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Volume 1/Issue 2/August 2015
The History of Theological Education

Book Review

The History of Theological Education

Justo González, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015. xi + 155pp.

As an experienced educator, the author of a celebrated two-volume history of Christianity, and an advocate for theological training in the global South, Justo González is undoubtedly qualified to advance a history of theological education. And González’s The History of Theological Education is certainly more than a repackaging of his previous work with a focus on theological training. As González recounts in the preface, the book emerged from his own reflection on how such history must inform the contemporary crisis facing traditional theological education. As has been widely observed, enrollment in Catholic and mainline Protestant seminaries has declined precipitously in the last several decades. However, at the same time that these institutions struggle to produce sufficient ministers for their churches, innovative approaches to theological education are experiencing exponential growth. These new institutions focus on both lay and clerical training and sometimes bear little resemblance to conventional seminaries – even though the same faculty may teach at both. Such a paradox invites a fresh reexamination of history as “one of the best tools we can use for guidance into the future” (xi). Historical examination reminds us that much of what the traditional training paradigm takes as necessary “may not be so.” For example, “for fifteen centuries the church subsisted, taught its theology, and at times flourished, without a single seminary” (xi). In this way, history can shed light on contemporary challenges both through the shortcomings and the successes of previous generations.

González devotes thirteen brief chapters to surveying the development of theological education from the New Testament period to the present. The book opens with a glimpse of what might be learned from the earliest church. Gonzales notes that the New Testament and earliest church give us very little useful data about theological education, we can infer two basic requirements: worship leaders must be able to read, and they must be able to interpret the Scriptures. Since no schools existed for ministerial training, interpretative approaches, apart from the method evident in the text itself, would have come from the training bishops had received in secular schools of rhetoric. The main means for pastoral preparation was the process every Christian undertook in order to become part of the church: the catechumenate. “In the ancient church,” Gonzales writes, “there was no difference between the biblical and theological training that the laity received and that which was required for ordination” (14).

Next, Gonzales demonstrates that the end of systemic persecution of the church both permitted the rise of remarkable Christian leadership and undermined the church’s ability to adequately in- struct new converts. Undoubtedly the most important figure of this period was Augustine of Hippo (354–430). Building from his own formative experiences, Augustine underscored the importance of community for theological life. His On Christian Doctrine became the basic manual for ministerial training. This period of history also saw remarkable growth in the church. But while the combi- nation of new religious freedom and periodic Germanic invasions brought waves of new converts into the church, it also overwhelmed the catechumenate system, necessitating the reduction of the process from two years to 40 days under Gregory the Great (540–604). This rapid growth, paired with the absence of a formal system of training for the clergy, contributed to a growing ignorance among church leadership.

González, thus, underscores vital importance of the development of monastic and cathedral schools in the early middle ages. Monasteries preserved the teaching of Christian doctrine, recorded and translated the history of pagan peoples, copied and disseminated the Scriptures, and trained men for evangelistic work. The monastic novitiate also became a functional replacement for the catechumenate; “what was earlier expected of most Christians and offered to them was now re- served for a smaller group of particularly devout Christians” (30). In addition to these independent monastic communities, cathedral schools began to develop around major urban churches. Here too, basic education in the central doctrines of the faith was preserved and, in some places, resources were developed for broader dissemination.

González argues that the most significant period of theological development in the history of the church occurred in the thirteenth century. It was during this period that the university system developed as an alternative to the cathedral and monastic models. What set the university apart was its fundamental independency. Generally speaking, the cathedral model passed down orthodoxy by submitting to the authority of the church. The university model, in contrast, possessed a critical distance. Following the approach of Peter Abelard (1079–1142), the university model saw the benefit of challenging what had been passed down –not as a rejection of authority, but as a means for the discovery of truth. This was the period of great scholastic teachers like Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and the development of monastic orders (Fransicans and Dominicans) dedicated to the life of the mind. The flourishing of scholasticism in the 13th century also led to a growing distance between the academy and the church and, despite the theological awakening in much of the academy, little penetrated to the parish church.

