Chapter 3: The Idea of a Theological School

The Purpose of the Church and its Ministry
by H. Richard Niebuhr, Daniel Day Williams, & James M. Gustafson

Chapter 3: The Idea of a Theological School


The theological schools of the churches in America share all the perplexities of the contemporary Protestant community and its ministry. Though they also participate in the movements toward clarification and reconstruction apparent in the latter the first impression they give is like the one produced by the pluralistic churches and a harried ministry: an impression of uncertainty of purpose. We have, indeed, found in the schools evidence of that pluralism and harassment; for they reflect in the multiplicity of their numbers, the variety of their statements of purpose and the conglomerate character of their courses of study the lack of unity symptomatic of their social context. They are also surely partly responsible for the situation since as educational centers of the Church they are in a better position to modify it than are most other agencies.

Perhaps it is a mistake to say that the first impression given by the theological schools is one of multiplicity and indefiniteness of purpose. The first impression many observers receive is one of inertia and conservatism. Though such successive innovations in theological study as the social gospel, social ethics, religious education, psychological counseling and ecumenical relations may receive much publicity the schools seem to go on their accustomed way, teaching what they have always taught: Biblical and systematic theology, church history and preaching. The adjustments made here and there to meet the demands of changing times and the pressures issuing from alumni and church boards scarcely affect the main tenor of their work. They are like the great majority of ministers in this respect, for the pastors also carry on their traditional functions with only slight modifications despite the stir caused by those who want to change the profession in some revolutionary manner. Yet the apparent conservatism is indicative of perplexity. For in the case of the schools as of the ministers, doing the traditional things does not mean doing them for a traditional reason; nor does it mean that these acts are internally integrated. It is the difference between the repetition of separate, habitual actions and the continuation in novel movements of a historic line of march. So traditionalism in painting repeats the same old themes of portraiture, genre, seascape and landscape in ever sleeker forms; it repeats; it does not move. But in its living tradition that art—moving for instance from Rembrandt through Daumier and Van Gogh to Rouault—brings unitive and fresh perception, contemporaneousness of understanding and inventive technique to the ever-new discovery and revelation of man's and nature's faces and forms. Though it makes its discoveries in the same world in which the conventionalist moves, it is as different from imitative traditionalism as it is from the anti-traditionalism that tries to find newness for the sake of novelty itself. Similar distinctions between dead and living tradition may be made in every realm of human workmanship.

So considered the conservatism of the theological schools does betray a certain repetitiveness of individual actions and lack of great unifying conceptions. Usually they teach Bible, theology, church history and preaching as separate subjects. Some few new and again distinct subjects are usually added for the sake of modernization, but the conventional disciplines remain in the ascendant. Each of them is regarded, doubtless rightly, as very important; but why it is important and what its place is in a definable whole eludes the definitions of catalogue writers and apparently of most curriculum committees. Studies in the history, literature and theology of Old and New Testaments occupy a large part of the time of almost all theological students. Why they should do so is rarely clearly understood by them and perhaps only somewhat more frequently by their teachers. That the Bible is very important all Christians understand; but why and in what ways it is important requires explanation. It has always been studied in theological schools and doubtless always will be. The question is not whether it will be studied but with what sense of its unity, in what context and in what relation to other subjects. Neither the medieval nor the sixteenth-century understanding of its significance seems wholly cogent today. Yet no generally accepted new analysis of its meaning has been formulated. If Bible study has become a specialty or series of specialties today the reason is not to be sought simply in the development of specialization among teachers of theology but in the loss of a controlling idea in theological education—an idea able to give unity to many partial inquiries. Similar reflections apply to the other traditional disciplines of the theological schools. What has always been taught is now being taught so far as the elements are concerned; but one thing previously implicit in all that was taught is not now being transmitted: the unifying idea. Thus the apparent conservatism of the schools is really indicative of uncertainty of aim.

The tendency toward pluralism and the participation of the schools in the confusion of churches and ministers becomes even more apparent in their efforts to add to the traditional core of theological studies new disciplines which are to serve as bridges between the heritage and modern men, or, more immediately, between it and the needs of ministers in modern churches. During the course of the last two or three generations the theological curriculum has been "enriched"—like vitamin-impregnated bread—by the addition of a long series of short courses in sociology and social problems, rural and urban sociology, the theory of religious education, educational psychology, methods of religious education, psychology of religion, psychology of personality, psychology of counseling, methods of pastoral counseling, theory of missions, history of missions, methods of evangelism, theory and practice of worship, public speaking, church administration, et cetera, et cetera. Almost every school catalogue gives evidence of such additions, particularly when it is compared with one of its predecessors from the year 1900. These additions—which have again in part been subtracted—show the great awareness of the schools that they must mediate between the heritage and the contemporary situation. But the way in which such additions have been made also indicates how little guidance schools have received or given in the task of thinking through the whole work of the Church from a unified and unifying point of view, how much they have been caught up in the tendency to respond to varying external pressures and needs without stopping first of all to come to a new self-collectedness. For these courses have been added piecemeal and almost each one of the new specialties has appeared with a new theological rationalization of its existence so that missions, the gospel for society, religious education and pastoral counseling each found itself tempted or compelled to develop its own theology.

The present curriculum of the theological schools in general shows the effects of this development or, rather, lack of development. It may be more unified than most college curricula are but nonetheless it impresses the observer as a collection of studies rather than as a course of study. When he participates in meetings of theological faculties or their curriculum committees his impression is verified by the manner in which requirements for graduation are mathematically calculated and distributed among departments. The lack of unity is also indicated in the efforts that are made to provide for "integration" by adding examinations, theses or interdepartmental courses which will insure that students will combine in their own minds what has been fragmentarily offered them.

