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REVIEW: The History of Theological Education by Gonzalez18 min read

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1 Summary

In The History of Theological Education (2015), historian Justo Gonzalez examines the historical events and ideologies that influenced the Christian approach to theological and general education, as well as the interplay between secular and Christian historical trends in education. He shows that not only was Christianity a driving force in the historical formation of both childhood and higher education, but it passed through sea-saws between the need for good doctrine and good pastoral care, and between intellectualism and experientialism, respectively often leading to spiritless and inert spirituality, or heretical and anti-intellectual superstition and doctrinal error. At times, events and persons inside of Christianity pioneered approaches, and at others, churchmen were responding to challenges from outside of Christendom.

1.1 Antiquity

Gonzalez breaks up the timeline into periods relevant to religious education, but of course, many of the divisions are well-established historical transitions that mark major changes in society in general. Characteristic of Christianity in antiquity (c. 0 to 500 CE) was that there was no official education for pastors, but there was an expectation that Bishops were educated. Many, like Augustine, were educated in the secular systems of their day, typically in rhetoric (p. 144). However, there was a significant problem with uneducated and illiterate pastors who were only really required to have memorized the wordings to the church ceremonies and sacraments. And when Constantine made Christianity socially acceptable, there was even less impetus for leaders to drill converts in the basics of the faith to resist the pressures of society against their faith.

Men like Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome, however, recognized a need for purifying and systematizing Christian doctrine, and their works set the stage for the education of both the pastorate and the laity in the future. Their work in turn provided content and fuel for the growing ascetic monastic movements, in which intellectual study became a mainstay, and made monasteries centers of learning. The secular schools of Alexandria Antioch continued to educate the elite, but there were essentially no schools to educate clergy in the faith.

1.2 Midieval

In the medieval period, invasions across the Roman Empire brought in many languages, and Latin became the lingua franca that all could speak. This gave the works of the Latin church fathers like Augustine and Jerome more visibility among the educated and bureaucrats. But the ongoing ignorance of the clergy provoked some churchmen like Cassiodorus, Isidore of Seville, and Pope Gregory the Great to create instructional materials for the clergy. Cassiodorus designed his curricula around the trivium; i.e. the study of grammar, astrology, and rhetoric. Grammar, however, included the study of the patristic writings, and astrology the religious feasts and festivals. In addition, the trivium was followed by instruction in the quadrivium – that is, logic, arithmetic, geometry, and music. Isidore was also bent on including mastering all existing intellectual disciplines in his educational model for the clergy, not just focusing on doctrine or religious truth. This robustness probably ensured the value and longevity of Christian education in a time of relative illiteracy. Gregory, however, did not focus on the breadth of knowledge, but on the importance of developing piety and character in practice. This shows one of the first battles to balance knowledge with piety and experience.

1.3 Late Middle Ages

As the middle ages continued, the foundational writings and philosophies of these church fathers filled the monasteries, and educated monks went from isolated study to providing schooling for children, as well as leaving their monasteries to become pastors, thus providing the first structured education for the general public. This same phenomenon of the concentration of knowledge and learning was occurring in the Greek-speaking world as well, especially in Ireland, where royal children began to travel for education. Parallel to the development of monastic schools, cathedral schools within the church were created to educate prospective clergy. Church positions were becoming popular and often filled with young nobility seeking social position or the land and money that went with the positions (appealing especially to non-firstborns in families where primogeniture meant that they got little of the family fortunes). These schools also began to provide parochial schools to children.

The 12th century brought an economic and intellectual awakening in Europe, in part due to the conquests of Islam and the resulting trade in ideas and goods, and in this period, new luminaries arose, specifically Anselm, Abelard, Hugh of Saint Victor, and Peter Lombard. These men continued to strike the balance between knowledge and piety, and their writings became influential in both the monastic and cathedral schools. With the economic growth came the growth of the cities, where most of the cathedral schools were, as opposed to the mostly rural monasteries. This caused the cathedral schools to swell in influence and membership, and these formed the first universities.

As these schools led into the 13 century, Thomas Aquinas was part of the rise and triumph of scholasticism, which brought reason and philosophy to bear upon faith and the life of the mind, and with the universities as a backdrop, created the foundations and framework for the enlightenment and modern science to create modernity. However, as scholasticism grew, the emphasis on reason began to separate from piety, and universities began separating from parish schools. That is, a separation between the increasingly specialized and educated schoolmen and the people of the parish got greater, and common religious life began to degrade into superstition and private interpretations of faith.

