Chapter 3: “Berlin” in Early Twentieth-Century America
The “Berlin” type of excellent theological education, which 1 comprises the two distinct enterprises of Wissenschaft and “professional” education for ministry, came to dominate Protestant theological education in North America by the middle of the twentieth century, in large part in the wake of a series of major studies of theological education that were widely read and sometimes led to significant reforms. It is important to see the current debate over what is “theological” about theological education in the context of this longer intellectual history of reflection on theological schooling. The studies in question introduced material modifications into the “Berlin” type, and the modifications in turn have led to serious incoherences in widely accepted pictures of what theological education ought to be. Much of the current debate can be read as an effort to correct those incoherences. In order to see exactly what is at issue in the current debate, therefore, it will be important to be as clear as possible about the modifications of the “Berlin” type that appear to have led to problems now needing correction.
The modifications of the “Berlin” type, and the incoherences in theological education to which they seem to have led, come at four points. The “professional” education pole of the model has been reconceived. Where Schleiermacher had proposed a field of “practical theology” that identified the normative rules governing authentically Christian practices, especially ministerial practices, in a communal or ecclesial way, “practical theology” has now come to be conceived as training individuals to perform a heterogeneous set of ministerial functions. “Professional” education for ministerial leadership has been reconceived in a functionalist and individualistic way.
Correlatively, the array of forms of Wissenschaft that theological education embraces has been dramatically expanded. Where Schleiermacher had stressed historical and philosophical research, a much larger number of the social and human sciences have now been added. Far too many of them are included for students to be able to learn how to do any of them for themselves. One result of this is that the wissenschaftlich pole of theological education has become more an exercise in communicating to students the results of critical inquiry than an exercise teaching them to engage in critical inquiry themselves.
Third, the relation between Wissenschaft and “professional” education has been reconceived. Schleiermacher had proposed that educating people to engage in relevant critical inquiry could provide a foundation for their engaging in practical theology. The modifications in the two poles of the “Berlin” type, however, have left the relation between them much more vague. It is no longer clear what the movement is in theological education from critical inquiry to practical theology, from Wissenschaft to “professional” education for church leadership.
Finally, with one very important exception, these influential studies of theological education have not themselves been exercises in theological reflection. Neither the reasons given for making these modifications of the “Berlin” type nor the analysis of problems that seemed to require these modifications has taken the form of theological reflection. Mostly they have been prudential and pragmatic reflections.
W. R. Harper
In retrospect, W. R. Harper’s 1899 manifesto “Shall the Theological Curriculum Be Modified and How” was the harbinger of these changes in the “Berlin” type.1 When the University of Chicago was founded, a divinity school was deliberately located at its geographic and, hopefully, intellectual center. Thus, a theological school had been included in a university that was self-consciously defined as a research university. Harper, the university’s first president, intended his new theological school to be at once scholarly and professional in a way that could “meet the requirements of modern times.” To accomplish this the conventional curriculum of theological schools would need to be modified according to two principles: first, the curriculum should be modified to “accord with the assured results of modern psychology and pedagogy, as well as with the demands which have been made apparent by our common experience”; and second, the curriculum should be modified “to meet the demands suggested by the character of the field in which the student is to work . . . in other words . . . the present state of society”.
On the scholarly side these two principles suggested several things to Harper. A theological school ought to be “organized in connection with a university”. It ought to employ pedagogical methods characteristic of the research university, such as research seminars and freedom to elect courses (“freedom to learn/freedom to teach”).2 Harper agrees with Schleiermacher’s view that Scripture ought to be critically taught, always in its historical context, perhaps thereby accepting the view that biblical studies comprise one more subsection of “historical theology”. On the other hand, Harper’s major thesis regarding critical inquiry in a theological school is that it must bring the student “into touch with the modern spirit of science”. By this Harper means not merely the spirit of critical inquiry generally but specifically “modern psychology” (which he says “is as yet largely unknown” in theological schools), and even actual laboratory work in the physical sciences. In the midst of this theology forms the organizing center. Thus, already at the turn of the century an influential theological educator is calling for considerable pluralization of the sorts of critical inquiry a theological school is to embrace.
On the professional side Harper’s two principles suggested the following: “The day has come for a broadening of the meaning of the word minister, and for the cultivation of specialism in the ministry, as well as in medicine, in law, and in teaching”. Harper lists as distinct “specialisms” — each of which should have its own curricular track — preaching, pastoral work, teaching, administration, medicine (on analogy with medical missionaries), and music. Each of these requires practical training in “theological clinics” and in supervised field experience. Here it is already taken for granted that “professional” practice is to be understood in a functionalist way, and that the bodies of theory that must inform this practice come from the human sciences and not from Schleiermacher’s “philosophical theology.”
Harper’s essay reflects the energetic optimism of the best of turn-of-the-century progressivism. It celebrates not only American society’s “spirit of science” but also its “democratic spirit,” confident that the combination of scientific research and democratic methods could overcome any problems — in this case the possibility that “mainline” Protestantism might lose its cultural hegemony in American society. Harper is quite open that that is-his central interest:
The condition of the churches, both rural and urban, is not upon the whole encouraging. Ministers of the better class are not satisfied to accept the rural churches; and yet these same ministers are not strong enough, or sufficiently prepared, to meet the demands of many city churches.
His naive use of class differences to identify excellence (“Ministers of the better class are not satisfied to accept the rural churches”) and his explicit call for theological schools to train persons to minister specifically to the rich suggest that this interest in theology, which is otherwise so thoroughly underemployed in Harper’s proposed reform of theological schooling, is vulnerable to ideological misuse as a “cover” that at once obscures and legitimates an underlying concern to secure the churches’ social status.
Harper’s essay may not itself have had much direct impact on American theological schools apart from the University of Chicago Divinity School, but his essay does symbolize modifications in Schleiermacher’s picture of a professional school within a research university that were considerably developed in a later series of major studies of theological education, studies which did have great impact on theological schools through the next half century. Comparison of these studies brings into relief subtle but historically influential shifts in the meaning of “professional” (as in “theological schools are professional schools”), in the sorts of research deemed important to “professional” ministry, and in the ways in which research functions in professional schooling.
Robert L. Kelly and William Adams Brown
The first two of these studies were published roughly a decade apart: Robert L. Kelly’s Theological Education in America in 1924 and William Adams Brown and Mark A. May’s four-volume study The Education of American Ministers in 1935.3 A major purpose of both studies was fact-finding. They collected and published otherwise unavailable comparative information about Protestant theological schools’ student bodies, including their educational backgrounds, programs of study, finances, and governance, and also about these schools’ faculty, including their educational backgrounds, teaching methods, religious life, etc. However, each study was also charged with recommending changes based on the information gathered. It is the character of these studies’ recommendations — and, just as revealing, the sorts of arguments made in support of the recommendations — that exhibit the changing shape of the “Berlin” model of excellence for theological schooling.
One overriding plea was made by both studies — namely, that theological schooling needs to have more rigorous academic standards appropriate to a much more clearly defined professional education. “It is a fair question,” Kelly dryly observed, “whether the seminaries, as a group of schools, are centers of intellectual and ethical power.”4 “Many seminaries,” he pointed out, “could scarcely qualify as educational institutions since they neither speak the language nor use the methods of modern education”. Warning the seminaries against complacency, he points out that “the churches are demanding many new types of workers” who, he seems to suggest, may well be supplied not by the seminaries but by “Bible schools and religious training schools,” the “recent growth” of which means that they “now enroll as many students as all the seminaries”. Similarly, Brown begins his reflections on the implications of his study’s fact-finding by pointing to one statistic with alarm:
An analysis of the 1926 Religious Census figures for seventeen of the largest white Protestant denominations in the United States, shows that two out of five of all the ministers of these denominations were graduates neither of college nor of theological seminary, while only one in three was a graduate of both. One need not exaggerate the importance of purely academic training in a profession in which personal qualities count for so much as in the ministry to feel that a situation like this must cause serious concern.5
Kelly’s principal recommendation toward correcting this situation (and fending off the competition of the “Bible schools and religious training schools”?) is that theological schools accept common standards. That will involve formulating accepted “definitions of various types of institutions and of phases of work…. The definition, as a working hypothesis, is a most efficient means of educational advancement; sound definitions set forth attainable educational goals” (Kelly, 220).
