Wisdom From Above: A Reformed Catholic Vision of Theological Education

Scott R. Swain
President and James Woodrow Hassell Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

Editor’s Note – A convocation address delivered at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, on August 30, 2017.

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” James 1.17-18

I. Wisdom From Above

Christian theology is “wisdom from above” (James 3.17). Such wisdom descends from “the Father of lights” (James 1.17) through his Son “Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (James 2.1) by “the Spirit that he has made to dwell within us” (James 4.5). This wisdom communicates itself to us through “the word of truth” (James 1.18), a word delivered by “the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (James 5.10) and by apostolic servants such as James, the “servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1.1). Flowing from the triune God through the prophetic and apostolic scriptures, this wisdom “implants” itself in our hearts through God’s work of regeneration (James 1.21), bearing a “harvest of righteousness” (James 3.17-18) in those who are the “firstfruits” of God’s new creation (James 1.18).

Put in the idiom of dogmatics, the triune God is the ontological principle of theology, the source from whom all true theology flows. Holy Scripture is the external cognitive principle of theology, the means whereby the triune God communicates to redeemed creatures the knowledge and love of himself and the standard by which the knowledge and love of God are measured, while the new spiritual habit granted by God in regeneration is the internal cognitive principle of theology, that by which we embrace God’s Word in Holy Scripture in faith, cling to God’s promises in hope, and follow God’s law in love.

The Epistle of James is an apostolic ministry of heavenly wisdom, addressed to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1.1) who suffer “manifold trials” (James 1.2 KJV) in their pilgrimage to “the kingdom” which God “has promised to those who love him” (James 2.5) and who, for this reason, are in need of heavenly wisdom. Determined by its source in the triune God and accommodated to the circumstances of pilgrim saints, the heavenly wisdom that James ministers unfolds itself in two forms, which we might label “contemplative wisdom” and “practical wisdom.”[1]

As contemplative wisdom, James instructs his pilgrim audience to discern God’s purpose within their trials by tracing their present circumstances beyond their immediate causes and occasions to their ultimate source and goal in the triune God of unchangeable goodness. Because God is “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1.17), James insists, the trials that afflict pilgrim saints should not be understood as temptations. God neither tempts anyone nor is he tempted (James 1.13). The God of unchangeable goodness is the fountain of “every good and perfect gift” in nature, grace, and glory (James 1.17) who gives good gifts to all in simplicity [ἁπλῶς], with unmixed motives (James 1.5). Just as God fathered the heavenly lights in the first creation, so he fathers the saints in the new creation by bringing them forth, of his own good will, “through the word of truth” (James 1.18).

Because God is unchangeably good, and because God is the supreme source of all things in nature, grace, and glory, James urges pilgrim saints not to understand the trials that afflict them as temptations. Trials should rather be understood as training, elements within a curriculum of divine pedagogy ordered to God’s glory and the creature’s good. Within the divine pedagogy, trials serve the good end of bringing the spiritual seed planted in believers in regeneration to full fruit in mature Christian character. James thus counsels his spiritual siblings to rejoice in trials, to allow patience to have its perfect work that they may be “perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1.2-4).[2]

In directing his audience to contemplate their trials in relation to the Father of lights, James engages in what later theologians call the method of “reduction.”[3] The method of reduction involves considering various elements of reality not simply in terms of their distinctive individuality and creaturely surface but ultimately in terms of their relation to God. The method of reduction acknowledges that God is not only the supreme source of heavenly wisdom. It acknowledges also that God is the supreme object of heavenly wisdom and therefore that true wisdom regarding anything is only gained when all things are viewed in relation to God, the supreme origin and end of creatures. For James too “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 9.10).

As James attests, pilgrim saints need not only contemplative wisdom, the spiritual capacity for perceiving the good God and all things in relation to him. They also need practical wisdom, the spiritual capacity for discerning the right course of action in the space opened up between the inauguration and consummation of God’s eternal kingdom.

