The Identity Crisis in the Seminaries

by James T. Laney

Dr. Laney was dean of Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Later he became President of Emory University, then U.S. Ambassador to Korea.

This article appeared in the Christian Century February 2-9, 1977, p. 95. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The self-identity of the seminary faculty has tended to move toward a discipline of peers independent of religion. There is a need to expand the world of the student beyond the strictly academic.

The crucial element in theological education is who the members of the faculty see themselves to be -- i.e., their principal identity. True education occurs in a context of sympathetic identification; that is, we are shaped in mind and spirit as we participate in and under the tutelage of others. Discipleship is the quintessence of that kind of education. If this be the case, our present confusion in curriculum and program across the country is a reflection of contending identities among the faculty. That statement is intended as an observation and not as an indictment. But what is the basis for such an assertion? A brief historical overview may assist us here (these reflections are rooted in the particular history and context that I know best -- the Methodist tradition).


By the time Duke Divinity School was established, the major battles of fundamentalism had been fought, and modern critical historical scholarship had won an untrammeled right in the university. Princeton had survived a split, and while Vanderbilt had gone its own way apart from the church, the Methodist Church in the south replaced it not with independent seminaries which the church could control but with two new universities, one to the west and one to the east of the Mississippi River, expressing the continuing Methodist conviction that the training of the clergy should take place in a university setting. This was already the case in Boston. It was also the case in Evanston (with Garrett and Northwestern), in Denver (with Iliff and the University of Denver), and similarly in Los Angeles with Southern California, and subsequently in Durham (Duke), Atlanta (Emory) and Dallas (Southern Methodist). It has only been, interestingly enough, since World War II that the Methodists have sought to establish independent theological seminaries. The early days were not all roseate, however, because many people still had a suspicion that true religion could not survive so much learning.

There’s a story that Bishop Warren Candler, who was the chancellor of Emory University when it was first established, went to the dean of the Candler School of Theology and said, “We are having a lot of trouble over one of your New Testament professors who doesn’t hold the Bible in enough respect. It might be wise if you got rid of him.” The dean assured him that he would take this under serious consideration. After thinking it over, he hit upon a solution. It happened that Bishop Candler’s son-in-law, a man named Sledd, also taught New Testament in the same seminary. The next time the dean saw Bishop Candler he went to him and said, “Bishop, I’ve decided you are right. We ought to get rid of Professor X. But if we get rid of him we have to be equitable and also get rid of Professor Sledd. They are two peas in a pod, both believing in higher criticism.” Bishop Candler harrumphed, “Well, maybe we ought to think about it a little more.”


After the battles over ecclesiastical control of the seminaries subsided, there was a generation of teachers whose inner lives still evidenced the marks of piety. However sophisticated their language and thought, they were consciously a part of the people of God. There was a penumbra of piety, a recognizably religious quality to the lives of these memorable figures of the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s.

Reinhold Niebuhr came out of a Detroit industrial parish. To his dying day he continued to be a preacher, albeit in dialectics, to the entire nation. Some of Tillich’s best theology was preached in James Chapel at Union Seminary. Those who ,were at Yale during this period will never forget H. Richard Niebuhr’s lectures, which invariably began with a simple but moving prayer. Among my most precious possessions is one such scribbled prayer on the back of a Just Remember pad from the Presbyterian Minister’s Fund.

Likewise in the practical disciplines, people like George Buttrick, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Halford E. Luccock and Ralph Sockman were churchmen and preachers. All of them, whether in research and reflection or practice and reflection. were grounded in and expressed a faith: their attempt at an understanding of their world, however enlarged to include politics or church or national life. For themselves, there was no question of their identity with the people of God.

Now we have to resist romanticizing. These so-called giants were like that in part because theirs was an age when church and society and learning were still seen to be compatible if not congenial. Nor should we forget the many problems which they faced and the genuine faith questions they wrestled with. Nevertheless, they were possessed of a stable identity, and that was an identification with the church. Those educated by them took some of their own identity from these men, along with the church in the center. Thus students who attended seminary any time during those decades through the ‘50s might be challenged and pushed and pulled and tested. Some of their worlds would collapse and some explode. But for the most part there was an underlying confidence that those to whom they entrusted themselves were faithful, that they had a clear identity and that this identity was related to the people of God.

