, and participation in, this Object there the Church exists; and, finally, the subject-counterpart of the kingdom is never an individual in isolation but one in community, that is, in the Church. Development of these themes would require more space than the scope of the present essay permits. What seems important is the distinction of the Church from the realm and rule of God; the recognition of the primacy and independence of the divine reality which can and does act without, beyond and often despite the Church; and the acceptance of the relativity yet indispensability of the Church in human relations to that reality.
Definition of subject and object are correlative. What the Church is as subject cannot be stated without some description of the Object toward which it is directed. Though an object is independent of a subject, yet it is inaccessible as it is in itself. What is accessible and knowable is so only from a certain point of view and in a certain relation. The communal point of view and perspective of the Church, or, better, the kind of receptivity created in the Church, puts it into a relation to its Object and makes possible an understanding of it that is impossible to every other point of view. The Church is not the only human community directed toward the divine reality; its uniqueness lies in its particular relation to that reality, a relation inseparable from Jesus Christ. It is related to God through Jesus Christ, first in the sense that Jesus Christ is the center of this community directed toward God; the Church takes its stand with Jesus Christ before God and knows him, though with many limitations, with the mind of Christ. Secondly, in that situation there is made available to it, or revealed to it, a characteristic and meaning in the Object—the divine reality—unknown from other perspectives, namely, the reconciling nature and activity of a God who is Father and Son, and also Holy Spirit. Once more it becomes evident that the effort to define the Church involves us in many problems of theology into which we cannot enter in this connection. But certain implications of the historic and apparently necessary Trinitarian understanding of the divine reality on which the Church depends may be called to attention as important for the reorientation of theological education. One of these implications is that in the relative situation occupied by the Church its function is always that of directing attention to its Object rather than to itself. Another is the recognition that it is inadequate and misleading to define the church and the Object on which it depends in terms of Jesus Christ alone. It is indeed the Christian Church, but as the Church of Jesus Christ it is primarily a Church of God and so related to, while distinguished from, all other communities related to the Ultimate.
We need to define Church further by use of the polar terms “community” and “institution.” A social reality such as the Church cannot be described by means of one of these categories only and much misconception of the Church results from such exclusive use. Popularly and even among churchmen the institutional Church may be so emphasized that there is little appreciation for the Church that does not come to appearance in organizations and rites. Of the two ecumenical movements in our time the organizational effort to develop world-wide institutions takes precedence in many minds over that spiritual, psychological, intellectual and moral common life, transcending all national boundaries, which seeks institutions through which to express itself. Or again membership in the Church is widely regarded primarily as a matter of participation in institutional forms and actions, less frequently as engagement in common thought, common devotion and worship, common appreciations. But the opposite error is also possible; a common life, vaguely defined by reference to a common spirit also vaguely described, is exalted at the expense of institutional forms. (An example of this may be found in Professor Emil Brunner’s The Misunderstanding of the Church (Philadelphia, 1953). Professor Brunner writes: “The New Testament Ecclesia, the fellowship of Jesus Christ, is Q pure communion of persons and has nothing of the character of an institution about it” (p. 17); to this “Ecclesia which is always . . . a dynamic reality and nothing more, the existing churchly institutions are related as means . . . externa subsidia—in very diverse ways and proportions” (p. 109). The Ecclesia . . . is no institution. Therefore the church can never be the Ecclesia either by purification or recreation” (p. 107).
These errors are like those made when a nation is defined either institutionally as state, or as pure community by reference only to national “spirit” or a “way of life.” But it seems clear that no community can exist without some institutions that give it form, boundaries, discipline, and the possibilities of expression and common action. On the other hand, no institution can long exist without some common mind and drive that expresses and defines itself in institutions. The questions whether Church is primarily institution or primarily community, or whether one of these is prior, are as unanswerable as similar questions about thought and language. There is no thought without language and no language without thought, yet thought is not language nor language thought. The Church as institution can preserve as well as corrupt the Church as community; it can express and define through word and deed the common mind as well as thwart the common spirit. The Church as community can enliven but also stultify the Church as institution. So it was in the case of the Nazi Christian community which twisted the meaning and eventually the forms of common Christian institutions; so it is also in the confusions of the Christian with the democratic community. The American and Canadian Church scene that we have sketched indicates how much institution and community belong together, yet how distinct they are. In part the realization of the Church community in the New World waits on the development of institutions able to give it form and wholeness; in part the institutionalization in denominations expresses the variety and unity characteristic of the community on this part of the planet.