The immediate ends of practical wisdom, according to James, are social in nature. James encourages pilgrim saints to order the social architecture of their congregations with impartiality so that the Christian poor may be honored rather than dishonored (James 2.1-7; 1.27). He exhorts them to “put away” (James 1.21) vicious patterns of speech and action—jealousy, selfish ambition, quarreling, and murder, which are destructive to community formation and encourages them instead to exhibit “the meekness of wisdom” in patterns of speech and action that are “pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere” (James 3.1-4.12), virtues which are conducive to social harmony and peace.

Fulfilling the ends of practical wisdom, furthermore, calls for the exercise of various forms of Christian ministry. These include teaching (James 3.1), singing songs of praise (James 5.13), prayers for forgiveness and healing among the elders (James 5.13-15), the mutual confession of sins (James 5.16), and the quest to restore wandering sinners to the path of truth (James 5.19-20).

In each instance, practical wisdom finds guidance for speech and action by following the pattern of God’s own works.[4] Why should the Christian community honor its poorest members? Because God has “chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (James 2.5). Why should the Christian who uses her tongue to bless God not use her tongue to curse her neighbor? Because God created the neighbor “in the likeness of God” (James 3.9). Practical wisdom also finds guidance for speech and action in “the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (James 2.8, 12: “so speak and so act”) as well as in the examples of patience displayed in Old Testament saints such as Job and Elijah (James 5.8-10, 17-18).

Though the immediate ends of practical wisdom are social in nature, James directs Christian moral agency toward an ultimate end that lies beyond that which may be obtained in this age. The ultimate happiness promised to the one who stands the test under trials is “the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1.12; 5.11). Just as contemplative wisdom lays a foundation for practical wisdom, so practical wisdom prepares pilgrim saints for a blessing that lies beyond the ken of its immediate agency and that, according to Jesus and Paul, is itself contemplative in nature: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5.8; Titus 2.11-13; Heb 12.14).

Practical wisdom thus charts a course guided by “the wisdom from above” (James 3.17) rather than the wisdom which is “earthly, sensual, demonic” (James 3.15), unlearning its native “friendship with the world” and learning friendship with God (James 4.4; 2.23). In so doing, practical wisdom realizes the same end as contemplative wisdom, namely, Christian wholeness or maturity, bringing faith to perfection in good works and bringing the tongue, the most disorderly member of the human anatomy, into a state of God honoring, community edifying integrity (James 2.22; 3.2-12).

II. Reformed Catholicity

From the beginning, wholeness—or as it has often been described, “catholicity”—has been a mark of biblical Christianity. In its primary theological meaning, catholicity refers not only to the wholeness of the church with respect to its multinational and multiethnic composition. Catholicity also refers to the wholeness of the church’s doctrinal and moral teaching. Thus Cyril of Jerusalem says,

It is called Catholic … because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly; and because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind, governors and governed, learned and unlearned; and because it universally treats and heals the whole class of sins, which are committed by soul or body, and possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named, both in deeds and words, and in every kind of spiritual gifts.[5]

Catholicity, understood both in terms of the church’s wholeness in multinational and multiethnic composition and in terms of the church’s wholeness in doctrinal and moral teaching, has been central to the Reformed tradition from its inception as well. Early Reformed churches did not dispute with their Roman Catholic counterparts regarding the value of catholicity. Both sides believed that Jesus Christ had kept his promise to build the church, causing her to grow not only numerically and geographically but also in genuine understanding of and obedience to the Word of God. Early Reformed churches disputed their Roman Catholic counterparts regarding the criterion for measuring the church’s catholicity. Is the final measure of doctrinal and moral wholeness a church council or pope, or is it Holy Scripture?[6]

On the basis of Holy Scripture, the supreme criterion of the church’s catholicity, the Reformed tradition sought to preserve what Christ by the Spirit had accomplished in history to bring about the church’s growth in doctrinal and moral understanding while purifying the church of what could only be regarded as unwholesome “growths,” cancerous tumors in the church’s mind, leprous blemishes in the church’s practices. Early Reformed confessions joined their Lutheran counterparts in roundly affirming the teaching of the ecumenical creeds regarding the Trinity and the person of Jesus Christ because they believed such teaching could be “proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.“[7] Reformed theologians wrote books with the title “Reformed catholic” or “orthodox catholic” in order to demonstrate their commitment to preserving and propagating the fullness of divine wisdom bequeathed to the church through Holy Scripture. William Perkins thus describes “a Reformed Catholic” as “anyone that holds the same necessary heads of religion with the Roman Church: yet so as he pares off and rejects all errors in doctrine, whereby the said religion is corrupted.”[8]