1.4 Reformation

In the following period, the Protestant reformers fought the doctrinal errors of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Brethren of the Common Life arose to address the superstitious piety of the parishes. While still prioritizing piety, they also brought back the priority and value of study as a balance to pure experiential faith. Their approach, the devotio moderna, created great thinkers such as Desiderius Erasmus, one of the balancing humanistic counterparts to Martin Luther during the Reformation. Erasmus’ emphasis on methods of education, along with Luther’s translation and dissemination of the bible in common language led to an explosion in both knowledge and piety in education. Luther’s student Melancthon produced numerous influential textbooks of language and logic, not to mention introductions to history, physics, psychology, and theology. These books written by a pious and educated Melancthon had an enormous impact on and long influence in both elementary and university education. At the same time, Bullinger and Calvin, and other reformers were reforming clerical education and public education in Geneva. The Catholic counter-reformation continued to broaden the intellectual and devotional discussions, creating seminaries to formally educate their clergy, and the Jesuit order was formed. The resulting theological education of both clergy and subsequent missionary efforts by the Jesuits spread the influence of Christianity into public education across the globe.

1.5 Modern Era

As Protestant scholasticism and British empiricism and rationalism grew, church preaching became increasingly more intellectual and less formative and experiential. This imbalance led to the rise of pietism, led by groups like the Moravians, Methodists, and especially Lutheran Phillip Spener (d. 1705) who, not discarding intellectual pursuits, returned spiritual growth and experience to the center of Christian teaching and life.

As rationalism entered the 19th century, Enlightenment thinking and the rise of modern science pressured theology to become a science of its own, and such critical methods such as higher criticism began to question the verity and logic of scripture. Conservative schools like Princeton and the later fundamentalist movement rose to confront these challenges, but again sometimes strayed into either narrow literalist or intellectual positions, or withdrawing from other academic disciplines, ceding them to secular counterparts. With the exponential rise in the information and knowledge spawned by the sciences, and the creation of new intellectual theological and philosophical disciplines, no one person could master the breadth and depth of multiple fields, and specialization led to the isolation of theology and other disciplines from one another. And these forces continue to interact in our culture today.

2  Reflections on the History of Christian Education

In The History of Theological Education, Justo Gonzalez has provided a thorough overview of how the church has approached educating its leaders, and in some instances, the laity and secular society. When viewing the entire timeline, it is possible to recognize recurring themes and paradoxical pairs of goals that ought to be held in balance for success. However, often they are not balanced by the practitioners of faith, but rather, are often employed from one side or the other, swinging the pendulum back and forth across history, creating moments of health alternately with one or the other extreme. Below are some of the paradoxes.

2.1 Rationalism v. Biblicism

The heart of the battle over Christian education is in choosing which discipline or source of truth is primary. If we place rationalism in authority over the Bible, we may often discount the teachings of the scripture, either because scientific or archaeological claims seem to contradict the bible, or because philosophy and reason are marshaled against Biblical teachings. Conversely, if we are hard biblicists, we can affirm our (mis)understandings of scripture over what seems disputed by science or reason. Both of these errors have been repeated in history, and to some extent have been solidified into the liberal and conservative camps, with the extremes at each pole. Gonzalez remarks:

The emphasis on critical studies, particularly regarding the Bible, was one of the elements leading to the conflict between fundamentalists and liberals, in which the first rejected critical studies, and the latter gave them an absolute and final value. Thus, while the former canonized ignorance and promoted a sort of biblical imperialism, some among the latter canonized science and promoted studies and discussions that had little relevance for the life of the church and for its pastors. (p. 142)

This struggle intensified as scholasticism and the enlightenment grew in power since the 12th century, but even before that time, since even the time of Augustine, the struggle for a Christian education v. a secular one existed. Augustine and many early church fathers were educated in the only higher education of the day, that of the Greek and Roman states. As the need for educated pastors and bishops increased, Christianity pioneered many educational institutions such as monasteries, universities, and seminaries, but the battle between whether reason or the Bible would be king led to the distancing of universities from seminaries, in large part because of this battle over reason v. the Bible as the primary authority.[1]

2.2 Intellectualism v. Personal Piety

Within the church, the pressures towards pure intellectualism, which came in the form of attempting to justify theology as a science in the enlightenment context, as well as a method of competition between intellectuals, often pushed personal piety to the side. These movements were generally not against piety, but rather, they omitted it by neglect. In response, history shows a few movements towards anti-intellectual mysticism, but more often, movements grew up that attempted to return piety to intellectual faith. Luminaries and movements that emphasized character and spiritual formation in addition to intellectual acumen arose across history to correct such educational error include the rise of monastic life, Augustine, Ambrose, Cassiodorus, Isidore of Seville, and Gregory the Great in the middle ages, Charlemagne and Alcuin in the early medieval period, Peter Lombard in the late medieval period, and of course the pietist Moravian and Methodist movements. Even at this time, we can see pushback on the intellectualism and biblicism of the fundamentalist and reformed movements with such extremes as the early Pentecostal and modern revivalist streams which seem to play loosely with doctrine in favor of experience. Thankfully, wise men from these movements are constantly building bridges between our various evangelical communities and endeavoring to balance out their own streams with either piety and experience or doctrinal and practical studies.