To describe the Church as a community of memory and hope, sharing in the common memory not only of Jesus Christ but also of the mighty deeds of God known by Israel, expecting the coming into full view of the kingdom on earth and/or in heaven; to describe it further as the community of worship, united by its direction toward one God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit yet worshipped more as Father or as Son or as Holy Spirit in this or that part of the community; to describe it as a community of thought in which debate and conflict can take place because there is a fundamental frame of agreement and because there are common issues of great import—to do all this and the much more that needs to be done would be to essay the work of a large part of theology. It must be sufficient here to note that the schools which serve in the Church and serve the Church cannot abstract community from institution nor institution from community; nor can any churchman. One or the other of these polar characteristics of the social reality may be emphasized, but it cannot be defined without some reference to the other pole or served without some concern for its counterpart.
We must deal more briefly with certain other polarities in the Church’s existence. Among these are the complementary yet antithetical characteristics of unity and plurality, of locality and universality, of protestant and catholic. The Church is one, yet also many. It is a pluralism moving toward unity and a unity diversifying and specifying itself. It is, in the inescapable New Testament figure, a body with many members none of which is the whole in miniature but in each of which the whole is symbolized. Every national church, every denomination, every local church, every temporal church order, can call itself Church by virtue of its participation in the whole; yet every one is only a member needing all the others in order to be truly itself and in order to participate in the whole. Without the members there is no body; without the body no members. Schools cannot prepare men to work simply in the whole Church but must equip them for particular service; yet they cannot do so unless they keep them mindful of the whole and loyal to it
The Church is local and it is universal. Where two or three are gathered in the name of Christ there he is present, but all to which he points and all that he incarnates is present also. Among other things the universal Church is present, for Jesus Christ cannot be there without bringing with him the whole company of his brothers, who have heard the Word of God and kept it, who were not created without the Word. He is never present without the company of the apostles and prophets, the patriarchs and singers who speak of him; nor without the least of his brothers of whom he speaks. The localized Church implies the universal, but the universal no less implies the local; without localization, without becoming concrete in a specific occasion, it does not exist. The school which educates men for service in this Church cannot but focus their attention on the parish and the meeting; it cannot make them aware of the significance of parish or Sunday morning service unless it turns from the localized occasion to the universal community represented and adumbrated in the occasion.
The Church is protestant and catholic. This is not only to say that there is much historic Protestantism in those institutions called Catholic churches, and much historic Catholicism in the institutions called Protestant. It is also to say that the principle of protest against every tendency to confuse the symbol with what it symbolizes and the subject with the object, is a constituent element in the being of the community, even apart from the institutional organizations. The Church as the people of God, whether under the Old or the New Covenants, is always the party of protest against religion in the religious human world. It protests against every effort to bring the Infinite into the finite, the transcendent into the immanent, the Eternal into the temporal. The only finite symbol of God it tolerates is the symbol of emptiness—the empty Holy of Holies, the empty tomb. But protest has no meaning apart from what is protested against. The Church cannot be protestant without being catholic. The principle of catholicity—as the principle of incarnation rather than the principle of universality—is as much an ingredient of churchliness as is the principle of protest. Unless the Infinite is represented in finite form, unless the Word becomes flesh over and over again, though only as oral preaching, unless the risen Christ manifests himself in the visible forms of individual saintliness and communal authority there is no human relation to the Infinite and Transcendent. Negative and positive movements—the one in rejection of all that is little because God is great, the other in affirmation of the apparently insignificant because God is its creator, redeemer and inspirer; the one away from the world that is not God, the other toward the world of which he is Lord— must both be represented where the Church exists.
The final polarity to be considered in this adumbration of the form and nature of the Church is that of Church and world. This is like the first polarity of subject and object insofar as it is not a polarity in the Church but one in which it participates as itself a kind of pole. The Church lives and defines itself in action vis-à-vis the world. World, however, is not object of Church as God is. World, rather, is companion of the Church, a community something like itself with which it lives before God. The world is sometimes enemy, sometimes partner of Church, often antagonist, always one to be befriended; now it is the co-knower, now the one that does not know what Church knows, now the knower of what Church does not know. The world is the community of those before God who feel rejected by God and reject him; again it is the community of those who do not know God and seem not to be known by him; or, it is the community of those who knowing God do not worship him. In all cases it is the community to which the Church addresses itself with its gospel, to which it gives an account of what it has seen and heard in divine revelation, which it invites to come and see and hear. The world is the community to which Christ comes and to which he sends his disciples. On the other hand, the world is the community of those who are occupied with temporal things. When, in its sense of rejection, it is preoccupied with these temporal matters it is the world of idolatry and becomes foe of the Church. When it is occupied with them as gifts of God— whether or not the consciousness of grace becomes explicit—it is the partner of the Church, doing what the Church, concerned with the nontemporal, cannot do; knowing what Church as such cannot know. Thus and in other ways the relations of Church and world are infinitely variable; but they are always dynamic and important. To train men for the ministry of the Church is to train them for ministry to the world and to introduce them to the conversation of Church and world, a conversation in which both humility and self-assurance have their proper place.
