"What is Theological Fragmentation?" A Four-Part Leadership Series Pointing the Church Forward

"What is Theological Fragmentation?" A Four-Part Leadership Series Pointing the Church Forward


*Note:  Key ideas and authors are bolded for ease of following the argumentation.

At the 2017 ERA annual meeting, President Steve Brown of BICS presented the idea that the major barrier to unity within the Advent Christians is “theological fragmentation.”  The major proposed solution, assuming one accepts the premise, was a call for a hermeneutical reformation (a la Kaiser as exemplar) to reinvigorate and reestablish basic, core, essential principles of interpretation in hopes of gaining unity of mind together. 

It seems to me, that before we can address how to cure something we need to define and diagnose the problem properly first and foremost.  As I see it, and I am no expert in the field- merely an echo in the hall, there are at least four main sources of fragmentation that exist in the Evangelical world in general and in the Advent Christian's in particular.  They are:

·      Christian education fragmentation 

·      Christian ministry fragmentation

·      Christian perspective fragmentation

·      Christian worldview fragmentation

While more could be added, these seem to carry the weight of the problem.  Let’s take each one seriously in its own post.  My hope is that this will break the ice so others can dive into the discussion and add, develop, nuance, and/or challenge ideas from this foundation as we seek the very thing Jesus prayed for in Jn. 17, namely, oneness of spirit and mind.  

Christian Education Fragmentation

The source of the poison downstream appears to be in large part Christian education at the head waters.  Of course, that means that the role and function of Christian educational training for ministry, specifically, must be seriously addressed and framed.  Professors in the academy tend to train the next generation the way they were trained.  Those future pastor/missionary/leaders will then tend to train others the way they too were trained (so Lk 6:40).  They will tend to think in the categories, vocabulary, and concepts of their teachers, and subsequently pass on those same categories, vocabulary, and concepts to their people for better or for worse.  So, for example, why do so many pastors have difficulty correctly interpreting and rightly applying the meaning of sacred Scripture for their people in a legitimate hermeneutical way?  Walter Kaiser writing in Concordia Theological Quarterly suggests the student mirrors what they have seen in the academy:

The gap that exists between the abilities and interests of the departments of Bible and homiletics in almost every theological institution easily illustrates the gap that exists in most theological students' education. It is the most reprehensible of all the wrongs in current theological education and we must move quickly to repair it.[1]

In short, if the machine producing the molds is broken then no amount of training, correction, or re-configuring of the assembly line and its workers will solve the problem.  But is it broken?   

Farley’s Problem

The typical beginning source of this discussion traces back to Edward Farley’s work Theologia:  The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education which started it all.  I summarize his main concerns as questions:

·      Why do Christian believers master their field of study (bankers, lawyers, farmers, physicians, homemakers), but remain at elementary school level in their religious education even after decades of attending church?

·      What rhyme and reason is there for how the academy arranges and teaches                 theology? 

·      i.e. What’s the goal, aim, purpose of theological classes? 

·      i.e. What’s the goal, aim, purpose of the entire course of study exactly?   

·      How does the study of academic theology in the ivory tower relate to, support, encourage, further or form pastoral ministry on the ground in any real sense?

Farley argues that theology has become about mastering separate academic disciplines in order to prepare pastors for professional ministry instead of what it used to be, theologia, or, theological reflection that leads to understanding the nature of God for the purpose of gaining wisdom.  This was once something opened to every Christian regardless of vocation.  A point Farley is passionate about since the existing system only reinforces the separation between clergy and laity he believes.     

It is only through theologia, Farley argues, that one can properly filter the world around them and bring all truth into submission to the Word of God and thereby gain unity of knowledge precisely by placing each fractured division of Christian thought (Biblical theology, Dogmatics, Church History, Practical Theology) in the right order to create clarity and dialogue between fields.  

