Toward Theological Understanding: An Interview with Edward Farley

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 4/11/98, pp. 113-115 & 149. 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.


Certain deep cultural values have eroded. Unless this problem is addressed, religious talk will turn into banalities.

You've written that the first aim of theological education is not to teach pastoral skills or to mold scholars but to convey "wisdom" about "the believer's existence and action in the world." What do you mean by this?

My point is that theological education cannot be reduced to the learning of clerical skills or to scholarly knowledge. That's what's behind those negations. My assumption is that all Christians are inevitably engaged everyday in existential responses to the world, and that theology concerns the wisdom by which one brings the resources of a religious tradition to bear on the world. This task calls not for indifference or innocence or naïveté but wisdom--the ability to assess what is going on and to appraise new possibilities. To put it another way, in living out of the inherited symbols and narratives of one's faith, one isn't just applying dead truths to a living situation. Instead, one is embodying or incorporating oneself into a living tradition. That's a creative act and an interpretive act, an act of theological understanding.

Does this mean that the model of theological education that takes place in a seminary is not that different from the model of theological education that applies to all Christians?

I think that's true for the basic model. That's not to say there are no distinctive tasks for the seminary. Insofar as we are talking about people going into parish ministry, there are obvious topics that have to do with leadership in the parish that need to be engaged. But I would oppose a formulation of the seminary's task that construes it simply as a matter of providing training in certain pastoral skills. The primary focus of education should he on theological understanding. Therefore I see pastoral skills themselves as embodying theological understanding.

What do you see as the place of tradition in that task? As you know, the word "traditioning" has come into our language, and many observers believe that the church has lost touch with its tradition and needs to be "retraditioned."

I have to accede to the point, but I'm also suspicious about the trend. My suspicion has to do with the sense that, in a period of anxiety about the inroads made by secularism and about the loss of, say, a distinctive Reformed or Lutheran tradition, some would embrace "tradition" in an uncritical way. Some elements in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), for example, would make the detailed subscription to selected doctrines a condition of ordination. I think that would be a step back from both critical thinking and an openness to other traditions which it took hundreds of years to establish.

On the other hand, it's clear that there can be no religious faith without a sense of tradition. Without tradition, religion would disappear in a generation. We've learned from the sociologists that this is what happened in the so-called decline of the mainline churches since the 1960s. It wasn't so much that people left the church in droves, but that somehow the traditioning that went on in those churches didn't take hold in the next generation--that is, among adolescents and young adults. So we have the rather severe problem of an unfortunate choice facing many of the young: accept either a mystical and irrelevant religious tradition or a cynical secular environment.

How do we make the tradition vital, interesting and understandable? And how do we do it in a way that doesn't involve the rejection of evolution and modern science--which is the fundamentalist temptation? That is a theological problem for congregations.

Does this present a new task for seminary education?

I think it does. One of the features of the postmodern epoch is that certain deep cultural values that used to he taken for granted have eroded. Values such as tradition, reality, obligation, beauty; nature, transcendence, nature, mystery, hope--the things whose power makes a society work--are not operational in typical postmodern institutions, the workplace, the government, the media, the entertainment industry. This erosion of deep values seems to be culture-wide and thus applies to congregations and their members. If this is so, the preaching and education that take place in congregations cannot pretend that business is as usual.

Surely the whole situation deserves close attention in theological schools. When the problem of eroded deep symbols of tradition and culture is ignored, the discourse of the religious community turns into clichés banalities and sentimentalisms.

Some observers would say that theological education has been too much focused on the cognitive dimension of learning as opposed to personal and social transformation--doing and feeling. How would you respond?

I think it's an unfortunate dichotomy. Genuine knowing is always driven by a passion. Without a passion we won't submit ourselves to what it takes to really know something. Plato called this passion eros. Most people's knowing is already oriented by a passionate involvement in the world--it's already a matter of flesh and blood, of struggling with life's challenges.

Of course, any time you move into a course of study, the everyday involvement and struggle is going to be set aside to a degree. All real knowing involves a particular focus. Even a cooking class is going to have to come to terms with some particular bits of knowledge--otherwise you won't even get the water to boil. But we shouldn't take as our paradigm of knowing the most technical and rigorous kinds of focusing--like what scientists do when they're studying a virus. I don't see that kind of technical knowing going on in theological education. Faced with the complaint you mention, therefore, I would want to probe the meaning of the charge.

What changes have you noticed in the student population, and how have those changes affected the context of teaching?

Seminaries are more diverse institutions than they were ten years ago. To begin with, only a portion of the students are planning to go into parish ministry. This variety of vocational interests poses a lot of pedagogical issues. Seminaries are becoming multiple resource centers for laypeople and congregations. Also, the presence of women, plus racial diversity, and denominational diversity, makes for a student body that's different from what it was a generation ago.

