Book Review: The History of Theological Education

history ofThank to Richard Topping for pointing out this book.  I have always loved Justo L. Gonzalez since reading his two volume The Story of Christianity in seminary; an institution Gonzalez argues in The History of Theological Education has only existed for the training of pastors and clergy since the Reformations and the Council of Trent (1545).  In fact,  for most of the Christian movement leaders in the church have been trained by other leaders in the church,  or later, schools in churches and monasteries.  This was initially through the very robust sometime two year courses (catechesis) in the early churches, then later it was through taking on a mentor, and reading books on theology, and the Scriptures themselves.  For a time, to become bishop you would write out your Christian theology, send it to neighbouring bishops, who would then agree to your appointment or not.  I appreciate that Gonzalez is able to show how theological education is deeply integrated into the life of local churches and relationships with other teachers.

This looser, more apprenticeship and self-learning model, which started as education for every Christian in the church, developed for hundreds of years, into more organized cathedral and monastery schools, where learning was more collective, but such learning was still not specifically ‘to become’ a pastor, but for the love of the knowledge of God, and to draw closer to Christ.

Gonzalez’s makes clear how this approach differs to the current seven year University education it takes to be ordained in many mainline churches, including the PCC, today.  Beyond the beginning of formal seminaries in 1545, our current system, Gonzalez points out, has its roots in Fredriech Schleiermacher era and the beginning of the University of Berlin in 1810.  This is where theology  began to slip into the category of other professional degrees such as law and medicine.  The concept became that to be a minister in the church one must take many courses, gain many credits, and know a lot. (1)  He notes how this led to sermons and a pastoral approach that focused heavily explanation and academic reasoning and less on what a text might mean for a person’s daily life.

Gonzalez offers many implications for theological education today.  He first acknowledges that theological education in our time is in crisis.  Many institutions are struggling financially and with either enrolment or post M.Div. congregational placement, or both.  (Former Bishop William Willimon points out the Vancouver School of Theology as a rare school that is currently bucking this trend.)

One implication I find fascinating, and which Gonzalez highlights, is a branching off in theological education away the very formal Berlin multi-year University model, which remains needful and very valuable, towards one that allows more flexibility for those with recognized gifts and callings for ministry to practice in a local congregation.  This is something that I recently commented on under, Training Pastors (#4), in Putting GA 140’s wisdom in Place.  Gonzalez notes such programs in the United Methodist Church called, Course of Study; in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, T.E.E.M. – Theological Education for Emerging Ministries; in the Episcopal Church, the Reading of Orders.

One example Gonzalez doesn’t mention is the returning trend of local churches having their own theological schools, like Holy Trinity Brompton School of Theology, London, England.

It is a thin book (155 pages), and its scope remains fairly focused on the history of theological education in Europe and Mediterranean basin, but as the Christian movement has grown throughout history, especially in the two centuries in Asia, Africa and South America, I would have found helpful Gonazelez comments on how education in those parts of the church have also developed.

Finally, Gonzalez argues for a resurgence in theological education for all, not only to train ‘professional’ pastors, on the basis that our current time in the church is most similar to the first centuries, in that many people today have about as much exposure to Christian teaching than those first hearing about Christianity then.

So any opportunity in the context of the local church, which was near the centre of theological education for 1500 years, to teach strongly and helpfully on what Christianity is about, is a good one.


(1)  A contrast to the first call to the apostle’s – Come, follow me! – and Peter’s own educational background, which as a fisherman in Israel would have been minimal to nil but very much focused on the impact of a rather passionate connection to Jesus himself.