Accordingly, “Reformed catholicity”[9] entails a commitment to the wholeness of the Bible’s doctrinal and moral teaching as received and confessed by the church through time. This wholeness finds its objective source and norm in Holy Scripture, the external cognitive principle of theology. It finds its subjective appropriation and expression in the creeds and confessions, hymns and liturgies, sermons and prayers of the holy catholic church.[10] The latter are products of the social and historical outworking of the internal cognitive principle of theology, the result of God’s work through Word and Spirit of moving the church toward “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4.13).[11]

Reformed catholicity, understood in this sense, may be contrasted with the “deformed catholicity” of Rome which, by adding to the doctrinal and moral substance of Holy Scripture, dishonors God and distorts Christian wholeness. It may also be contrasted with Protestant efforts, on the left and on the right, which would promote a “pure Protestantism,” shorn of the church’s catholic substance in faith and morals.

III. Reformed Catholicity and the Task of Theological Education

The need for wholeness in theological education is especially acute in our contemporary setting. With respect to the broader cultural and ecclesiastical context of theological education in North America, recent works speak of The Vanishing American Adult and of The Juvenilization of American Christianity.[12] Closer to home, literature devoted specifically to theological education in Europe and North America over the past couple of centuries identifies widespread tendencies toward disintegration and division between church and academy, between theory and practice, and between the various theological disciplines of the modern seminary curriculum.[13] The ascendency of identity politics in higher education, furthermore, holds little promise of promoting wholeness in theological education.[14] “[D]espite all its calls for solidarity,” identity politics lends itself toward “separation and conflict rather than cooperation.”[15] Consequently, if theological education in North America is to repent of its status as a primarily white, middle-class affair[16] and to witness “a harvest of righteousness” that is “sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3.18), it must draw upon other, more unifying resources.

Those resources, I suggest, lie in “the wisdom that comes down from above” (James 3.15). As we have seen, Christian theology is “wisdom from above” (James 3.17), wisdom that descends from the Father of lights by means of the Word of God in Holy Scripture and implants itself in the regenerate human being in the form of a spiritual habit or disposition capable of both contemplative and practical wisdom. Christian theological education involves the formation of this spiritual habit, cultivating and guiding it to its divinely appointed goal of maturity or wholeness, for the glory of God and the good of his people. Christian theological education is, in this sense, “an exercise in Christian culture.”[17]

As an exercise in Christian culture, theological education is an intrinsically social phenomenon.[18] Though God plants the seed of regeneration in the human heart apart from human agency, he cultivates that seed’s growth toward maturity by means of human agency, in particular, by the agency of the congregation, the family, and the school. As an exercise in Christian culture, theological education is also an intrinsically historical phenomenon. When rightly ordered, various pedagogical communities, such as congregation, family, and school, will not attempt to isolate themselves from God’s broader providential work of bringing the church into the fullness of divine wisdom revealed in Holy Scripture, but will instead see themselves as responsible tradents of that wisdom. A commitment to cultivating wholeness in Christian wisdom entails a commitment to Reformed catholicity.

What does this mean for the task of theological education? A Reformed catholic vision of theological education is governed by a Reformed catholic vision of theology as “wisdom from above.” The latter suggests four forms of wholeness, integration, and maturity that may guide theological education in a seminary context.

1. A vision of theology as “wisdom from above” suggests an integrated conception of theological education that can bind the theological school, the congregation, and the family together within a common pedagogical calling.