Other indications of the lack of a sense of direction in theological education today are to be found in the hidden and open conflicts present in the schools. Such conflicts usually reflect an exaggeration of inevitable tensions that are probably healthful when they are understood, accepted and ordered into a whole life. The tension associated with the nature of the Church as one body with one Head that has many members becomes conflict when the members think themselves self-sufficient and refuse to accept their fellow members as equally related to the Head. In the form of denominationalism that conflict is not as acute today as once it was though there are schools in which the question whether they are to teach church or denominational theology is the unacknowledged background of sharp debates about courses and teachers and there are others that regard themselves and their denominations as the sole guardians of "the truth." Denominationalism, as meaning priority of loyalty to denomination over loyalty to the cause of the Church, appears more frequently in the form of provincialism than of antagonism to others. In its exaggerated form of conflict the tension of members and body seems to appear most often in the antagonisms of liberalism and conservatism or of high and low churchmanship. The sort of liberalism which looks with contempt upon conservative groups and their schools or even on conservative tendencies in theology in general, calling them all "Fundamentalist," and the kind of conservatism that abhors all critical movements alike, cut themselves off from each other in the theological world more effectively than do Baptists from Presbyterians, Methodists from Anglicans.

This antagonism is akin to another, the one between exponents in theology of the self-sufficiency of the Church and exponents of the interdependence of Church and world. Given the polarity of the Church as Church-in-the-world, conflict arises when the polarity is denied either in the refusal of one party to accept itself as part of the Church or the refusal of another to accept the world as the Church's neighbor. Antagonisms of this sort appear in theological education mostly in hidden form, as faculty members debating about the admission of students, about the inclusion or exclusion of courses or about the place of graduate studies in theology, suspect each other of too much worldliness or too much church provincialism. Doubtless such suspicions may be traced back as far as the college of the apostles and Paul, but our ironic participation in them today still leaves us with the feeling that something else is amiss besides common frailty and sin. What can we assume about one another's ideas of the Church? And if we have no great ideas to which to assent or from which to dissent how can we achieve even compromise?

The constant rivalry between advocates of the "academic," or "content," or "classic" theological courses and promoters of "practical training" presents us with a similar situation. There are few theological schools where these groups do not compete for the students' interest and time, where some members of the former group do not feel that the scholarliness of theological study is being impaired by the attention claimed for field work and counseling, where teachers of preaching, church administration and pastoral care and directors of field work do not regard much of the theological work as somewhat beside the point in the education of a minister for the contemporary Church.

Such is the first, superficial impression: our schools, like our churches and our ministers, have no clear conception of what they are doing but are carrying on traditional actions, making separate responses to various pressures exerted by churches and society, contriving uneasy compromises among many values, engaging in little quarrels symptomatic of undefined issues, trying to improve their work by adjusting minor parts of the academic machine or by changing the specifications of the raw material to be treated.


The first, superficial impression is not erased by more thorough acquaintance with theological schools; many instances of self-satisfied provincialism, inert traditionalism and specious modernization tend to confirm it. But more intimate acquaintance also brings into view a second, very different aspect of the scene. Alongside conventionality, which is sometimes downright antiquarian, one encounters vitality, freshness, eagerness and devotedness among these teachers and students. Alongside perplexed preparation for manifold tasks one finds present in many of these men a drive toward knowledge of the essential, a search for central Christian wisdom about the fundamental issues of life. Alongside tepid birthright loyalties to denominations and schools of thought, one encounters in faculty and students the fervent convictions of new converts about the greatness of the common Christian cause. And amidst the confusions and perplexities of many men doing many things only institutionally connected, the sense of the great tradition of the Church emerges in many places as the idea of a line of march to be taken up, of a direction to be followed, a continuing purpose to be served. Though no clear-cut idea of the theological school or of theology as a whole is as yet in prospect, a sense of renewal and promise, a feeling of excitement about the theological task is to be felt in the academic climate and it is accompanied by invigoration of intellectual inquiry and of religious devotion.

Examples of such a spirit—which is always a new spirit however frequently it has manifested itself in the past—may be found in whole schools. It is also represented on almost every faculty, even the most discouraged, by one or two young men or perennially youthful veterans, and in every corps of students, even the most somber assortment of theological-student stereotypes. Our examples, however, may be more wisely chosen from departments of study and types of educational work.

A remarkable thing has happened in recent years to the study of the Old Testament. There was a time, not too remote, when this subject was studied and doubtless sometimes taught with the kind of enthusiasm one associates with high school recitation periods at two o'clock on drowsy days in May. But now the study of the Old Testament has become a fascinating and exciting business in school after school. Students from various institutions speak of the illumination that has come to them from historic yet living participation in Israel's encounters with God, in the sorrows and exaltations, the judgments and deliverances of patriarchs, lawgivers, psalmists and prophets. In explanation of the phenomenon it may be said that an unusually brilliant group of teachers happens to be at work today in this field; yet such reasoning does not carry very far for these teachers had their peers in previous generations. Perhaps the explanation is to be found in the hints some students give of the extent to which the Old Testament has become for them an introduction to the fundamental problems of man's life before God, a revelation of the greatness, freedom and power of the Sovereign Lord, of the meaning of the people of God and of human history. The indications are that many of them came to theological study with a religion so sentimental or so narrowly Christ-centered that it had left them without answers to their deepest questions about the reason for their existence, about the meaning of human tragedy, and the significance of mankind's history. They had accepted what had been told them, but had remained ill at ease. For instance, they had learned that Jesus Christ is the answer to human problems but the Christ to whom they had been introduced was a figure unrelated to the great context in which he appeared and one who left them without answers to many of their personal questions as existing and historical men. In the study of Old Testament they had now been led by their teachers to discover what their human questions were and to what questions Jesus Christ is the answer. If this means that the Old Testament is being taught in such schools today as a part of theology it does not mean that the historical and critical approach to it is ignored or that inspiration and devotion have taken the place of scholarship. It does mean that the books of the Old Covenant are studied in the context of an intellectual love of God and neighbor, of a faith that seeks understanding.

In the case of New Testament studies a similar though less remarkable development is taking place. Partly again because very able theologians are studying and teaching in this field, partly because critical, historical scholarship is being combined with existential awareness of that human dilemma and of that divine grace with which the New Testament writings are concerned, partly for other reasons, vital interest in the meaning of the New Testament is increasing. In this case as in that of the Old Testament there are differences between conservative and liberal seminaries, but in any case it is the New Testament not as literature in general, or as record of the religious experiences of people remotely related to our generation, or as collection of dogmatic statements of right belief, or as an anthology of wise ethical maxims, but as the story of the central event in the divine-human encounter that is being studied.