This 4-Fold pattern was bequeathed to the church by Friederich Schleiermacher, the German theologian and oft referred to Father of Modern Liberal Theology, during the Enlightenment period (18th century).  He believed that the church needs “educated leadership, as do medicine and law, and a university faculty which provides the cognitive foundations of that education.”[2]  This led to increasing levels of specialization (e.g. Old Testament, New Testament, Systematics) which led into further compartmentalized fields (e.g. Old Testament Ethics, New Testament Theology, Narrative theology, Practical theology, Spiritual formation).[3]  Farley would heartily agree with Perry Shaw’s assessment in Transforming Theological Education:  A Practical handbook for Integrative Learning:

“Moreover, over the past hundred years, the leadership of theological training has increasingly been transferred from scholar-pastors to academics, most of whom have completed advanced studies in highly specialized fields using an adapted form of the scientific method, and culminating in a dissertation addressing a highly limited research question.  The whole process has led to a high level of professorial specialization, and the fragmentation of the curriculum has consequently become endemic.”[4]

The engine of Schleiermacher’s model is what Farley called the “clerical paradigm” where programs of study were created and mandated on the basis of their utilitarian value to professional ministers.  Consequently, practical theology quickly became associated with psychology, cultural studies, feminist scholarship, Black studies, marketing techniques, various business practices and whatever else was seen as useful.  Farley does not reject these, but suggests they need to be filtered through serious theologia.  Furthermore, the typical big three of systematic theology, biblical theology, and church history, need to re-focus on nurturing wisdom and not merely knowledge.

Bernard Ott summarizes the problem well,

“Put another way, theological education is no longer the reflection of faith that leads to the understanding of God but rather has become nothing more than an intellectual exercise in fulfilling an academic curriculum.  And thereby the heart of theological education has been lost.”[5]

Daniel J. Treier captures the divide using more technical, but needed concepts in Virtue and the Voice of God:  Toward Theology as Wisdom,

“Theologians were in hot pursuit of sapientia (wisdom), a kind of knowledge with a teleology:  the formation of virtue in God’s people. With the rise of scholasticism, first in its Roman Catholic forms, and later in its post-Reformation Protestant forms, theologians were gradually diverted onto a side road, pursuing Scientia.  By Enlightenment times, this pursuit was undertaken with “modern” principles of objectivity and criticism essential to a “science”; virtue could no longer be an orienting goal within theology, for it was methodologically excluded on principle.”[6] 

Farley’s Solution

Farley desired to bring both wisdom and discipline (sapientia and Scientia as Treier puts it) together under the single rubric of habitus, the transformation of theology into daily life choices.  In order to do this Farley argued that a new “encyclopedia” was needed with a new controlling center.  Here encyclopedia was understood etymologically as en-cyclo-paideiaPaideia meaning teaching and en-cyclo meaning in the cycle-circle-circuit, hence a new teaching circuit that would be intentionally theologically holistic and organized according to a new unifying rational (theologia) so that it was interrelated and logical (e.g. exegetical studies come before systematic studies and all of them relate to a greater metanarrative).        

While Farley is not the only voice in this discussion[7], he is representative enough for us to stop and ask, what does all this mean for theological training for ministry?  In short, it means that the traditional fields of studies no longer get to determine and define the theological curriculum.  A new goal, a new center is chosen which fundamentally changes the organization and outcome of all theological education. 

Farley Plus…

            In his landmark book, Between Athens and Berlin: The Theological Education Debate, Professor David Kelsey of Yale University examines the underlying epistemology of two key models he sees as normative in the theological educational world. 

Kelsey follows Farley’s concept of theologia, but situates it in what he calls the Athens model.  Athens here represents the Greek system of paideia (training) focused on the transformation of body, mind, and soul (i.e. holistic).  This model, he believes, was then adopted and adapted by the early church into both spiritual formation and distinctively Christian character formation with the ultimate goal being the knowledge of God rather than the more distant and impersonal knowledge about God.


