Thursday, April 03, 2014

Thoughts on Theological Education (I): Theology and "Divinity"

[This is one of two posts arising from an invitation from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Divinity to contribute to a discussion in the University of what "divinity" means.

Persons learned in the Christian scriptures and the doctrines of the Church have traditionally been known as “divines” and their discipline as “divinity”; the word in this sense alludes not to God-like being, but to godly knowledge.

These persons were of course traditionally the members of the clergy; “divine” was a synonym (perhaps with slightly stricter parameters, related to learning) for “cleric”. While this equation no longer restricts the student population studying “divinity", the connection is important, for it reveals something often ignored in contemporary discourse about theological education. To offer a degree in divinity was - and arguably is - to prepare someone for the ministry and mission of the Church; it was not to expose them to a body of abstract knowledge about faith, God, or Bible, except to train them in the use of such knowledge for effective pastoral leadership of communities who shared that faith, and for preaching in particular.

Some contemporary discourse about theological education argues or assumes something different, namely that theology (now the more common term, and probably more amenable to this other definition) is pure exploration into divine truth, or Christian tradition, or some similar concept (dependent perhaps on confessional or similar understandings) - something like the Latin and Greek theologia underlying that modern term.

This alternative and more abstract view has arguably grown in popularity as the participation of lay persons in theological education has increased; while some of these have studied with pastoral goals in mind, others have done so primarily for the more abstract purposes noted. So of course this exploration can and does occur; my point is not to decry this by any means, but to point out that the curriculum which sustains those explorations is designed for another purpose.

A curriculum that really was designed for that pure theologia would not be constructed accordingly to the typical three-, four-, or even five-fold schema that dominates theological education in the English-speaking world: Bible, Theology, and Practice, or Bible further divided into OT/NT, and Theology into historical and systematic streams. A degree structure that was “theological” in that other sense might either be primarily conceptual and hence centered on the field of systematic theology as we have it perhaps, or else “ascetical” as the term was once commonly used and hence based around prayer and liturgy, or perhaps empirical and based around the social and historical facts of religion.

My point then in this and a following post is not to argue for the merits of a particular approach to theological education, but to point to some realities about it. Theological education as we know it is actually still “divinity”, and divinity is still essentially organised (and funded etc.) as preparation for ministry.