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What’s the matter with theological education?

Barbara Wheeler examines the critical and constructive project led by Ted Smith of Candler School of Theology that predicts professional models of ministry, denominations and congregations will not survive in their current form.

Discontent with the way theology is taught and ministers are educated runs through the whole history of seminary education in America.

In the first decade of the 19th century, the Congregationalist faculty of Andover Academy, shocked by the decision of Harvard College to appoint a Unitarian to its chair of divinity, acted on a proposal drafted many years earlier by one of the school’s professors. It outlined a post-baccalaureate program of ministry preparation to replace the then-current patterns of theological education in colleges or by apprenticeship. The result was Andover Seminary, the first graduate-level theological school and, in fact, the first graduate school of any kind in America. Within 10 years, all the old-line Protestant denominations (including the Unitarians at Harvard) had created seminaries; as the century wore on, many other churches followed suit.

Another example of impact: At the beginning of the 20th century, Robert Kelly, based in John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s Institute for Social and Religious Research, published a study criticizing “[inadequate] machinery and the methods used in educating Protestant ministers,” especially seminaries with low standards and the many high-school-level training institutes for Christian workers created by the social gospel movement. The research was precipitated by Abraham Flexner’s scathing report on medical education, which put many low-grade schools out of business. The leaders of elite seminaries organized, founding an accrediting association. By the 1940s, many seminaries had upgraded and the training institutes had either become graduate institutions or disappeared.

Many other critiques of theological education, however, including some by such eminent scholars as William Rainey Harper, William Adams Brown, and H. Richard Niebuhr, failed to make much difference. The most recent of these was what came to be called the “Basic Issues Project,” published in response to Theologia (1983) by Edward Farley, a philosophical theologian who taught at Vanderbilt. In the book, Farley argued that the four-fold pattern that organizes the curricula and faculty of Christian seminaries (Scripture, theology, history, practice) is a fossil with medieval roots. Originally it organized a hierarchy of studies, from Scripture at the top to the Christian life at the end, that led the believer toward theologia, a deep sapiential understanding of God. Over time, the unity of the pattern as theologia was shattered, as historical and critical approaches changed the contents of each division of studies and as a “clerical paradigm” emerged that defined the first three categories as “theory” to be applied in the practice of ministry. But the pattern and its implied top-down, theory-to-practice movement remain, “fragmenting,” according to Farley, all efforts to integrate theological studies into a coherent whole.

Willard Chapel at Auburn Theological Seminary
© 2016, Photo by Stephen Stookey

More than 100 books and articles were produced to address Farley’s challenge: What could make theological education whole again? What course of studies might produce deep personal and theological formation? Many were the work of renowned scholars (David Kelsey, Rebecca Chopp, John Cobb, Don Browning, Charles Wood, the Mud Flower Collective of Black and White feminists). A study I conducted several years after these works were published, however, showed that most of the writing went unread and failed to affect the ways theological educators went about their work.

Now another critical and constructive project is underway. Under the rubric “Theological Education Between the Times,” it is led by Ted Smith, academic dean and professor at the Candler School of Theology. Outlook readers and theological educators were likely introduced to the project in Willie Jennings’ After Whiteness, a remarkable volume that offers both unsparing accounts of racism in theological education and an invitation to widespread participation in the exploration of “belonging.” When complete, the new series will offer works from a much wider range of writers than Basic Issues involved. This spring, Smith’s own book, The End of Theological Education, was published. It is a personal statement, but it also functions as Theologia did for Basic Issues, providing a framework that organizes the other publications. Smith’s focus is the current moment in America. To illuminate it, he presents a compelling historical scheme organized by “imaginaries,” using the term – like Jean-Paul Sartre and other social philosophers since – to describe clusters of concepts, institutional forms and values that define a society, in this case, especially, churches and their leaders in a particular period.

The first of these imaginaries he calls the “Standing Order,” the arrangement of institutions and their supporting concepts that prevailed in colonial America and survived into the early 19th century. In the Standing Order, the church was, de jure or de facto, part of civic life. In some colonies and later states, churches of the established tradition were supported by public funds and had public responsibilities. The minister’s role was in effect a public office. Trained in colleges that were chartered and partially funded by crown or colony, ministers were ordained to office in a particular town and often for life. The authority of the minister, Smith argues, derived chiefly from the office he held in the Standing Order, and only secondarily from his competence or personal gifts.

