Brief Thoughts on the Future of Theological Education

by Timothy George

During the seven years I spent as a student at Harvard Divinity School, I frequently passed through Johnson Gate as I walked across Harvard Yard on my way to Widener Library. A plaque on the northern side of Johnson Gate contains a quotation from New England’s First Fruits (1640), an early history of the Puritan beginnings of Massachusetts Bay Colony:

After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the civil government: One of the next things we longed for, and looked after, was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.

Harvard’s Puritan forebears determined to establish what they called “a seminary in the wilderness” in order to train ministers of the gospel for the service of the church. Building on the Protestant heritage they had brought with them from the Old World, they wanted to pass on the faith intact to the rising generation. They assumed as something inherent in the nature of civil and humane society itself that education and reformation belonged invariably together.

But the fact is, we evangelicals have not always been at our best. We have often been contrarians and reactionaries. We have found it difficult to hold intellectual rigor and spiritual nurture in equipoise. Cotton Mather once reported that when his famous grandfather, John Cotton, was a student back in England, at Cambridge, he was worried that “if he became a godly man, t’would spoil him in being a learned one.” But, of course, the opposite is also true. We can all think of students we have known who, in the process of becoming learned, have forgotten to be godly.

Not so many years ago, few if any Protestant or evangelical seminaries paid much attention to spiritual formation. That was something the Catholics did! Now our accreditation standards hold us all accountable for the spiritual nurture of our students. Genuine theological education should aim for transformation, not the mere transfer of cognitive data from one mind to another. We can be satisfied with neither rigid intellectualism on the one hand nor unreflective sentimentalism on the other. Our aim ought to be rather head and heart together, puritanism and pietism, both together at their best. As Thomas Aquinas, echoing Augustine, put it, “Theology is taught by God, teaches God, and takes us to God.”

But how to do this in a school that cultivates at once the life of the mind and the flourishing of the soul? It has now been more than two hundred years since Friedrich Schleiermacher published his Brief Outline on the Study of Theology (1811), establishing thereby a ratio studiorum for the various disciplines within a theological faculty. This well-tested fourfold schema (biblical, historical, systematic, practical) has served many generations of theological students and, with some modifications, remains intact in most seminaries to this day. But this pedagogical pattern has brought more disparity than clarity to the task of theological education. As Kevin Vanhoozer puts it, Schleiermacher’s model “draws and quarters the body of theology into different members, distinct areas of specialization that, like the fallen Humpty Dumpty, cannot easily be put back together.”

This has resulted in the loss of a coherent theological vision, as more and more theological teachers seek a sense of primary identification with a professional guild of like-minded scholars. Add to this a disjointed cafeteria-styled curricula, and the graduation of typical (stereotypical?) seminary “products” who are not theologians in any serious sense of the word. This problem is not unique to evangelical theological schools, but neither are they exempt from it.

Max Stackhouse once defined the task of theological education as the shaping of ministers formed by the “warranted wisdom” and “grounded scientia” of the Christian tradition. For evangelicals, the precise warranting and grounding of this work must be defined both in terms of a specific doctrinal content and a foundation of praxis. Cardinal Newman wrote that “nothing is easier than to use the word ‘God’ and mean nothing by it.” Theological seminaries exist to serve the mission of God—the covenantal God of the Bible, the one, true, eternal, living, triune God of holiness and love—and this means prayer and worship are not ancillary but central to their core identity.

A theological seminary is not a church, but it is a school of the church, and all who study, work, and teach in such a school share a sacred calling. Lesslie Newbigin reminded us that the church of Jesus Christ is the embodiment of gospel truth made alive in the power of the Holy Spirit. The church is not only the most effective apologetic for the Christian message in our increasingly fragile and fragmented world, but it is also the only one likely to get a hearing in such a world. The ecclesial vocation of theological education requires all of us to pray and work for healthier churches, for our theological schools will not flourish without faithful communities of God’s people to join them in partnerships of prayer and mutual support.

Theological education over the next decades of the twenty-first century will need to be increasingly personal, incarnational, global, and gospel centered. It will also need to take the longer view and remember the summons to humility found in these words by Reinhold Niebuhr:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a life time; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore we are saved by love.


Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.

Editor's Note: This post was adapted from Dr. George's foreword in Theology, Church, and Ministry: A Handbook for Theological Education (B&H Academic, 2017).