The approach to theological education perfected by Friedrich Schleiermacher at the University of Berlin in the nineteenth century and brought to North America by educators such as Philip Schaff transformed the classical conception of theology as a spiritual habit of wisdom into a conception of theology as the “theoretical” component of training for professional ministry.[19] This new paradigm defined theology initially as “the science of the Christian religion” and later as a loose aggregate of various disciplines controlled by their own distinct literatures and methods. The goal of this new conception of theology was to provide theology with a sure footing in the modern research university. The effect was to transform theology into a specialist field of knowledge for religious professionals and thus to isolate theology from its native habitats in the congregation and the family.[20]

Retrieving a conception of theology as “wisdom from above,” I suggest, offers resources for integrating the church’s various contexts of theological education—the congregation, the family, and the school—within a common pedagogical calling. Theology is not a specialist field for ministerial students alone. Theology is something that first exists in the God who knows and loves himself in the blessed Trinity and that God communicates to all of God’s people through Holy Scripture by planting the knowledge and love of himself within us by the Holy Spirit.

Within this economy of divine self-communication, God employs the church’s various pedagogical communities in various ways to bring about maturity in Christian wisdom. The ways theology is taught is different in these various contexts. Theology is taught in a catechetical manner within the context of the family. Theology is taught through the ministry of Word and Sacrament within the context of public worship in the congregation. Theology is taught in still a different, “scholastic” manner within the context of the theological school. Moreover, we may expect the study of theology to center upon different texts in different contexts. We would be surprised to hear of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics being read within the context of family worship, where we would not be surprised to hear of the study and recitation of the Heidelberg Catechism.

Nevertheless, despite all the variations of text and context, the subject matter and ends of theology remain constant across these various pedagogical communities. Theology, wherever it is taught, is “wisdom from above”—wisdom revealed by God in Holy Scripture for the formation of the saints in contemplative and practical wisdom as they make their way to God’s promised kingdom, where they will see God’s face and find rest in God’s presence. Moreover, despite the variety of forms that teaching may take, the tasks of theological education are common across these various pedagogical communities. Whether in catechesis, congregational preaching, or in the classroom, a well-considered approach to theological formation will include not only the task of “traditioning”—the task of handing on the substance of the faith from one generation to the next. It will also include the task of “inquiry”—the task of addressing critical questions that arise in each new generation in the process of making students well-formed members of the Christian community.

The theological school is not distinguished from other pedagogical communities by the subject matter or ends of its teaching, or even by its understanding of the pedagogical task. The theological school holds all of these in common with the congregation and the family within the unfolding economy of divine wisdom whereby God brings foolish and miserable children of Adam into the wisdom and happiness of Jesus Christ. The theological school is distinguished by the manner in which it excels in the subject matter, ends, and tasks that are common to the church’s various pedagogical contexts and therefore also by the excellence of the teachers it enlists in fulfillment of its pedagogical calling.

For all its aspirations to excellence, the theological school, thus described, is not independent of other Christian communities of learning. The theological school depends upon the church to authorize its teaching and its teachers. Indeed, the theological school that feigns to transcend the orbit of the church’s confessions and courts has in fact already lost its center of gravity. The theological school depends upon congregations to send it students, to cooperate in their ministerial preparation, and to ordain them once they have completed all relevant ecclesiastical and academic requirements for gospel ministry. The theological school, furthermore, depends upon Christian families and congregations for spiritual, administrative, and financial support.[21] In these ways and others, congregation, family, and theological school are co-laborers with one another under God in the divine work of cultivating maturity and wholeness among the people of God.

2. A vision of theology as “wisdom from above” suggests a holistic account of theological education that can serve all God’s people and all ecclesiastical vocations.

If theology is the spiritual habit of wisdom planted in believers by God through Holy Scripture, and if theological education involves the cultivation of this spiritual habit towards maturity, then theology should not be conceived merely as the theoretical component of professional ministerial training. Though it exists in different Christians in different degrees of maturity and excellence, theology is a habit granted to all God’s children, not just those who possess a special calling to gospel ministry.