That era is past. It is not just that the giants are gone -- they are -- but their time has passed as an era. In their later years when Buttrick and Tillich went to Harvard, they found a different situation, one which troubled them -- not simply because Harvard was different but because the times were changing and Harvard was only the harbinger of the change.


What changed? First of all, the setting changed. The university is a different place from what it was in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The ethos, the dominant tone, the controlling spirit are different. Since Sputnik, all so-called soft disciplines have felt intimidated by the hard disciplines. Within ‘‘soft’’ disciplines I mean to include the humanities such as history, literature, philosophy -- all of which have direct counterparts in the theological curriculum. An emphasis upon method, language analysis, modes of argumentation became dominant in a quest to find a firmer, less vulnerable basis for continuance in a modern, scientifically dominated university.

Second, the self-understanding of theological disciplines itself has changed. A tighter focus -- comparable to developments in methodology that occurred in literature, history and philosophy -- is now prevalent in their counterparts in the theological curriculum. For example, in most seminaries across the country use of the historical-critical method is a foregone conclusion. The question now is, given that emphasis, whether there is time left to attend to the literature of the Scripture.

Third, much of the education which our present faculties have received has itself changed as a result of these other two. We have to look at the socialization of the graduate students as they apprentice for teaching to appreciate what is going on in their lives, how their horizons have changed, how their identities have been shaped. That socialization has taken place within disciplines which ask their own questions -- questions often prompted by considerations other than the life of faith. Those disciplines which tend toward phenomenology and objectivity have located in university departments of religion for the most part. Where theology faculties and departments of religion share in graduate instruction, there have developed some very real strains as to what the dominant tone in graduate professional education should be.

The result of much of this changing picture has been that the self-identity of the faculty has tended to move toward a discipline of peers independent of religion. The American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature have become the arbiters not only of scholarship but also of peer identity and recognition. Their remarkable growth in size and influence over the past several decades testifies to this. The practical fields have also organized into professional groups, with increased role definition established by competencies to the point that the understanding of the ministry itself can be defined in terms of professionalism. The implications of these two developments, not only for theological education but also for the church, are far-reaching.


A scholar-theologian who once taught on a theological faculty and later went to a department of religion in a secular university has written poignantly about his pilgrimage through the kind of identity crises I have just described: one who in college had a kind of neo-fundamentalist faith, went through graduate school, established peer relationships with scholars, and then found himself in a crisis of belief, now speaks about the morality of belief -- the importance of being true and honest in what one can actually avow and affirm with integrity. Having gone through all this, he now says that he wants to teach in a department of religion, but in one that is next door to a faculty of divinity. What this person is stating with courage and clarity many others still on theology faculties feel only vaguely or refuse to acknowledge. Similarly, many clergy find their identity more compatible with non-church-related roles, such as counseling, social work or teaching.

There is, in short, a confusion in identity, and students who come to seminary and become identified with faculty are necessarily plunged into that confusion. To be sure, there will be certain students who, regardless of what seminary they attend, won’t make any identification with faculty. They will be defensive and guard their commitment like a treasure in danger of being plundered. They will not become educated; they will have simply survived the educational experience. It is not to protect such students that the issue of identity is raised. It is to say that we as faculty inevitably reflect the various and sometimes conflicting communities of our primary identification, with all the pressures and blandishments that those communities can hold forth.

In a sense, our seminaries reflect the disruption and atomism of contemporary life as they are found in other areas of society. Thus our problem of identity is part of our time. One could suggest that the question of life style in the ministry, so troubling to many of our judicatories -- differing understandings of what is acceptable, whether we are talking about things to eat and drink, or clothing, sexuality or divorce -- expresses this tension in a most dramatic way. Life style can be understood as the living out of one’s primary identification. With whom do we seek to be identified, for what reasons, and are the people of God recognizably a part of that?

For the past ten to 15 years seminaries have been trying to address this question. We have all had the feeling, growing out of the 1950s, that there needed to be a new kind of relevance for academic discipline. We felt that students should have a broader experiential base, and we have tried all kinds of changes in curriculum -- experiments in contextual education, teaching parishes, internships, supervised ministry programs, etc. These have had their value. They have indeed broadened the experiential base of the student. But what about the faculty? Unless faculty are also struggling to bring these disparate worlds into coherence, students are left without guidance and support at the critical juncture of their professional lives. But how can this be encouraged in a natural, unforced way?