Brown repeatedly celebrates the advantages of theological schooling that is academically rigorous..6 Perhaps going beyond Kelly, he seems implicitly to urge that one of the standards should be that theological schooling is by definition graduate schooling, presupposing that its students have already completed an undergraduate degree. Following up on Kelly’s plea that the standards and definitions of excellence in theological education “be agreed upon by the seminaries themselves, working not as now largely in isolation but in cooperation with other educational agencies” (Kelly, 220), Brown urged a decade after Kelly that a “Council of Seminaries” be formed, among the responsibilities of which would be the formulating and policing of standards (cf Brown, 222-26).
The historical influence of these two studies has resulted in the formation of just such a council. Over time it has developed into the present Association of Theological Schools. The creature of the theological schools themselves, it is above all their accrediting agency. It is the vehicle by which they are able to do what Kelly said was needed: define themselves and police their adherence to their own standards of excellence in schooling.
The historical importance of these two studies is not limited to their generating a sense of urgency about the founding of such a council, however. Beyond that, they legitimated a particular model of excellence in theological schooling that deeply formed the ethos of the world of theological schools. It is something like a background conventional wisdom shaping debates about standards for theological schooling. It is a modification of the picture of excellent theological schooling rooted in Schleiermacher’s rationale for a school of theology in the University of Berlin. The modifications they legitimated have been fateful. We can see this by looking closely at what Kelly and Brown mean by “professional” and how they relate their understanding of “professional” to critical, orderly, disciplined inquiry.
In both studies “professional” seems principally to connote “esteem” and “competence.” Infusing both of these meanings is a background anxiety that the education of Protestant ministers has not kept up with radical developments in knowledge nor with changes in educational standards and procedures in the twentieth century, and thus that the ministry may not “hold its own with the leaders of the other professions” (Brown, 4) and might slip from its traditional parity in esteem with law and medicine. Esteem, it seems to be supposed, follows from competence.
But competence in what? It is remarkable that neither study contains any sustained theological reflection on that question. Both studies simply proceed from this basic assumption: theological schools are defined by the task of educating ministers for the churches. Accordingly, if we want to know what the relevant competencies are for the ministry, we must ask the churches what they expect in their ministers.7
Here, in company with W. R. Harper, Kelly and Brown depart from Schleiermacher’s understanding of “professional.” Schleiermacher had defined law, medicine, and ministry as “professions” by reference to the leadership each gives to practices that are indispensable to the well-being of society as a whole. With regard to Protestant Christian ministry, that might make sense when Protestant Christianity is the nation’s established religion; but in twentieth-century America it is not. The practices for which religious leadership needs to have competencies can therefore only be specified by the average expressed expectations of the individual persons who voluntarily assemble to form a church. Approached in this way, the competencies required by ministry are defined not theologically but functionally. They are defined by the roles church members expect their ministers to play in their lives.
This is largely implicit in Kelly’s assumptions and method (but c£ Kelly, 223). It is explicit in Brown. Brown identifies five such roles — teacher, preacher/evangelist, worship leader, pastor, and administrator (Brown, 21) — and acknowledges the necessity for specialization in one of them (60). However, in contrast to Harper, he is dubious about the wisdom of requiring students to specialize early in their education (61). Brown sharpens the functionalism of this view of “professional” by the utilitarian criteria he adopts to measure competence: ‘‘efficiency,’’ “esteem,” and success in ministry.
Here the character of Brown’s argument that theological schools ought to adopt higher academic standards is particularly revealing. It is precisely measures of efficiency, success, and local esteem — that is, measures of competence in fulfilling certain functions in persons’ lives — that prove the importance of academically demanding theological schooling:
Judged by all these measures of testing, the result seems conclusive. In terms of the size of the church, those men who have had both a college and a seminary training provide a ministry which is from 40 to 75 per cent. more effective than that furnished by ministers who have had neither. The internal organization of churches served by such ministers proves on the whole superior to that of churches manned by untrained ministers. While the results reached by a study of the minister’s social activities and community service leads to the same conclusion.
Higher standards of academic work in theological schooling pay off in ministry. The argument for high academic standards appeals to practical utility, not to theological considerations concerning ministry.
Accordingly, both Kelly and Brown recommend the introduction into theological schools of types of schooling that will directly develop those skills that students need in order to fulfill the functions of ministry. They call for increased use of case study teaching methods and of the practicum, for more attention to pressing social issues, for more deliberate globalization of the context of teaching, and for more care to teach students and not simply to teach subject matters.8
At the same time they both clearly call for increased stress on Wissenschaft in theological schooling. What is less clear is how this is understood to be related to the schooling in applicable skills that is required by their functionalist understanding of “professional”; thus the farther their approach in excellence is followed, the deeper theological schools are driven into internal incoherence and fragmentation. The call for increase of Wissenschaft is clear in Kelly. He laments that “there are evidences that goodness rather than intelligence is often held up as an end of theological teaching” and that “with rare exceptions the seminaries are not conspicuous as centers of scholarly pursuits” (Kelly, 235). He characterizes research as the “‘nervous system of the university’ stimulating every part of it,” and he calls for seminaries to become “repositories of the latest and most accurate data upon which educational, social and industrial as well as religious programs for the present day may be based” (222-23). Kelly notes that only a few theological schools “make the claim that their institutions are committed to the scientific procedure” (215). Raising no objection to the already fragmented curriculum, Kelly implicitly urges that, in addition to all of the various existing disciplines, others be added from the social and psychological sciences. Moreover, he calls explicitly for the inclusion of laboratory sciences (229).
Not only is no thought given to how to unify all of this into a single coherent course of study, but no attention is given to how anything more than a rudimentary introduction can be given to so many different research disciplines. What is called for in the classroom here is not research but reports of research done elsewhere. It is difficult to see how teaching in this context could really be an exercise in the shared research that should characterize teaching and learning according to the “Berlin” model. Perhaps Kelly’s one comment about this is his suggestion that theological schooling find “a method of popularizing . . . without resorting to the sensational” (227). The suggestion would have appalled Schleiermacher.
Brown stresses excellence in the “classical academic” areas far more than does Kelly. It is not clear, however, whether Brown’s constant stress on high academic expectations simply assumes the canons of critical, orderly, disciplined inquiry that the research university model had made commonplace in the 1930s in American graduate education outside of theological schools, or whether he is rather calling for theological school teachers who are very learned but are not necessarily themselves engaged in original research.
Brown focuses far more than Kelly does on the structure and unity of a theological school’s curriculum. He seems to think that the problem of fragmentation in the course of study can be overcome with relative ease. According to Brown, underlying the diversity of academic disciplines is a set of “basic philosophical and historical questions which constitute the presupposition of all effective ministerial work” (Brown, 61). He organizes these questions using a version of Schleiermacher’s threefold curricular structure, dividing this structure into what he calls three “fields”: historical studies (including study of the Bible), interpretation of Christianity (including theological, sociological, and psychological interpretations), and “the work of Christianity in the present” (122). These “fields” are not just academic “disciplines,” nor are they exclusively research specializations. They include several disciplines and specializations (128). Brown calls for more cross-disciplinary teaching and thinks that this structure of fields will make that easier to do (140). To help further overcome fragmentation of the course of study, he proposes that some new way of measuring movement through the course of study be adopted to replace the “semester hour” or “term hour,” which tends to atomize the curriculum. Perhaps, he suggests, student achievement can be measured by way of comprehensive examinations or by reference to what is expected of the student (130).
