Making Theology Central in Theological Education

by Ronald F. Thiemann

Dr. Thiemann is dean of Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 4-11, 1987 date, pps. 106-108. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Theology, rightly conceived, is a communal, formative and critical activity that can serve both as the integrative factor in seminary teaching, and as a key link to the rest of the university and the wider society.

Theology has been in a state of disarray since the passing of the theological giants of the so-called neo-orthodox movement. The discipline has been characterized by a dizzying diversity, and practitioners of the craft have too often been attracted to fleeting intellectual fads. There has been little agreement among theologians about the sources, norms and critical standards of the discipline. Methodological disputes have flourished, but no consensus has yet emerged from among the contending parties. In light of this confusing situation it is no surprise that theology continues to play a marginal role in American intellectual life and that theologians have little influence on debates about our public affairs. Indeed, it appears that theologians exert a diminishing influence within the life of American churches as well.

If theology is to regain its status as a significant intellectual and practical activity within the church, the university and our broader cultural and public life, then seminaries and divinity schools will have to give renewed attention to this venerable but threatened discipline. The restoration of theology would greatly enrich the cultural, intellectual and spiritual life of our society, and it would help overcome the gap between the academic and the ministerial, between the scholarly and the pastoral, that so bedevils American theological education.

Theological education has traditionally been organized around a fourfold curriculum which makes a familiar distinction between theory and practice. In this curriculum, three disciplines represent the theoretical side of the dichotomy (biblical studies, church history and systematic theology), while practical theology represents the task-oriented program providing the requisite skills for those preparing for the professional ministry.

The theory/practice distinction has dominated theological curricula since the founding of independent divinity schools and seminaries in the early 19th century. Prior to that time, theological training was simply an integral part of university education. University students were instructed in classical languages, rhetoric and grammar, and natural philosophy—studies that prepared the students for a better grasp of God’s revelation within Scripture and the natural world.

By the beginning of the 19th century, however, natural philosophy had given way to the natural sciences and a new understanding of critical reason emerged, one that did not so easily support the faith and piety that undergirded studies in divinity. By the time separate programs of graduate ministerial studies were established, it was not self-evident that theological training ought to be a fundamental aspect of a general university education. Training in divinity was no longer essential to those studies constituting a liberal education but had become the course of studies appropriate for those entering into a specific profession, the Christian ministry. Thus, precisely as the ministry gained professional status, the intellectual justification for theological education became blurred.

The fourfold curriculum offered a means of relating theological education both to theoretical developments within cognate fields of the university, and to the practical demands of ministry. But as questions of faith, commitment and value became increasingly alien to "objective" critical studies, the internal connection between theology and practice was severed. The so-called theoretical fields have developed into discreet disciplines with their own professional societies and journals; and the technical, specialized research emerging from these disciplines has little or no relevance for ministry in religious communities. At the same time, practical studies, unleashed from their theoretical counterparts, have become in their own way technical and specialized, focusing, on the technical skills of communication or counseling or administration. Insights for these courses are often borrowed from the related professional fields of communications or psychology or business administration, and their theological and religious aims and rationale have begun to disappear. The final consequence of the separation of theory and practice is the detheologizing of divinity school and seminary education.

It is scarcely surprising, then, that seminary and divinity school students complain that practical courses lack intellectual rigor and that scholarly courses seem irrelevant to their vocational and professional goals. The classical fourfold curriculum creates an enormous gap between the academic and practical aspects of a ministerial curriculum. Just as important, this standard curriculum eliminates theology from the core of both practical and academic studies. Theology as a theoretical discipline appears disconnected from the skills needed to be a successful parish pastor. Theology as an inquiry emerging from faith and piety appears to lack the marks of an impartial and critical discipline.

In order to address the problem of integration, we need to reassess the capacity of theology to unify theory and practice, critical studies and pastoral concerns. In particular we need to address three closely related issues. First, in what sense is seminary and divinity school education genuinely theological? Second, how is theology, rightly understood, a critical discipline, and how might it serve to unite the various aspects of our curricula? And finally, what do we mean by ministerial studies, and how are such courses to be integrated into a critical theological education?

We can begin addressing these issues by articulating a broader and more inclusive understanding of theology. We need to recover a sense of theology as a generic term, describing not simply one discipline among others but the common task in which we are all engaged. whether in biblical studies, constructive theology or comparative religion. Theology, rightly conceived, is a communal, formative and critical activity that can serve both as the integrative factor in seminary teaching, and as a key link to the rest of the university and the wider society. That is a rather sweeping claim, so let me highlight each of the elements within this definition.

Theology is a communal activity. Theology has traditionally been understood as the product of religious communities. Yet the notion of community that has undergirded that view has been narrow and exclusive. Among modern theologians the community of faith has been essentially defined as the community of elite, male, Anglo-European clerics. The effects of this narrow definition of community have been manifold. Women and people of color have been effectively eliminated from the conversation that serves to define the nature and goals of the community. Theological discourse has become the language of elites, with little relevance either for church congregations or for the broader secularized society. The marginalization of theology within our culture has been aided and abetted by this narrow definition of the community of faith.

During the past two decades, various liberation movements have demanded greater inclusiveness within religious communities. These movements have met with partial success, and religious communities have certainly become far more diverse. Nonetheless, traditional patterns of domination and subjugation continue to reign within religious and educational institutions, and so the situation of traditionally disadvantaged groups remains precarious. That is why the kind of community that exists at theological institutions is so important. The tradition of open and unbiased inquiry should be extended to include voices not previously heard in academic and theological conversations.

