Concerning the Future of Theological Education: Disciplinary Integration in Curriculum

By: Antipas Harris
Monday, January 13th, 2014

futureoftheologicaleducation“Practical” Theology as a discipline emerged, in part, as a result of critical concerns that “Systematic” and “Historical” Theology had distinguished themselves as academic disciplines with less and less concern for issues in everyday Christian practice. Stated differently, there was a need for a more serious engagement with matters that face the church and Christians’ everyday life.

In the late 1900s, the emergence of practical theology as a discipline seemed necessary. The theological methodologies within other academic approaches to theology seemed to work well within the academy for those traditional purposes of theological education at the time. Yet, as the 1994 Murdock Charitable Trust Report alarmed the need for changes in theological education. Partly, the report pointed towards the need for a greater connection between the theological academy, the local churches, and the everyday Christian life. The current theological education at the time had become an ivy tower of its own. The necessary relationship between the theological institution, including theological curriculum, and the church, including the everyday life of believers, seemed lacking.

On  the one hand, this spoke to the fate of theological education; on the other hand, the situation of theological education was astounding because it signaled a disconnect from the original purpose of theological education. As pertaining to this later point, in 1983, theologian Edward Farley and others signaled this problem of content in theological education (a la Theologia) before the Murdock report. Were they right? There was no real fiscal impact to the problem at the time; theological schools did not seem to pay a lot of attention to the screaming voices begging them to change.

Within theological education there were other voices like Farley (i.e. Don Browning and others) who felt the need for change. As theologians, they did what they could to try to shift the tide from within their discipline of theology. Trained as systematicians, but seeing the need for greater relevance beyond the academic walls, they attempted to create new approaches from within the dry walls of what theology (as a discipline) had become. These so-called practical theologians were not readily affirmed as legitimate theologians, on the one hand. They opened the doors for other competing so-called practical theologians, on the other hand. In the former case, the theological academy did not seem to catch the hint. In the later case, a new academic discipline was born “underground” — practical theology.

Now, the Pew Report has provided research; ATS’s executive director Daniel O. Aleshire has also offered an informed perspective that demands that theological education change to serve the present age and oncoming age of ministers and the changing demographics of the church. In addition to the disciplinary concerns among some legendary scholars and the concerns about isolation raised in the Murdock Report, contemporary research reveals that the situation of Christianity and the Church is changing. These somewhat new observations demand new expectations from theological education in addition to the longstanding ones mention previously. This means that theological education now demands sensitivity to racial and ethnic domination among thriving churches and the emerging leadership roles of women in ministry. These are the demographics that are increasingly populating the corridors of the theological academy.  Either God is softening the hearts or for the sake of mere survival, the longstanding resistance within the theological academy seems to be finally coming around to the reality of the problem as their head counts have plateaued and many of them are closing their doors.

This brings me to my point. Now that theological education is accepting the reality of change, we must consider both the shifting “market” as well as the curriculum of theological education altogether. By this I mean that we must be open to all of God’s people and sensitive to the increasing numbers of ethnic diverse people who God is sending to theological schools for ministry training. But also, we must revise theological curriculum in a more inclusive manner — an integrative approach. The history of theological education bears record that New Testament Studies, Theology, Ethics, Homiletics, Evangelism, Missions and the list goes on have existed as academic silos. The emergence of practical theology was forced into a silo of its own, as well.

The rivalry between practical theology and other disciplines of theological interests have forced a bifurcation between them. Moreover, I submit that in the interest of the future of theological education, there is a need for revisions — a post critical approach across the board. There needs to be a more integrative approach to theological education. The main concern within theological education should be the practice of ministry more than armchair discourse about theology, biblical studies, etc. If the theological academy expects to survive this century and beyond–should Jesus delay his coming, it must address many of its current practices; including multicultural matters, the online education phenomenon, the cross section of pedagogy and androgogy, the issue of ministry diversity (i.e. church, market place ministry, non-profit paraministry, leadership in society and more), curriculum integration and more.

More specific to my concern here, the issue of curriculum integration fosters a demand for a post-critical consideration of “practical” versus “other” theological disciplines. In my view, theological disciplines need to cross pollinate. For example, a New Testament professor should team teach a course with the Homiletics professor. Or the Practical Theologian should team teach with the Philosopher of Religion. We must also produce literature of this magnitude. The result should be to overcome isolation for the purpose of informing the practice of ministry.

I should point out that there are several theological schools such as Candler School of Theology and Boston University School of theology and others wherein professors hold positions that bridge two disciplines, such as New Testament and Homiletics or Practical Theology and Evangelism or Theology and Worship. Yet, as a whole, curriculum within theological education has not found its foothold within an integrative approach. Not only should a professor bridge her or his area between two or three disciplines but the entire curriculum should be more fluid from an integrative perspective. I know that I have not dealt with the issue of “spirituality” at all. However, “spirituality or spiritual formation” should not be separate from theological education anyways. Scholars such as Philip Sheldrake addresses this issue in his volume on Spirituality and Theology. Spirituality should be integrated throughout the curriculum. The result of this approach renders “theological educators” and “ministers” rather than “New Testament Scholars” or “Theologians” or “evangelists” or “pastors” or “missionaries.” Admittedly, this proposal comes with many challenges. But that should be expected, given the bigger challenges facing the future of theological education.

If theological education does not look seriously at the need for a more integrative approach within the curriculum, I am concerned that more and more churches will just create their own “well-developed” or “not-so-well-developed” training centers. Fact is, the need for integration comes as a demand, in part, from the integrated ways in which people live their lives. Faith is an integrated situation — the fluid nature of faith demands holistic preparation in ministry that is also integrated. Think about it. We do not separate our reading of scripture from our spiritual formation. Also, we do not also separate our understanding of God (theology) from our spiritual life and reading of scripture, and the list goes on. So, how can the theological academy provide a more integrative curriculum, which deals with ministry of faith for the whole people with the appropriate integrative dynamics?

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Antipas Harris
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