It may be that Brown can be so sanguine about overcoming the fragmenting effects of disciplinary diversity because the national scholarly organizations that institutionalize the various academic guilds today exercised less political power in the 1930s over scholars’ standing with peers, mobility from school to school, and promotion to tenure. In any case it is striking that this proposal lacks any rationale that determines which disciplines ought to be included within the course of study based on a theological understanding of the nature and purpose of the church, the nature of ministry, or even the nature of theology itself broadly construed. Instead, the proposal appears simply to rearrange pieces inherited from the tradition according to the various ways in which they bear on students’ acquiring the level of skill they need in order to fulfill the functions of ministry with “professional” competence. As with Kelly’s recommendations, the rhetoric of this proposal honors Wissenschaft in theological schooling, but the proposal’s structure gives schooling in critical, systematic, disciplined inquiry no role to play in the “training” of religious “professionals.”
This widening gap between critical inquiry and “professional training” of clergy makes more acute the constant threat of ideological captivity of theological schooling. (Kelly is unusual in warning theological schools of this danger; see Kelly, 230.) There are, of course, no structures or procedures that can be devised to guarantee that a school’s interest in its social and cultural privileges will not bias its education, legitimate those privileges religiously, and then subtly but systematically obscure the bias.
One possible check on this tendency is rigorous critical examination of the forms of speech and action in which the school is training its students. But even that possibility of ideology critique is weakened when education in critical inquiry is effectively disassociated from education in “professional” roles and functions. Their uncritical acceptance of a functionalist and individualistic picture of “professional” ministry leaves both Kelly and Brown vulnerable on this point. The “functions” for which theological schools are to prepare future clergy are determined by the expectations of the membership of “mainline” white Protestant churches, and in general that membership expects ministerial leadership to be “successful” and “efficient” (Brown, 55) in helping them to preserve their social status and cultural roles in a nation that is entering a future marked by unprecedented urbanization, technological change, and massive social planning (Kelly, 230-31).
The insistence that theological education must keep students in touch with current intellectual and cultural developments is, of course, Kelly’s and Brown’s recapitulation of the “Berlin” model’s contention that excellent education must engage the public world. As we have noted, the possibility that clergy might fail to develop these skills is reflected in fears that poorly schooled ministers will slip from their social parity with lawyers and physicians and become indistinguishable from graduates of Bible colleges. By the same token, the quality of theological schools is to be measured by the degree to which they are capable of keeping their students in touch with those changes. Brown, for example, is confident that “progress” in theological schooling will come through the national influence of a few elite schools (cf. Brown, 5). “Elite” status for both Brown and Kelly correlates with a school’s uncritical appropriation of the nation’s “democratic spirit” (cf. Kelly, 231), with its confidence in social progress (largely through education), technological advances, and skillful management. Elite theological schools would be able to “train” their students to fulfill their functions as ministers in just that spirit. Whatever the role of Wissenschaft might be in such schools, it would certainly be in no position to call that “spirit” into question.9
The legacy that these two enormously influential studies left to theological education in North America, then, has been thoroughly ambiguous. They effectively urged that theological education should have more rigorous academic standards appropriate to much more highly defined professional education. They framed their recommendations in the conventions of Schleiermacher’s rationale for the inclusion of theology as a “professional school” within the University of Berlin and thereby brought every theological school under the standards of that model. However, at the same time they legitimated a functionalist modification of the professional school model. That led to bifurcation of the model: Kelly and Brown urged 60th critical inquiry of a high order and training in “professional” roles and skills, but they could show no integral relation between the two. Furthermore, they called for a great increase in the sores of critical inquiry that are relevant, especially from the human sciences. The sheer number of types of critical inquiry guaranteed, on the Wissenschaft side, that no student could be taught to do any of them, which is precisely what the research university model calls for. And the sheer number of roles and functions deemed to constitute “ministry” guaranteed, on the professional side, that no student could be schooled to apply the inquiry to cases on his or her own. The obvious question is whether schooling on this modified “Berlin” model can educate either “pure” or “applied” theological inquirers.
That creates a great irony. Although it celebrates the sense of “rationality” associated with the Enlightenment and institutionalized by the research university, such theological schooling would not in fact cultivate that rationality in its students! Moreover, the functions for which students are to be prepared are largely socially defined and are divorced from critical inquiry that might help to check ideological captivity of accepted ministerial functions. Under the impact of this modification of the “Berlin” model, theological schooling tends to undergo a movement from pure academic research to applied academic research (both done at the hands of academic theologians) to popularization of the applied research (by theological school teachers) to repetitions of the popularizations by practitioners (the students).
H. Richard Niebuhr, Daniel Day Williams, and James M. Gustafson
The third and most recent major comprehensive study of Protestant theological schools, published in 1956 and 1957, was undertaken by the American Association of Theological Schools (now simply the Association of Theological Schools), funded by the Carnegie Foundation, and directed by H. Richard Niebuhr, Daniel Day Williams, and James M. Gustafson. The study was published in two volumes: The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, in which Niebuhr developed a theological account of ministry on the basis of a theological analysis of what the church is, and a report and interpretation of research prepared by the three investigators, The Advancement of Theological Education.10
Implicitly the study moves to counter the three sorts of change in Schleiermacher’s model of a wissenschaftlich “professional” school that we found in the Kelly and May-Brown studies: the abandonment of a specifically theological account of the subject matter of the Wissenschaft; the individualistic and functionalist understanding of “professional””; and a separation of Wissenschaft from professional training that leaves both incapable of internal critique of ideological differences.
It is, of course, important in noting the striking differences between the findings of this study and those of its predecessors to recall the enormous social and cultural changes that had taken place in the intervening twenty years. At the time of the May-Brown study there had been serious economic depression. The intervening years had seen World War II; the rise of the United States to “superpower” status as (in its own view) the guarantor of the security of the “free world,” a status underwritten by nuclear power and illustrated by the United States’ participation in a United Nations “police action” in Korea; and rapid economic growth and high prosperity. In addition, something like a religious revival seemed to be taking place, and the churches were fuller than they had been for decades.11 The study found that in general
there were four times as many genuinely graduate schools of theology in the United States and Canada in 1955 as there were in 1923 [the time of the Kelly study] and that such schools enroll almost eight times as many students as they did thirty-two years previously. Most of this increase in graduate work in theology has taken place since the time of the publication of the May-Brown report. 12
Absent now are the worries that graduate (i.e., post-baccalaureate) theological schools will fail to attract enough able students to meet the needs of increasingly urbanized and sophisticated churches: “While the increase in theological enrollment has not kept up with the increases in graduate school or college enrollment, nevertheless it has exceeded the rate of growth recorded in Protestant church membership” (11). Indeed, now the perceived problem in this regard is the need for an “institutionalization and refinement of admissions procedures” (183), coupled with a need to be skeptically cautious about the usefulness of psychological testing instruments (181), in the interest of selecting the most qualified and promising students and sparing the others frustration and wasted resources.
Absent too are the worries that graduate theological schooling on the “Berlin” model of excellence might be overwhelmed by schooling on the non-wissenschaflich model symbolized by Bible schools: “The evidence is that not less than 80 percent of the estimated total enrollment of theological students in the United States and Canada consists of college graduates,” compared with Brown and May’s finding in 1924 that only “44 per cent of seminary students had college degrees” (8-9).