The concern for theology, not as a particularist discipline but as the search for human wisdom about the wisdom of God in the creation and redemption of man, is manifest in other disciplines besides Biblical studies: in systematic theology frequently, occasionally in Christian ethics, homiletics, religious education and pastoral counseling. This concern is accompanied by great interest in the Church and its relations to culture. Special courses have been introduced in some schools to deal with the nature of the Church, especially in the perspective of the ecumenical movement. New work is also being done in an effort to interpret the religious or Christian meanings found in modern secular literature, philosophy, science and art. But the measure of these interests is not to be taken by counting the number of such special courses. The question is really how courses in Church history, missions and practical theology on the one hand, in systematic theology, Christian ethics and philosophy of religion on the other, are being taught. An impression one gains from many teachers of these subjects as well as from their students, is that often now a robust sense of Church is accompanied by great willingness to enter into conversation with secular society. That conversation is being conducted in no apologetic tone but with the humility and openness of mind possible to those who are not self-defensive and who are neither ashamed of being churchmen nor hostile to the world outside the Church.

Other symptoms of this new spirit are to be found in the increased interest in the common worship of the academic community, though this is by no means universally evident; in the widespread and intensive discussions of faculties about the purpose and organization of the course of study; in the experiments that are being carried on to relate the work of the seminary more intimately to the work of other church agencies, particularly to the local churches.

Yet it remains questionable whether all these movements and interests are leading in one direction, whether such clear principles of unity and of central purpose are being discovered that the schools are now enabled to correlate their particularistic endeavors to prepare men for multiple services in heterogeneous churches. It is clear, of course, that no single pattern will suffice for a church so complex as the Protestant church in America and for schools with so many heritages and responsibilities. Nevertheless, if a common sense of Church is nascent among the many members of one body and if a relatively clear idea is emerging of the one service to be rendered by ministers in their many duties, then some common idea of a theological school ought also to be possible. Such an idea would not be applicable as a blueprint for the reconstruction of the several institutions but only as a kind of general prescription of the elements every blueprint would need to provide for. No single pattern will suffice as a plan for the building of houses adequate to the needs of all American families in our time; their histories and tastes and duties are too various. But any house built today will provide for all the necessary functions of family life with the use of those instruments that modern civilization affords and with consideration of the services that the larger community now makes available to the home. It will also take into account the special form that family life has assumed in modern times while continuing the long tradition of the home. So it is possible to define the idea of a modern dwelling in the abstract while allowing for the infinite variations necessary before that idea can be made specifically useful for a particular family. The question is whether a general idea of a theological school can be formulated which might be comparable to such an abstract modern version of the traditional idea of a dwelling. Any effort to answer that question today in North America cannot undertake to state an apparent and growing consensus. It can only be a somewhat private essay offered for the sake of furthering and drawing together a lively but rather scattered discussion going on among many groups in the one room of the Church.


We begin that effort by defining the theological school as intellectual center of the Church's life. Though anti-intellectualism within the Church and anti-ecclesiasticism among intelligentsia outside it will object to the close correlation of intellect and Church, their ill-founded objections need not detain us. We content ourselves at this stage with the reflections that to love God with the whole understanding has ever been accepted by the great Church, if not by every sect, as part of its duty and privilege; and that there is no exercise of the intellect which is not an expression of love. If love is not directed toward God and neighbor it is directed toward something else, perhaps even toward the intellect itself in the universal tendency toward narcissism.

To speak in Aristotelian language, the efficient, material, formal and final causes of the theological school are identical with those of the Church. Its motivation is that of the Church—the love of God and neighbor implanted in human nature in creation, redeemed, redirected and invigorated by the acceptance of the good news of God's love for the world. Its membership consists of churchmen: existing and historic individuals, gathered together in a common life of faith which among other things seeks understanding of itself, of God and neighbor. Its form is the form of the Church—the subject before God, the institution and community, the local and universal, the critical and constructive companion of the world. Its purpose is the purpose of the Church—the increase among men of the love of God and companions.

Of course, the theological school is not Church in its wholeness. It is not even the intellect of the Church; but as an intellectual center it is a member of the body. While intellectual activity is as widely diffused throughout the whole Church as are activities of worship and of compassion, there are also centers or occasions of special intellectual activity in it as there are centers or occasions of special adoration and charity. Wherever and whenever there has been intense intellectual activity in the Church a theological school has arisen, while institutions possessing the external appearance of such schools but devoid of reflective life have quickly revealed themselves as training establishments for the habituation of apprentices in the skills of a clerical trade rather than as theological schools. The intellectual activity of the Church which centers on occasion in a theological school and for which the theological school bears responsibility is like all intellectual action yet derives specific characteristics from the objects toward which it is directed and from the love that guides it. Like all intellectual activity it compares, abstracts, relates; by these means it seeks coherence in the manifoldness of human experience, unified understanding of the objects or the Other in that experience. It also undertakes to correct through criticism, false ideas of the Other and inappropriate reactions to it. Like all intellectual activity it is carried on in constant conversation among many subjects, whose ideas of the common object and whose reactions to it are compared, related and criticized. But theology is differentiated from other kinds of intellectual activity by being the reflection that goes on in the Church; it is therefore the kind of thinking that is directed toward God and man-before-God as its objects and which is guided by the love of God and neighbor. Both objectives and motivation are important in distinguishing its special character. Insofar as it is genuine church-thinking it is distinctly different from all intellectual activity guided by love of self or love of neighbor-without-God, or of intellect itself, or of knowledge for its own sake—if there is such a love. Intellectual activity motivated by such interests may indeed make Ultimate Being and man its objects of study and so seem to share in the thought of the Church; but insofar as it is directed by a love that is not love of Being and of man it cannot see or understand what love understands. Theology differs from such modes of thinking about God and man because it is a pure science, disinterested as all pure science is disinterested, seeking to put aside all extraneous, private and personal interests while it concentrates on its objects for their own sake only. On the other hand theology differs from intellectual activities directed toward other objects than God and man-before-God. Such activities may indeed be motivated by the love that animates theology, but they abstract the objects to be understood from the objects of ultimate love, focusing attention on some part or aspect of creation without making them objects of devotion. Historically theology has not always been aware of the differences between its relations to the former and the latter kinds of "secular" intellectual activity. Sometimes it has relegated both sorts to the realm of "worldly" sciences; sometimes it has presumed to assert its queenship over both though in the course of that assertion it has itself become worldly, allowing itself to be guided by self-love or love of the Church, not by the Church's love. When it follows its own genius it is related to these various sorts of intellectual activity in the various ways that Church is related to world. In all relations it is not a queen but a servant, though its service may at times need to take the form of criticism and polemic.