We hit upon one such way almost by accident at Emory several years ago. We established what is called “supervised ministry” to expand the world of the student beyond the strictly academic. Similar programs have been set up in seminaries around the country. From the outset, the faculty not only authorized this program but also agreed to participate in it across the board. It took this shape: ten students and a faculty member meet two hours a week through the first year of seminary, with the students placed in supervised settings where they experience human need, whether it be aging and death, emergency rooms, or poverty. Students become aware of their limitations in dealing with these extreme or demanding situations, and they bring back to their reflection group the turmoil, distress, or sense of accomplishment derived from life situations.

The unintentional benefit of this program has been that while the students gained a measure of clarity about who they were, their identity, it also expanded the world of the faculty. The faculty came to be perceived as colleagues with students in situations which raised issues of personal faith, the capacity to respond in certain situations -- in short, questions of ministry. Through this the faculty became aware -- and the students knew they were aware -- of the struggle the students were going through, and this knowledge reflexively helped redefine and stimulate their classroom work.

More recently we have attempted to enlarge further the shared experiential base of faculty and students by having courses taught in local churches -- not just practical courses, but Bible and theology. These courses, taught jointly by faculty and pastors and attended by students and laypersons, seek to address a “problematic” which that church or some of its people are involved with. If supervised ministry deals with the existential commitment question that students press, these courses deal with questions of the people of God as they struggle to live faithfully in the world.

I taught a course last fall with a black minister in his church in downtown Atlanta on “The Mission and Ministry of a Local Church.” Our students and those laypeople tried to understand what that church’s own task should be in that particular setting -- and of course the setting was black. It became clear that we were not providing adequate opportunity for our students to come to terms with the problem of racism, either within themselves or within the institutional structure of the church and of society.

What it did for me as an ethicist was to help me realize that there is no way of understanding the task of the church in today’s society without a sense of complicity. Supervised ministry challenges the students -- and vicariously, the faculty -- about our limitations. The urban setting threatens us because we feel implicated. Reflecting on this experience, I realized that there is the academic payoff for me: the recognition that there can be no meaningful social ethics written today that does not have complicity written into the heart of it -- not as a cheap confession but as an appreciation of the corporateness which binds us one to another in hope and in guilt. This awareness is possible only when there is a community of sufficient grace that allows us to be that threatened and yet not undone.

What does this mean? We attempt to place whatever ‘text” we’re teaching in a different setting where it becomes enlarged as well as seen in a different context. That move allows a different set of questions to be asked with appropriateness.

The move back and forth and the juxtaposition of the same text with different settings create a new understanding of ourselves and of the “text.” This process does not challenge the Integrity of an academic discipline; it does not require a certain life style for the faculty or students; it does not presuppose formal church ties. What it does do is to allow latent identities and identifications with the church to emerge freely, and to provide an occasion to recapture and reconfirm one’s identity as a servant of Jesus Christ.

To be sure, there are genuine resistances to facing this question in all of us. The issue of identity is no longer just a student problem; it is also ours. It is also an exhausting process psychically and logistically. It takes time and energy. But at least the confusion of identity that all of us are now sharing is being articulated, reflected upon, suggesting new ways of being bound together as the people of God.

We continue to affirm that a seminary in a university is not an ecclesiastical agency; therefore the problem of identity cannot be resolved by ecclesiastical control or fiat. But while a divinity school is not the conventicle of the church, at the same time -- it is not just another graduate school. There is historic basis for the attempt to combine faith experience and parish involvement with theological reflection. We find it in Augustine, who was an active bishop, in Luther and Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, as well as in many of the 19th century theologians. This approach simply takes seriously the sociology of knowledge but turns it around. We are no longer only relativized by our setting. By placing ourselves in a setting other than the strictly academic, we recognize that spiritual formation and identity require. intention in a fragmented world.

Theological education in this last quarter of the 20th century must assist in affirming our identification with the people of God in the common ground of the church. In that way students themselves may have their identity tested and confirmed as the people of God.