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A Pastor’s Reflections: Ask Why

May 9, 2017


Over the last several years I have tried to ask more questions about my life. In particular, I am trying to ask the question, Why?, more frequently. There are so many things in life that we take for granted and do without question. How many people, for example, celebrate Easter and assemble Easter egg baskets but never ask what eggs and bunnies have to do with Jesus? Along these lines how many seminary students and pastors have ever asked the question, Why is the seminary curriculum the way it is? Why is it divided into exegetical, theological, historical, and practical segments? Why do we have biblical studies, theological studies, church history, and practical theology? It might surprise some, but the short answer is, Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern liberal theology, designed the curriculum at the University of Berlin along these four divisions.

In his recently published doctoral dissertation, WSC graduate Zach Purvis, takes readers on an amazingly detailed survey of the origins of the Encyclopedic study of theology, its connections to the founding of the University of Berlin, and the development of what is now the standard fourfold seminary curriculum. His book is titled, Theology and the University in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). There was a move within theological education to go from the Reformation-era model of an integrated approach to theology that acknowledged three things: (1) the irrefragable connection of exegesis and theology, (2) theology was ultimately about wisdom, and (3) theology was for and governed by the church. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany there was a concerted effort to move in a different direction to: separate theology from exegesis, acknowledge theology as knowledge, and disconnect theology from the church so it could be freed from confessional and dogmatic constraints. The effects of Schleiermacher’s influence on these issues continues to reverberate into the present day.

You can go to professional academic meetings where New Testament scholars know volumes of information about very narrow portions of the Bible and know little to nothing about classic theology. The same can be said about many theologians—they work with the biblical text to create their formulations but know very little about the history of doctrine. In past generations, even though the winds of theological change were blowing across the globe, there were theologians who withstood the strong gusts trying to separate the theological disciplines. Charles Hodge, the famous stalwart, of Princeton Seminary, for example, taught New Testament for a number of years before he taught Systematic Theology. One need only survey his biblical commentaries and his three-volume systematic theology to see that he was an exegete, theologian, and historian. He resisted the temptation to rend the disciplines asunder and embodied an older Reformation-era ethos.  

Just because seminaries follow Schleiermacher’s fourfold division of the seminary curriculum does not mean that we imbibe from the goblet of liberal theology. But it does mean that we should ask why Schleiermacher wanted to divide the disciplines, determine whether such a mission is biblical, and then ask what we can do to counteract the impact of his actions. In this case, an antidote to Schleiermacher’s innovation is to resist the temptation to divide the disciplines. Yes, for the sake of practicality, we can divide them to facilitate theological education. But in the end, we should recognize that the knowledge we gain from these different departments all comes from one God, one Bible, one Savior, and is for his one church. We cannot separate exegesis from theology, ever. Our theology must be exegetical, and our exegesis must always be mindful of our theological conclusions. We must never cease to see that theology is ultimately about wisdom, not merely knowledge. In the study of theology we learn about a personal God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and what this God has done for fallen sinners. And we must never forget that all of our theological labors are ultimately, not for the academy, but for the church of Jesus Christ.

If you want to know more about the history of the development of the common theological curriculum, I highly recommend you get a copy of Dr. Purvis’s book! Tolle et lege! Take up and read!