The development of the university, the growing gap between theology and piety in the academy, the profound ignorance of the parish clergy, and the restriction of theological training to the clergy all contributed to the reformations of the 16th century. Among Protestants, formal university edu- cation became a requirement for ordination, biblical training was emphasized as necessary for the laity, and universal systems of primary and secondary education were developed. Among Catholics, reforms at Trent addressed the reformation of clerical training and expected that such training should be reflected in a life of profound spirituality. It was during this time that the word seminary was first used in Catholic Britain to describe institutions dedicated to the training of English clergy. These “seedbeds” existed to cultivate a large number of candidates and then transplant them to the places where their ministry was to take place (81).

González notes that the period following the Protestant and Catholic reformations saw sever- al important developments. Protestant scholasticism sought to systematize the doctrines of the Reformers, paying more attention to the ‘practical’ dimensions of theology (ethics and devotion) than their predecessors. Nevertheless, certain tendencies contributed to the dangerous idea that knowledge itself constituted faith, an error that the Pietist movement sought to address. Modern theological education was born out of Pietist goals and new scientific and critical mentality. The latter, however, soon came to eclipse the former. The best schools were no longer known for their relevance for the church or ministry so much as for the prestige of their teachers. The increasingly scientific approach to scripture was one of the elements that led to the conflict between liberals and fundamentalists. Fundamentalists “canonized ignorance” (115) and promoted a “biblical imperial- ism” while the latter canonized science and promoted discussions having little to do with the life of the church. This led to a persistent tension between the academy and the church.

In his conclusion, González notes that recent shifts in demographics and in culture threaten to make theological training in traditionally accredited programs as elitist and irrelevant as those of the medieval universities in the 15th century. He suggests several ways in which a historical survey informs present thinking on theological training. First, theological education should be returned to its proper place, the heart of the church – particularly in its local expression. Second, methods of teaching and evaluating should be developed that focus on equipping students to be able to share and teach the content and process of learning. Third, theological education should be fundamen- tally seen as a life-long endeavor and should be flexible enough to deal with evolving circumstances and unexpected challenges. Fourth, theological education should be expanded to encompass not only those moving towards ordained ministry, but those who are already ministering without training as well as laypersons who desire training for non-vocational ministry pursuits. Theological education should develop mentors trained in theological reflection and pastoral practice. Finally, materials for study and reflection should be developed to resource on-going theological training.

González historical survey is masterful. The brief chapters address primary sources without getting bogged down in excessive detail. Chapter summaries draw together the main themes and make the book very accessible. González’s historical treatment is even-handed, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of various historical approaches to training. But the book clearly aims to do more than its title suggests. González sees weaknesses in the contemporary seminary model.

While he does not precisely identify these weaknesses, he argues for a return to a focused learning community comprised of both vocational and non-vocational ministers who are devoted to person- al piety, rigorous study, and practical ministry for the sake of the local church. While his directives correspond to historical realities, one does wonder if he discovers in history precisely the answers he already had in mind. Perhaps the most significant weakness of González’s book, however, is the lack of reflection on doctrine. He does not note how the abandonment of certain theological com- mitments (e.g. the nature of Scripture, exclusivity of Christ) has contributed to the current crisis in mainline theological education and the corresponding decline in mainline churches. His historical survey similarly fails to examine the significance of theological tensions in periods of decline and reform in theological education (e.g. justification, sacramentalism).

Overall, this short book is an excellent primer on the history of theological education. While the book may have the concerns of mainline institutions in view, all readers will benefit from González’s historical insights as well as his suggestions for reforming theological training. As González notes, many non-traditional and church-based theological training programs have already begun return- ing to a discipleship model of education shaped by a profoundly biblical spirituality. But he is also right to argue that what is necessary for traditional seminaries is “no less than a radical transfor- mation in theological education...grounded on a renewed vision of theological education. In this vision, all of Christian life is, among other things, a life of theological study and reflection” (119). 

Review By: C. Ryan Griffith

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