If our interpretation of the spirit of the Protestant theological schools is in any way correct then it is Church defined somewhat in the foregoing manner that constitutes the society in which they function and whose objectives they serve directly and indirectly, consciously or unconsciously. Different schools and different denominations doubtless represent different perspectives and emphases in their understanding of this Church; yet they participate in the common life insofar as they respect and gain profit from each other’s contributions.
IV. THE PURPOSE OF THE CHURCH: THE INCREASE OF THE LOVE OF GOD AND NEIGHBOR
What are the objectives of the Church? That they are many in number is clear from the statements of purpose made by schools when they define to what end they are training ministers, and by other church organizations—denominations, councils, conferences, et cetera—when they justify their activities. Some speak in individual terms of the cultivation of the Christian life or the salvation of souls; others state their goal to be the building up of the corporate life of the Church or of some part of it; again the goal is defined as the "communication of the vital and redeeming doctrines of Scriptures," or it is otherwise described by reference to the Bible as the ultimate source of all that is to be taught and preached. Elsewhere the end is defined as the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments; or, again, as the development of the life of prayer and worship. Perhaps most frequently the goal set forth is increase of belief in Jesus Christ, of discipleship to him and the glorification of his name. These multiple aims of churches and schools are again multiplied as one proceeds from grand statements about the purpose of the large organizations to the specialized goals of boards and departments, of courses and classes, of rural and urban congregations, of ministries of preaching and education and pastoral work and of preparation for such particular functions. The multiplicity of goals corresponds to the pluralism in the Church that is made up of many members, each with its own function; that stands in many relations to God, who is complex in his unity, and in many relations to a world protean in its attitudes toward God and the Church.
The question is whether there is one end beyond the many objectives as there is one Church in the many churches. Is there one goal to which all other goals are subordinate, not necessarily as means to end, but as proximate objectives that should be sought only in relation to a final purpose? When we deal with the complex activities of a biological organism or a person or a society the analogies of mechanical operation are misleading. The circulation of the blood, for instance, is not a means to the end of the functioning of the nervous system, nor is either a means only to the health of the body since that health also comes to expression in them. Still the healthy functioning of the whole body is in a sense a goal that a physician will have in view as he pursues the proximate end of improving circulation. The question of the ultimate objective of the whole Church and of the seminaries in the Church does not reduce questions about proximate ends to questions about means, but it poses the problem of the final unifying consideration that modifies all the special strivings.
Once more then we must venture to anticipate, though only in adumbrations, the answer to a question properly answerable only by the combined and continuous work of many theologians approaching the problem with the aid of many special studies and of many experiences. Such a statement will inevitably be somewhat private, yet though personal it is the report of what has been heard and understood in a conversation in which many contemporary ministers and teachers, many churchmen of the past and, above all, the prophets and apostles participate. As such a report it may gain some assent together with much correction and may be of some aid in moving forward the debate about the objective of the churches and their schools and in overcoming some current confusions.