As center of the Church's intellectual activity, animated by the Church's motivation and directed by its purpose, the theological school is charged with a double function. On the one hand it is that place or occasion where the Church exercises its intellectual love of God and neighbor; on the other hand it is the community that serves the Church's other activities by bringing reflection and criticism to bear on worship, preaching, teaching and the care of souls. Intellectual gifts whether used in one way or the other are indispensable to the functioning of the whole community but they are not pre-eminent as intellectualism asserts. There are theological as well as psychological reasons for denying to the idea-forming, abstracting, comparing and critical work of the mind the kind of superiority to physical action, imagination, emotion and unconscious operation that is often claimed for it. All the warnings Paul uttered, and the Church in principle has accepted, against the tendency of any function of the body to claim priority over others apply to the relation of intellectual to other activities. But granted that "heart and soul and strength," or feeling and intuition and will, or sentiment, the unconscious depths and physical vitality, are all to be employed in exercising love to God and man, yet the "mind"—intelligence and understanding—also has its rightful, indispensable place in the economy of human and of Church life. Though intellectual love of God and neighbor is not the supreme exercise of love, yet it is required and possible since man is also mind and does not wholly love his loves if his mind does not move toward them. He cannot truly love with heart, soul and strength unless mind accompanies and penetrates these other activities as they in turn accompany and penetrate it. The coldness of an intellectual approach unaccompanied by affection is matched by the febrile extravagance of unreasoning sentiment; the aloofness of uncommitted understanding has its counterpart in the possessiveness of unintelligent loyalty. When the whole man is active the mind is also active; when the whole Church is at work it thinks and considers no less than it worships, proclaims, suffers, rejoices and fights.

The theological school is the center where both types of intellectual activity are carried on: the kind that, supported by other actions, moves directly toward the objects of the Church's love and the kind that supports the other movements toward those objects. The theological school in this way is like any other intellectual center where both "pure" and "applied science" are pursued, with the proviso that these phrases are misnomers for the intricate interaction of the science that confines its interest to its object only and the science whose disinterestedness in personal and private concerns is disciplined by interest in humanity. As pure science theology is that response of man's nascent love toward God and neighbor which seeks to know the beloved, not with the question whether it is worthy of love, but with wonder; not for the sake of power over the beloved but as overpowered. Or, speaking by reference to the end rather than the beginning, it is the movement of the mind toward the hoped-for God and the hoped-for neighbor. This is not to say, as some philosophers do, that thinking itself is worship of God; an element of worship is present, to be sure, in all objective thinking but the worship may be that of an idol or the sort of self-worship which desecrates the object of thought by making it a means to the end of self-glorification. It is to say, however, that thinking may be truly worshipful, and that theology is not only ancillary to other actions of the Church but is itself a primary action. Such a movement of the mind toward God and the neighbor-before-God is characteristic of the Church in all its parts but it is the first duty and a central purpose of the theological school.

From everything that has been said it should be clear that theology so considered as a pure science does not have as its object God in isolation. The word "theology'' in its literal sense as the science of God is as applicable and inapplicable to the intellectual activity of the Church as the word "medicine" is to the studies of the healing community. The God who makes himself known and whom the Church seeks to know is no isolated God. If the attribute of aseity, i.e., being by and for itself, is applicable to him at all it is not applicable to him as known by the Church. What is known and knowable in theology is God in relation to self and to neighbor, and self and neighbor in relation to God. This complex of related beings is the object of theology. In the great, nearly central figure of Christianity, the God-man, this complex appears at least symbolically, though theology is distorted if it is converted into Christology. The nature of theology is most pertinently expressed by the Thomist and Calvinist insistence: "True and substantial wisdom principally consists of two parts, the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. But while these two branches of knowledge are so intimately connected, which of them precedes and produces the other, is not easy to discover." To the present writer it seems better to say that true and substantial wisdom consists of three parts: the knowledge of God, of companions, and of the self; and that these three are so intimately related that they cannot be separated. For self-knowledge and knowledge of the other, even though the other be the human neighbor, remain two different things. This point, however, is not necessary in our argument which is simply that theology has as its complex object God in his relations to the self with its companions, and the self with its companions in their relations to God. With this object the reflections and experiences of the Bible deal, with it the great theologians were concerned. It is only broken into parts for convenience as when Christian ethics as study of man is separated from systematic theology as reflection about God. What this definition of the object of theology means for the organization of theological studies cannot here be developed. What is at issue is the reflection that theology as a "pure science," motivated by love of its object, is directed always toward both God and man, or that as intellectual activity it is subject to the double commandment of love of God and neighbor. The proper study of mankind is God and man-before-God in their interrelation.

The second function of theology as the intellectual activity of the Church and so of the theological school as a center of this activity, is the service of other activities of the Church through the exercise of theoretical understanding. Worship unreflected upon, not understood in its relations to God and to other service of God, or in its relations to works of discipline and mercy, or in its context in the whole life and history of the community, uncriticized in its perversions, tends to become habitual repetition of rites; it becomes magical or theurgistic, or is impoverished by sectarian or temporal rejection of the heritage of the whole community. The worshiper and especially the leader of worship needs not only to worship but to know what this action means in the complex of all his doings, of all the deeds of the Church and of the deeds of God. The worshipping Church needs a theology of worship not as preliminary or as addition to, but as accompaniment of, its action. So also in the case of preaching and teaching. The proclamation of the good news of divine love, of the forgiveness of sin and the deliverance from evil; exhortation to lead the Christian life; instruction of young and old in the Christian faith—these evidently require not only that the minister have heard and apprehended the gospel, comprehended the law and learned the creed, but that he have gained insight into the ways of God and men and that he grow continually in his understanding of them; that further he have grasped the meaning of preaching and teaching in relation to all the other activities he and the Church carry on. The care and cure of souls requires theological comprehension in the broad sense of the word "theology." Psychological understanding of self and other men, sociological perception of the communal setting in which individuals suffer, sin, grow guilty, anxious and despairing, the human empathy and sympathy needed by the men of the Church as they seek to help the needful—these must all be united, informed and transformed by theological understanding of man-before-God and God-with-man if the work of the counselor is to be the work of the Church. The building of the Church as a community with complex organizational structure, with manifold functions and leaders, with various responsibilities to the society around it, can easily degenerate into the building of religious clubs, of sororities and fraternities and of national associations for the promotion of good causes, if the understanding of the Church's purpose, of its responsibility to God, of the nature and action of God, of man and his history, of the meaning of the Church's work in all the complex of human activity and of the interrelation of the various aspects of its work are lost to view.