Another sign of the flourishing of graduate professional theological schools was the discovery that about half of all such schools “had undertaken new construction or major renovation during the decade since the end of World War II”. The study points out that “conspicuous” among this building was an “interest in library improvement,” but it laments “the lack in school after school of sufficient seminar rooms, and, perhaps even more, . . . the failure of many schools to feel pressure at this point”. It is as though the resources needed to support the research called for by Wissenschaft were being attended to, but the resources needed for the peculiar sort of teaching and learning that Wissenschaft calls for were being ignored. Yet another sign of the flourishing of AATS-member graduate professional schools in the United States was the astonishing — from the vantage of the 1990s — statistic that despite the intervening economic depression they averaged three times as much endowment per student ($6,103) as all privately controlled academic institutions ($2,040), and more than ten times as much as publicly controlled institutions ($455).13
The Course of Study
In the study’s view, the central problems confronting theological schools in the mid-1950s had to do, not with students or resources or commitment to high academic standards, but with the course of study. Here it saw four problems: uncertainty about the ultimate “goal or end of theological education . . ., the overloading of the curriculum, the extension of requirements, and the loss of unity among so many specialized courses”. These problems resulted from two historical developments. On the one hand, theological schools have done precisely what the Kelly and May-Brown studies, and Harper before them, had urged. They have added course work in “non-theological” disciplines, especially psychology and sociology, and field-based “learning by doing” courses. On the other hand, “emphasis on the importance of the traditional disciplines of theological study in the biblical, church-historical and systematic fields has been reinforced after a period in which their values were frequently questioned”. Curricular overload was inevitable, and so was the consequent tendency to guarantee that every student be exposed to all of it by extending course requirements.
The authors of this study focus on the problem of the loss of unity in the course of study. For resolution of the problem they look, not to the recovery of a single subject matter whose inherent structure could unify a course of study, but rather to reformed teaching and differently trained faculty. In their final chapter, “The Line of Advance,” they find that
the greatest defect in theological education today is that it is too much an affair of piecemeal transmission of knowledge and skills, and that, in consequence, it offers too little challenge to the student to develop his own resources and to become an independent, lifelong inquirer, growing constantly while he is engaged in the work of the ministry.
Hence they conclude “that the key problem in theological education in the Protestantism of the United States and Canada is that of providing and maintaining the most able corps of teaching theologians and theological teachers possible”.
The study’s firm adherence to the “Berlin” model is especially clear here. By helping students to become self-educating, excellent teaching prepares them for ministry: the clergy paradigm for professional theological schooling is taken for granted. However, good teaching does not accomplish this by concentrating on “vocational training” in ministerial “needs and skills”: functionalist understandings of the profession are rejected. Rather, good teaching helps students to become self-educating by the traditional methods of Wissenschaft: “objective analysis, discovery, and interpretation” of various topics.
The study gives an eloquent picture of the “good teacher” on the “Berlin” model of excellence in theological schooling. Teaching needs to be reformed because too much of it is didactic, ingrown, and piecemeal. When “an inert mass of fact and idea . . . is handed in small pieces by the teacher to the student then the heart of intellectual inquiry is betrayed”. Instead of this didactic approach, excellent teaching calls for students and teachers together to work on subject matter so concentratedly that “the student sees the professor’s mind at work on a problem, grappling with its difficulties and seeking more light”, and through their joint venture learns how to engage in this sort of study for himself or herself. Echoes of Humboldt can be clearly distinguished here. Moreover, in its examination of problems of government in theological schools, the study continues in the tradition of the University of Berlin by voicing a powerful protest against patterns of school governance that “seem to have little confidence in the power of God to establish the victory of truth” and an eloquent plea for the freedom of inquiry that disciplined critical inquiry requires.
Second, theological teaching is ingrown when it fails to “enter into a dialogue with contemporary thought and culture. It is assumed without question that the traditional fourfold theological curriculum of Bible, history, systematic theology, and practical theology will be part of the subject matter to be studied.14 But like the Kelly and May-Brown studies, this study also insists that philosophy, psychology, and sociology “are essential to the full understanding of the Christian faith itself “. Indeed, it emphatically insists
that no theological faculty is complete until it includes some [scholars] who share the Christian outlook and faith and who are competent to explore scientific and cultural problems with the same rigor with which secular experts in those fields are trained.
Presumably because such changes help to meet this need, the study seems to approve the tendency it sees in theological schools to move toward closer affiliations with universities. “Professional” education for ministry must be conducted in the context of wissenschaftlich research.
Finally, theological teaching needs to be reformed when it has become piecemeal. It becomes piecemeal, the study holds, because it is done so individualistically. The remedy lies in increased collegiality and cooperation among the various specializations making up a faculty. The study does see a “general tendency . . . toward a greater emphasis on cooperation and the achievement of a genuine community within the faculty,” and it calls for the development of ways to further this trend. The picture of good teaching developed here to counter the fragmentation of theological schooling also tends to counter the previous two studies’ tendency to change the “Berlin” model of theological schooling by adopting a functionalist picture of “professional” schooling and an individualistic picture of the teaching proper to Wissenchaft.
Suitably reformed theological teaching will be able to hold together schooling in critical, disciplined research and schooling for professional ministry, but only indirectly. Nothing about the rigors of Wissenschaft logically implies the capacities for professional ministry. Nor, contrary to the “essence hunt,” is there some essential structure to theological knowledge that will unify theological schooling. To be sure, there are interconnections among the topics in the curriculum that must be traced. And the study does endorse a modified core curriculum. Nonetheless, unity in theological schooling finally lies not in its structure but in how it is done, the manner in which it is undertaken.
Good theological teaching will therefore engage in “objective analysis, discovery, and interpretation”, but always in the context of the Christian faith, so that the students discover that their own personal commitments are bound up with what they are studying. It will not only “continually be pushing students to examine the ultimate presuppositions with which they think” but will also keep a close relationship “between the formal structure of thought and concrete human problems” and between the subject matter and students’ vocational commitments. Finally, however, doing theological teaching in this manner rests on an act of faith:
It is difficult to say precisely how it is that our relationship to God can be the central theme of theological teaching while the process remains that of objective analysis, discovery, and interpretation. But such is the case when the teacher knows what he is about, for the most effective work is done by those who keep this ultimate dimension of their subject clear.
This brings us to the point at which this study differs decisively from previous studies of Protestant theological education. The authors of The Advancement of Theological Education are not so naive as to suppose that the fragmented theological course of study can be unified simply by increasing faculty collegiality. There is a deeper reason for fragmentation than simply American individualism, and that reason is a theological one in the strictest sense, an issue about God and about faithlessness to God. The underlying reason for the fragmentation of theological schooling is deep confusion of proximate with ultimate goals, a confusion of functional idolatry with radical faith, the remedy for which must be a kind of repentance. H. Richard Niebuhr explored this confusion in the first volume of the study, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry.
Accepting the “Berlin” model’s understanding of a theological school as a “graduate professional school,” Niebuhr pursues a basically simple line of questioning in The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry. He begins by asserting that what makes a professional school “professional” is its task of preparing religious leaders, ministers. But what is ministry? There is a great deal of confusion about that. Accepting with Schleiermacher that a professional school exists to prepare an “indispensable leadership,” Niebuhr assumes with Kelly and Brown that this is a leadership indispensable to the church but not, as Schleiermacher had it, to society as a whole. That is, the nature of ministry must be defined, not by an account of society’s needs, but by an account of the purposes of the church. And there is a great deal of confusion about that. Clarity about the nature of theological schooling depends on clarity about the nature of ministry; and clarity about ministry depends on clarity about the purpose of the church. And that is a theological question.