The conversation about the ultimate objective is many faceted. It includes many interchanges on special issues through which, however, the movement toward the definition of the ultimate issue and the final objective proceeds. There is, as we have noted, a debate between those who define the last end of the Church individualistically as salvation of souls and those who think of it as the realization of the redeemed society. But extreme individualism and extreme emphasis on society are rare. Recognition of the social character of the individual and of the interpersonal character of society brings the parties somewhat closer to each other and both are challenged by the question: What is the chief end of man, whether as redeemed individual or redeemed community? Another debate, the one about Church and Bible, is leading, it appears, to somewhat similar results. Protestantism in general and particularly in America is marked by devotion to the Bible; it often conceives its end to be the dissemination of Biblical truth and increase of devotion to Scriptures. Catholicism, on the other hand, tends to be church-centered and often finds its goal in the building and strengthening of loyalty to the Church. But the study of the Bible in Protestantism, with its demonstrations of the close relations of the people and the Book both in the Old and New Covenant periods, and historical theology with its reflections on the manner in which at different times the Church interprets Bible, bring Church and Scriptures into inseparable relations of mutual dependence. Moreover, in practice concentration on the Book is ultimately self-corrective since the Bible faithfully studied allows none to make it the highest good or its glorification the final end. It always points beyond itself not so much to its associate, the people, as to the Creator, the suffering and risen Lord and the Inspirer. This is true also of the Church; it loses its character as Church when it concentrates on itself, worships itself and seeks to make love of Church the first commandment. Tension and antagonism between Bible-centered and Church-centered members of the community is being ever-renewed but is also being evermore resolved and their debate is led to higher issues by the witness of the Bible and the Church themselves to that which transcends both. Another long debate has gone on in history and is alive today among those who agree that the chief end of the Church is to gain followers of Jesus Christ or to proclaim his Lordship. Christian humanism, present to a minor extent in denominations and schools, but widely prevalent in the "latent” church which seems large and important in America, is strong in its devotion to the Son of Man; reliance upon the Son of God is more characteristic of the ecclesiastical institutions and of the majority movement in the community. Yet exclusively Jesus-centered and exclusively Christ-centered groups contradict not only each other but also contradict Jesus Christ himself who will not bear witness to himself but to the one who sent him. The great central position of the historic Church maintains itself amidst these variations, affirming not only the actuality and unity of both human and divine natures, the identity of the historic with the risen Lord, but also some form of the Trinitarian conviction, which does not allow the separation of the Son of Man and Son of God, from the Father and the Spirit. Devotion directed toward Jesus Christ is at least partly redirected by him to the One he loves and who loves him, and to the world created and redeemed by the love of God. Nothing less than God—albeit God in the mystery of his being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is the object toward which Scriptures, Church and Jesus Christ himself direct those who begin by loving them.
Is not the result of all these debates and the content of the confessions or commandments of all these authorities this: that no substitute can be found for the definition of the goal of the Church as the increase among men of the love of God and neighbor? The terms vary; now the symbolic phrase is reconciliation to God and man’ now increase of gratitude for the forgiveness of sin, now the realization of the kingdom or the coming of the Spirit, now the acceptance of the gospel. But the simple language of Jesus Christ himself furnishes to most Christians the most intelligible key to his own purpose and to that of the community gathered around him. If the increase among men of love of God and neighbor is the ultimate objective may it not be that many of our confusions and conflicts in churches and seminaries are due to failure to keep this goal in view while we are busy in the pursuit of proximate ends that are indeed important, but which set us at cross-purposes when followed without adequate reference to the final good?
Any adequate discussion of the theme of love of God and neighbor and of its relevance to Church and school requires all the resources of the theological curriculum from study of the Scriptures through systematic theology, the philosophy, psychology and history of religion, Christian and social ethics to pastoral theology, Christian education and homiletics. Yet in relative brevity some things can be said about this theme which, one hopes, will invite the assent of many members of the community, however great their dissent because of the incompleteness of the statement and because differences of emphasis are inevitable. The statement of a final end can never be a final statement until the whole community confesses it in the moment of its achievement.
In the language of Christianity love of God and neighbor is both “law” and “gospel”; it is both the requirement laid on man by the Determiner of all things and the gift given, albeit in incompleteness, by the self-giving of the Beloved. It is the demand inscribed into infinitely aspiring human nature by the Creator; its perversion in idolatry, hostility and self-centeredness is the heart of man’s tragedy; its reconstruction, redirection and empowerment is redemption from evil. Love of God and neighbor is the gift given through Jesus Christ by the demonstration in incarnation, words, deeds, death and resurrection that God is love—a demonstration we but poorly apprehend yet sufficiently discern to be moved to a faltering response of reciprocal love. The purpose of the gospel is not simply that we should believe in the love of God; it is that we should love him and neighbor. Faith in God’s love toward man is perfected in man’s love to God and neighbor. We love in incompleteness, not as redeemed but in the time of redemption, not in attainment but in hope. Through Jesus Christ we receive enough faith in God’s love toward us to see at least the need for and the possibility of a responsive love on our part. We know enough of the possibility of love to God on our part to long for its perfection; we see enough of the reality of God’s love toward us and neighbor to hope for its full revelation and so for our full response.