The need for theological understanding and criticism on the part of the preacher and teacher has always been understood, perhaps especially by the churches of the Reformation though it is probably no accident that theological studies in the Roman Church have been especially developed in times past by the preaching orders. The need for theological preparation and continuous study on the part of the priest or leader of worship and the pastoral counselor has not always been as clearly recognized and these functions of the Church have suffered in consequence. Today, if it is true as has been previously suggested, that the work of the minister centers in his activity as pastoral director of a church, the necessity for profound understanding of the meaning of the Church but particularly of that reality to which it points in all its action seems to be very evident. As a general physician needs a knowledge of the structure, functioning and pathology of a whole psychosomatic person in his physical, social environment; as a statesman needs to understand the constitution, the dynamics, the history, the value system, the social evils, and the international relations of the society he governs, so the pastoral director of a church needs to know the nature, the purpose, the relations, the structure, the history, the deformations, and the responsibilities of the Church. And no such understanding is possible apart from knowledge of God before whom and for whom the Church exists, and apart from knowledge of man in his responsibility to God.

A theological school, then, is that center of the Church's intellectual activity where such insight into the meaning and relations of all the Church's activities is sought and communicated. It is sought there first of all by those who are preparing to assume responsibility for the Church's work. The theological school is a place where young men are taught to understand the world of God in which the Church operates and the operations of the Church in that world, but it is clear that they cannot be taught unless those who teach them as well as they themselves are constantly in quest of such understanding. It is also, however, the place whither maturer leaders of the Church resort for longer and shorter periods of intensive intellectual work in a community of intellectual workers.

How a theological school so defined as intellectual center of the Church's life differs from a trade school, from a bookish center where not understanding of God and man but of books is sought, from a school of philosophy, a Bible school, a school for preachers, a monastery, et cetera, does not need to be described in detail. We shall need, however, to inquire into the chief methods by which theological understanding is gained.


An intellectual center of the Church's life which serves the purposes of theological activity necessarily has the form of a college, that is of a collegium or colleagueship. It is a community of students in communication with one another, with the common subjects or objects studied, and with companions of the past and present in like communication with the objects. Every genuine school is such a society in which the movement of communication runs back and forth among the three—the teacher, the student and the common object. When communication is a one-way process, proceeding from an authoritative person to an immature learner who is not in direct relation to the object of the study, intellectual activity is at a minimum in both parties; such a school is not a community of students but a propaganda or indoctrination institution. The study of nature is unreal when textbooks and purely verbal communication take the place of laboratories so that natural entities or activities are not the instructors of both tutors and pupils. In view of the nature of the common object of theology—God and man in their interrelations—it is particularly evident that the intellectual community cannot be bi-polar, consisting only of teachers and students. It is even more dependent than the scientific community on the direct relation of the knowers to theological reality—the God of faith and believing men, the subjects and objects of ultimate love, the commander and the commanded, the forgiver and sinner. Indeed the infinitely active and inexhaustible nature of the subjects of theology reduces to relatively small significance the distance between the more and less mature members of the community of inquiry. Teachers and students form one group before their common objects, which are, indeed, subjects, actively making their presence felt in the community.

The presence in the theological community of the ultimate objects or subjects of study, like its engagement in serving the ultimate purpose of the Church, means that theological students are personally involved in their work to an unusual degree. The study of the determination of personal and human destiny by the mystery of being beyond being, of the tragedy and victory of the son of man, of the life-giving, healing power immanent in personal and social existence, of the parasitic forces of destruction that infest the spiritual as well as the biological organism, of the means of grace and the hope of glory—this cannot be carried on without a personal involvement greater than seems to be demanded by the study of history, nature or literature. If students are not personally involved in the study of theology they are not yet studying theology at all but some auxiliary science such as the history of ideas or ancient documents. Hence theological study is hazardous; the involvement may become so personal and emotional that intellectual activity ceases and the work of abstraction, comparison and criticism stops. Other hazards appear because intellectual activity requires that the objects of ultimate concern in the study be often set at the fringe of awareness while ideas and patterns, forms and relations are put in the center. The avoidance of temptations that arise in this situation will need to concern us later. The point to be insisted on here is that the theological community is constituted not by teachers and learners but by these and the subjects of their common inquiry.

In other respects also it is necessary to think of the theological enterprise in terms of community and as an affair of genuine back-and-forth communication. The course of study is a course of constant conversation with members of a wide circle of men who live in community with God and with neighbors-before-God. The necessary introduction to Christian theology is through Biblical studies and these need to occupy the theologian throughout his work, whatever be his specialty. But Biblical studies are in essence participation in the life of the Biblical communities that found their source and their focus in God. To study the Bible is not to study impersonal writings, Utopian ideas, heavenly patterns. It is to participate in the life of Israel and the early Church, in their hearing and interpretation of the Word spoken through all the sounds that assailed their ears, in their obedience and disobedience to the Will beyond all wills, in their mindfulness and understanding of the mighty acts of ultimate judgment and deliverance in all the arbitraments and liberations of history. It is to share in their appeals for mercy, in their questionings and reasonings with God, in their disputes, disagreements and reconciliations among themselves. There is no other way to learn, organize and apprehend experience, think and speak Christianly, than by long and continuous participation in the life of the Biblical communities. In this conversation with those who being dead yet speak we learn the logic as well as the language of the community that centers in God. Whatever the discontinuities between Israel and the early Church on the one hand, the modern Church on the other so far as their participation in natural, cultural and political events go, fundamental continuity prevails so far as divine-human and inter-human relations before God are concerned. For, as was pointed out previously, the knowledge of God and man with which we are concerned in the Church is precisely the knowledge available to those who stand in this historic community and apprehend reality from its point of view. In this communication between the Biblical and the modern communities the movement is not all one way; it is not simply the Bible that speaks to the theological student; he also speaks to the men of the Bible. Nothing is more evident from the history of Biblical interpretation in the Church and from the self-critical conversations of modern Biblical scholars than that the movement is reciprocal. New light does break forth from Scriptures as inquirers learn from their social and personal experience to ask new questions of the old communities and to read apparently familiar communications in a new setting. Every classical literature possesses such power of continuing its life and of developing new meanings in the minds of those who study not only it but the realities with which it deals. So Plato and Aristotle, Aeschylus and Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare continue to play active roles in Western cultural society. Far more than they, Moses and Isaiah, the Psalmists, Paul and John, Matthew, Mark and Luke participate in the life of the modern Christian community.