I'm told that it's harder to attract really good students. If you compare, for example, the number of Phi Beta Kappa graduates going into ministry today with 40 year's ago, the number has dropped dramatically. One cannot assume that students in seminary are academically oriented enough to have the tools of reading and thinking that postgraduate education requires.

A perennial concern for observers of theological education is the perceived gap between the seminaries and congregations. What does that gap look like to you?

Because of the diversity of programs in seminaries and the number of students who are not oriented toward congregations, the seminary agenda is probably wider than it was a generation ago, when most students were bound for congregations.

A good bit of my writing has tried to discredit what I have called the "clerical paradigm" of the nature of theology. This refers to the notion that theology is a theoretical undertaking for professionals, and that therefore theology is not for laypeople. As I've said, I think theological education should be a phenomenon in congregations as well as seminaries. something like that could come about, a new continuity would be fostered between seminaries and congregations.

There has always been criticism of seminaries for not doing a good enough job teaching specific pastoral skills. This criticism has never made a lot of sense to me. This is not to say schools can't improve the way they prepare ministers. But behind that criticism is a distinction between theory and practice that corrupts theological education. It views the minister as a person who has various skills--such as in counseling, proclamation and organization--but not a whole lot of content or theological understanding. But without theological understanding none of the skills is that useful

So I'm back to my original point: theological understanding is what unites the various enterprises of seminary education. The skills in counseling, preaching and organization need to be informed by the great narratives and insights of the tradition. That describes the kind of leaders that congregations need. If these leaders introduced a genuine theological education into congregations, I wouldn't worry about a gap between seminaries and congregations.

What, specifically, are theological schools doing well? What not so well?

The mainline schools I know have responded fairly well to the issues thrust upon them: the issues of race, gender, liberation--the new diversity and complexity of the student body. They haven't just resisted all those developments, and that's to their credit. Also, they have not given up on scholarship. Most teachers have a mastery of their field, and the subjects are taught within integrity and an openness to the larger world of scholarship. This hasn't always been the case, and it's all to the good.

What don't they do very well? The "clerical paradigm" that defines theology as a clergy possession (thus theological education as simply clergy education) seems to be as powerful as ever. When it dominates a school, the theology student is seen as a future "professional" who must learn "theory" to be applied to "practice." This isolates theological wisdom into "academic disciplines" which then seem irrelevant, and it empties practice (what ministers do as ministers) of theological understanding.

Students, ministers, churches and schools all complain about this in a way that perpetuates it. That is, they want more ministry skills to be taught. I see this professionalist mind-set as still prevalent in schools. Insofar as it is, the students experience their education as a series of rather isolated academic studies, not as steps in the forming of theological wisdom. In other words, theological education still has not found a new paradigm for the nature of theology, reasons for the way it organizes its course of study, and a coherent version of the routes students take through their studies.

How can that problem be addressed?

I'm a little pessimistic, because faculty members come out of graduate schools with a loyalty to a particular field, and it's very hard to get their attention or arouse their passion for larger sets of problems, such as pedagogy or the reform of theological education.

Therefore it's very hard to get seminaries to really change what they do. I wonder, in this respect, whether seminaries are well served by the structural division between a chief executive, who deals primarily with the external constituency, and an academic dean, who deals with internal matters. This leaves the area of educational reform to a subordinate officer. Presidents have the power to bring about reform, but their focus is on a different area.

What other issues do you see on the horizon?

Schools have a great need for faculty in the "practical" areas, which constitute a large part of the curriculum but there are few credible graduate programs in areas like homiletics and pastoral ministry. And each of the practical fields is struggling for identity and is undergoing transitions. The very concept of "practical theology" is unclear. This makes it very difficult for seminaries to staff themselves and develop faculty in the "practical" fields.

Second, I wonder if it is possible for the schools to discover in themselves some social mechanism for creative change. Faculty members are "field" loyal and preoccupied, presidents have an eye on external resources, and deans work at institutional maintenance. This social structure has lent itself to perpetuating the status quo for many decades now, and there are not many signs of creative institutional change. So it seems to be the case that some altered social structure is needed in the schools if theological education is ever to be genuinely reformed.

Finally, with people talking these days about the growing isolation of seminaries from larger religious contexts, such as denominations, I wonder if some new structure needs to take shape that relates seminaries to local and national church leaders. This might involve reconceiving the makeup of the board of trustees. These boards are now primarily oriented toward fund raising. But one could require a proportion of the trustees to be selected from lay and clergy leaders, local and national, who could keep the seminary more engaged with the denomination and the congregations. Having that relationship built in might help.