In both law and gospel the love of God and the love of neighbor are inseparably related. Historically they are associated in Judaism and Christianity, in the two tables of the Ten Commandments, in the double summary of the law offered by Jesus, in apostolic preaching, in the theology and ethics of Catholic and Protestant churches. Despite tendencies in Christian history toward solitary union with God on the one hand and toward nontheistic humanitarianism on the other the unity of the two motifs has been vindicated many times. The inseparability of the two loves has been less manifest in theological analysis than in the actuality of history but theology has pointed out often enough how the thought of God is impossible without thought of the neighbor and how the meaning and value of the companion’s life depends on his relation to God. With their understanding of the divine-human nature of Jesus Christ and of the ubiquity of Christ in all compassionate and needy companions, Christians are led to see that as the neighbor cannot exist or be known or be valued without the existence, knowledge and love of God, so also God does not exist as God-for-us or become known or loved as God except in his and our relation to the neighbor. The interrelations of self, companion and God are so intricate that no member of this triad exists in his true nature without the others, nor can he be known or loved without the others. If we substitute “Jesus Christ” for “neighbor” Christians in general will accept that statement; but there is danger in that substitution as well as the possibility of enlightenment, since the relation of Jesus Christ to our other neighbors is often obscured in theology; his revelation of what it means to be a man is often forgotten in favor of exclusive attention to his disclosure of what it means that God is, and is Good. Yet the latter illumination could not take place without the former.
God’s love of self and neighbor, neighbor’s love of God and self, self’s love of God and neighbor are so closely interrelated that none of the relations exists without the others. The intricacy and unity of the human situation before God is not less dynamic and complex than the one we encounter in nature when we explore the energetic world of the atom or of a sidereal system. Yet we can only speak in succession of what appears in contemporaneousness; in discourse we must abstract relations, such as love, from the terms related and the terms from each other, so that we are always in danger of speaking of God without reference to the being he loves and that loves him; of speaking about religion or love of God as distinct from ethics or the love of neighbor. Such dangers must be accepted and faced; theology must be content to spend no small part of its energies in the correction of the errors which ensue from its necessary mode of working.
What then is love and what do we mean by God and by neighbor when we speak of the ultimate purpose of Church, and so of theological education, as the increase of love of God and neighbor among men? By love we mean at least these attitudes and actions: rejoicing in the presence of the beloved, gratitude, reverence and loyalty toward him. Love is rejoicing over the existence of the beloved one; it is the desire that he be rather than not be; it is longing for his presence when he is absent; it is happiness in the thought of him; it is profound satisfaction over everything that makes him great and glorious. Love is gratitude: it is thankfulness for the existence of the beloved; it is the happy acceptance of everything that he gives without the jealous feeling that the self ought to be able to do as much; it is a gratitude that does not seek equality; it is wonder over the other’s gift of himself in companionship. Love is reverence: it keeps its distance even as it draws near; it does not seek to absorb the other in the self or want to be absorbed by it; it rejoices in the otherness of the other; it desires the beloved to be what he is and does not seek to refashion him into a replica of the self or to make him a means to the self’s advancement. As reverence love is and seeks knowledge of the other, not by way of curiosity nor for the sake of gaining power but in rejoicing and in wonder. In all such love there is an element of that “holy fear” which is not a form of flight but rather deep respect for the otherness of the beloved and the profound unwillingness to violate his integrity. Love is loyalty; it is the willingness to let the self be destroyed rather than that the other cease to be; it is the commitment of the self by self-binding will to make the other great. It is loyalty, too, to the other’s cause—to his loyalty. As there is no patriotism where only the country is loved and not the country’s cause—that for the sake of which the nation exists—so there is no love of God where God’s cause is not loved, that which God loves and to which he has bound himself in sovereign freedom.
What, further, do we mean by the word God when we speak of the love of God? Not less than this surely—the Source and Center of all being, the Determiner of destiny, the Universal One—God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. 13y God we cannot mean first of all love itself as the relation that binds all things together; the proposition that God is love cannot be converted without loss and error into the statement that love is God. Neither do we mean by God any lovely being easily made the object of our affection. We encounter no demand in ourselves or in our world to love that to which we are naturally attracted. Neither is there any promise or hope in the idea that we shall come to love with rejoicing, gratitude, reverence and loyalty, all that now easily arouses in us the movements of our desire. The movement of our love toward all these things, though they go by the name of God or gods, is the way of our idolatry; it is the movement toward the many away from the One, toward the partial instead of the universal, toward the work of our hands rather than toward our Maker. The demand and the promise refer to the One beyond all these.
The problem of man is how to love the One on whom he is completely, absolutely dependent; who is the Mystery behind the mystery of human existence in the fatefulness of its selfhood, of being this man among these men, in this time and all time, in the thus and so-ness of the strange actual world. It is the problem of reconciliation to the One from whom death proceeds as well as life, who makes demands too hard to bear, who sets us in the world where our beloved neighbors are the objects of seeming animosity, who appears as God of wrath as well as God of love. It is the problem that arises in its acutest form when life itself becomes a problem, when the goodness of existence is questionable, as it has been for most men at most times; when the ancient and universal suspicion arises that he is happiest who was never born and he next fortunate who died young.