The theological community includes also the men and societies of Christian history. The Reformers, to be sure, revolted against the dominance of tradition at the expense of the Bible. The Reformation both established the priority of Biblical studies and tended to exclude from the theological community the theologians, prophets and churchmen of the post-New Testament period. It seemed sufficient that theology should combine with the present questionings of men in encounter with God and neighbors intense participation in the life of the men of Scriptures. In fact, however, tradition became established again as soon as it was banished. The second generation of Protestant theological students attended at least to Luther's and Calvin's words about attending to the Word of God. There is no Bible school or Biblical seminary that does not also study the mind of some founder of its method of interpreting Scripture, or of some other groups of Bible students besides itself. The question is not really whether the theological community should include only immediately present human beings and the men of Scriptures; other, historic men and groups will always be included. The question is how representative of the whole Church these men and societies will be, whether the Augustines and Thomases, not to speak of the Senecas and Ciceros, who belonged to the Reformers' community of discourse are to be heard directly; whether the response of Christians to the fall of the Roman Empire is to be understood or only their response to the decay of medieval civilization; whether the thirteenth-century revival of the Church or only its eighteenth-century awakening is to be regarded; whether only the fathers of a denomination or also the Church fathers on whom they relied are to be included in the community of discourse.

The study of historical theology and of the historical Church, whatever the limits within which it is undertaken, is as necessary as it is an inevitable part of theological inquiry. Under the influence of theories of progress or decline or development in history such study has frequently been carried on for the purpose of explaining the differences between Biblical and modern life before God. But, in effect, historical study is always far more important than these patterns of interpretation indicate. What happens in it is that men and communities of the past, confronting strange situations, making new responses and mistakes, yet always concerned with the one God and the same Christ, are included in the conversation of the present theological society. In this conversation chronological priority and posteriority are often unimportant. Augustine’s reflections may be more illuminative of the common subject than the later ideas of Thomas Aquinas; Luther may answer more questions of the modern student about his puzzling situation in guilt and anxiety before God than Schleiermacher; Bernard of Clairvaux may clarify the meaning of the love of God and neighbor more than a twentieth-century theologian. Historical study in theology, when theology is directed toward its chief objects, is always more like a conversation with a large company of similarly concerned and experienced men than like the tracing of a life history, whatever values there are in the latter procedure. But a theological inquiry that narrows the historical community, that excludes from the conversation such men as the early Fathers of the Church, or the medieval theologians, or the Reformers, or the sectarians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or the Puritans, Pietists and social gospelers, or such movements as monasticism, scholasticism, Biblicism, et cetera impoverishes itself from the beginning. The study of history is never only the effort to understand the past, or even to understand the human present that has grown out of the past; it is an extension of the effort to understand objects and situations common to the past and the present. It always involves a kind of resurrection of the minds of predecessors in the community of inquiry, and an entering into conversation with them about the common concern.

The principle of communication applies also to the relations of the theological school to other groups and activities in the contemporary Church. The isolated school, out of touch with other intellectual centers of the Church, out of touch also with the worshipping, serving, educating Church, uncognizant of and uninfluenced by the work of the preachers, priests, pastoral counselors and pastoral directors, uncritical and uncriticized, is not an intellectual center of the Church but only of some academic or religious sect. In such a school only fragments of theology can be studied; its partial views are never corrected or illuminated from other perspectives than its own.

Finally, the theological community as a Church center is always in companionship with the "world" and in communication with secular learning. In its participation in the life of the Biblical communities it participates with them in their conversation and conflict with ancient cultures; in its re-enactment of the life of the Church in history it also re-enacts the conversations of theologians with Platonists and Neo-Platonists, with Aristotelians and Averroists, with idealists and realists; it recapitulates the encounters of the institutional Church with Church-reforming and Church-deforming states, of the Christian community with rising and declining cultures. In its dialogue with contemporary churchmen it is involved in their engagements with the metropolitan, industrial society of our time. As center of the contemporary Church's intellectual activity it is also directly responsible for continuous conversation with the intellectual centers of secular society. Its relations to the philosophies, sciences and humanities studied in the latter will be as various as are the relations of the Church to its companion, the world. At times the conversation will be debate and polemic, but even conflict is creative for a theology that has been cured of defensiveness by the faith that infuses it. Frequently the relations will be co-operative, as when views of human nature developed in secular centers illuminate areas inaccessible, though highly germane, to theological understanding, or when the latter supplies insights otherwise unattainable.

This responsibility of the theological school for intercommunication with the world is not discharged by its requirement that those who wish to participate in its work must have previously received a liberal education. Theological inquiry is not something that can be added to humanistic and naturalistic studies. It needs to be constantly informed by them and to inform them. Hence also this responsibility is not met merely by the addition to theological studies of courses in the old or the new humanities—the study of literature, history and philosophy on the one hand, of culture, psychology and sociology on the other. The question is never one of adding bodies of knowledge to each other but always one of interpenetration and conversation. A theological school that is closely related to a university may be in a more favorable situation to maintain connection with humanistic and scientific studies than is the isolated school. It can also more readily make to the body of human learning the contributions that are required of theology. But proximity to a university, even organizational connection with one, does not guarantee that this interchange will take place, nor does distance from such an institution prevent the lively conversation of theology with other disciplines of thought.

