Liberal Arts & Theology

There’s a great article by Victor Davis Hanson about the death of the Liberal Arts on college campuses. Go here to read it.  When you get back, click through, because I have some thoughts.

He mentions it a couple of times in passing, but I think it’s a bigger issue than most people realize: narrow specialization. I think it’s killing the study of theology. When you get an undergraduate degree in theology, you take general classes in theology: Doctrine,The bible, etc. In your junior or senior year, you will get some specialization, but not too much at this level: Reformation History, Defense of the Christian Faith, etc. Move to graduate school, and the classes get more specialized: Hymnology 1 & 2, Writings of the Apostolic Fathers, etc. And yet these courses give only an introduction to the various aspects of church life. Another advanced degree will get you such things as “The Marks of the Church in the Works of Martin Chemnitz” or something similarly specific. But if you want a career in academia, even this is too general. And so, the PhD will be along the lines of “The use of the dative definite article in Martin Chemnitz’s Letter # 5 to the Consistory at Madgeburg”. Now, I’m sure it’s a fascinating topic, and sheds a great light on the entire theology of late-Reformation era Europe. But seriously.

Theology is lived in people’s lives. They are pressured to violate the commandments starting in kindergarten. We only learn to properly distinguish law and Gospel by living in the life of the church. I have had members far better at diving Law and Gospel than I am – they generally don’t know any of the $0.50 words I learned in seminary. But there are weeks the pastor feels like a 2nd grader trying to lecture a classroom of teachers about Piaget’s theories of development.

And yet, over the years, in addition to at least a passing acquaintance with things like “Law” and “Gospel”, I’ve developed a working knowledge of hymnody, exegesis, literary theory, narrative structure, apologetics, catechesis, psychology of death and dying, etc. I couldn’t write a doctoral these on any one of them – but that’s because the thesis would be so esoteric and focused that it would be of use to almost no one.

In medicine, the best thing you can have in your town is a good generalist – he knows how things work inside, and knows when he’s out of his depth and needs to call in reinforcements. Not everyone is a specialist. And yet, in theology, anyone who gets advanced training gets advanced training only in a specialty. There is no advanced degree in generalism. Or rather, there is – it is the DMin, which is not academic, and so doesn’t qualify you to teach at the seminary level. Which means even the advanced degree in general pastoral work is taught almost exclusively by those who have no experience at it.

Our seminaries are quickly becoming so ossified in the academic realm that they are of little value to the church, and we are once again seeing the professors go astray for the sake of academic glory, instead of remaining faithful to the Word of God. This has long been a criticism. I’ve heard it said, “We need to focus on people, not doctrine.” But that would be like a doctor saying “We need to focus more on people, not the practice of medicine.” Of course not. The doctrine is important. But we could do with more generalists in the church – men who have been in the trenches and can speak well on a wide variety of areas and show how they all connect. I haven’t seen that in things coming out of the seminary. You have the specialists in This Gospel or That Lutheran Father, or This Doctrine, but you have few who can speak about the whole thing as it comes together in the life of the people. And that’s required for theology to be finally complete.

I get that we need theoretical physicists to probe the bounds of quantum theory if we are ever to get the next generation of computers and transmorgifyers or whatever. But that also required engineers to bring the theoretical into practical use. Our seminaries are filled with theoretical theologians, and almost devoid of the engineering ones.

How to solve the problem? Good question. There are options. But it would involve the seminaries and universities making a specific and intentional move away from the way the world of academia works. It would mean taking an initial hit in the prestige department to try something new. It would potentially make accreditation harder, while simultaneously making the quality of training better. It would be risky. In my conversations, I haven’t even seen acknowledgment of the problem. So, asking them to take a risk to fix it would be a useless gesture. But if finances continue down the current path, there will come a time when status quo ends. And then, it will be time to discuss other options. If I’m still around when that happens, I may have a few words of advice.

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2 Responses to Liberal Arts & Theology

  1. Rev. Roger Sterle says:

    Lincoln, I totally agree with you. I have met in my short ministry life several who are well educated-PHD and the like. But they have no common sense about Scripture or the Confessions. They can expound for hours on their chosen topic–but not in any general way. It is really hard for this old man to see the necessity for a degree beyond the MDiv.

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