Reforming the University by Reforming Theology

It is a Matter of Metaphysics!

The theological curriculum of modern seminaries is in serious need of reform. Instead of the current four-fold division between biblical, historical, systematic and practical theology, we should recover the premodern idea of theology as a single, unified subject in which one does exegesis, reflects on the doctrinal implications of that exegesis in the light of the metaphysical framework provided by the creeds and confessions and seeks to grasp what God is saying to the church today through his Word. 

Origins of the Modern Research University 

The current seminary curriculum is deficient precisely and to the extent that it mimics the structure of theology faculties in the modern research university. We must remember that the modern research university is a relatively recent invention and is itself a product of the reductionist materialism, nominalism and mechanism of the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment. Friedrich Schleiermacher was instrumental in reorganizing the theological faculty at the University of Berlin in 1810. As a result of that reorganization, the goal was to promote theological research that was in keeping with Enlightenment ideas and produce pastors who were supportive of higher criticism and doctrinal revisionism. The guiding mantra was to engage in scientific research for its own sake – knowledge for the sake of knowledge – and this required freedom from all ecclesiastical control.

Schleiermacher’s assumption was that theology only has a legitimate claim to exist in the modern, research university if it conforms to the ideals of what can be called “scientism,” that is, the doctrine that all the knowledge we have is knowledge of the phenomena we encounter with our senses and the organization of that data by our minds. Wissenschaft was understood to be the application of German Idealism to all fields of scientific research. 

From Berlin, the ideals of the modern research university spread throughout Germany during the nineteenth century and only gradually penetrated the Anglo-Saxon world toward the end of that century and the beginning of the twentieth century. Higher criticism, Darwinian evolution, and the rejection of the miraculous were the chief characteristics of the applied Hegelianism that shaped theology to the dismay and alarm of conservative, confessional Protestants in the Anglosphere. The result, of course, was the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One outcome of that controversy was the establishment of Bible colleges as ways of perpetuating the traditional form of theology as a unity of exegesis and doctrine, which predated the Enlightenment. The fatal flaw in the project was the lack of attention given to the metaphysical implications of doctrines. As Neo-Evangelicalism (later Evangelicalism) arose after the Second World War and developed seminaries out of Bible colleges, the design for the theological curriculum reflected the Enlightenment-inspired format implemented by Schleiermacher 150 years earlier. Exegesis and doctrine were assigned to different departments with different professors pursuing their scholarly work independently of the other departments. This is rather surprising, given that the founders of these institutions believed themselves to challenging Schleiermacher-inspired theological liberalism. 

For most of the past two centuries the leading professors in most Evangelical seminaries have been formed within graduate programs that seek to impart the view of “scientific” theology that emerged out of nineteenth century philosophy shaped by Kant and Hegel in reaction to the Enlightenment attack on classical metaphysics. Not only the shape of the curriculum but also the nature of theology itself as an academic discipline (wissenschaft) has undergirded those institutions. But how can conservative conclusions be drawn from liberal premises? 

Reforming Theology

In his essay, “God, Theology, Universities,” John Webster challenges the idea of theology as a “science” in the nineteenth century sense. His challenge is fundamental. First, he defines theology as “a work of pious intelligence whose foundation and first moving cause is God’s loving communication of himself to the saints, and whose end is the vision of God.” (God without Measure, 162) Here Webster identifies the goal of theology as knowledge of God in himself. He also writes: “Theology is chiefly concerned with God the Holy Trinity, first in his inner works, and then in his outer works, the missions of the Son and the Spirit as they effect the Father’s purpose.” (God Without Measure, 159) Obviously, such a view of theology in in serious tension with all forms of Kantian constructivism in which the knowledge of the thing in itself is seen as impossible. At best theology could speak of the effects of God in history, but to speak of God’s inner, eternal being is utterly verboten. But Webster doesn’t care what Kant forbids.

