This academic year, in preparation for ordained ministry, I have been studying at General Theological Seminary. As I anticipate ordination, I have been reflecting on my experience of formal theological education over the last thirteen years, and thinking what it will come to mean in ministry.

The purpose of theological education is not obvious. While some academic institutions and most churchly ones continue to offer ostensibly theological education, many of the Church’s members and clergy nevertheless do not acknowledge that theology has much of a purpose. A few days ago, a priest whom I had just met congratulated me for studying at GTS, which, she alleged, thankfully prepares “worker priests” rather than “scholar priests.”

In the 20th century especially, theologians were perhaps tacitly acknowledging that theology was soon to be haunted by the specter of obsolescence when so many of them dedicated so much attention to theology’s starting point and method, often spelled out in lengthy prolegomena. The only real consensus that emerged was that nothing is pre- or non-theological (including the opinion that theology is a pointless academic exercise). No matter where you start, or where you claim theology is going or what theology is for, you are already making a theological choice — and you could reasonably have chosen otherwise. But particularly Christian theology is not such an infinite range of choices, and to choose otherwise than what the Christian faith warrants is to transgress the boundaries of what the Church is about — to commit heresy (hairesis, “choice”).

What interests me is the contested purpose of theology and theological education, in juxtaposition with the concept of heresy. The explicit language of heresy and orthodoxy need not be deployed in debates about theological education for the concepts to be fully operative. For a few decades, theological education has increasingly moved towards the “practical” and the ethical, and away from the doctrinal and the abstract. What is implicitly said is that what matters is that ministers can offer pastoral care and lead communities in improving society. In this landscape, “theological theology” — to use John Webster’s helpful and polemical slogan — is, by its very nature, outside the bounds of this orthodoxy.

A useful illustration of this dynamic is the centrality given to pastoral care, the current conception of which is a 20th-century innovation. Prior to this time, pastoral ministry was generally conceived of in moral and sacramental terms, rather than in therapeutic (and therefore medical) terms, which is currently dominant. It has become a widespread requirement for ministers of different faiths to undergo the training of Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE, usually in the context of hospital chaplaincy. One of the stretching and beneficial characteristics of CPE is that ministers work with ministers of other faiths, as well as offer pastoral care to people of other faiths. Beneficial as interfaith learning is, a question does loom over the whole process: If I can offer the same pastoral care to a patient as the imam, and if I think that pastoral care is at the center of ministry, then what is the significance of those doctrinal matters that separate me from the imam?

The question is a serious one, and my own suspicion is that there is a correlation between the pervasive focus on this model of pastoral care and the implicit Unitarianism espoused by many clergy in mainline Protestantism. The same question emerges from the focus on social justice. When a parish’s or cleric’s social vision is indistinguishable from a party platform, and when the Church’s message is said to find its telos in that social vision, one must wonder why anyone should bother with the religious baggage. Again and more pointedly: When pastoral care or social action are assumed to be the goal of theological education, then the particular matters of doctrine that are the content of the Christian faith become irrelevant and distracting; focusing on them deters from what theology or ministry is allegedly about.

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I do not intend to say that pastoral care or ecclesial social action do not matter. Of course they do. The question is how they matter. When such things become the very goals of ministry, such that theology is in the service of these goals, what we face is, by the actual norms set out in the Church’s tradition, operant — if not espoused — heresy. In other words, if every Church practice conveys a certain implicit or operant theology, then surely certain modes of practice imply a heretical theology. Theology as a means to some other practical end necessarily puts the Creator in the service of creatures, and treats creation as a self-existing and self-justifying project, rather than, with Christian orthodoxy, conveying the creation’s obligation to and utter dependence on God. Nor is this a theologically conservative observation. For a somewhat random example, Paul Tillich’s work represents exemplary liberal theology, committedly interested in matters of justice; yet even for the politically-radical Tillich, politics was not of ultimate concern, because the polis is not that which concerns us ultimately. (Tillich might be accused of other heresies, of course.)

The presumption that theological education is for some practical end is perhaps also related to widespread biblical illiteracy and poor catechesis. It is difficult to prioritize teaching the Christian faith when the implicit assumption is that its content is inconsequential.

As I anticipate life in ministry, I consider these things in the awareness that my theological education, which was largely philosophical and doctrinal, sets me up in some ways as a “heretic” of the ecclesial culture in which I will work. In my limited experience serving in parishes, I have found that the Church’s members desperately crave to learn the faith, even when it is abstract and not obviously applicable to their lives. The Christian faith claims to introduce them to the true God, their Creator and their End. The knowledge of him is its own end, which cannot be wielded for some other purpose.

Theological educators and those who administrate theological education ought to deal seriously and explicitly with this dissonance between “theological theology” and the culture of ministry, with its implicit theological assumptions. Either the theology or the culture ought to be identified with orthodoxy, the other as heresy.

About The Author

Matt Burdette is from Princeton, New Jersey. A postulant for holy orders in the Diocese of New Jersey, he is currently enrolled at General Theological Seminary. He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies, an M.A. in Theology, and completed his Ph.D. in Theology at the University of Aberdeen. He is married to Evie.

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