The basic question is how to understand God and God’s relation to the church and its ministry. Thus the doctrine of God is the subtext of Niebuhr’s book. The view of God that emerges in this book might be fittingly described as “radical prophetic monotheism.”15 God is the One beyond the many, “the Source and Center of all being, the Determiner of destiny, the Universal One” on whom we are “completely, absolutely dependent; who is the Mystery behind the mystery of human existence . . ., the One from whom death proceeds as well as life . . . who appears as God of wrath as well as God of love.”16 It is “apparently necessary” to understand this One in Trinitarian terms. What makes this monotheism “radical” is its insistence that God is beyond all the many, including the “many” through whom we apprehend God: Scripture, church, even Jesus Christ himself As the ground of our being and value, God alone is the proper Object of our ultimate loyalty and love. In actual practice we constantly confuse this ultimate Object of our loyalty and love with more proximate and relative objects. This monotheism is “prophetically” radical, then, in seeing God’s presence as a call to constant repentance and conversion from this idolatrous confusion of proximate and ultimate.
The church must be defined only by reference to God: “By Church, first of all, we mean the subjective pole of the objective rule of God…. It is the subject that apprehends its Object; that thinks the Other; worships and depends on It; imitates It perhaps; sometimes reflects It; but is always distinct from its Object”. The “subject” is marked by several polarities: it is at once community and institution, one and many, local and universal, protestant and catholic (i.e., finite “incarnation” of the infinite), and finds itself constantly in polarity with the world that is its companion before God. However, the church’s purpose is not defined by any of these, neither by community building nor by maintenance of institution, neither by promotion of denominational programs nor by world-inclusive mission, neither by prophetic action nor by symbolizing the holy in space and time, neither by protecting itself from the world nor by serving the world. Rather, the purpose of the church must be defined by reference to God: “the goal of the Church [is] the increase among men [and women] of the love of God and neighbor”. Confusion and conflict within the church concerning the church’s nature are intensified and even generated by substitution of proximate goals for this ultimate one.
More to our point, theological education is self-contradictory when it confuses “church, considered as a whole or in its essence, with the ultimate context of 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.
So too, theological schooling is thrown into self-contradiction “when the Bible is so made the center of theological education that the book takes the place of the God who speaks”. Above all, “the most prevalent, the most deceptive and perhaps ultimately the most dangerous inconsistency to which churches and schools are subject . . . arises from the substitution of Christology for theology, of the love of Jesus Christ for the love of God”. Niebuhr makes this point on the basis of his own emphatic christocentrism. The church may not be the only community directed toward God, but
its uniqueness lies in its particular relation to that reality, a relation inseparable from Jesus Christ . . . 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.
Nonetheless, that which is known only through and inseparably from Jesus Christ is precisely the One beyond the many, who ought not to be confused even with Jesus Christ. When that confusion does happen “the faith of Christians is converted into a Christian religion for which Jesus Christ in isolation is the one object of devotion”. In order for theological education to overcome its self-contradictions and recover unity it needs to repent its placing ultimate love and loyalty in these proximate purposes and convert to placing all its proximate goals within the context of faith in the One beyond the many.
Given this view of the purpose of the church, what is the purpose of its ministry? There is a good deal of confusion in the church about the nature of the ministry and therefore a good bit of confusion in theological schools’ pictures of what sort of leadership they are preparing. There are, of course, a number of activities involved in ministry: preaching, teaching, pastoral care, leading worship, management, etc. And these activities have been directed to various proximate goals: saving souls, curing guilty souls, reconciling estranged souls through sacraments, etc. Coherent pictures of the ministry have emerged in the past when one of the activities was selected as most important and was aimed at one proximate goal, while all the other activities were directed to that same goal, in subordination to the most important activity. Thus, for example, for Gregory the Great the most important activity was the pastoral government of souls, aimed at helping them to avoid sin and to attain everlasting life; all other ministerial activities — such as preaching, celebrating the sacraments, and church administration — were directed toward that same goal in subordination to pastoral governance. “If there is confusion in the conception of the ministry today,” Niebuhr declared, “that confusion appears at both points — in inability to define what the most important activity of the ministry is and in uncertainty about the proximate end toward which all its activities are directed”.
Despite this confusion, Niebuhr claimed that there was “an emerging new conception of the ministry” in the churches. “For want of a better phrase we may name it the conception of the minister as a pastoral director, though the name is of little importance”. The most important activity of the minister as pastoral director is “edification” of a community, and its proximate goal is “to bring into being a people of God who as a Church will serve the [ultimate] purpose of the Church in the local community and the world” — that is, the increase of love for God and neighbor. Preaching, administration of the sacraments, teaching, and so forth are all done to the same proximate end: the nurture of a community that is a biblical, priestly, and teaching people. Thus, in this emerging view of ministry, Niebuhr wrote, “the Church is becoming the minister and its ‘minister’ is its servant, directing it in its service” (83). The internal confusion of graduate professional theological schooling could be resolved, at least in part, by letting this coherent picture of ministry as pastoral direction select and organize the specific capacities the school seeks to develop in its students.
The phrase “pastoral director” is easily misconstrued. The adjective “pastoral” is crucially important. Used alone, “director” might suggest that Niebuhr is assimilating the church to voluntary community organizations like the YMCA, and its ministers to the chief executives of such organizations. In that case, the minister’s most important activity would be to devise and manage attractive programs aimed at the proximate goal of increased membership. However, Niebuhr says explicitly that the minister is a pastoral director, not a pastoral “ruler”, which was Gregory’s metaphor. Perhaps — we may surmise — Niebuhr’s pastoral director is analogous to a “spiritual director”; one doesn’t have spiritual “rulers.” On the other hand, the minister is described as a pastoral director rather than a spiritual director. That is, the minister’s direction is aimed not solely at persons’ life of prayer but more broadly at their common public ministry to increase love in the world, not only for God, but also for all neighbors.
Now, “if a common sense of Church is nascent among the many members of one body and if a relatively clear idea is emerging of the one service to be rendered by ministers in their many duties, then some common idea of a theological school ought also to be possible.” Of course, such an idea could not hope to be a blueprint for every theological school, but only “a kind of general prescription of the elements every blueprint would need to provide for” (106). The “common idea” of a theological school is that it should be an “intellectual center of the Church’s life.”17 Three features of Niebuhr’s development of this theme are noteworthy.
First, Niebuhr’s proposal clearly reflects the “Berlin” model. A theological school
is charged with a double function. On the one hand it is that place or occasion where the Church exercises its intellectual love of God and neighbor; on the other hand it is the community that serves the Church’s other activities by bringing reflection and criticism to bear on worship, preaching, teaching and the care of souls.
Thus, on the one hand, it shares the church’s ultimate purpose, increase of love for God and neighbor, but in the intellectual mode. In exercising “intellectual love of God and neighbor,” the theological school “compares, abstracts, relates; by these means it seeks coherence in the manifoldness of human experience, unified understanding of the objects or the Other in that experience. It also undertakes to correct through criticism.” It engages in Wissenschaft. It is “pure science, disinterested as all pure science is disinterested”. It is graduate education.
On the other hand, it is also professional education. It prepares leadership for the churches by equipping persons with capacities to pursue the proximate and ultimate goals of ministry in a reflective and self-critical manner. This twofold function inevitably creates tensions, a situation not unique to theological schools. Niebuhr notes that in having this double function theological schools simply reflect the double way in which all schools are related to the societies in which they work. However, he is emphatic in his judgment that theological schools are less bothered by this tension than they ought to be because they have chosen “to devote themselves primarily to the second,” the professional school function. “They tend in consequence to neglect the first function of a theological school — the exercise of the intellectual love of God and neighbor”. While firmly endorsing the “Berlin” model of excellence in theological education, Niebuhr is clearly wishing polemically to weight the Wissenschaft side of that model and to counter a perceived tendency to put too much weight on the “professional” side.
Second, Niebuhr proposes to ground the integral unity of a school’s course of study in the social dynamics of the school as a community, a “collegium or colleagueship” (117). It is striking that he does not ground that unity immediately in the ministerial duties for which the school prepares leadership insofar as these duties fall into a coherent pattern around a pastoral director’s proximate goal of nurturing community. It is just as striking that he does not ground that unity in the structure of a theological school’s object.
