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The History of Theological Education

Justo L. Gonzalez
Published by Abingdon Press in 2015

David I. Smith is the Director of Graduate Studies in Education and the Director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin College.

Lamenting divisions between theory and practice, theology and education, and the academy and the church, the editors of a recent volume on the Christian university comment wryly in their preface that “theology is the business of theologians, education of educationalists, and theological education of nobody in particular.”1 To the extent that this is true, a book such as Justo Gonzalez’s new History of Theological Education has an ambiguous location among the larger projects of theology, education, and church history. I suspect this landed the editors of Christian Scholar’s Review with a mild dilemma: should we ask a theologian, a historian, or an education scholar to write a review? They chose the last of the three, and so this review brings the interests of a specialist in education to Gonzalez’s project, rather than those of the theologian or historian. I take such dialogue to be desirable; theological education is, after all, not just a matter of talking about theology in the presence of learners.

The book itself, for all its brevity (2,000 years of theological education in 139 pages), seems to face in multiple directions. The main body of the book offers a concise, informative, and readable overview of the major developments in Western theological education since the early church. While there is a commendable amount of attention to detail in the text despite the limited space, referencing is minimal. The format suggests a useful textbook for seminary courses or an accessible overview for interested general readers. However, the more polemical argument that frames this material, somewhat sandwich-like, in the introduction and final chapter, seems to be addressed more narrowly to faculty and administrators working in schools belonging to the Association of Theological Schools. These sections feel at times more like a white paper or a conference presentation to colleagues. The framing argument is unobtrusive in the main body of the book, which easily stands on its own feet. It did, however, feel a little surprising to find the closing reflections focused on action points with regard to recruitment and academic polity in a specific brand of North American seminary rather than addressed to students or interested congregants or to the learning of the wider church. The theological education that takes place in current Christian day schools, liberal arts colleges, and universities, both inside and outside the classroom and in the classrooms of disciplines other than theology, is not addressed. By the end of the book, the “we” of the closing exhortations denotes faculty in ATS schools. Thus, despite a recurring emphasis on the need for a broader envisioning of theological education, in the end, the impression is given that consideration of the learning proper and important to the church belongs for the most part in the hands of theologians in seminaries. This is not to say that the arguments urged are not important, apt, or timely within their remit; I will return to them in due course below.

Before returning to the book’s polemical goals, a survey of its main narrative is in order. What, it seems natural to ask, might a history of theological education be about? There are a number of possible emphases. Should the focus be on the history of institutional structures? On pedagogical change? On the shifts in the theology that is taught? On curriculum design? On the shifting relationship between churches and schools? On major theologians? On major education theorists? On reasons and motivations for teaching theology? On professional preparation for ministers? On how church members at large learn theology? On the challenges of culture and context? Gonzalez takes a remarkable run at tackling all of the above in less than 140 pages, managing deftly to survey major shifts in purpose, pedagogy, curriculum, theology, and organization without the story for the most part feeling too rushed. A few threads that turn out to be key to where Gonzalez is headed help guide the narrative. These include the recurring questions of how academic training relates to church life, how knowledge relates to faith, how the learning of those to be ordained relates to the learning of congregants, and whether institutions resembling modern seminaries are actually necessary to the life of the church.

The opening chapter brushes breezily past the New Testament and into the second century. Gonzalez notes that there is no evidence of formal clergy training in the New Testament. Given the book’s aim of broadening the notion of theological education beyond professional training for clergy, one might perhaps have hoped for a little more exploration of what else the New Testament might have to offer to frame what it means more widely to teach or learn theology. Gonzalez notes the low levels of literacy among early Christians and the importance of training in pagan schools for church leaders, and suggests that “the distinction that we make between theological education for the church as a whole and the training for the pastorate did not exist in the early church” (7). The next two chapters offer a fascinating and suggestive account of the rise and fall of the catechumenate and sketch the contributions of Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine to building key components of a theological curriculum. We then move through the Germanic invasions, the rise and contribution of monasticism, and the development of medieval schools and the first universities. There are interesting details along the way on matters such as the origins of the lecture in the reading aloud of texts before the advent of printing, and medieval debates about whether to lecture slowly enough that students could transcribe (this was decided in the negative). Faculty worried about present-day student engagement may gain perspective by reflecting on the penalties mandated for students if during lectures they engaged in “clamor, hissing noise, or throwing stones by themselves or by their servants and accomplices” (45).