Reconciliation to God is reconciliation to life itself; love to the Creator is love of being, rejoicing in existence, in its source, totality and particularity. Love to God is more than that, however, great as this demand and promise are. It is loyalty to the idea of God when the actuality of God is mystery; it is the affirmation of a universe and the devoted will to maintain a universal community at whatever cost to the self. It is the patriotism of the universal commonwealth, the kingdom of God, as a commonwealth of justice and love, the reality of which is sure to become evident. There is in such love of God a will-to-believe as the will-to-be-loyal to everything God and his kingdom stand for. Love to God is conviction that there is faithfulness at the heart of things: unity, reason, form and meaning in the plurality of being. It is the accompanying will to maintain or assert that unity, form and reason despite all appearances. The dark shadow of this love is our combative human loyalty which in its love of gods—principles of religion, empires and civilizations, and all partial things—denies while it seeks to affirm the ultimate loyalty and so involves us in apparently never-ending religious animosities which at the same time unite and divide neighbors, as they forge close bonds of loyalty to each other in a common cause among closed societies disloyal to each other.
Who, finally, is my neighbor, the companion whom I am commanded to love as myself or as I have been loved by my most loyal neighbor, the companion whose love is also promised me as mine is promised him? He is the near one and the far one; the one beside the road I travel here and now; the one removed from me by distances in time and space, in convictions and loyalties. He is my friend, the one who has shown compassion toward me; and my enemy, who fights against me. He is the one in need, in whose hunger, nakedness, imprisonment and illness I see or ought to see the universal suffering servant. He is the oppressed one who has not risen in rebellion against my oppression nor rewarded me according to my deserts as individual or member of a heedlessly exploiting group. He is the compassionate one who ministers to my needs: the stranger who takes me in; the father and mother, sister and brother. In him the image of the universal redeemer is seen as in a glass darkly. Christ is my neighbor, but the Christ in my neighbor is not Jesus; it is rather the eternal son of God incarnate in Jesus, revealed in Jesus Christ. The neighbor is in past and present and future, yet he is not simply mankind in its totality but rather in its articulation, the community of individuals and individuals in community. He is Augustine in the Roman Catholic Church and Socrates in Athens, and the Russian people, and the unborn generations who will bear the consequences of our failures, future persons for whom we are administering the entrusted wealth of nature and other greater common gifts. He is man and he is angel and he is animal and inorganic being, all that participates in being. That we ought to love these neighbors with rejoicing and with reverence, with gratitude and with loyalty is the demand we dimly recognize in our purer moments in science and religion, in art and politics. That we shall love them as we do not now, that is the hope which is too good to be true. That we are beloved by them and by God, that is the small faith, less than the mustard seed in size, which since the time of Abraham and of Jesus Christ remains alive, makes hope possible, encourages new desire and arouses men to anticipated attainments of future possibility.
When all is said and done the increase of this love of God and neighbor remains the purpose and the hope of our preaching of the gospel, of all our church organization and activity, of all our ministry, of all our efforts to train men for the ministry, of Christianity itself.
V. CONFUSING PROXIMATE WITH ULTIMATE GOALS
Our efforts to define the context of theological education as the whole Church, and to describe its goal as the increase of the love of God and neighbor, have removed us a long way from the actuality of schools, churches and ministry in the United States and Canada. To be sure, these institutions reveal in various ways that this context and this goal are implied in what they do but they also make evident that very often they are not directly concerned about such apparently remote things. They usually speak of more proximate contexts and goals and often manifest an almost ultimate concern in less ultimate matters. From such confusions of the proximate with the ultimate arise some of their external and internal conflicts. Not all conflicts about proximate ends and immediate means are traceable to this source. Theological like every other type of education is involved, as has been noted, in a host of dilemmas that cannot be solved theologically; but its difficulties are increased tremendously by the internal conflict in which it is engaged when it substitutes the relative for the absolute.