Like any Wissenschaft, a theological school’s inquiries do have a determinate object: God. However, God is not known in isolation. Hence “the complex object of theological study always has the three aspects of God in relation to man, of men in relation to God, and of men-before-God in relation to each other.” Accordingly “the method of such study consists of intensive participation in the life of the Biblical, historical and contemporary churches in their encounters with God and interactions with the ‘world’”. Note the word churches. Given that, when God is the object of inquiry, the object is complex in this threefold way, the subject matter of inquiry is a set of “churches in their encounters with God and interactions with the ‘world.’” This requires the mastery and use of the disciplines of the biblical scholar and the historian and the study of psychological, social, and cultural realities. But the focus of scholarly attention is on the churches, communities whose ultimate purpose is to increase love of God and neighbor.
Nonetheless, for Niebuhr not even this singleness of object and focus is the ground of the unity of a theological school’s course of study. Rather, “the course of study is a course of constant conversation with members of a wide circle of men who live in community with God and with neighbors-before-God”. Indeed, it is precisely this communication that makes it a school: “Every genuine school is such a society in which the movement of communication runs back and forth among the three — the teacher, the student and the common object”. Note what Niebuhr appears to do here. He seems to ground the unity of a theological course of study in the coherence or integral unity of the dynamics that make a school — any type of school — a genuine school. These dynamics are discovered social-psychologically rather than theologically. It is not anything about theos but something about the dynamics of a distinctive type of society that is the basis of unity in a theological course of study.
This, in turn, has implications for the type of excellence in teachers that theological schools should seek. When we recall that the “common object” is itself threefold, this unifying “movement of communication” turns out to be an even more complex dynamic. It is not simply a movement among student, common object, and teachers taken one by one. Rather, it is a movement among students (themselves persons-before-God), the threefold common object (God-in-relation-to-persons; persons-in-relation-to-God; persons-before-God-in-relation-to-each-other), and teachers who are each particularly proficient in the disciplines needed for critical inquiry into one or another of the threefold aspects of the common object. Indeed, as we saw, the analysis in The Advancement of Theological Education concluded that it is particularly urgent that there be cross-disciplinary conversation among teachers. It is the entire dynamic of that conversation that makes the school’s course of study an integral whole.
The third noteworthy feature of a theological school as an “intellectual center of the Church’s life” is that its intellectual work is at once disinterestedly theoretical and driven by a passionate interest. According to the “Berlin” model, excellent theological schooling requires two foci: education for professional ministerial leadership and critical theological inquiry. Niebuhr insists that both poles are thorough-goingly theoretical: “Whether its function as the exercise of the intellectual love of God and man or as the illumination of other church activities is stressed, in either case the work of the school is theoretical”. Like all pure science, this theoretical work is disinterested in the sense of “seeking to put aside all extraneous, private and personal interests while it concentrates on its objects for their own sake only”.
At the same time, like all inquiry, it is guided by an interest. A theological school’s theoretical work is guided by the interest called “love of God and neighbor-before-God.” This distinguishes the theoretical work of a theological school from all other forms of critical inquiry, even those that use the same disciplines in regard to what appear to be the same objects of inquiry. It distinguishes theological inquiry from “all intellectual activity guided by love of self or love of neighbor-without-God”. Furthermore, it distinguishes theological inquiry from intellectual activities that may be motivated by love of God and neighbor but that abstract their objects from their God-relatedness, “focusing attention on some part or aspect of creation without making them objects of devotion”.
These two aspects of a theological school’s theoretical work — its necessary disinterestedness and its necessary guidance by interest in God — do not conflict with each other but rather require each other. For Niebuhr, that fact establishes the relationship between theological schools and the church. Church and theological school have the same ultimate purpose: the increase of love for God intellectually — that is, to know God. This purpose requires disinterested, self-critical theoretical inquiry. Hence, education to prepare leadership for the church’s task of increasing love for God and neighbor must consist in disinterested theoretical activity. Such a school, clearly, is “not Church in its wholeness. It is not even the intellect of the Church”. It is simply an intellectual center, not even the intellectual center, of the church. Intellectual love is, after all, only one aspect of love for God.
On the other hand, for Niebuhr, disinterested theoretical inquiry to understand God and neighbors in their God-relatedness requires guidance by love for God in order to remain disinterested. Such inquiry needs an intellectual love for God to identify, correct for, and displace love of self and neighbor-as-related-to-self. Furthermore, intellectual love for God requires the larger context of a whole person’s wholehearted love for God to sustain it precisely as intellectual love. Love for God with the mind, separated from love for God with the rest of the self, quickly ceases to be genuinely intellectual love. Hence, schooling to prepare leadership for the church must “be carried on in the context of the Church’s whole life; hence those whose special duty it is to do this work must participate in that life if they are to discharge their peculiar duty”.
Thus Niebuhr moves to correct the problem in the revisions of the “Berlin” model of excellent theological schooling that we noted in the earlier reflections of Harper, Kelly, and Brown on North American Protestant theological education. He undertakes the task they abandoned of providing a specifically theological account of the subject matter of theological schooling’s Wissenschaft: God in relation to neighbor; neighbor in relation to God; neighbors related to each other before God. He rejects individualistic and functionalist analyses of the ministry for which theological schools prepare leadership. He replaces those analyses with a theological analysis that is both teleological (ministry’s proximate goal is to nurture church communities) and ecclesiological (the church’s ultimate purpose is to increase love for God and neighbor). And he addresses the separation of wissenschaftlich theory and practical professional training by declaring both to be thoroughly theoretical and hence not separated by a difference in kind.
However, three problems haunt Niebuhr’s proposal. The first has to do with the adequacy of Niebuhr’s theological account of the ministry. Niebuhr’s “emerging view” of the minister seems to be open to and internally unprotected from the serious threat of being taken captive ideologically as a religious sanction for a certain kind of North American middle-class life and its values. At issue is the authority by which ministry is done. Niebuhr contends that, according to the newly emerging picture of the ministry, just as “institutional authority was central in the priest’s office and Scriptural in the preacher’s so communal authority becomes of greatest importance to the pastoral director”. This does not rule out institutional authority; but it does mean that institutional authority will be exercised in a way that empowers and does not try to displace the community’s capacity to govern its own life. Nor does this rule out biblical authority; but it does mean that the “minister who is obedient to Scripture and represents its authority does so as one who is interpreting the mind of the community-before-God”.
But is communal authority, “the mind of the community-before-God,” sufficiently transcendent of the community itself to stand effectively in judgment on the community’s own tendencies toward ideological complicities? Does the picture of minister as pastoral director give the minister any ground on which to stand, when such a stance is necessary, as witness to the community’s ultimate purpose to increase love for God and neighbor, or to stand over against the community’s idolatrous preoccupation with its proximate purpose to nurture community? If it is granted that there is no theological or institutional way to guarantee that church and ministry will not fall into ideological captivity, should not a theological picture of ministry more powerfully include ways in which the ultimate purpose of ministry can and must set it in tension with the concrete actuality of a particular church community at a particular time?
The bearing of this objection on this view of theological education is immediate. If the integral unity of a graduate professional theological school’s course of study depends in part on the internal coherence and adequacy of a picture of the nature and purposes of ministry, then such a serious internal incoherence in the governing picture of ministry threatens the unity of the course of study.
