The History of Theological Education

The History of Theological Education

by Justo L. González

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Theological education has always been vital to the Church’s life and mission; yet today it is in crisis, lacking focus, direction, but also resources and even students. In the early Church, there is no doubt that to lead worship one had to be able to read and interpret the Bible. In order to lead, it was necessary to know at least something about the history of Israel and the work of God in the Gospels, and interpret that history, making it relevant to daily living. Quickly the Church developed schools for its teachers, whether lay or clergy. A catechetical system was organized through which candidates prepared for baptism were given a basic form of theological education. Hence to be a Christian meant persons knew what and why they believed. But over the years, theological education has come to mean education for clergy and church professionals. It has drifted, seeking new moorings.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781426787782
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 03/17/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Justo L. González has taught at the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico and Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He is the author of many books, including Church History: An Essential Guide and To All Nations From All Nations, both published by Abingdon Press. 

Justo L. González es un ampliamente leído y respetado historiador y teólogo. Es el autor de numerosas obras que incluyen tres volúmenes de su Historia del Pensamiento Cristiano, la colección de Tres Meses en la Escuela de... (Mateo... Juan... Patmos... Prisión... Espíritu), Breve Historia de las Doctrinas Cristianas y El ministerio de la palabra escrita, todas publicadas por Abingdon Press.

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The History of Theological Education

By Justo L. González

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-8778-2


The Early Church

As we look at the past of theological education, we must begin by acknowledging that the New Testament does not offer much useful data. There is no doubt that the years of Jesus's public ministry were a time during which his immediate followers were preparing for ministry. Later on, when Peter suggests that somebody be chosen to fill the vacancy left by Judas (Acts 1:15-26), he sets requirements for that post. (Interestingly, one of these requirements is that the candidate must have been with Jesus since the very beginning of his ministry to the very end, and this is a requirement that very few among the eleven fill.) So they cast lots in order to elect this new person—not a method many would recommend today! Later the congregation in Jerusalem chooses seven, but we are not told what training or formation the seven may have had. Furthermore, the seven are supposed to be administering the aid to the widows, but at least two of them—Stephen and Phillip—end up preaching. Still later Paul chooses Timothy, who has received some training from his mother and grandmother. The Pastoral Epistles mention some of the characteristics that bishops and deacons must have, but there is no word about how they are to be trained or taught.

Even after the period of the New Testament, we are told little about ministerial training, although there is much we may infer. First, there is no doubt that in order to lead worship one had to be able to read. Christian worship on Sunday mornings, which usually lasted several hours, had two parts, the Service of the Word and the Service of the Table. In order to lead in the latter, it was necessary to know at least something about the history of Israel and the work of God in the gospel, particularly since the person presiding had to lead in the great Eucharistic prayer, in which God was thanked for all the divine mercies, not only in the present but also from the very beginning of creation.

But in order to preside at the Service of the Word one had to know more. Certainly, it was necessary to know how to read, since most of the service consisted of scripture readings. We know that the literacy index in the Greco-Roman cities—which was where Christianity first made headway—was low, as might be expected. It is estimated that in the Latin-speaking provinces the index of literacy was between 5 and 10 percent. But there are also indications that most people in the church were women, or men belonging to the lower echelons of society. Except in the very high levels of society, few Greco-Roman women knew how to read. Among slaves and artisans, who did not need to read and in any case would have little use for literacy, illiteracy was common. The main exceptions were the slaves who served as tutors for children in wealthy families—the pedagogues—and those merchants and artisans who had to use the rudiments of writing in order to keep their accounts and to sustain the communications necessary for their business. Therefore, there would be few among the members of the early church who knew how to read, and it was from among these few that bishops were elected, since one of the main functions of a bishop was to preside over worship. (Hermas, whose brother was bishop of Rome toward the middle of the second century, was a slave, although sufficiently learned to write the book that is known now as The Shepherd. Although he does not tell us what his duties were as a slave, it is quite likely that he was a pedagogue or at least an amanuensis for his masters. The status of his brother Pius is not known. Since Hermas was a slave, it is most likely that Pius was also a slave—or, if not, a freedman.)

Furthermore, the Service of the Word required not only the reading of scripture but also its interpretation. Those who had some secular studies, especially in the field of rhetoric, were particularly able to perform these functions, since a goodly part of rhetorical studies was devoted to the interpretation of ancient Greek and Roman poets and other authors. The principles of interpretation that would apply to those classical texts in the field of rhetoric were also useful for the interpretation of biblical passages during the Service of the Word. (This is why many of the allegorical interpretations of scripture that theologians of the time were prompt to offer, although very strange from our point of view, were perfectly acceptable for those who heard or read them. What these interpreters were doing with the Bible was similar to what secular orators of the time did with Homer or Hesiod.) In any case, the church had no school where it could teach people how to read, much less the principles to be applied in the interpretation of ancient texts. Therefore, one must conclude that most bishops had learned these matters in pagan schools.