In contrast, the Berlin model of the University rested on German enlightenment epistemology that valued rational investigation, scientific reasoning, and various scholarly and formal criticisms that could excavate the Bible as merely a historical document (rather than divine revelation) and uncover the ruins of truth beneath the surface.  Here the ultimate goal was training in a specialized academic discipline.  Theology was demoted from royal princess of the sciences to ragged pauper of reason.  Theory and praxis, problem and solution, became the framework of assessing and evaluating all the sciences including the value and worth of theology.  Theology was seen as theory to be studied with practical implications for the church rather than any sense of drawing one deeper into communion with the Triune God for the purpose of communal transformation of the body of Christ.  Its purpose then was to help academically prepare and train ministers who could then aid their church people in connecting biblical theory to real life situations in their own life.  As one author notes in his excellent summary of the unfolding of these models, “…the emphasis fell on the development of hermeneutical skills, the interpretation of Scripture and upon bold, visionary leadership.”   


Robert Banks moves the discussion ahead and adds a necessary perspective in Reenvisioning Theological Education: Exploring a Missional Alternative to Current Models. First, he takes Farley seriously, but adds a helpful corrective on the origin of theological educational fragmentation,

 “We need to go behind attempts to locate fragmentation of theological education in the rise of the modern critical methodologies, post-Reformation theological encyclopedias, or medieval university structures, to earlier separation of learning from active service of God and neighbor.”[8] 

He argues fragmentation was already beginning in the first Christian schools in Alexandria between the 2nd – 5th centuries.  Here he notes learning by being on mission, God’s mission through God’s church, was moved to the background in favor of group spiritual and intellectual formation, a notion that dominates the modern scene often resulting more in “forming of a disposition to act rather than action itself.”    

Next, Banks surveys the vast literature and theories of those who have tried to bring together opposing and contradictory systems to create unity (e.g. Athens, Berlin) and adds his own he calls the Jerusalem model.  Following the century old aphorism first put forth by Martin Kahler that missions is the mother of theology, Banks argues for a Jerusalem model he calls a “missional alternative” that is a “more integrally and distinctively Christian approach to theological education” which pre-dates the fragmentation.  Banks’ Jerusalem model combines the holistic formation of theologia, with vocational training of Berlin to serve God’s mission in the world providing training in ministry not merely preparation for ministry (probably most exemplified in YWAM’s University of the Nations). 


Lastly, Brian Edgar at Asbury Theological Seminary fills out the picture with what he calls the Geneva model.  In his article The Theology of Theological Education he argues for a confessional approach whereby the goal is to know God by viewing him through the creeds and confessions (as well as the various means of grace and the traditions that are formative for any given faith community).  Within this system, “Formation occurs through in-formation about the tradition and en-culturation within it.”  He attaches his model to the rise and role of the seminaries beginning during the Reformation in Geneva.


While we cannot dedicate space to evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of each model or the limits of the above typology (something Edgar does offer), we can say that none of these models need to be seen as mutually exclusive per se.  In fact, as we shall see, the current consensus is to find a way to merge the best attributes from them all.

Farley’s Omission – The Reformation’s Contribution

Farley by and large skips over the contributions of the Reformation in his historical analysis, which is strange to say the least.  Interestingly, the Reformation very much paves the way for the unified model many seek when they think of the pastor as professor and the professor as pastor.  All the major Reformers (Calvin, Luther, Zwingli) were pastors, and their successors remained committed to theological education in, through, and with the church (Beza, Melancthon, Grebel).  The call of the Reformers was to strengthen, secure, and spread the church by preaching the true Gospel (e.g. Calvin’s famous “Institutes of The Christian Religion” were a basic introduction to theology aimed at helping church people not impressing academics after all).  Their theology was hammered out in the fires of ministry not an ivory tower in the clouds.  Calvin’s “Venerable Company” as they were called, was in fact a merging of the Genevan Academy and the church on the local level, with pastors and professors meeting together every Friday to discuss the church and how to apply theology to her.  Calvin’s ministerial students had to be proficient in Latin, Hebrew, Greek, church history, theology, yes, but a heavy emphasis was placed on character training, living the high standard of Christ’s morality, and training within the church.         