That brings us to a second problem that haunts Niebuhr’s revised version of the “Berlin” model of excellent theological schooling. When Niebuhr analyzes the causes of contradictions in theological schools’ courses of study, he locates those causes in confusions in the pictures they accepted of the ministry for which they were preparing leadership. If there were a clear and coherent theological picture of the nature and purpose of ministry toward which the course of study was ordered, then, he argues, the course of study itself would become an integral whole. Fortunately, just such a picture was, he thought, then emerging: the minister as pastoral director. But when he himself addresses the issue of unity in the course of his study, he seems to ground this unity, not in this emerging picture of ministry, but in a “conversation” among students, objects of study, and faculty across disciplines. This coheres with and gives a theoretical basis for the argument Niebuhr and his fellow researchers made in The Advancement of Theological Education that cross-disciplinary conversation among faculty is in particular key to the recovery of unity in the course of study. In their study the authors claim to see signs of an emerging trend toward increased interdisciplinary conversation and teaching. However, whatever may have been the case about new understandings of church and ministry emerging in the mid-1950s, this trend turned out to be very short-lived. And this raises the concern that Niebuhr’s approach was entirely too optimistic about what would be required to restore unity to theological schools’ course of study.
It may well be that, in addition to requiring a coherent picture of ministry, recovery of unity in a course of study requires profound changes in the way in which critical inquiry is conducted in disciplined ways within theological schools. In any case, two developments since Niebuhr’s study make it entirely unlikely that such changes will come about simply through academics’ goodwill toward one another, interest in cross-disciplinary conversation, or openness to interdisciplinary teaching. They are sociological developments in the academic profession, in contradistinction to the ministry as a profession.
One of these developments is the burgeoning of departments of religious studies in secular colleges and universities, some with doctoral programs. Every subject matter and discipline found in the three “academic” sections of theological schools’ fourfold curricula are taught in religious studies departments too. Faculty in those fields who are members of departments of religious studies receive their doctoral education in the same graduate schools as do faculty in theological schools, and faculty move back and forth between the two contexts.
The other development is the increased importance of national associations of scholars in religious studies — for example, the Society of Biblical Literature, the American Academy of Religion, and the American Society for Church History. These associations, rather than faculty members’ own theological schools, are the institutions by which professional academic status and recognition are awarded and acknowledged. These organizations also provide the communications network through which schools find candidates suitable for faculty positions and through which scholars seeking new positions find schools with appropriate openings. Faculty mobility depends heavily on these organizations.
Between these two developments, theological school faculties are now far more strongly professionalized than they were when Niebuhr wrote, and the institutional framework and reference point for this professionalization lies entirely outside theological schools. This works against the idea that the faculties of theological schools have more in common with one another in a cross-disciplinary way than they have in common with colleagues in the same disciplines outside theological schools. Members of a discipline, wherever they teach, have been trained in the same graduate schools, hold themselves accountable to the same standards of academic excellence, and attend to the same agenda of issues.
It is increasingly difficult to assign any actual content to Niebuhr’s distinction between intellectual work that is done in theological schools, guided by love of God and attending to its objects in their God-relatedness, and intellectual work that is either not guided by love of God or, when it is, always attends to its object in abstraction from its God-relatedness, as must be done by definition in a secular college or university. Just what difference would that distinction make to what one studies and how one researches it, to what one teaches and how one teaches it?
The increased professionalization of academic life in religious studies also works against serious faculty investment of time and energy in interdisciplinary teaching and research. The peer groups that define the issues to be explored, that award academic status, that provide access to power in the academy, and that make mobility possible are no longer comprised of one’s colleagues across the disciplines within one academic institution; rather, one’s peer group is comprised of one’s colleagues in the same “field” or “subfield” nationally. Neither status nor power is generated by intellectual work at the edges or across the boundaries of one’s field. In such a context, the sort of collegiality on which Niebuhr rests the hope of new unity in theological schools’ course of study seems unlikely to develop without deep rearrangements of institutionalized power in both theological schools and the several academic specialties nationally.
Of course, Niebuhr did not expect sheer geniality to restore the unity of the course of study. His final appeal is to his doctrine of God. Disunity comes because of faculty confusion of proximate with ultimate goals; it is a result of idolatry. Unity may rest on collegiality created by conversation across disciplines, but that collegiality depends on repentance and conversion from idolatry to faith in the One beyond the many. The question is whether the requisite repentance and conversion do not need to be institutional and structural within the schools themselves in addition to being personal and individual among the members of the faculty.
The third question about Niebuhr’s proposal has to do with his way of holding together the academic and the professional aspects of theological schooling. Earlier North American modifications of the “Berlin” model equated “academic” as Wissenschaft with “theory” and equated “professional” with “practice,” and then opposed “theory” and “practice” so sharply that it was difficult to see how they could enrich or correct one another. Niebuhr, as we saw, attempts to overcome this opposition by declaring both Wissenschaft and professional education to be thoroughly theoretical. If there is something problematic about this, it is not the claim that both poles of graduate professional theological schooling are theoretical, but rather the concept of “theory” that is invoked.
Niebuhr recognizes that his claim requires some further explanation of the relation between theory and practice. He rejects an “intellectualist” picture according to which theory precedes action and “the movement is from . . . thought to voluntary deeds.” And he rejects a “pragmatic” picture according to which theory follows action “as an affair of rationalizations, essentially irrelevant to practice”. Rather, theory and practice are intertwined, but neither is the source or end of the other: “Reflection is never the first action, though in personal and communal life we can never go back to a moment in which action has been unmodified by reflection”. This is true of both the academic and the professional poles of theological schooling; it is true both of study of its complex object and of reflection on and critique of churchly actions. Hence “theoretical activity can be only provisionally and partly separated from the Church’s total action”. However, the school does not itself attempt to embrace the total action. The school is constituted by theoretical activity only and is thus dependent on the more inclusive activity of the church. Those who engage in theological schooling, students and faculty, must themselves be engaged in these more inclusive activities also, not because we learn by doing, but because “we do not learn the meaning of deeds without doing“.
This is consistent with and underwrites the insistence in The Advancement of Theological Education that the goal of theological schooling is to help students become self-educating. A distinctive pattern of movement in theological schooling is suggested here. We have already seen several such patterns: from source, usually Scripture, to appropriation (on the older model of paideia); from source to application in life and ministry (on a later model of paideia); from source through theory to application in ministerial practice (on the “Berlin” model); and from source through theory to popularization to ministerial application (on a revised “Berlin” model).
In Niebuhr the pattern seems to be from theory to appropriation of theory. Theological schooling is by definition a theoretical matter regarding both God and churchly activities. Students are no more “trained” in the doing of church activities than they are simply “informed” about the results of research. Rather, they are schooled in how to study anything critically and theoretically so that they appropriate the relevant disciplines for themselves. That way they can continue to be self-educating for the rest of their lives, including but not limited to their professional lives as ministers. Of course, they need to have experience in relevant kinds of “doing,” whether in personal living or in church activities, in order to have at hand the “doing” whose meaning is to be examined critically and theoretically. But providing that experience in “doing” is not constitutive of the school; what is constitutive of the school is theoretical reflection on the meaning of the “doing” — when it is done to the end of capacitating students to continue in the same ways for the rest of their lives.
This view is worrisome because it is finally unclear about just how theory is intertwined with practice in such a way that neither is the source or end of the other. Is the intertwining a dialectical relation? Is it just an “alongsidedness”? If it is simply an alongsidedness, then theory and practice are inherently independent of one another, even though in actual fact we may never find one without the other. In that case, the distinction Niebuhr draws between the theoretical intellectual activity that constitutes a theological school and the larger activities of the church is cogent. But the confidence that theological schooling that consists entirely of theoretical work done to educate persons to be self-educating will somehow consequently shape and empower ministry seems to be simply an act of faith. No reasons are given for believing that such schooling in theoretical work is likely to have such consequences. Rather, one is simply given the observation that theoretical reflection and practical action have very often gone together. Hope for the best in the future! When part of the things one hopes for are resources for vigilant and acute identification and critique of ideological captivity both in church actions and in theological schooling, this sounds more like an invitation to genial optimism than like a grounded hope.