2.3 Integration v. Compartmentalization

A few social forces across history seem to push faith into a small, encapsulated discipline in which clergy are influenced to only study and express expertise only on faith and no other subjects, or to limit the authority of scripture to moral, ethical, and spiritual matters. Within the church, these pressures include theologies that lead to withdrawal from engagement in society (a sacred/secular split), hyper-adventism (Jesus is coming so soon we don’t need to engage culture), and anti-intellectual pietism.

From outside of the church, the explosion of knowledge has led to the reality that no one person can master all knowledge, nor even knowledge in one field. This has led to specialization and experts, even within theology as it has expanded into sub-disciplines such as historical, practical, and systematic theology. Not only does this make it harder for an individual to speak authoritatively outside of his specialty, but society has also put a lot of trust in the experts, and often will only listen to those with extensive knowledge and credentials. This has a few drawbacks, including not listening to counter-arguments and susceptibility to ad hominem fallacies, as well as missing the possibility that even experts have reasons to misrepresent data, such as materialist or anti-theistic assumptions, financial incentive, or other biases. Another external force that isolates theology from other disciplines are ideologies like the faith/value split or non-overlapping magisteria (Gould, 2002), in which the domains of religion and values, on one hand, are totally separate from and do not overlap the empirical and materialistic sciences. As mentioned, Christians have attempted to overcome this error through various means, including attempting to approach theology as a science, using the tools of higher criticism to assess scripture without mythologizing it, developing practical theology, and arguing for applying a biblical world view to all of reality and all disciplines, including history, social justice, science, mathematics, economics, and psychology.

3 Recommendations

Gonzalez presents seven suggestions for correcting these errors in the modern church, and for inuring the church against the extremes discussed. These include:

  1. Return theological education to the heart of the church
  2. Develop methods of teaching and of evaluating courses that focus less on what one learns than on how one can share and teach both content and the process of learning.
  3. Turn theological education into a life-long process
  4. Develop education that helps the entire church face constantly evolving circumstances and unexpected challenges.
  5. Redefine the relationship between theological reflection and pastoral practice
  6. Create programs to train mentors in the task of theological reflection and pastoral practice…[in] the entire community of faith
  7. Produce materials of study and reflection that [support] the preceding.

Gonzalez history and recommendations serve as good input to the broader questions of how we should be doing community and making disciples, though a larger discussion about church structure and practice needs to be held (see Pagitt, 2005; Putman et al., 2013; Sinclair, 2015; Viola, 2008). The need to raise the level of spiritual experience and character while also engaging our reason and the reason-heavy world we live in remains an ongoing challenge, not just for church leaders, but for all Christians.

As for my own recommendations, the key principle seems to be keeping spiritual formation at the center of education, while keeping intellectual rigor and practical application balanced in the content of education. For this Master’s program, I would recommend putting this class first, and encouraging students to maintain their spiritual disciplines, if not a journal throughout the program.

As a Church, we also could stand to move away from the passive educational model we encourage through weekly preaching services, and move towards a training model, with more of our resources and efforts towards individual discipleship and relational development. This might also mean turning two Sundays of the month into small group or bible studies on the basic of the faith, or turning one Sunday a month into a public service outing.

4 References

Burgos, M. (n.d.). The Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Summary and Reflection. Retrieved March 15, 2020, from

Gonzalez, J. L. (2015). The History of Theological Education. Abingdon Press.

Gould, S. J. (2002). Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (Reprint edition). Ballantine Books.

Outler, A. C. (1985). THE WESLEYAN QUADRILATERAL — IN JOHN WESLEY. 20(1), 158.

Pagitt, D. (2005). Church Re-Imagined: The Spiritual Formation of People in Communities of Faith. Zondervan.

Putman, J., Harrington, B., & Coleman, R. E. (2013). DiscipleShift: Five steps that help your church to make disciples who make disciples. Zondervan.

Sinclair, D. (2015, March). Church Practices and Structures Re-imagined. Whole Reason.

Viola, F. (2008). Reimagining Church: Pursuing the dream of organic Christianity (1st ed.). David C. Cook.


[1] Another challenger to Biblical authority was the reliance on the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, which the reformers rebuffed with their Solas, particularly the cry of “sola biblia.” This again seemed like a biblicist overreach, which John Wesley nicely addressed in his Wesleyan Quadrangle, which attempts to balance the spiritual authority of scripture with those of tradition, reason, and experience. (Burgos, n.d.; Outler, 1985)