Second, Webster is audacious enough to claim that since theology is the study of God and all things in relation to God, the knowledge of God is the prerequisite for all scientific work in all disciplines: 

By seeing the natures and ends of theological intelligence and universities in relation to God’s history with creatures, theology undertakes analysis by principles, attempting to discover natures and ends by penetrating to the principia of creaturely forms of life and activity. This, because created things cannot be grasped in se and per se, but only in relation to God, the causa universalis totus esse. (God without Measure, 158)

Webster argues in this essay that to understand the cosmos as creation is different from understanding it as an eternal, self-existent, self-moving, evolving entity. To understand creatures as creatures is to understand them in relation to their cause and their telos. Only in a metaphysical world picture shaped by creation and its eschatological goal in Christ is it possible to grasp the true nature and purpose (principia) of a thing. 

Reforming the University 

So, it turns out that the modern, research university, shaped by German Idealism, is inhospitable both to true theology and true science. It is inhospitable to the former because it denies the possibility of knowing God by God’s own self-revelation culminating in Jesus Christ. It is inhospitable to the latter because it denies the possibility of knowing the true natures of things implanted in them by their Creator. Knowledge of the Creator and knowledge of the creation turn out to be inter-related in such intricate ways that they cannot be pulled apart without damaging both. As John Calvin put it: 

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he lives and moves [Acts 17:28]. For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. (Institutes, I.1.1)

Calvin, the Christian Platonist, here asserts the connection between the world accessible to our five senses and the reality of God in which this world participates. Our being is dependent on God the First Cause of all things. Following Calvin, Webster argues that only by understanding things as creatures, that is, as things created with natures by God for certain ends, can we gain true wisdom. 

The upshot of my argument is that the metaphysical world picture on which the modern, research university is based needs to be reformed because as things stand all science – both theological science and natural science – is hamstrung by the anti-intellectual tendencies introduced into Western higher education by the philosophical naturalism of the Enlightenment. 

The four-fold division of theology is not an innocent or random innovation. Its purpose was to separate the scholarly study of the Bible from confessional orthodoxy in order to secularize it. In other words, the goal of the revised curriculum of the German research university was to make exegesis dependent on the metaphysics of German Idealism rather than on the creedal and confessional tradition of the Church. This would allow for the reinterpretation of the Bible within a naturalistic framework. Systematic theology, once cut off from its exegetical life source, could only drift into becoming a form of modern philosophy. This explains the widespread (and understandable) hostility of Evangelicals to systematic theology during the twentieth century. It is safe to assume that systematic theology, cut off from Scripture, poses little threat to the hegemony of the naturalism that lies at the base of all modern philosophy in the aftermath of Hume, Kant and Hegel, whether it develops in the continental or the analytic modes. 

To recommend bringing systematic and biblical theology back together (along with historical and practical theology) is to recommend a radical reform because it calls into question the validity of the entire modern, research university as presently constituted. It calls into question the possibility of interpreting the Bible correctly without presupposing the creedal and confessional tradition of the church in our exegesis. It calls into question the possibility of doing faithful, orthodox theology without employing metaphysical doctrines drawn from the Great Tradition. It also calls into question the validity of studying nature without understanding it as creation. It constitutes a challenge to modernity at the most fundamental level possible, that is, the metaphysical level. 

It is hardly a secret that Western universities are in crisis today. They are under assault from technological pragmatism from one side and from relativistic postmodernism from the other. Increasingly the goal of truth is sidelined as the academic disciplines are reduced to their technological usefulness to modern society, on the one hand, or to vehicles of ideological warfare on the other. Theology, however, offers hope. 

Reforming Theology as the Key to Reforming the University

But theology cannot help the university if it allows itself to be assimilated into the present structures and undertaken on the basis of the same premises that dominate the university now. Theology can help only if it is allowed to take over completely and re-shape the entire enterprise from the ground up. Theology must be itself, namely, the study of God and all things in relation to God. Theology must be God focussed if it is going to help us bring the world into proper perspective.

Taking over failing universities may seem overly ambitious today, but we could start by reforming seminary curriculum so as to bring creedal orthodoxy and biblical interpretation back together as they were before modernity intervened. The church can nourish theology in its classical form and wait for the failing structures of modernity to collapse. When that time comes, if theology is ready, it may be possible to restore a truly Christian, theological framework to the university and open the path to a new Renaissance.