Gonzalez devotes significant space to the rise of scholasticism and the development of debates about, and practices implying, the proper way to relate faith and reason. This emphasis on faith-reason debates results in some other medieval developments getting shorter shrift. Discussion of the role of affect and experience in theological learning, for instance, is largely postponed until the treatments of Pietism and Schleiermacher at a later point, yet affective, imaginative, and rhetorical dimensions of learning were an important part of the pedagogy of a figure such as Bernard of Clairvaux, who is not discussed here.2 Scholastic methods of learning through disputation are reviewed, along with counter-reactions, in particular the devotio moderna of the Brethren of the Common Life, with its focus on simplicity, discipline, and practical devotion. The contrasts explored here sustain a tension implicit since the first chapters between developments that placed the central emphasis on seeking knowledge and those focused more on fostering devotional practice. The origin of “seminaries” in the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent is discussed, along with their focus on formation rather than just information. Gonzalez points out that the church managed without seminaries for fifteen centuries of its history, while also making clear that the repeated movements to develop and systematize theological education among both Catholics and Protestants since the Middle Ages have roots in the recognition of startling levels of corruption and ignorance among many clergy across long stretches of history. Throughout the book, Gonzalez maintains a healthy skepticism toward both the inevitability of the seminary model and the viability of anti-intellectualism in the church.

We reach the Reformation at the halfway point in the book. The focus on Melanchthon over the other Reformers is in keeping with his importance for education. The relevance of social and theological divisions and hostilities for the shape that theological education took for both Protestants and Catholics is helpfully sketched. The rise of rationalism and modern science alongside the development of systematic theology is outlined, and the contributions of Alsted and Comenius to Christian educational thinking are explored, as is the Pietist reaction to these movements exemplified by Spener and Francke.3 We then race from the early eighteenth century to the present in a single chapter on modern theological education. This chapter focuses on the contribution of Schleiermacher, then moves to the fundamentalist-liberal divide, presenting both sides of the divide as differing forms of capitulation to the continued rise of natural scientific paradigms for knowledge. Some recent history of the vicissitudes of major U. S. seminaries is sketched alongside the growth of practical theology and of Christian education as a distinct discipline. The historical survey concludes with discussion of the negative effects of increasing specialization in theological studies, including the “canonization of ignorance” that occurs when ministers have little education in anything outside the Bible and religion (121). The book’s remaining two chapters are mainly reflections on the present situation, and I will return to them below.

Throughout this survey, the prose is measured and precise, and evaluations of a diverse range of contributors to theological education are typically generous and non-partisan. Enough time is taken to give us more detailed glimpses of particular works and movements that (if my own experience is any guide) readers will be left with interesting thoughts and trails to follow up after reading. It is a tightly and skillfully woven tapestry. It is in that context of general appreciation that I will pause to note one or two frayed spots.

Given the welcome push in recent years to expand the scope of church history beyond the bounds of a linear narrative of the development of the Western church, I was a little surprised how exclusively Western this book remained throughout. The Eastern Orthodox churches are not discussed, and the church beyond the West is not brought into the story until the closing pages, and is then discussed anonymously and in passing as “lands that have received missionaries” or “churches resulting from North Atlantic missions” (113, 120). We are told that these “younger churches” have copied Western models of theological education, though the last footnote of the last chapter refers to a “vast number of experiments” among these churches without offering information on what these experiments might be (147). I wonder whether the strength of the wish to use the history to make a case to specifically North American theological schools about what must change might have robbed the historical overview of some potentially vital ingredients.

A second question concerns the handling of specific individual figures. It is likely that, in any overview with a scope this large, both author and reader are skating on much thinner ice at some points than others in terms of depth of expertise regarding a particular period or author. There are good stretches of the book in which I learned new things and am ill-placed to make fine-tuned judgments about the interpretations of particular authors. One area where I do have more specialist investment lies in chapter 12, and particularly its discussion of Comenius. It is good to see Comenius given due attention—he is commonly ignored in summations of church history, despite his importance as a Christian contributor to the history of educational thought and as a major figure in the life of the Moravian Brethren during the Thirty Years War. Unfortunately, the treatment here is rather careless and misleading. There are some factual errors. His influential Latin textbook was the Janua Linguarum Reserata, not the Janus. This is merely a typographical error; stranger, however, is the assertion that he spent “most of his life in Sweden” (92)—in fact he never lived there, though he did spend six of his 78 years living in Elbing, Prussia, and working on textbooks for Swedish schools. More significantly, there are also deficiencies in the characterization of Comenius’s views. To claim that the optimistic notes in Comenian anthropology and his view of education according to “nature” derived mainly from Descartes and other rationalists is so oversimplified as to be outright misleading. It overstates the relationship to Descartes (whom Comenius also clearly resisted at key points having to do precisely with the relationship of faith and reason), ignores the importance for Comenius’s thought of the theological distinctives of the Unity of Brethren and the influence of his Calvinist mentors, and omits his critical interaction with empiricism, to name but a few relevant touchstones.4 The claim that his optimism distanced him from the Protestant Reformers because of their emphasis on the corruption of human nature is also at best a half-truth. Comenius wrote, for instance, that when he called for education to be guided by our nature, by “nature” he meant “not the corruption that sticks to us since the Fall (through which we are said to be naturally children of wrath, not fit of our own selves to think anything good), but our first and fundamental constitution, to which we are called to return as our origin.”5 His conception of the human “nature” to which education was to conform was embedded within a focus on a redeemed imago dei and a divine calling to reformation, and it did not exclude an affirmation of human corruption. In sum, I think that the Comenius section (which happens to coincide with my own specialist interests) is somewhat weak and of dubious accuracy, though I do hope and suspect that most of the book, which tends to tread in more frequently surveyed theological territory, is more trustworthy.6

As I have already suggested, at the end of the book it becomes apparent that the historical narrative was presented at least in part with the goal of making an argument about the present condition and choices of institutions engaged in theological education. This becomes the focus of the book’s closing chapters, which outline what Gonzalez sees as the chief challenges facing current seminary education. First he offers a series of pedagogical recommendations that focus on emphasizing the proper home of theological education with the church, the importance of the life-long learning process rather than just transmission of theological content, the need to learn how to live amid change, and the importance of learning for practical service, of mentoring, and of good study resources.

