Can the Nonconservative Seminaries Help the Churches?

by Edward Farley

When this article was written, Edward Farley was Buffington Professor of Theology Emeritus at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. His most recent books are Deep Symbols and Divine Empathy.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 6, 1974, pp. 126-138. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Theological schools can provide solid and effective professional education only if it is clear to the students that their school studies and experiences are pertinent to their future ministry.

Religious journalists have been calling attention to the plight of the "liberal" -- i.e., nonconservative -- theological seminaries. Like almost all institutions of higher education, these schools, whether university-related or denominational, are buffeted by inflation, a decrease of public support, and a drop in student enrollment. A number of considerations may explain the enrollment problem: a near oversupply of ministers in the denominations that feed these schools as well as the fact that the denominations themselves have arrived at a plateau of growth; the current popularity of religious conservatism; and, finally, the transfer of the "seeker" type of theological student to other environments. How temporary and faddish these developments are is difficult to assess. But the nonconservative theological schools are caught in a deeper problem, one that is rooted in their recent history and represents both their glory and their failure.

Malaise and Antidotes

A symptom of that problem is the malaise of students in these schools today. While this malaise may draw support from the spirit of depression that pervades campuses across the nation, it is no new phenomenon in the seminaries. There, something seems to have been wrong for a generation. Students have had little complaint about the academic quality of their education, yet for the most part their total experience in their three years of professional study has not been positive. Looking back now, alumni of these schools uniformly express dissatisfaction about what did and did not happen in their seminary years.

Aware of such dysphoria, theological schools have long been working overtime to remedy it. In the past 25 years they have undertaken endless self-diagnoses which prompted cycles of curriculum change, the development of unwieldy student-faculty-staff bureaucracies and modes of governance, and all sorts of societal field experimentation. Each of these moves reflected the dominant theological and cultural temper of the time. The existentialist mood of the post-World War II period predisposed these schools to see the problem as one of making the faith relevant to the individual student’s needs. interests and situation. It seems that Barth and church theology tend to create among "academically" weighted schools feelings of guilt which push them to give more attention to the field of church and ministry. The social activist movements of those years also contributed to the seminaries’ guilty conscience, so that they made at least token attempts to become sources of societal change as well as exemplifications of equity and justice.

Yet students’ discontent continues and perhaps deepens -- mainly, I think, because they can sense no obvious connection between their theological studies and their anticipated career, between what they are doing in the seminary and what they expect to be doing in the ministry. In schools of law and medicine, an unimaginative pedagogy and an intolerable governing structure may evoke protest, but at least the students sense some relation between the study of anatomy or tax structures and being a physician or a lawyer. In the seminary the once obvious rationale for Bible, theology and history is no longer visible. "Rationale" refers not to specific aspects of the seminary program but to the very raison d’etre of the shape of that program; in other words, to what used to be called "Theological Encyclopedia." That means the arrangement of the areas of theological study according to some coherent principle. Typically, it is founded both in the nature of the Christian faith and in the church and the ministry. The current division of theological studies into Bible, history, theology, ethics and practical theology reflects a very old Theological Encyclopedia, but one whose foundations in a theology of the Word, of teaching office, of church and ministry, if not discredited, are at least invisible to present-day students -- probably because many of them simply do not share the old consensus about the church which produced this Theological Encyclopedia.

This problem is compounded in the university-related divinity schools. Their student bodies represent diverse religious and denominational traditions, none of which functions as the reigning source of the views about church and ministry that are behind the curriculum. In addition, many of these arrive at the school in some stage of alienation from their own tradition, and some have little rootage in any religious faith. Hence professional studies serve to introduce them to the religious tradition which is presupposed by the inherited Theological Encyclopedia. Furthermore, these schools deal simultaneously with the accumulated tradition (gathered up into courses in Bible, theology, history, etc.) and with the critique of that tradition. Thus the student is subjected to a confusing amalgam of tradition and criticism, which also undercuts the tradition, as a rationale for the whole package of study.

Technical Solutions to the Rescue

Most of our nonconservative theological schools have responded to time symptoms of these problems by way of technical analyses and solutions. To be sure, their approach has not been "technical" in the narrow sense of giving exclusive attention to such questions as enrollment, funding and school reorganization. Generally speaking, the seminaries have consciously addressed the interrelation between what they do and the future career of the graduate. Nevertheless, their way of handling this interrelation has been primarily technical; that is, they have focused on the skills needed to perform discrete ministerial functions (counseling, management, community organization, etc.) while neglecting the issues of the nature of the faith, its communal dimension, and the church.