Consequently, the theological school is, in principle, a place for all God’s people, both those who possess a special calling to gospel ministry and those who wish to engage theological study as “amateur theologians,” i.e., those who wish to engage theological study not in order to prepare for vocational ministry but in order to fulfill their general Christian vocation to know and love the triune God and to serve him in accordance with their particular gifts and callings.[22]

That said, there is a reason advanced training in theology ordinarily coexists with specialized preparation for vocational ministry. The reason is not because theology is the theoretical side of a professional vocation. The reason is because those called to lead the Christian community through the vocations of pastor, teacher, and counselor, for example, must themselves excel in the wisdom, both contemplative and practical, into which they would lead the Christian community. Pastors, teachers, counselors, and so forth are exemplars of theological wisdom before they are ministers of it.[23] And they can only succeed in the latter calling insofar as they are well-trained in the former.

A holistic conception of theology as “wisdom from above” thus provides a deep foundation for integrating the various specialized forms of preparation that accompany various specialized forms of Christian ministry. It is one thing to pastor and another thing to serve as a missionary. It is one thing to counsel and another to serve as a teacher. But in all these various activities, pastoring, evangelizing, counseling, and teaching are means of communicating a common deposit of divine wisdom and are aimed at cultivating a shared conception of Christian wholeness.[24]

The theological school’s call to prepare all of God’s people for the various general and special vocations to which God has called them is not a calling that seminaries in North America, including Reformed Theological Seminary,[25] have fulfilled without defect. As mentioned above, for much of its history, theological education in North America has been a largely white, middle-class phenomenon. If the theological school is called, in principle, to serve all of God’s people, then this history is a transgression against its calling.

How might Reformed Theological Seminary repent of its particular sins and recover its calling in this regard? There are no easy answers here. But the wisdom that descends from above instructs us to listen to the voices that cry out under oppression and to “weep and howl” because of the divine judgment that we have invited upon ourselves (James 5.1-6; 4.6-10). Moreover, by the light it shines forth as it descends from Mount Zion, divine wisdom opens up a path on which the cultural institutions, artifacts, and symbols once employed as instruments of class, race, and gender warfare may be transformed into instruments suitable for cultivating social wholeness as we learn together to “walk in the name of the Lord our God” (Micah 4.1-5). May God grant that “the meekness of wisdom” (James 3.13) will be exhibited in this place in days and years ahead as we seek to follow wisdom’s path of repentance and renewal.

3. A vision of theology as “wisdom from above” suggests that the theological school’s primary task lies in teaching “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20.27), drawing upon resources from the entire Christian tradition, which serve an ancillary role in relation to this task.

Because God communicates the knowledge and love of himself to us through Holy Scripture, Scripture determines both the shape and substance of theological education. The wisdom that God communicates to pilgrim saints does not (yet) come by means of an immediate vision of the triune God. And the habit of spiritual wisdom that God seeks to cultivate inside of us is not cultivated by looking within us but by turning our attention outside of ourselves to the Word of God that addresses us in Holy Scripture.[26]

The various areas of the theological curriculum are thus determined by the distinctive literary and historical form of Holy Scripture. The theological school devotes itself to the study of biblical languages and literature, to the study of Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman cultures, to tracing the various epochal and covenantal administrations of the history of redemption, and so forth. And it does so because it is only by means of such study that the theological school may hope to discover, expound, and commend divine wisdom in both its contemplative and practical dimensions. God has spoken to us here, in these ways, in these words. Theological wisdom is gained therefore by listening to God here, in these ways, in these words.

Furthermore, because the divine wisdom that God communicates to us in Holy Scripture is both contemplative and practical, each area of the theological curriculum is directly dependent upon Holy Scripture. The Bible is the “primary text” in the theological curriculum, addressing all aspects of theological wisdom with authority, truth, clarity, and sufficiency. The Bible shapes our perception of God and all things in relation to God. The Bible equips us for moral reasoning. The Bible regulates and guides the various elements and aspects of Christian worship and ministry. And the Bible offers spiritual medicine for the cure of souls. The Bible thus accounts for the formal unity of the theological disciplines across the curriculum.[27] The theological school is a Bible school or it is a theological school in name only.