On the other hand, if the relation between theory and practice is genuinely a dialectical one, we have strong reason for believing that education in theoretical work to equip students to be self-educating will result in focused, self-critical, and self-nurturing ministry. For then theory by definition presupposes some practice to be explained and criticized, and it issues in revised practice; and practice by definition presupposes some theory by which to assess the present situation calling for action, and it issues in theorizing about what happened and what to do next. If this is the case, however, then Niebuhr’s restriction of theological schooling to theoretical work seems artificial and inappropriately abstract. If theory and practice are intertwined in a dialectical way, then to engage in one is inescapably to engage in the other also, as an inherent part of education. So this dialectical view is also problematic, and it fails to allay our worries about Niebuhr’s vague relation of theory to practice.
Wissenschaft and Excellence in Theological Schooling
Taken together, these studies of theological schooling at once exhibit and partly explain the firm grip of the “Berlin” model of excellence in education on American Protestant theological schools and the problems it creates for them. Unlike the Kelly and May-Brown studies, there is little evidence that the Niebuhr-Williams-Gustafson study had long-lasting influence on North American theological schooling. It is as though the study brought to explicit articulation the theological underpinnings of the practice of theological schooling then at its peak. It is probable that the views articulated in the study are still the theological views that mainline Protestant theological educators are most likely to offer as a theological account of their enterprise. Perhaps a retrospective look from a greater historical perspective will show that the Niebuhr report reflects the end of a phenomenon of which William Rainey Harper’s study marked the beginning: the influence on Protestant theological schooling of major themes in the “progressivist era” in American cultural history. We do not yet have enough historical distance to judge such matters. What we do have through the Niebuhr-Williams-Gustafson study, as through its predecessors, is clear evidence of the power of the “Berlin” Wissenschaft-cum-professional school model of excellence in schooling over North American theological schools.
In particular, these studies of the “Berlin” model of excellence suggest several morals and cautions about any effort to analyze and understand a theological school:
• that the “Berlin” model’s bipolar picture of excellent theological schooling, both wissenschaftlich and aimed at preparing leadership for “professional ministry,” is a deeply institutionalized reality in American Protestant theological schools and cannot be changed or left behind easily;
• that the institutionalization of the “Berlin” model in theological schooling rewards an individualistic picture of teaching and research and works against collegial and crossdisciplinary teaching and research;
• that Wissenschaft — that is, critical, disciplined, theoretical thinking — is a powerful weapon against (though no guarantee of escape from) ideological distortions in efforts to understand;
• that in the context of theological schooling Wissenschaft is a powerful tool against the religious idolatry of ideological captivity and distortion, both in efforts to understand theology’s object and in the practice of ministry;
• that Wissenschaft and education for “professional” ministry tend to be increasingly alienated from each other the more professional ministry is understood in an individualistic and functionalist manner, and that only Wissenschaft is understood to be “theoretical”;
· and finally, that it is particularly important to be critically attentive to the concepts of “theory” and “practice” that are employed by any proposal seeking to understand a theological school, and that it is also important to pay attention to the proposal’s assumptions about human personhood.
This model does not cohere easily with the paideia model of excellent theological schooling. Until recently there has been no discussion of theological schooling in which the strengths and problems of the two models were explicitly engaged with each other. And yet theological schools in North America are inescapably driven to try to meet standards set both by paideia and by the research university as models of excellence in schooling. As we have seen, the standards associated with paideia impose themselves simply because the picture of Christianity as itself a kind of paideia is historically so deeply rooted. The standards associated with the research university are imposed, if in no other way, by the decision to meet the accepted standards for accreditation of graduate professional schools. These include the criteria that the academic program be at a “postgraduate” level — that is, that students have completed an undergraduate degree; that there be a certain level of library holdings; that faculty members themselves hold graduate “research” degrees; that there be provisions protecting academic freedom such as academic tenure; and so forth. The reward system for faculty further underscores research university values, since promotion and the possibility of moving to a faculty appointment in another institution tend to rest on criteria rooted in the “guild” of fellow researchers in the same field of inquiry rather than in the common life of any given school. Both the accrediting of the school and the self-identity of the scholar are sustained by traffic coming down the Berlin Turnpike.
The two models sit together very uneasily. The tension between them is never resolved, and no theological school escapes struggles created by the tension between them. There can only be various sorts of negotiated truces between the two incommensurate sets of criteria of excellence in schooling.
There is something like a spectrum of these truces. At either end are theological schools that come close to being pure instances of one model or the other. Thus there are schools in which paideia’s focus on students’ understanding of God plays almost no role whatever, neither in shaping what is taught and how, nor in the conventions governing how faculty and students interrelate, how faculty are selected, and how the school manages its common life. In contrast, there are also schools in which, aside from meeting minimal standards for accreditation, no role is given to the research university’s emphasis on original contributions to knowledge, freedom of learning, and freedom to research.
More common are schools in which some compromise has been worked out between the two models. It may be an arrangement that factors out different aspects of the school’s common life to the reign of each model of excellent schooling: the research university model may reign for faculty, for example, or for faculty in certain fields (say, church history, or biblical studies) but not in others (say, practical theology), while paideia reigns as the model for students, or only for students with a declared vocation to ordained ministry (so that other students aspiring to graduate school are free to attempt to meet standards set by the research university model); or research university values may be celebrated in relation to the school’s official “academic” program, including both classroom expectations and the selection and rewarding of faculty, while the school’s extracurricular life is shaped by commitments coming from the model provided by paideia so that, for example, common worship is made central to their common life and a high premium is placed on the school being a residential community. Clearly, the possible ways to parcel out the common life of a theological school between the two models are endless in number.
The current discussion of what’s theological about theological education can be read as the first discussion of theological schooling in which both models of excellence are explicitly engaged. Seen in one way, each of the participants in the discussion attempts to work out some sort of compromise between the two models. Seen in another way, some participants can be read as adopting one of the models and attempting to incorporate the best features of the other, but on terms dictated by the privileged model; some try to do the reverse. That raises the question whether there might be some third possible picture of excellence altogether. It is to that current discussion that we turn in the next chapter.
1. Harper, “Shall the Theological Curriculum Be Modified and How,” The American Journal of Theology 3, 1 (Jan. 1899): 45-66; subsequent citations will be made parenthetically in the text.
2. Cf. Harper, pp. 61 and 59.
3. Kelly, Theological Education in America (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1924); Brown and May, The Education of American Ministers, 4 vols. (New York: The Institute of Social and Religious
4. Kelly, p. 236; subsequent citations will be made parenthetically in the text.
5. Brown, Ministerial Education in America, vol. 1 of Brown and May’s Education of American Ministers, p. 4; subsequent citations will be made parenthetically in the text.
6. Cf Brown, chap. 3.
7. Cf. Kelly, pp. 61, 210; Brown, p. 74, chap. 2 passim.
8. Cf. Kelly, pp. 215-30; Brown, pp. 59-62, 95-98, 183-217.
9. It gives pause to recall that Reinhold Niebuhr, who would later bring precisely that “spirit” into question, was already teaching on William Adams Brown’s faculty at Union Theological Seminary when the Brown-May study was published in 1935!
10. Niebuhr, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry (New York: Harper & Row, 1956); Niebuhr, Williams. and Gustafson, The Advancement of Theological Education (New York: Harper & Row, 1957).
11. Cf. Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955).
12. Niebuhr, Williams, and Gustafson; subsequent citations will be made parenthetically in the text.
13. Niebuhr, Williams, and Gustafson.
14. Cf. Niebuhr, Williams, and Gustafson, chap. 5, “The Course of Study,’’ esp. pp. 78-90.
15. The allusion, of course, is to Niebuhr’s Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 196O), which provides the larger framework within which The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry is best understood.
16. Niebuhr, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, subsequent citations will be made parenthetically in the text.
17. Niebuhr, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, p. 107; emphasis omitted. Note that Niebuhr did not say that a theological school should be the center of the church. That function does not define a theological school, according to Niebuhr.