This outline of the aspects of theological community activity offers no prescription for the manner in which duties are to be distributed among the members of a school. The division of labor in any society, including the theological school, will always doubtless be somewhat arbitrary. But whatever convenience and expediency require about the way in which the unity of theological study be broken up into manageable parts, the first requirements laid on all the specialists in the community seem to be: that their intellectual participation in the life of the Biblical, the historic and the contemporary Church always have in view the common theological object—God and man in their interrelations; and that it always be carried on in acute awareness of the "world" in which the Church has been assigned its task. One may say that the complex object of theological study always has the three aspects of God in relation to man, of men in relation to God, and of men-before-God in relation to each other, while the method of such study consists of intensive participation in the life of the Biblical, historical and contemporary churches in their encounters with God and interactions with the "world."


Our reflections on the nature of a theological school and on its methods of study have emphasized the theoretical character of its work. Whether its function as the exercise of the intellectual love of God and man or as the illumination of other church activities is stressed, in either case the work of the school is theoretical. As intellectual center of the Church's life it is the place where in specific manner faith seeks understanding. As guide of the immature it seeks to lead them to a knowledge of the whole complex of action in which they are to act; as illuminator and critic the school endeavors to aid the Church to understand what it is doing and by understanding to modify or redirect these actions. Hence it deals with the theory of preaching, of Christian education, of social action and of worship as well as with the theory of divine and human nature, of God's activity and man's behavior. So its work is theoretical through and through.

Objections to this emphasis will arise in various quarters. It will be pointed out that in the past great cleavages between theology and the Church have resulted from a one-sided interest in theory; that the development of the schools, particularly in America during the past hundred years, has been in reaction to the dominance of theory; that the Church needs men who have been practically trained in its work. These objections have some cogency, yet it may be questioned whether they are not directed against a kind of theorizing very different from the sort that has been described and whether they in turn have not led to practices that now stand in need of criticism. This problem of theory and practice which arises in many other contexts in theological schools itself needs theoretical illumination. Though our difficulties in the development of the schools have arisen in part from failure to achieve adequate understanding of our ultimate purposes and our total activity, they seem also to be partly due to inadequate theories of the relations of action and reflection.

Two views of this relation seem to guide and by their antagonism to perplex us. According to the intellectualist theory all human action begins with theory, with an understanding of ideas presented to the mind; the movement is from idea to action, from thought to voluntary deeds. First, it is supposed, we conceive the idea of God, then move toward love and obedience and faith; first we conceive the idea of salvation, then accept this healing work; first we understand the nature of the Church, then proceed to increase and edify it. Directly opposed to this view is the pragmatic theory which regards theoretical activity as an affair of rationalizations, essentially irrelevant to practice; practice is valued both for its own sake and as more directly contributory than thought can be to the welfare of men and the glory of God. The contention between advocates of these two theories of the relations of theory and practice becomes, in theological schools as well as elsewhere, a debate between two kinds of practitioners—the practitioners of theoretical activity on the one hand, of nontheoretical on the other. But in the course of the debate it becomes apparent that a host of issues is involved, not a simple and definable single issue. In consequence members of what seemed to be two parties are forever changing sides and confusion is increased rather than diminished.

Neither an intellectualist nor a pragmatic understanding of the relations of theory and practice has been presupposed in our definition of the theological school as the center of the Church's intellectual activity and as the college in which the Biblical, the historical and the contemporary Church are included in one community of discourse. What has been implied is the conviction that reflection and criticism form an indispensable element in all human activity, not least in the activities of the Church, but that such reflection cannot be independent of other activities, such as worship, proclamation, healing, et cetera. Reflection is never the first action, though in personal and communal life we can never go back to a moment in which action has been unmodified by reflection. Even when we prevision an act, such as worship, and reflect on what we have not yet done, the act contemplated does not grow out of the contemplation; its sources in the complex human soul are more various. Reflection precedes, accompanies and follows action but this does not make it the source or end of action. Reflection as a necessary ingredient in all activity is neither prior nor subservient to other motions of the soul. Serving these it is served by them in the service of God and neighbor or of the self. It serves them in its own way, by abstracting and relating, by discerning pattern and idea, by criticism and comparison. It is served by a will that disciplines, a love that guides, by the perception of incarnate being, by hope of fulfillment.

The work of a theological school is necessarily reflective but if it is carried on in complete abstraction from other action, or if it is reflection on the actions of other men only, it soon becomes theory in the bad sense of the term—a vision of reflections of reflections. The theoretical work of the intellect needs to be carried on in the context of the Church's whole life; hence those whose special duty it is to do this work must participate in that life if they are to discharge their peculiar duty. One cannot understand the meaning of preaching in the total work of the Church apart from direct personal hearing and proclamation of the gospel, nor know the character of worship, its direction, the requirements it makes on the self and its relations to proclamation and service unless one is a worshiper. How shall one understand Christian education in theory without engaging in it as teacher and student, or church administration without participation in the organized common life of a Christian community? The point is not that we learn by doing. Sometimes we learn nothing by doing except the bare deed, as when children are taught to read by being required simply to read but never learn that written words refer to a whole world beyond them or when theological students are taught to "preach" by being required to make public addresses but never discover the difference between a sermon and an oration. The point is rather that we do not learn the meaning of deeds without doing. If action unexamined, unreflected upon and uncriticized is not worth doing, examination, reflection and criticism which are not the self-examination, the self-reflection and self-criticism of a living agent also are scarcely worth carrying on.

A second equally or more important reason why theological study must be set in the context of the Church's whole activity if it is to be genuine theology, lies in the nature of theoretical activity. The intellect abstracts, compares, conceptualizes; it notes relations and forms ideas of them. In theology it turns to ideas of being, of God, of fatherhood and sonship, of sovereignty and mercy, of judgment and salvation. It turns from selves in their concrete personal and communal existence to ideas of the image of God in man, of the soul, of mankind, the people of God, of sin and blessedness. Endeavoring to understand the Church it tries to discern its pattern and to see analogies between churchly and other realities. Now the proper work of the intellect lies in the accurate, critical discovery, definition and testing of such ideas. But this work of theory cannot stand alone because it is a work of abstraction that proceeds from, and must return to, the concrete reality of life. Moreover, engagement in theological inquiry involves the student in personal hazards because he is tempted to regard the abstract as the real and even to make it the object of his love. This danger can be avoided only if theology is set within the larger personal and social context of a life of love of God and neighbor.