This, however, does not mean that Holy Scripture is the only text in the theological school. The Bible is a generative text and the church’s history of Bible teaching has generated a culture of biblical “commentary” in the form of texts which aid students in the reading, understanding, and obeying Holy Scripture. Such texts, both classical and contemporary, both catechetical and critical, constitute the “secondary literature” of the theological curriculum, servants of the divine Word delivered to us in Holy Scripture and therefore requisites of excellence in theological education. The task of theological education, accordingly, includes acquainting students with the best and the worst literature of the entire Christian tradition and training students how to read this literature, with docility and discernment, for the sake of wholeness in Christian wisdom.

Because the Bible is generative of Christian culture, and because theological education is “an exercise in Christian culture,” the theological school must also devote itself more broadly to studying the history of the church’s doctrine, practice, liturgy, and ministry. The wisdom that God communicates to us in Holy Scripture has been received and transmitted in time, both faithfully and unfaithfully, in manners characterized by fittingness and folly. Therefore, if theological education is to be a discriminating exercise in Christian culture, it must devote sustained critical attention to the church’s theological culture in its social and historical dimensions.

4. A vision of theology as “wisdom from above” locates theological education’s immediate end in the formation of mature persons and its ultimate end in the beatific vision of the triune God.

A theological school devoted to excellence in theological education will undoubtedly contribute in various ways to the broader community of Christian learning through its faculty’s production of articles and books and through its faculty’s participation within the various congregations and courts of the church. The theological school’s greatest contribution to the church and the world, however, lies in the formation of human persons in the wisdom that descends from above, which is pure and peaceable, full of mercy and good fruits, and which produces a harvest of righteousness (James 3.17-18).

The world is well-stocked with information. And now, more than ever in the history of the world, more people have almost immediate access to this information. What the world lacks is wisdom. Where can such wisdom be found? Not in libraries or in databases. Wisdom descends from above, from the Father of lights, through his Word in Holy Scripture, and takes up residence in human beings animated by a new principle of life through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. The world and the church do not ultimately need more information. The world and the church need more sages, scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven, who are able to bring out of the storehouse of divine wisdom in Holy Scripture treasures old and new for the enrichment of humankind to the glory of God (Matt 13.52).

The theological school ultimately serves the church and the world by contributing to the formation of mature persons, persons who know the triune God and therefore who see the world as it really is—as the creature of the triune God, redeemed by the triune God, on its way to perfection in the presence of the triune God, persons filled “with knowledge and all discernment” and therefore who are able to “abound” in love “through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1.9-11).

Although the formation of human persons in heavenly wisdom is the ultimate way the theological school serves the church and the world, it is not the ultimate end of theological education. The ultimate end of theological education—whether in the family, in the school, or in the congregation, lies beyond the products and possibilities of this age and beyond the products and possibilities of these mortal bodies. The ultimate end of theological education does not lie in the preparation of ministry professionals. Nor does it lie in the formation of human beings in mature Christian character. The ultimate end of theological education lies in the beatific vision of the triune God.

“In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die. And where you invest your love, you invest your life… Awake my soul. For you were made to meet your maker.”[28]

The crowning perfection of theological education lies beyond the capacities of theological education itself in the final descent of the only wise God to indwell his people, where he will without assistance from teacher or tutor, subject or school communicate himself to us in unmediated, resplendent, all satisfying beauty, and where we will see, savor, and serve him, together with one another, forever. “God is wisdom’s goal, and that glimpse of God himself is saving and filled with glory, toward which we strive with this wisdom as our guide.”[29]

Knowledge that the ultimate end of theological education lies ahead of us in the beatific vision serves theological education in the present by equipping us with a due sense of modesty in our endeavor—for now we know in part, only then face to face (1 Cor 13.9, 12); by encouraging us to be patient, both with ourselves and with others, as we unlearn friendship with the world and learn friendship with God; and by arming us with confidence, for we know that he who began the good work of making theologians of us, will continue to do so in days ahead, and that he will one day faithfully complete his work in the kingdom that God has promised to those who love him.