Trained in colleges that were chartered and partially funded by crown or colony, ministers were ordained to office in a particular town and often for life.

The disestablishment of churches, far from undercutting organized religion as many feared, made way for it to flourish in the form of a new imaginary, the voluntary association. Although the civic order was no longer officially religious, numerous voluntary churches and religious organizations joined together, “legitimating each other,” according to Smith, to form a nation they defined as Christian. Among these associations were two new organizational forms: denominations and the seminaries they sponsored, both of which multiplied quickly in the 19th century and well into the 20th. To lead voluntary congregations, a new model of the minister emerged: a professional with skills of institutional leadership and the charisma to hold together institutions built on the voluntary principle. These capacities, certified by credentials, were portable, and professional ministers typically led multiple organizations over a career.

This image of minister, church and society still dominates as our shared picture of how things should be, but for the past half century, voluntary associations of all kinds have struggled. Smith believes that he and other theorists have discerned the next imaginary:  “authentic individualism,” focused on self-expression and “the curated self.” It is a constellation of ideas and values that voluntary associations, with their emphasis on multiplicity and mutual tolerance as constituting the “sacred nation,” have helped to create. Hence Smith describes the end of the voluntary era not as decline but “unravelling.” He admits that in an interval “between the times” like the present, it is hard to forecast what institutional forms the new imaginary will take. He predicts, though, that seminaries, the professional model of ministry, and denominations and congregations as now constituted will not survive in their present form.

The disestablishment of churches, far from undercutting organized religion as many feared, made way for it to flourish in the form of a new imaginary, the voluntary association.

This narrative has limitations. It best fits the author’s own stream of religious life and institutional lodgment. (Like Farley, Smith is a Presbyterian minister teaching in a university divinity school.) Catholics, conservative and evangelical Protestant traditions, and Black churches have, variously, long been ambivalent about or resistant to the professional model, to graduate-level theological education, and to acknowledging the legitimacy of other Christian traditions as part of the national whole.

For those of us in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and our mainline cousins, however, Smith’s account of imaginaries is revelatory. Pastors, church members and denominational staff should read this portion of the book. They will find the history and analysis a stimulating alternative to pervasive messages of decline. The imaginaries scheme also fills a large vacuum left by Farley and other Basic Issues writers. Focused intently on the structure, content and formative power of theological studies, they paid little attention to either theological institutions or their American context. Reciprocally, in his history of imaginaries, Smith says very little about what is taught and studied in theological schools. Theological faculties could greatly profit by using Smith’s framework, along with Farley’s critique, as scaffolds for reflecting on what they are doing and why.

[Smith] admits that in an interval “between the times” like the present, it is hard to forecast what institutional forms the new imaginary will take.

The remainder of Smith’s book contains a critique of and proposals for theological education. It is hard to know what to make of it. The tone is set by a full-on apocalyptic chapter (“The End”). Because God is ultimately the agent of our future, and human limitations and sinfulness cannot be overcome by our own efforts, all our goals and mission statements for our institutions are merely “dreamscapes.” Further, seminaries in their present form are deeply corrupted by the “white settler colonial project.” For these reasons, Smith says, we should not attempt to manage them into something better. The only appropriate action is to renounce them.

It is not clear what renunciation would look like. Instead of expanding that notion, Smith suggests a series of partial responses – “affordances,” as he calls them – that might help seminaries come to terms with the unraveling of their voluntary structure and the emergence of authentic individualism. These include non-graduate education for bi-vocational and other ministers (Smith’s own school is already doing that), “solidarity with less privileged workers,” and support for “leaderfull movements.” None is very well spelled out. He also proposes changes in pedagogy, but in such general terms (he advocates, for instance, “useless theology”) that they are hard to picture, let alone implement.

I would argue that the new imaginary requires strenuous efforts to rebuild and reorient voluntary associations, including congregations and theological schools (I am not so sure about denominations).

Smith is not a romantic. He sees dangers as well as opportunities in the turn to the self-curating individual. I would argue that the new imaginary requires strenuous efforts to rebuild and reorient voluntary associations, including congregations and theological schools (I am not so sure about denominations). Otherwise, those free-floating, expressivist individuals will be at the mercy of the institutions that now dominate: for-profit corporations. Or Smith may be right that some entirely new configurations we can’t imagine – much less create – are lurking in this time between times. In any case, not only seminaries but the whole church should urgently take up the issues he raises, and they should do so with Smith’s extraordinary history and his colleagues’ diverse contributions in hand.

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