Bishops were also the link joining the churches together. Since most contacts with other bishops had to take place through correspondence, this too required that bishops know how to read and write—or at least that they know the principles of writing sufficiently well to employ an amanuensis. Although most of this ancient correspondence has been lost, we have an example of this in the epistle the church of Rome wrote to that of Corinth through Bishop Clement of Rome, late in the first century. Slightly later, we have the seven letters of Ignatius of Antioch, five of them addressed to churches he had visited on his way to martyrdom, a sixth to the church of Rome, where he expected to die, and a seventh to young Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna. And even later, we have the correspondence that Polycarp sent to the Philippians. Among other bishops who took up writing, one may mention Papias of Hierapolis, who set for himself the task of collecting "sayings of the Lord," and Melito of Sardis, of whose many writings all that remains is a beautiful Easter sermon, possibly written in order to have it circulate among nearby churches. In 411, in an African synod gathered to condemn Donatism, there was only one bishop—Polainos of Zura—who was deemed "ignorant in letters," but it is not clear whether this means that he was actually illiterate or simply that he was not learned.

In brief, although there are many indications that a good number of the bishops of the second century were relatively learned people who at least knew how to read, how to interpret texts, and how to sustain a correspondence with their colleagues, there is no indication that the church had any schools for the training of such bishops or pastors.

Even when schools began to appear somewhat later, these schools were not intended for the training of pastors, for these were still elected without any other instruction than what they might have received in pagan schools as well as in the church itself, particularly in the Service of the Word. There are many examples that show these procedures, but in order to see how they functioned, it is well to review and compare the careers of two of the most distinguished theologians of the Western church, Ambrose and Augustine.

Although raised in a Christian home, and even though he himself was a faithful believer, Ambrose had not even been baptized when he was elected bishop of Milan. He had devoted his life to a career in civil service, and to that end he had been well educated, particularly in rhetoric. But now, much to his surprise, in the span of a week he was baptized and made a bishop. Immediately he called on Simplician, who was learned in matters of theology, to serve as his mentor and advisor on such matters. It is impossible to know how much of what Ambrose wrote he learned from Simplician and what he received from other sources. But the fact remains that, even when he hadn't attended any seminary or similar school, Ambrose devoted himself to studying theology, particularly by reading Greek writers such as Basil the Great, and eventually became one of the main exponents and defenders of trinitarian doctrine in the West. He also wrote a treatise On the Duties of the Clergy to which we shall return in another chapter.

As for Augustine, he too had no formal studies in theology before he was made first a presbyter and then a bishop. All the studies of his youth concentrated on classical rhetoric. As part of these studies, he read the writings of Cicero and of the Neoplatonic philosophers. But he did not pay attention to theological matters until after his conversion in 386, when he withdrew to Cassisiacum shortly before his baptism. Later Augustine founded in his native Tagaste a community dedicated to study and prayer, and he remained in that community until he was forced to accept ordination as a presbyter in 391. Between the time of his conversion and his ordination, Augustine wrote several theological treatises—among them Against the Academics, On Order, On the Quantity of the Soul, On Free Will, and On the Customs of the Manicheans and of the Catholic Church. It was perhaps the fame that he acquired thought these writings that led Bishop Valerius of Hippo to force him into the pastorate. But even when he was writing all these works, Augustine had no formal education in theology, and on a number of issues his early opinions still bore the stamp of Neoplatonism rather than Christianity. It was only through the passing of years, and faced by the need to study and expound Christian scriptures and teachings, that Augustine's theology was developed and refined.

Many other cases could be cited. Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus studied in the Academy of Athens—once again, only in the fields of rhetoric and philosophy. They eventually became very important theologians, but they were never formally students of theology.

As all of this was taking place, the distinction between presbyters and bishops was developing. The distinction between these two titles, originally synonymous, developed as the church grew in cities where a single bishop could no longer attend to the needs of the entire flock, and it became necessary to celebrate worship in various localities within the city. The presbyters then became aides to the bishop and his representatives in services where the bishop was absent. Through a natural process this distinction of rank developed—as did other functions and titles, such as that of reader—and led to the beginning of study programs under the supervision of the bishops. There is no indication that these programs of study were formal, but we do know that presbyters would read and practice what was recommended to them by the bishops, so that their work as presbyters took place under a sort of mentoring that might also prepare them for a possible election to the episcopate. In the third century, in the letters of Cyprian, we see that he used to examine the candidates to various orders, and these in turn had specific functions. At least some of the presbyters were teachers, and some among the readers were entrusted with the instruction of candidates for baptism. In a letter that Cyprian wrote to the presbyters and deacons under his supervision we also see, although only in passing, that Cyprian took charge of the training and formation of the clergy under his supervision. Cyprian tells his presbyters and deacons:

Know therefore that I have ordained Saturus as a reader, and Optatus as a confessor, both of whom, by common agreement, we had been preparing to be part of the clergy, since we have entrusted Saturus more than once with the reading on Easter, and later, as we examined carefully those who were to be readers and the teaching presbyters, we ordained Optatus as a reader to serve among those who instruct catechumens, and we have examined all the qualities that must abide in those that are training for the clergy.

