The theology of theological education

By Brian Edgar

There are a number of very different approaches to theological education. David H. Kelsey argued that there are ‘two normative types of theological education’ which he referred to as  ‘Athens’ (which stresses the role of the academy in transforming the life of the individual) and ‘Berlin’ (which represents a university model which focuses on the need to educate competent professionals to strengthen the life of the church).

The inadequacy of a simple polar model was noted by Robert Banks who added ‘Jerusalem’ (a community based model which focuses on the need to train missioners to convert the world)  and I maintain that a fourth is needed to get a comprehensive picture -  ‘Geneva’ (which represents an explicitly confessional, seminary approach to training).

The can be diagrammatized as follows -


The full text can be downloaded here: Theology of Theological Education


This article was first delivered as an address to a consultation on theological education sponsored jointly by the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education and the World Evangelical Alliance Theological Commission which was held at the Wycliffe Centre, High Wycombe, UK. It subsequently appeared as ‘The Theology of  Theological Education’ in the Evangelical Review of Theology (2005) Vol 29 No. 3, 208-217.

The first part of the article is reproduced here:

Evangelical theological education as a whole today needs earnestly to pursue and recover a thoroughgoing theology of theological education.

(Manifesto on the Renewal of Evangelical Theological Education)[i]

What is it that makes something theological education?  The obvious answer for many is that it is the content. That is, it is education that is specifically about theology, about God (or, for some, about the experience of God). It is also possible to suggest that the purpose is definitive of what makes something theological education. After all, is it enough to say that knowledge is sufficient to qualify something as theological education if it does not also intend to develop character and skills in life and holiness? Then again, does the method play a role in defining theological education?  What process is to be followed? Does it involve academic research or is it a personal search to find the ultimate good?  Many involved in theological education would also suggest that the ethos is as important as the content and the method. The spirituality, both individual and communal, which permeates the educational process, is critical. Of course, this relates to the context in which the education takes place. Some prefer the academy, others the church and some the wider community. The difference is theologically significant. One cannot really discuss the defining characteristics of theological education without also paying attention to the people involved. Does the faith of those involved define in some way some education as being theological even if the content is not overtly so?

So, given these seven important dimensions of the education what is it that makes it theological education? It is not hard to conclude that theology actually permeates the whole enterprise. It is even less difficult to see that the numerous possibilities mean that there can be significant differences in what is considered theologically central for the educational enterprise. Inevitably some forms of theological education stress one or other aspect more than another and may insist that one or other is absolutely fundamental. This paper maps out the similarities and differences in four broad approaches to theological education. It begins with an assessment of David Kelsey’s classical – vocational, bipolar approach to theological education in which he describes the poles as ‘Athens’ and ‘Berlin’. To this is added Robert Bank’s missional approach, referred to as ‘Jerusalem’ and then I add a fourth, confessional model that is also identified geographically as ‘Geneva’. This schema of four basic models creates a typological map that can locate specific theological education programs and institutions and their emphases, assist in their self-definition and indicate possibilities for movement to a new location in the theological education environment.

Athens and a classical education

In Between Athens and Berlin: the theological debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) David H. Kelsey examines theological education using an a-historical typology in which the terms ‘Athens’ and ‘Berlin’ represent two very different approaches. These are, he maintains, ‘the two normative types of theological education’[ii] – at least as it exists in North America. Everything, he says, moves around an axis comprising these two poles.  By ‘Athens’ he means that the goals and methods of theological education are derived from classical Greek philosophical educational methodology. He argues that the early church adopted and adapted this model. The primary goal of this form of classical education is the transformation of the individual. It is all about character formation, the cultivation of excellence and knowing the supreme good, which, when applied to theological education means knowing God. Theological education is thus not so much knowing about God as it is about knowing God. It is not primarily about theology, that is, the formal study of the knowledge of God, but it is more about what Kelsey calls theologia, that is, gaining the wisdom of God.

Wisdom is sought, not simply knowledge and theological education is fundamentally aretaic (that is, it is the development of the virtues, the arete – the excellence of the soul). It is the transformation of character to be God-like. The emphasis therefore falls upon personal development and spiritual formation. In that sense the focus is very much upon the individual though it is not necessarily individualistic in the modern sense for it began, in the Greek context, as something orientated towards the public good rather than private interest and it was undertaken in communal context.

The early church adopted this educational philosophy not only because it was present culturally but also because of its obvious connections with biblical and theological emphases on holiness and the   development of individual character. In theological education virtue is important and holiness essential. This approach affirmed the need for a complete, inner, personal, moral and spiritual transformation. In the case of Christian classical education the sacred texts were scripture rather than the philosophers, although the study of the philosophers was still important and was understood to produce great reward. This educational emphasis on character was entirely consistent with a theologically grounded obedience to Christ worked out in the power of the Holy Spirit and depending on corporate worship, the close interpretation of scripture and pastoral care.  It is no surprise that the early church soon adopted this model of theological education.

If theological education is understood in this way, in terms of theologia and the transformation of the individual, then holiness and moral, spiritual transformation are central to the educational task. Any assessment of a program of theological education on that basis would consider essential, for example, whether the curriculum adequately addressed issues of personal, moral formation and whether the values of the faculty and the institution as a whole were consistent with this approach.

Berlin and the reflective practitioner

The second pole of Kelsey’s typology is what he refers to as ‘Berlin’. In his evaluation of it, Robert Banks prefers to call it the ‘vocational’ model in contrast to the ‘classical’ model of Athens.[iii] Whereas the classical model is derived from antiquity the Berlin model is derived from the enlightenment. Berlin represents this approach to education because the University of Berlin was deliberately founded as a new form of research university as part of the Prussian reform of education undertaken along enlightenment lines.

The full text can be obtained here:  Theology of Theological Education


[i] World Evangelical Alliance International Council for Evangelical Theological Education Manifesto on the Renewal of Evangelical Theological Education (2nd edition 1990).

[ii] David H. Kelsey, Between Athens and Berlin: the theological debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 27.

[iii] Robert Banks, Reenvisioning Theological Education (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

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