The final chapter turns to institutional structures and the threats facing mainline seminaries. After mentioning the financial crisis besetting seminaries, he argues that there is a more serious ecclesiastical crisis rooted in a twofold demographic change. First, the shift of population from rural areas to the cities is reducing the number of viable congregations in the mainline denominations and thus the number of pulpits to be filled, a shift not adequately counterbalanced by suburban growth. Second, “the class, race, and culture of the traditional members of most ‘mainline’ churches in the United States are no longer as dominant as they were fifty years ago” (133). The result is that current seminary resources are primarily targeted at a declining demographic. At the same time, every major city contains many congregations whose pastors never received formal theological education, and “ATS-style theological education is no longer normative” (137). Offering examples of how these demographic shifts have impacted enrollment at specific institutions, Gonzalez urges that facing these challenges will involve a more radical reevaluation of the structure and ethos of theological education than has typically occurred to this point. The book concludes with a very brief sketch of some issues to be addressed in the years ahead. Theological education should be treated as a continuum from catechetical teaching through to advanced study, a theory-into-practice model should be challenged, and elitism should be set aside. Assumptions about the relationship between study and ordination and the role of a full-time residential model should be questioned. Good unaccredited theological education should be acknowledged and encouraged, denominational horizons should be widened, and captivity to particular cultural profiles should be resisted. Each of these is dealt with in a few lines as the book hastens a little breathlessly to its conclusion.

In retrospect, the ending illuminates some of the choices made in terms of including earlier material; we have been learning throughout the preceding chapters that current institutional arrangements are far from the only way that the church has run at theological education. The issues raised are substantive and important.

At the same time, as a reader not directly involved in seminary polity, but who found the survey to this point interesting and at times suggestive with regard to broader questions of Christian education, I am one of those non-ordained learners of theology who are championed at various other points in the narrative. The final chapter was not quite addressed to such readers. I wonder if a little space given to describing some current promising pedagogical initiatives might have helped connect the sudden turn to policy advice with the care that was taken in earlier chapters to give concrete examples of pedagogical trends. Perhaps such an ending might have kept a broader range of readers included to the last as addressees. I raise this not because I think every book has to be addressed to me, but because I think the book could be quite valuable to a wider range of readers than those to whom its parting shots are directed. It is a worthwhile read: concise, accessible, informative, thought provoking, and a useful slice of theological education for any interested reader. As an aid in stepping back and setting current trends in a much larger context, this book offers the church an important and helpful resource.

Cite this article
David I. Smith, “The History of Theological Education —An Extended Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:1 , 51-58


  1. Jeff Astley, Leslie Francis, John Sullivan, and Andrew Walker, eds., The Idea of a Christian University: Essays on Theology and Higher Education (Bletchley: Paternoster Press, 2004), ix.
  2. See, for example, Duncan Robertson, “The Experience of Reading: Bernard of Clairvaux Sermons on the Song of Songs, I,” Religion and Literature 19 (1987): 1-20; and Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982).
  3. The chapter on Pietism is one of the few places where I wondered whether figures were included more because it was felt a theological history ought to mention them than because they were really significant for the development of education. Zinzendorf gets a paragraph on the grounds that he was “another important personality of the history of Pietism,” even though “he neither wrote nor said much about theological education in itself” (Gonzalez, History, 100-1).
  4. See, for example, Craig D. Atwood, The Theology of the Czech Brethren from Hus to Comenius (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009); Jan Hábl, Lessons in Humanity from the Life and Work of John Amos Comenius (Bonn: Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft, 2011); Jan Hábl, On Being Human(e): Comenius’ Pedagogical Humanization as an Anthropological Problem (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017); Henk E. S. Woldring, “Comenius’ Syncritic Method of Pansophic Research between Utopia and Rationalism,” in Gewalt sei ferne den Dingen! Contemporary Perspectives on the Works of John Amos Comenius, eds. Wouter Goris, Meinert A. Meyer, and Vladimir Urbánek (Wiesbaden: Springer, 2016), 23–43.
  5. Comenius, Didactica Magna, V.1, my translation. See M. W. Keatinge, trans., The Great Didactic of John Amos Comenius (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1907), 40.
  6. I have attempted a brief and accessible overview of Comenius’s thought in David I. Smith, John Amos Comenius: A Visionary Reformer of Schools (Classical Academic Press, 2017).

David I. Smith

Calvin University
David I. Smith is Professor of education and Director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin University. He writes on teaching and learning at