Of these confusions the most widely criticized, though not the most important, is the confusion of a branch of the Church with the whole Church. The tendency to regard a denomination as the ultimate environment in which the school carries on its work or as at least the last society to whose purposes reference must be made is on the wane, as has been pointed out, in most of the seminaries and Bible colleges in the United States and Canada. But it is still strong in many places and one may expect that it will manifest itself in ever-new forms. Where it prevails theological education is necessarily provincial in character; it is neither theological nor educational, since it does not lead a student to any direct confrontation with the theological object nor induce him to participate in liberating dialogue with all companions directed toward that object. Against this tendency theology and faith will wage constant battle, though it is clear that no technical approach to curriculum construction or teaching method will enable any group to win this struggle and that no victorious party is secure against falling into the temptation to substitute a new form of this fallacy for the defeated one. That schools and churches so provincial in character and out look make contributions despite themselves to the whole Christian movement is not to be gainsaid. Neither would one be justified in maintaining that a Church of undifferentiated wholeness and unity can exist or that the elimination of denominational differences would solve the underlying problem. The confusion between part and whole is not to be avoided by denying the reality of the parts but only by the acceptance of diversity and limitation and the corollary recognition that all the parts are equally related in the whole to the ultimate object of the Church. The denominational structure of the Church in the United States and Canada does not need to be eradicated before theological education can be put on a sounder basis, but a denominationalism that puts loyalty to the branch of the Church above all other loyalties involves theological education in internal self-contradictions that vitiate its work.
More significant today than the confusion of a branch of the Church with the whole Church is the confusion of Church, considered as whole or in its essence, with the ultimate context of theological education. Whether the term Church or the term Christianity is used, there is an internal contradiction in a theology and a Christian educational system that regard the work of the Church as the final activity to be considered. The confusion is a common one. It has become more prevalent in recent years since the fallacies of concentration on religion have become apparent. Not long ago religion was often credited with the power and grace that belong only to the God of faith; religion, it was said, inspired, healed and saved. Now that subjectivism is often replaced by another which puts the Church in the place of religion but confuses its work with that of its Lord and equates devotion to it with loyalty to the kingdom of God. The resulting confusion is similar to the one that appears in political life when a particular democratic society is made the object of a devotion that genuine democracy extends only to humanity, created free and endowed with natural rights prior to any recognition of these facts. In the case of Communism it has become plain what internal contradictions and perversions ensue when the promotion of the party is substituted for the pursuit of the party’s cause. That substitution has led to all manner of corruption. Christianity and the Church have not been slow to criticize Judaism because in it the idea of a people chosen for service was often converted into the idea of a people chosen for privilege while the victory of the cause which the people was chosen to promote was frequently equated with the victory of the people. It is always easy to discern the mote in the eye of another. The beam in our churchly or Christian eye is not so easily seen. Both in thinking of the context in which we work in the Church and of the goal we pursue, it seems easy to accept and propagate the idea that the last reality with which we are concerned is the Church itself, and that the summary commandment we obey is to love Christianity with heart, soul, mind and strength. This exaltation of Church or of Christianity leads us then to an effort not to reconcile men with God or to redirect their love and ours toward God and the neighbor but rather to convert them to Christianity. These purposes are not more identical than subject and object are identical. It is one thing to be reconciled to God and to conceive some love for the neighbor and hence to participate in the community of which Jesus Christ is the pioneer and founder; it is another thing to take for granted that if one is brought into membership with the historical society called the Church love of God and neighbor will automatically ensue.
It is evident that in dealing with this confusion we are attending to a subject that is important not only to theological education but to all the work of the churches. The confusion of a proximate, churchly, with the ultimate, divine, context and the attendant confusion of goals, lies at the heart of many dilemmas in which the Christian missionary enterprise is involved in its dealings with the adherents of other religions. It is close also to the problems of Protestantism in its encounters with the Roman Church. Having begun with protest against tendencies in the latter branch of Christianity to regard the Church as the representative of God it has often succumbed to the same tendency itself. In consequence it has found itself engaged in competition on the same ground its rival occupies and using weapons which its own principles deny to it. But if the confusion is serious in all other areas of Church action it is not the less serious in theological education. When it prevails such education necessarily becomes indoctrination in Christian principles rather than inquiry based on faith in God; or it is turned into training in methods for increasing the Church rather than for guiding men to love of God and neighbor. The confusion of the subject with the subject’s object is more than an epistemological fallacy.