IV. Conclusion

In Martin Luther’s “Preface to his German Writings,” which he was reluctant to see published, lest someone think that his or anyone else’s writings could improve upon “what one finds in the Holy Scriptures,”[30] the German Reformer offers counsel regarding “a correct way of studying theology.”[31] Specifically, he offers three rules “taught by King David” in Psalm 119: Oratio, Meditatio, and Tentatio.[32]

In Meditatio—meditation, the student of theology looks outside of himself to the Word of God in Holy Scripture, “repeating and comparing oral speech and literal words of the book, reading and rereading them with diligent attention and reflection, so that you may see what the Holy Spirit means by them.” In Tentatio, the student of theology experiences the pedagogical benefit of Christian suffering. Luther assures the student of theology that “as soon as God’s Word takes root and grows in you, the devil will harry you, and will make a real doctor of you, and by his assaults will teach you to seek and love God’s Word.”[33] In Tentatio, the student of theology learns “not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom.”[34]

While Meditatio and Tentatio are essential to theological study, the first and fundamental rule Luther offers is Oratio—prayer. “Firstly, you should know that the Holy Scriptures constitute a book which turns the wisdom of all other books into foolishness, because not one teaches about eternal life except this one alone. Therefore you should straightway despair of your reason and understanding. With them you will not attain eternal life, but, on the contrary, your presumptuousness will plunge you and others with you out of heaven (as happened to Lucifer) into the abyss of hell. But kneel down in your little room [Matt. 6:6] and pray to God with real humility and earnestness, that he through his dear Son may give you his Holy Spirit, who will enlighten you, lead you, and give you understanding.”[35]

Mindful, then, of both the promise and the challenge that lie before us in the pursuit of theological wholeness and maturity under the guidance of heavenly wisdom, let us follow the counsel of Luther, and of James the brother of our Lord, that “if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives generously to all without reproach” (James 1.5).

“Thou, most wise heavenly Father, art the fount and origin of all knowledge and wisdom: thou pourest into the minds of all men knowledge of thyself and of thy will, thou pourest understanding, weightiness of judgment, prudence, right counsel, and the other excellent gifts of the Holy Spirit, by which thou both unitest, in accordance with thy good pleasure, and teachest the minds not only of small children but even of babes and sucklings, and fashionest their mouths to exalt thee with praises. I therefore pray that thou wouldst render my natural disposition docile both to the discipline of piety and to all good arts, in order that, when, by means of the example and aid of thy Son Jesus Christ, I have made some progress in true wisdom and grace and age before thee and before men, I may continuously refer all my study and effort to magnifying and propagating the glory of thy name and of the same your Son and to the advantage of men, through the same our Lord Christ. Amen.”[36]