One important benefit of living in a diverse and occasionally cacophonous environment is that it guards us against a false ideal of community. Too often we think a community means a group of people who share a common history and a set of well-defined beliefs and aims. While members of a community must have some aims in common, their diversity and disagreements are signs that they are a vibrant community. True communities are, in philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s useful phrase, "historically extended, socially embodied arguments"—arguments precisely about the aims and goods the community should seek. Theological thinking within such a community is inescapably temporal. Theology is a thoroughly historical discipline, which does its work in the midst of communities and their traditions. Such a theology acknowledges the diversity of faith’s expressions and the pluralistic environment within which that faith must operate. It sees temporality as a crucial dimension of faith, and it accepts the culturally conditioned character of all human knowledge (including the knowledge of faith) as a sign that the transcendent God has become incarnate in human history and culture. Theology, then, is the discourse by which the arguments of these diverse perspectives are voiced.

Communities of the sort I am describing are constituted by the practices in which their people are engaged. A divinity school or seminary community is defined by its practices in a double sense. First, it is engaged directly in the practices constitutive of theological education—the transmittal of knowledge, the development of the capacities required for critical inquiry, the formation of skills for ministry, and the nurturing of the virtues of honesty and integrity that are essential to serious academic work. Second, it is influenced indirectly by those practices characteristic of the broad range of ministries for which students are preparing. The requirements of ministry are constantly shifting, and we must seek to respond as best we can to those changing demands.

Theology is a formative activity. Theology is a peculiar form of cognitive reflection, for its goal is not simply the expansion of knowledge. Theology has a quite practical goal—what I would call the formation of religious identity.

It is a commonplace to observe that human identity is formed within the matrix of roles and structures that constitute a society. Our identities are formed as we identify with the various social forms that bestow meaning on a society and its participants. Religious communities have traditionally played an important role in identity formation, a role sufficiently central to socialization in Western cultures that Kant and Schleiermacher could still argue, in the 19th century, for the social necessity of religion.

More recently, religious communities have exercised only marginal influence in the broader socialization process and have had a decreasing impact on the formation of their own members. There are surely multiple causes of this phenomenon, but one major factor has been the separation of theology from the communities and practices that form religious identity and character. It is not surprising that communities cut off from the critical and reflective guidance of theology have become aimless and uncertain. Nor is it surprising that theology, cut off from communities of practice, has become the esoteric discourse of academic elites.

Theology must once again become an activity forming religious identity and character. For it to play that role, theologians must be engaged in reflection upon religious practices. Some of those practices will be located within religious communities, while others may be broadly distributed within society. Theologians need to attend both to the practices of congregations—worship, preaching and counseling, for example—and to societal practices that have religious and moral dimensions—political discourse, public-policy decisions, behavior in the professions. By analyzing the structures and language of those practices, theologians can identify the basic convictions that operate within them and seek to subject them to analysis and criticism. In so doing, theologians can then seek to contribute to the reformation of those practices and of the human identities shaped within them. In that activity, theology can make a direct contribution to the ways in which human beings actually live out their lives.

The demands of contemporary ministry are exceedingly complex, and seminaries and divinity schools cannot possibly equip students with every practical skill they will need. They can, however, provide a broad-based theological education that will help develop the qualities of mind and character that clergy will need in an increasingly complex and pluralistic world. They can equip students with the intellectual and personal flexibility they will require for the challenges they will face.

These observations lead me then to my final point: theology is a critical activity. I have already indicated that I understand theology to be critical reflection on religious practices. If theology is to be a truly critical inquiry, then the standards according to which theologians make their critical judgments must be articulated. Given the current diversity within divinity school and seminary communities, and the broad range of practices for which our students are preparing, the task of reaching consensus about our critical standards will not be easy. But as we begin to build theological faculties for the 21st century, we must ask some hard questions about the future of theology. How can we continue to diversify theological education while developing rigorous standards of excellence? How can theology continue to serve the needs of the churches while it addresses broader social, cultural and political questions? How might theology contribute to the revitalization of the churches precisely as it assumes this broader, more ambitious agenda? These and other questions about the intellectual integrity of the theological disciplines can easily be set aside as we face the more imminent challenges of recruitment, placement and finances. But we must face these perplexing intellectual issues if we hope to secure a future for theological reflection.

Discussion of the criteria of a truly critical theology can be an important contribution to the university-wide reflection on the nature of a liberal education. As we develop our conception of theology as a critical discipline, we have an opportunity to raise new queries about the relation between the descriptive and the normative, and between the critical and the moral dimensions of human understanding. In so doing we can contribute to the ongoing discussion about the moral applications of critical thinking, but we can also pose fresh questions about the fiduciary and moral presuppositions inherent in all critical inquiry.

By moving in the directions I have outlined, we could make a major contribution not only to the coherence of theological curricula but also to theological education more generally. Theology, understood as critical reflection on religious practices, can serve an indispensable integrative function within our divinity school and seminary curricula. The relation between the study of ancient Near Eastern cultures and the practice of preaching, for example, needs to be given theological articulation. The significance of the study of Judaism, Buddhism or Islam for the practice of Christian ministry needs to be highlighted through theological reflection. The justification for public-policy studies within a religious curriculum must be given in theological categories. As we seek to offer those theological reflections, we will discover a new and more inclusive notion of theology emerging—a notion of theology that may once again engage the attention of the wider society as well as that of the church.