A similar confusion to which Protestantism is even more prone ensues when the Bible is so made the center of theological education that the book takes the place of the God who speaks, and love of the book replaces devotion to the One who makes himself known with its aid. The problem of the relation of Scriptures to revelation, of the Word of God spoken through the prophets and incarnate in Jesus Christ to the living Word, is one that has greatly concerned theology especially since the days of the Reformation. It is of particular importance in contemporary discussion. But it is not necessary to await the outcome of a long debate before one arrives at the conclusion that whatever else is true about these relations, the identification of the Scriptures with God is an error, a denial of the content of the Scriptures themselves. To give final devotion to the book is to deny the final claim of God; to look for the mighty deeds of God only in the records of the past is to deny that he is the living God; to love the book as the source of strength and of salvation is to practice an idolatry that can bring only confusion into life. Without the Bible, as without the Church, Christians do not exist and cannot carry on their work; but it is one thing to recognize the indispensability of these means, another thing to make means into ends. There is much theological education that suffers from inadequate attention to the Biblical history of divine words and deeds; there is more that suffers from so close a concentration on these that the One to whom Scriptures bear witness is overshadowed by the witness. The lines between theological education and Bible study are hard to draw. Genuine Bible study is theological and genuine theology cannot succeed without Bible study. But there is a Biblicism that is not theological because it does not make God so much as Scriptures the object of its interest, and which depends for law and grace not on Father, Son and Holy Spirit but on Bible. This kind of Biblicism involves theological education as well as the churches in inner contradictions.
The most prevalent, the most deceptive and perhaps ultimately the most dangerous inconsistency to which churches and schools are subject in our time (perhaps in all the Christian centuries) arises from the substitution of Christology for theology, of the love of Jesus Christ for the love of God and of life in the community of Jesus Christ for life in the divine commonwealth. Once more we touch upon a problem with which theology in our time is deeply concerned, and which makes evident how much the reconstruction of theological education depends on the reconstruction of theology. Yet as in the case of Biblicism it is hardly necessary to await the outcome of many inquiries before concluding that substantial error involving many further confusions is present when the proposition that Jesus Christ is God is converted into the proposition that God is Jesus Christ. If the long story of the Trinitarian debate in Christendom is to be re-enacted in our present time its outcome may result in somewhat different formulations from those of the past, but scarcely in a substantive change of the affirmation that God is One and that however the doctrine of the Personae is stated it must still be affirmed that the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father and the Spirit cannot be equated with either. Yet in many churchly pronouncements the faith of Christians is stated as if their one God were Jesus Christ; as if Christ’s ministry of reconciliation to the Creator were of no importance; as if the Spirit proceeded only from the Son; as if the Christian Scriptures contained only the New Testament; as if the Old Testament were relevant only insofar as it contained prophecies pointing to Jesus Christ; as if Jesus Christ alone were man’s only hope. When this is done the faith of Christians is converted into a Christian religion for which Jesus Christ in isolation is the one object of devotion and in which his own testimony, his very character, his Sonship, his relation to the One with whom he is united, are denied.
This kind of Christian religion has many forms. It is present in popular forms that are similar to Eastern Bhakti and Amida Buddha faiths. It is present in a liberal cult of Jesus and of “the Jesus way of life”; present also in mystical forms as the cultivation of personal companionship with the divine Christ. Historically and theologically we are dealing here with devout yet aberrant forms of faith that are unable to illuminate the more profound problems of human existence, suffering, guilt and destiny or to answer questions about human history in its wholeness. They tend moreover to make of that faith a religion much like all other human religions instead of a relation to the Transcendent that goes beyond all our religions. This confusion of the proximate with the final introduces many internal conflicts into the work of the churches and of theological education. It leads directly to the effort to emphasize the uniqueness of the Christian religion, to define it as the “true” religion, to recommend it because of its originality, to exaggerate the differences between Christian and Jewish faith, to re-erect walls of division that Jesus Christ broke down, to exalt the followers of the one who humbled himself, to define the neighbor as fellow Christian. That the confusion has not led to greater spiritual disasters than have been encountered is doubtless due to the fact that Jesus Christ in his nature and witness is a constant corrective of the perversion of his worship.
Denominationalism not the denominations; ecclesiasticism not the churches; Biblicism not the Bible; Christism not Jesus Christ; these represent the chief present perversions and confusions in Church and theology. There are many other less deceptive, cruder substitutions of the proximate for the ultimate. But the ones described seem to set the great problems to faith and theology in our time. In them the need for a constant process of a radically monotheistic reformation comes to appearance.
If many theological schools today seem uncertain about the context in which they are working and about the purposes they serve this may be due in no small part to the confusions present in that contemporary Christianity itself in which they participate. These internal conflicts are doubtless rooted in the perennial human condition; there is no way to eliminate by any single movement of reformation the temptations and the failures from which the last rebirth alone can set us free. But unless the forms in which idolatries appear at any particular time are illuminated and criticized there is no prospect for ultimate health. The critique of education requires the critique of theology and the critique of theology involves the critique of the Church. Such self-criticism in seminary and Church is always part of that total repentance which is the counterpart of faith.