  1. I discuss more fully theology’s contemplative nature, and its relation to theology’s practical dimension, in Scott R. Swain, “Dogmatics as Systematic Theology,” in The Task of Dogmatics: Explorations in Theological Method, ed., Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2017), chap. 2.
  2. The Epistle of James echoes a number of themes developed in the Sermon on the Mount, including that of “wholeness.” On the latter theme within the Sermon on the Mount, see Jonathan D. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).
  3. See, for example, Bonaventure, On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology, trans. Zachary Hayes (Ashland, OH: Franciscan Institute, 1996).
  4. The fruits of contemplative wisdom thus function as principles for practical wisdom.
  5. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 18.23.
  6. The Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. 1.10 well summarizes the Reformed response to this question: “The supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” Note also the positive but limited role ascribed to church councils in WCF, chap. 31.
  7. Thirty-Nine Articles, art. 8. See also Augsburg Confession, art. 1; Belgic Confession, art. 9.
  8. William Perkins, A Reformed Catholicke, Works of William Perkins (London: John Legatt, 1626), 1:555. See also André Rivet’s Catholicus orthodoxus oppositus catholico papistae (1630).
  9. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015).
  10. WCF 25.2.
  11. Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 33-46.
  12. Ben Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-reliance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017); Thomas Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).
  13. Edward Farley, Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2001); Charles M. Wood, Vision and Discernment: An Orientation in Theological Study (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002); David H. Kelsey, Between Athens & Berlin: The Theological Education Debate (Eugene, OR: WIpf & Stock, 2011); Daniel J. Treier, Virtue and the Voice of God: Toward Theology as Wisdom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).
  14. Elizabeth C. Corey, “First Church of Intersectionality,” First Things 275 (August/September 2017): 27-31.
  15. Corey, “First Church of Intersectionality,” 31.
  16. Glenn T. Miller, Piety and Profession: American Protestant Theological Education, 1870-1970 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).
  17. Richard A. Muller, The Study of Theology in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, ed., Moisés Silva (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 661.
  18. Augustine, City of God, XIX.5: “the life of the wise man must be social.”
  19. Friedrich Schleiermacher, Kurze Darstellung des theologischen Studiums zum Behuf einleitender Vorlesungen (1811/1830), ed., Dirk Schmid (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2002); Philip Schaff, Theological Propaedeutic: A General Introduction to the Study of Theology, Exegetical, Historical, Systematic, and Practical, Including Encyclopaedia, Methodology, and Bibliography (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1893).
  20. On the broader historical context of Schleiermacher’s theological vision, see Thomas Albert Howard, Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). For its effects on theological education in North America, see Farley, Theologia; and Kelsey, Between Athens & Berlin.
  21. The particular forms of interrelationship between congregation, family, and theological school may be ordered in various fitting ways. For the history of Reformed Theological Seminary in this regard, see John R. Muether, A Mind for Truth, A Heart for God: The First Fifty Years of Reformed Theological Seminary (Reformed Theological Seminary, 2016).
  22. See Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 441: “A Plea for Amateur Theology.”
  23. According to Oliver O’Donovan, “Properly, ‘leadership’ is a service to a common task rendered by someone performing the task, as distinct from the kind of adjunct help one may look to an administrator for. To be a ‘leader’ is to be someone other workers look to for help in doing whatever the community of work does, as when an experienced craftsman guides an apprentice” (Entering into Rest: Ethics as Theology, Volume 3 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017], 125-26).
  24. The need for a positive conception of human wholeness in the practice of psychology has been emphasized by the “positive psychology” movement. See Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Caroline Lavelock, Daryl R. Van Tongeren, David J. Jennings, II, Aubrey L. Gartner, Don E. Davis, and Joshua N. Hook, “Virtue in Positive Psychology,” in Virtues & Their Vices, ed., Kevin Timpe and Craig A. Boyd (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), chap. 20.
  25. R. Milton Winter, “Division and Reunion in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.: A Mississippi Retrospective,” Journal of Presbyterian History 78 (2000): 67-86; Peter Slade, Open Friendship in a Closed Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Carolyn Renée Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975 (New York: NYU Press, 2013); Sean Michael Lucas, For A Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2015).
  26. For further discussion of the place of the “external Word” in theological education, see Oswald Bayer, Theology the Lutheran Way, ed. and trans. Jeffrey G. Silcock and Mark C. Mattes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 50-59.
  27. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologia, 1.1.3; Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, 1.22-23. While the various disciplines of the theological school are united by a shared vision of theology as “wisdom from above” and centered around the study and teaching of Holy Scripture, they need not adopt a hostile stance toward academic disciplines as more broadly conceived by various spheres of academia beyond the theological school. Christian theologians, instead, will seek to maintain a free relation to these academic disciplines as more broadly conceived, recognizing that they too are gifts of common grace. They will also seek to exercise Christian prudence regarding where and how to appropriate these gifts and regarding how to contribute to the flourishing of these academic disciplines. Furthermore, because the pursuit of excellence in education belongs to the general vocation of Adam’s race, the theological school is free to pursue pedagogical excellence in partnership with other institutions of learning through accreditation and to require of its faculty common forms of excellence in academic qualification (e.g., the Ph.D.).
  28. Mumford & Sons, “Awake My Soul.”
  29. Franciscus Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, trans. David C. Noe (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 102.
  30. Martin Luther, “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings,” in Luther’s Works, Volume 34, ed., Lewis W. Spitz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960), 283.
  31. Luther, “Preface,” 285.
  32. Luther, “Preface,” 285.
  33. Luther, “Preface,” 287.
  34. Luther, “Preface,” 287.
  35. Luther, “Preface,” 285-86.
  36. Andreas Hyperius, “Prayer for Studies,” trans. E. J. Hutchinson.