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What's Theological About a Theological School?

by David Kelsey

David Kelsey is Luther A. Weigle Professor of Theology at Yale University Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. His article is based on his convocation address in 1996 inaugurating a new academic year in which YDS, under the leadership of its new dean, Richard Wood, set out to develop new curriculum and programs recommended by a review committee, which was chaired by Kelsey. This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 5-12, 1997, pp. 131-132. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A school is "theological," I suggest, to the extent that everything done in its name has one overarching goal: more clearly to understand God and to understand everything in relation to God. This answer is almost embarrassingly obvious. By definition, a theological school is about theology in its broadest sense of the term: logos, speaking thoughtfully or thinking articulately and clearly about theos, God. Theological schools are communities engaged in a lot of practices which have the same ultimate goal: to increase our understanding of God.

It is conventional to distinguish between theological schools that focus on the education of ministers by attending to the "heart knowledge" of God that people have through their Christian experience, through their piety or spirituality, and theological schools that focus on the education of Christian intellectuals by attending to the "head knowledge" of God that people have through critical intellectual inquiry. This is a false dichotomy. To be sure, heart and mind can distort each other, but neither is whole without the other. Faithfulness to God involves loving God with the whole person—heart, soul and strength along with the mind.

Therefore the theological school must reject the dogma that religious engagement and critical inquiry are mutually exclusive. It must welcome religiously engaged scholarship that is also rigorously critical scholarship. Even though this conjunction makes academic life more complicated, there is no reason to have to choose between "rigorous scholarship" that is needed to educate future scholars and "religious engagement" that is needed to educate future ministers.

Jesus said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind: the idea of a distinctively intellectual love for God is an old idea in Judaism and Christianity. It reminds us that love for God is not only an emotion, a passion and a willed commitment to the Beloved, but also a fixed attentiveness on trying to understand the Beloved.

But in the biblical traditions, God cannot be understood directly. The God whom we seek to understand ever more truly is not a datum lying around waiting to be understood. Moreover, human beings cannot simply and directly perceive God, lest they die. According to the biblical witness, God can be known only when and where God gives Godself to be known. God communicates indirectly, and our efforts to understand God must move in a corresponding indirection. So we modify our answer: a school is truly theological to the extent that it is a community of persons seeking to understand God, and all else in relation to God, by studying other matters that are believed to lead to that understanding.

Those other matters are concrete. For Christians they center on the figure of Jesus Christ in the context of God’s covenant people Israel. But our access to Jesus in his context is itself indirect, mediated mostly by scripture’s diverse witnesses. And scripture’s witnesses are properly understood only in the context of the social, cultural and historical circumstances from which they come. Moreover, scripture’s witnesses never speak directly to us but are mediated by traditions of interpretation. And those traditions are not simply intellectual traditions but integral parts of complex practices of speech, thought, worship and morally responsible action. In these practices, communities of faith attempt to respond faithfully to the God who has been graciously faithful to the world.

In hopes of a deeper understanding of God, we study such subjects as Jesus Christ and Israel, scripture in tradition, the history of practices of interpretation of scripture and practices of response to God in worship, moral responsibility and institution building.

We study all these topics because they shape the practices that constitute the common life of contemporary communities seeking in faith to respond appropriately to God.

In order for it to be fruitful, our study must be disciplined. Our indirect road to deeper understanding of God must include our formation by several critical disciplines of inquiry—the disciplines of the philosopher and of the textual critic, of the historian and the scientist. Each of these studies is intellectually important and interesting in its own right, yet they are not in themselves theological studies. They become theological studies when we push beyond the demands of each critical discipline and its subject matter to ask: What does this inquiry suggest about how to understand God and how to understand our lives in relation to God? In a theological school, we cannot leave answering that question to one department or field. The question is the responsibility of every aspect of a theological school.

This approach collides with another piece of conventional wisdom about theological education. Many claim that the deepest challenge to American theological education is to figure out how to integrate theory and practice. This wisdom supposes that what makes theological schools theological is that they train the members of a profession called "the ministry." "Theological" is defined not by reference to God but by reference to one profession among many. Ministry, in turn, is defined as the set of capacities required to provide the services that the profession of ministry is expected to offer. Hence "truly professional" ministers must have skills in counseling, educating young children, educating adolescents, educating adults, preaching, conducting liturgy, building community, fund raising, and management of small nonprofit volunteer organizations.

According to this picture, theological schooling is a movement from generating abstract theory to applying theory in concrete practice. It is as though the underlying picture of theological schooling came from engineering: we receive theories from "pure" scientific research, generalize applied theory from parts or from implications of the "pure" theory, and then devise techniques and technologies governed by the applied theory to solve well-defined practical problems. In theological education it is assumed not only that psychology and other human sciences generate useful theory, but that historical studies and theological reflection on doctrine and ethics should yield theories that are relevant to ministry and can be applied in practice.

This picture of theological schooling leads to intractable problems. If it were correct, there would be so many bodies of relevant theory that one would not be able to learn the theories and test them critically in a three- or four-year course of study.

Let there be no misunderstanding. It is essential that leaders in communities of faith learn how to preach, how to counsel and how to manage an organization mostly staffed by volunteers. This critique is not a matter of the "academic" side of the school dumping on the "practical side." What makes a theological school theological is neither the cultivation of academic skills nor the cultivation of practical capacities. Learning to talk knowledgeably in an Augustinian or Cappadocian way, or in a Rahnerian or Barthian way, no more constitutes a theological education than does learning how to preach well, counsel or run a Sunday school. Teaching and learning these things make for truly theological schooling only when they are done in the service of a further end: learning so to love God with the mind as to come to understand God more deeply and more truly.

When we picture theological education as a movement from theory to the application of theory in practice, we focus on the bodies of theory as the ultimate subject matter to be studied. We focus not on matters that we believe will lead us to a deeper understanding of God, but on matters that we must master in order to become skilled in certain professional techniques. When that happens, the study of a theory takes on a life of its own, and the curriculum becomes a clutch of unrelated courses instead of an integral course of study. When theological schooling is conceived in this way, it is structurally impossible to integrate theory and practice because it is humanly impossible to integrate all the relevant bodies of theory.

However, if the subjects of study are concrete networks of human practices by which communities of faith attempt to respond to God faithfully, and if they are practices which mediate an understanding of God, then the movement of theological schooling is more like an engaged meditative gaze than it is like problem solving. It is more the circular movement of patient and appropriately disciplined attention toward complex "goings-on": What is going on in these communities of faith? What are they doing here? What are we doing here? What is God doing here? We move from these questions to insights and then test the insights by our further attention to what is going on.

Theological schooling is not movement from theory to the application of theory in practical techniques. Seeking to understand God by critically disciplined attention to those concrete realities through which God makes Godself known begins not with theory but with messy concrete realities. Theological schooling makes use of bodies of theory to keep itself self-critically honest, but it does not generate much theory. Instead, it seeks to generate the insight and wisdom that shape lives.


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