The History of Theological Education

Justo L. González. Abingdon Press, 2015. 140 pages.

Noted church historian Justo L. Gonzalez does what professional historians usually don’t – he tells a history in order to make a point about the present.

Gonzalez writes his book with four premises.

The first is that theological education is part of the essence of the church.

The second is that theological education, in it has been understood for the past few hundred years, is in crisis. This is demonstrated by the decreasing number of ministerial candidates for formal theological education.

Thirdly, however, theological education in general is doing well. Plenty of lay Christians engage in training and education for non-ordained or volunteer ministry.

The fourth premise for the writing of his book is that the history of theological education is a helpful tool for guidance into the future for this matter.

The first fifteen centuries of Gonzalez’s history observes that formal theological education was rare for the preparation of church leaders. More commonly, the study of theology was tied not to ministerial training but to the student’s own devotion to God. It was oriented not toward how to be a church leader but on understanding, defending, and instructing in the faith. This is traced throughout the history of the church right through to the late Middle Ages. Much of the training in leadership appears to have been done through mentoring by more senior leaders.

One particularly interesting feature from the early centuries of Christianity is the rise and decline of the practice known as catechizing. This word refers to the instruction in the beliefs and practices of Christian faith. Catechising became increasingly necessary in the early church as less converts were drawn from Jews and God-fearers, and more from the pagan population who knew little of biblical religion.

This time of preparation lasted as long as two years, before being permitted to be baptised and take communion, thus fully and formally joining the church.

This pattern began to change as Christianity became the favoured and favourite faith of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. As the churches were swamped by new converts, they struggled to train and provide enough instructors. The demands on these new converts were lowered, and eventually catechizing was dropped altogether.

After the Reformation the pattern that the later early church had settled into for the Middle Ages was disrupted. The contests of ideas that arose between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and between varying Protestant factions, required a much higher degree of education for church leaders in order to both defend and advance their particular Christian identity over and against rival contenders.

It was at this time that formal seminaries for the training of church leaders emerged, or the requirement for university-based education. The process of catechising lay members of the churches (or parishes) was also recommenced, in order to adequately strengthen their intellectual formation.

The predominant trend of Gonzalez’s telling of the history of modern theological education that critical analysis of Scripture and doctrine trumped pastoral and spiritual formation and training. This was due partly to the perceived need to keep up with or ahead of other universities and seminaries, as the merit of such institutions became determined by the ‘originality and thoroughness of the research conducted by the faculty… rather than on the impact that the graduates of such institutions might make on the church and on society’ (p. 115). That inclination has been to the detriment of the relationship between churches and theological institutions: academies are too often uninterested in the life and concerns of the church, which in turn is unwilling to learn from the academy whose relevance is less direct than it should be.

The penultimate chapter summarises what has been surveyed and highlights some trends that have emerged as they relate to the present day. The benefits and pitfalls and challenges of residential learning communities are one of these. Another is the ubiquitous and recent presence of the internet, which – like the printing press in the sixteenth century – has revolutionised for better and worse the realities of theological education.

A number of directives are suggested as part of this summary chapter. A few of these are as follows.

  • Theological education needs to have a strong relationship to the life of the church.
  • Course teaching and evaluation needs to be oriented not towards what students learn, but rather to how the student is able to ‘share and teach both content and the process of learning’ (p. 128).
  • Theological education must not stop with the awarding of a diploma or degree certificate. It must be an ongoing, lifelong process of learning and reflection that is connected with Christian service.
  • Develop an educational model that helps the whole church adapt and face new and developing challenges.
  • One goal of theological education must be learning to produce study and reflection materials that will resource the church and the development of its future leaders.

The final chapter outlines the crisis he has seen emerging. Gonzalez observes the North American scene. As demographics shift and economic realities change, many seminaries and university theology department languish. Some manage to buy time, while a few buck the trend and flourish, but on the whole the trend for formal traditional theological leadership training – is downward.

The church however is still growing, but most of the growth is overseen by lay leaders with limited training. Conversely, those that are in decline are the ones which require many years of theological education for ordination. Obviously this presents a problem for training institutions, including the many that do desire to contribute to the betterment of the church. In light of this crisis the author offers examples and suggestions which suggest ways forward for theology faculties.

Gonzalez’s telling of history underscores the importance of pastoral and theological mentoring for providing succeeding generations of church leadership. Whatever might be the role of formal training institutions in the twenty-first century, Gonzalez’s book provides an important reminder that the most important training will happen within the church. Gonzalez reminds us of the promise made by our Lord that ‘not even the gates of hell – and even less the gates of the twentieth-first century – will not prevail against the church. Therefore, our task for today is not so much to see how we bring about the reformation that God requires and promises but rather how we join it’ (p. 130).

The History of Theological Education is available from Book Depository for NZ$44.01 (price as at 17 July 2021).