In most cases, however, the technical approach to theological education is hidden by sophisticated rhetoric about the need for relating the church to the world and for reinterpreting the faith in modern social and psychological terms. Behind such talk is the conviction that we know what we are doing in theology, Bible and history, and that the problem is to stage occasions on which the student learns to work with people "applying" the "input" part of his education to life. One result of this technical approach is that the classical theological disciplines are dead weights in the seminary curriculum. A great many students simply cannot see what a critical exegesis of a Scripture passage has to do with their future career in the church.

In short, a technical approach tends to dominate whenever the teaching of future ministers is severed from a Theological Encyclopedia informed by a theology of the church, the laity, the ministry and the Christian faith itself. The fact is that insofar as they permit technical considerations to set their agenda the seminaries reflect the larger ecclesiastical consensus. Students, lay people and ministers all seem to view the ministry in technical terms. The Protestant laity and many of the Protestant clergy think of the successful minister as one who is able to stimulate the statistical, organizational and economic growth of a local congregation; and many students and ministers themselves want skills sufficient to help them address a sick society and alter its institutions.

Problems Beneath the Technical Problems

The technical emphasis in recent theological education has given us better pedagogies, opened up the larger society as a field for ministry, redistributed authority and power in the schools, and added new and important areas of study. Even so, the fundamental problem of the seminaries is nontechnical. It has to do not so much with pedagogies, strategies and skills as with the question of what it means to be a church and a minister in the church; and this question in turn forces us to consider the very nature of Christian existence individually and socially.

Any descriptive account of the generic features of life in the church discloses a community which reflects a past, a tradition, and possesses an accumulated social memory (if not a corporate consciousness) along with attendant communal structures and language. At the same time the church is a community of the present, so that the inherited tradition and the social and biographical situation of the moment are always enmeshed with each other, Insofar as the tradition side retains the "gospel," it has a certain primacy over the contemporaneous side; that is, Christ should transform culture. This universal dipolar feature of the church founds a dipolar ministry which always operates on the boundary between the tradition and the "now," and must be knowledgeable of and responsible to both. Whatever special ministry he or she is engaged in, the minister always works at the intersection of tradition and situation, of historic faith and contemporary world. Both the Word-oriented churches and the sacrament-oriented churches are specific aspects of this intersection.

The most prominent feature of the church situation today is the tensions and contradictions between past pieties and present modes of life and thought. These include specific tensions between actual modern life styles and antiquated religious imagery, between congregation-oriented lay people and world. or society-oriented clerics, between socially conservative, individualistically oriented churches and socially liberal, socially oriented schools, students and denominational leaders. The resulting alienations affect the church by eliminating its essential dipolarity of faith and world -- that intersection which is the focal point of ministry. The "liberal" theological schools, while they have in some sense addressed these alienations, have approached them technically in that they simply developed more or less autonomous disciplines to affect the church rather than ways of preparing the minister to function at the intersection of a historic faith and an ailing Christendom. Thus they have failed to solve their deepest problem. The failure is a theological one which can be understood only against the background of the distinctive heritage of these schools: the "progress," so to speak, that they represent.

A Case for Theological Progress

It may seem audacious to speak of "progress" in theological schools in a day of repristination, failure of nerve, and laments about the poverty of liberalism. Yet, thanks to several centuries of theological, biblical and historical gains, the nonconservative schools have created an intellectual and theological milieu of their own. On their campuses a consensus obtains -- a scheme of convictions about human beings, history, method; the Bible, morality, etc. -- which, largely unformulated, is tacitly shared by all faculty members. They take it for granted that, for example, social justice is an intrinsic dimension of the gospel, that merely juridical or legalistic interpretations of God’s relation to man and the world are inadequate, that relativity attends all human decision-making.

I call this consensus a "scheme" because it is characterized by a unity that seems to have something to do with a "historical" way of interpreting the Christian faith -- "historical" not in the more restricted sense of historical method or historical criticism, but in the sense of historical consciousness; that is, a way of reflecting on things which has been some centuries in developing and which de-absolutizes religious interpretation by thinking in Contexts: sociological, political, psychological, historical. Negatively, historical consciousness represents a repudiation of all attempts to reduce God, man or nature to mere laws or structures. As such it tends to be opposed to legalistic ethics, to heteronomous formulations of God’s relation to man, to absolutistic theisms. Positively, historical consciousness represents a profound rediscovery of Scripture and its message, together with sensitivity to the social aspects of evil and injustice and a new appreciation of the human in its worldly, bodily, corporate and self-transcending dimensions. This consensus is given specific expression inn seminary areas of study: Bible, history, ethics, theology, church and ministry.