As for the bishops themselves, no one supervised their instruction, although we do know that by the middle of the second century it was customary that the one elected to be a bishop of a community would write a declaration of faith that would be sufficiently detailed to express his main beliefs and theology and that his prospective colleagues in nearby cities had the authority to determine whether the one who had been elected had the necessary knowledge and orthodoxy to fulfill faithfully the tasks that would be entrusted to him. In that case, several of those neighboring bishops would take part in the ordination of the new bishop, thus giving witness to their theological agreement with him. But even though there was this emphasis on the orthodoxy and the knowledge of prospective pastors, there were no schools devoted to their training.

Even so, there were already Christian schools. The most remarkable and the best known are the one that Justin Martyr founded in Rome and the famous catechetical school of Alexandria.

Justin's school was patterned after the philosophical schools of his time. He was convinced that Christianity was "the true philosophy," and his school was therefore devoted to expounding this philosophy. Not all who attended this particular school were Christians, for many came seeking after truth while others came out of mere curiosity. The only disciple of Justin of whom more is known is Tatian, who later, imitating his master but from a very different theological perspective, wrote against pagans in defense of Christianity and eventually founded a sect of Gnostic tendencies. As far as is known, neither Justin nor Tatian was ordained. We do know that as a result of the school and its fame, Justin was challenged to a debate by the pagan philosopher Crescentius, and it has been suggested that it was Crescentius who, having been bested by Justin, took revenge by accusing his rival before the authorities and thus caused his martyrdom.

A little more is known about the catechetical school of Alexandria, which lasted much longer than Justin's in Rome. Jerome claimed that it was founded by Saint Mark, but this may be discounted given the tendency in the times of Jerome to claim for many a church and an institution the prestige of having been founded by the apostles or their immediate disciples. What is certain is that already by the year 190 there was in Alexandria a center of Christian studies. It was there that Clement of Alexandria, an Athenian who was traveling from city to city in his quest for truth, met the teacher Pantenus, who taught him "the true philosophy"—that is, Christianity. Clement remained in Alexandria, where he succeeded Pantenus in the leadership of the school that the latter seems to have founded. There his most remarkable disciple was Origen, whom Bishop Demetrius put in charge of the training of catechumens—that is, candidates for baptism.

Although Origen's task was originally the preparation of the catechumens, his school soon became a center of Christian studies for those wishing to know more about their faith and even for pagans attracted by Origen's fame. Thus, for instance, Julia Mammea, the mother of Emperor Alexander Severus, went to hear the lectures of Origen. Besides theological subjects, the school taught sciences, mathematics, and other disciplines. In addition, occasionally some of its teachers were invited to places where there was a theological disagreement or concern, in order to help resolve the matter. Such was the case of Origen himself, who was invited to go to Arabia in order to settle some debates regarding the nature of God.

All of this means that, even though there were some similarities between the school of Alexandria and our modern seminaries, it was different in that its main purpose was not to prepare pastors but rather to study, clarify, and explore the Christian faith. But even so, there were remarkable leaders who studied in it. One of these was Gregory the Wonderworker, a disciple of Origen who eventually became bishop as well as an effective evangelist in the city of Neocaesarea, in Pontus. (According to one of his biographers, when Gregory became bishop of Neocaesarea there were seventeen Christians in the city, and when he died only seventeen pagans remained.) Little by little, the school in Alexandria became a center of studies where many leaders of the church were formed. We also know that at roughly the same time there was a similar school in Antioch. The most famous teacher of that other school was Lucian of Antioch, who taught Arius as well as most of his followers—who therefore called themselves "fellow Lucianists."

But one must remember that in order to be a pastor or a bishop the first requirement was to be elected by the congregation. Thus, although many of those who studied in these schools did eventually become pastors or bishops, they did not attend those schools as candidates for the ordained ministry but simply as people interested in Christian truth.


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Table of Contents


"1. The Early Church",
"2. The Catechumenate",
"3. From Constantine to the Germanic Invasions",
"4. The Romanization of the Germanic Peoples",
"5. Early Medieval Schools",
"6. The Beginnings of Scholasticism",
"7. The Universities and Scholasticism",
"8. The Last Centuries of the Middle Ages",
"9. In Quest of Alternatives",
"10. The Protestant Reformation",
"11. The Catholic Reformation",
"12. Protestant Scholasticism and Rationalism",
"13. The Pietist Reaction",
"14. Modern Theological Education",
"15. A Brief Overview",
"16. Bringing It Home",

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