While it is true, as has been said before, that theology requires personal involvement on the part of its students, the fact cannot be ignored that in the activity of the intellect the ultimate objects and subjects of love, faith and hope must be set somewhat at the fringe of awareness. In the moment of his study God and neighbor are not present to the theologian as Thous addressing or being addressed by this I. What is immediately present are forms, patterns, ideas ingredient in the Thous. Furthermore, the mind that contemplates ideas is not the self in its whole concrete character with its anxieties and hopes, its highly personal guilt and need of deliverance from evil but rather a kind of common mind, an abstracted self. In the terms Martin Buber has made familiar, theology is an affair of I-It rather than of I-Thou relations, and the I in this I-It relation differs from the I in the I-Thou relation. To be sure, theology does not think of God as an It nor does it make a thing out of the neighbor, but the abstractions it attends to are its, things, rather than selves in their living power. Sin and salvation do not become ideas; but ideas of sin and salvation do occupy the foreground of attention. Neither is the self reduced to the studious, mental self; yet the vocation of the student takes a certain precedence for the time being over the man who among many other things also studies. Because intellectual work requires such attention to the impersonal therefore it is necessary that it be constantly corrected and made serviceable by activities of another sort, especially by the worship of God, the hearing of his Word, and direct service of the neighbor. In worship and in the hearing of the proclamation the eternal Thou and the concrete selfhood of worshiper or hearer of the Word are in a confrontation never actualized in study. In the service of the neighbor not only he as a real person but the self also, in all its weakness and need, with all its concrete obligations, are brought into awareness in a manner never achievable by a student of theology so far as he remains a student. Hence while a community which centers in worship is not a theological school, a theological school in which worship is not a part of the daily and weekly rhythm of activity cannot remain a center of intellectual activity directed toward God. Preaching and hearing the proclamation is not theological study; but if students of theology, in all their degrees of immaturity and maturity, do not attend to the Word addressed to them as selves their study represents flight from God and self. A community of service to men is not as such a theological center; but a school that only studies man-before-God and man in relation to neighbor without the accompaniment of frequent, direct encounter with human Thous, serving and being served, has become too irresponsible to neighbors to be called a divinity school.

Consideration of the relations of study to worship, to the preaching and hearing of the Word, and to the service of men calls our attention to the significance of these activities as they need to be carried on by the theological community itself. But it also puts into a frequently neglected perspective the meaning of participation by students and faculty in the Church's work outside the confines of the school. All too often "field work" (why not call it "church work?") is regarded and directed as though its purpose were the acquisition of skills for future use. Students, it seems, should teach Sunday School classes because sometime in the future they will need to organize Sunday Schools; to do "clinical work" in hospitals because they will learn something beneficial for their later practice as counselors; to practice preaching so that in other times and other places they may proclaim divine righteousness and mercy. When such considerations are urged upon them an inner contradiction comes to appearance; a kind of professionalized self-love has been substituted for love of God and neighbor. The children in the Sunday School class, the patients in the hospital, the hearers of the "practice sermon" have been put into a secondary place; they have become means to a personal end. Fortunately, the situations in which students so sent into "field work" find themselves, their own sensitiveness and the grace of God active in many secondary agencies counteract the influence of the theory that such participation in the Church's work is self-loving preparation for the exercise of future other-loving action. It demands immediate self-forgetful service of others; it puts into the center of attention God on whom the servant is dependent and the neighbor who is in need of service. It requires the young man or woman engaging in it to be a minister now, rather than to look forward merely to future ministry. It puts the intellectual love of God and neighbor into the rich context of the present moment. Doubtless participation in church work by students of theology has educational value, since devoted and intelligent men are bound to learn from experience, especially if they can compare it with that of others. But neither self-education nor the undergirding of intellectual activity constitutes the purpose of work that can have only the glory of God and the welfare of companions as its ends. These and other considerations underscore the significance of participation in church work by those who are engaged in theological study. It is important that their studies be set in the context of the Church's work not simply because theology is thereby enriched, but also because it is not a way of life and because a person is not definable in terms of his vocation even though it be the vocation of theological student. Theology is only the intellectual part of a way of life and the young person's problem is not simply one of attaining intellectual comprehension but of growing up into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

Yet all this does not mean that the theological school should turn away from its own proper work of intellectual activity. It means that theoretical activity can be only provisionally and partly separated from the Church's total action, or that as the theological community is necessary to the functioning of the Church so also the Church's other agencies are necessary to that community. Once more the old parable of the body and its members finds its application.

These adumbrations of the idea of a theological school will seem to some who have followed the course of our argument to be so general or so Utopian as to be irrelevant to the existing seminaries in the United States and Canada. How shall administrators and teachers gain help from such generalities as they struggle to find answers to pressing questions about the extension of the curriculum to four years, about the place in it of Greek and Hebrew, about making better provisions for the theological education and employment of young women? Such questions cannot be answered on the basis of a general idea of theological study without further theoretic inquiry into the specific situations in which they arise.( A further volume on theological education in the United States and Canada, now in preparation by the staff of the study project, will come to closer grip with some specific problems.) But the problem of theological education, as it presents itself to administrators, boards and faculties, does not consist simply of a series of detailed questions. It is also a problem of the over-all goal and context of the seminaries' work. The reflections here offered on that subject have not been developed in abstraction from the practice of theological education but only in some abstraction from the confusion of many details. The idea has been worked out in the midst of practice and in consultation with hundreds of fellow practitioners.

Like every such theory, like theology itself, it remains incomplete and open. It is an effort to understand in the moment, while the conversation in the Church continues, what are the intelligible outlines of the structure of theological study in the Protestant schools. A theological education which does not lead young men and women to embark on a continuous, ever-incomplete but ever-sustained effort to study and to understand the meanings of their work and of the situations in which they labor is neither theological nor education. Similarly, a theory of theological study which does not lead toward new endeavors toward better, more precise and more inclusive understanding of the nature of theological endeavor under the government of God is not a theory of theology but a dogmatic statement backed by no more than individual authority, that is, by no authority at all.