Clearly, this consensus does not amount to a creed or confession. Measured against past Protestant and Catholic confessions, it looks doctrinally thin. Nevertheless, it does represent a way of interpreting, reflecting on and living the Christian faith. And for those theological students who first knew the faith only in authoritarian, biblicistic or pietistic forms, study of it by way of historical consciousness proves a liberating experience.

Failure and Elitism

So much for the progress and possible future contribution of the nonconservative seminaries. Yet, as I said above, they have failed. Symptomatic of their failure is the fact that they have never yet -- not after several centuries of changing approaches to the study and teaching of the Christian faith -- produced a new Theological Encyclopedia. They still retain the old Protestant trivium of Bible, history and theology, to which they tack ever more courses in practical theology. Which is to say that they have yet to allow the gains of historical consciousness to govern what they do. But this is not their decisive failure.

If historical consciousness has in fact brought about a liberating way of studying and living the faith, surely it should not he kept from the churches. The Reformation’s new focus on the Bible, its redefinition of authority and its message of justification by faith addressed the whole church, not a school constituency. Contrariwise, the slow development of historical modes of thought and the understanding of the gospel in their light has been primarily a school phenomenon. Not laypeople but generations of seminary students have been on the receiving end of those modes. Seminarians study exegesis but not in such a way as to teach exegesis to laypeople. They carry on complex ethical reflection but not so as to introduce church members to a de-absolutized Christian piety.

The consequences of this unintended elitism are many. The positive aspects of historical interpretation tend to end on graduation day. Even the use of historical-critical methods of biblical interpretation in preaching is rare among graduates of nonconservative schools. Like the students, Protestant lay. people and congregations are blown to and fro by the winds of secularization, but unlike the students they have little or no experience of historical consciousness applied to faith, hence must live in a changed world by means of antiquated pieties and timeworn concepts of authority, morality and the Bible. A virtual schizophrenia between faith and world becomes normative for church members, and denial of reality the very air they breathe. Meanwhile, the layperson seems as vulnerable as ever to religious demagoguery, to the ideological manipulation of religion, to fundamentalistic "proofs" of this and that, to absolutistic ethics.

In my opinion, historical consciousness affects the interpretation of the Christian faith in a more far-reaching way than the Reformation affected Catholic Christianity. It is therefore something of an anomaly that such liberating and transforming modes of, interpretation remain an elitist phenomenon. In short, the failure of the nonconservative seminaries is that the interpretation of the faith by historical consciousness was never translated into the practice of ministry -- because it was never taught in such a way as to be translated.

Can Historical Consciousness Transform?

Instead of teaching their own positive convictions, which can help overcome a dehumanizing orthodoxy and so transform the life of the church, these schools seem to think that they will transform society and church by offering this or that course in urban studies, by relocating the setting of education to the places "where people live," and by increased field experiences. To go beyond these primarily technical approaches, the schools must do at least two things, which require new self-appraisals.

First, they must do whatever is necessary to consolidate the real "gains" represented by historical consciousness. It should be clear at this point that these gains are not "liberal theology" or "liberalism" but deep, underlying ways of reflecting on history, man and nature which include both methodologies (e.g., historical criticism, phenomenology) and content (e.g., man as a self-transcending being who resists all heteronomous authority).

Second, the seminaries need to address the pedagogical problem which arises once historical consciousness informs school self-consciousness. What would be involved in teaching seminary students -- assuming that the seminary’s goal is its graduates’ success in importing historical consciousness to Christian congregations? Nowadays a socially liberal student, outraged over the injustices of our society and the legitimating role the churches play in them, charges into a pastorate armed with an activist gospel. Soon he experiences resistance, frustration and career crisis. He has forgotten that his own social views were formed over many years, and were given religious and intellectual confirmation by what we are calling the historical approach to the Christian faith. The issue is partly a strategic one, a question of an agenda for a particular ministry. But more important is that the discrete region of Christian social action has foundations in a certain way of interpreting the Christian faith, a way which is native to theological schools and for the most part foreign to Protestant congregations.

In a nutshell, theological schools can provide solid and effective professional education only if it is clear to the students that their school studies and experiences are pertinent to their future ministry. There is widespread doubt about this today. Stressing the relevance of a given course or discipline to the modern world, putting more emphasis on psychological and sociological studies, or locating students in field situations, while important, will not solve the problem. All three of these strategies presuppose what in fact is not there; namely, the conviction and confidence on the part of: the student about the way the Christian faith can and should work in the life of a congregation. To solve its central problem as a professional school, the seminary must find some way to unify what it has to say to the churches, must make this clear to the student without letting the message get lost among dispersed areas of study, and must devise effective pedagogies aimed finally at the life of the church.