            Martin Luther also exemplified this model.  One Lutheran professor duly notes,

In modern terminology Luther embraced all disciplines. He was as much a systematician (as evidenced by the doctrinal essays including three of the Lutheran Confessions) as he was an historian (as demonstrated by his extraordinary command of the ancient sources) as he was a practical theologian (who served for several years de facto pastor of Saint Mary's) as he was an exegete. He was as much the theologian in the pulpit and caring for sick and dying as he was in the lecture hall.”[9]

While the Geneva model did come to dominate and eventually grow more distant from the church and more “professionalized”, for the Reformers the life and legacy of theological training was always to remain tethered to the Church. 

What is Still Missing?

When putting together a thousand-piece puzzle, most begin with the outside borders in order to frame the picture and assist in making sense of the individual pieces as efficiently as possible.  What is missing from nearly all discussions of fragmentation and unity in theological education is just such a biblical border.       

Dr. Bernhard Ott attempts what most ignore, developing a biblical theology of theological education from the Old Testament to the New.  While his entire book is pertinent, especially here chapter 4, we give the driving emphasis of his conclusion:

The teachings of the Christian faith dare not be processed merely intellectually and cognitively.  They must be understood and integrated in a person’s core (heart), so that they shape thinking, being, and behavior.  Nothing less is “knowledge” in the biblical sense.  The goal of theological education must not therefore be knowledge alone but rather the fear of God that finds expression in worship and obedience.  And even more:  the fear of God and worship are not only the goal of theological education.  They are the starting point for a true knowledge of God…”[10]

Ott not only offers the most accessible summary of Farley available (38-48; esp. his 7 splits), but surveys the history and literature of theological education and offers what may be the best and most comprehensive answer to it as well.  In Beyond Fragmentation:  Integrating Mission and Theological Education he suggests that healing the theological educational wound and integrating a unifying program must take place on four levels if it is to be successful: (1) the existential, (2) the functional, (3) the material and (4) the structural.  Farley adequately fills out the existential requirement, Ott believes, but more is needed, specifically an integrative functional and material center that can both guide and hold the entire system together.  This, he explains, is found in the missionary nature of the church.  Following Banks, Ott places the church participating in the missio Dei in the gravitational center that orients all the rest of the solar system of theological education.  Lastly, the structural paradigm must change into an integrative curriculum that pays special attention to sequence of courses that ought to be ordered both according to a logical development (diachronic) and be able to trace the presence of themes across curriculum broadly (synchronic).

 Reed’s Unique Contribution

Jeff Reed stands on the shoulders of Farley when he summarizes this whole fragmented mess by painting the full canvas picture starting with a time in the New Testament when theology was church based and tied to spiritual shepherding, then tracing its move towards theology as virtue/habitus in the early church era up through the Medieval Catholic and Reformed church, finally culminating in theology as the fragmented four-fold academia during the Enlightenment period until now (p. 11 Theology in Culture, Treier would agree so p. 5-10):


For him the idea that biblical departments in universities across the nation are islands unto themselves barely consulting with those in other fields and typically only concerned to dialogue with those “in house” and away from life in ministry demands systemic change.  His preferred order, following Kaiser, is to place the Holy Scriptures at the center of the Christian life and from there the Holy Spirit issues out leading the Christian into exegetical studies, then biblical studies, then ethical and theological reflective studies and lastly historical or systematic studies as a check and balance on the whole system – each one built on the previous (while most academics are used to saying this is the case, our experience as such is far from integrative or ordered according to a controlling center).   

Farley resisted laying down a curriculum design commenting that theologia in application is ambiguous.[11] He does go on to clarify that it includes both habitus (i.e. life transformation) and dialectical activity (i.e. reflection through dialogue), but will not commit to more than that foundational principle which defines the aim of theological education.[12]  Edgar puts forth his fourfold graphic above to help institutions think through integrative approaches, but admits that “the typology is primarily theoretical and academic in form.”  Rupen Das offers insightful help in his short book Connecting Curriculum With Context when he lays out the four models previously discussed and adds two more which he graphs into a six model system in hopes of giving institutions a road map to determine what their particular model and emphasis should follow.[13]  Perry Shaw tries to offer some advice to those in the existing educational paradigm in Transforming Theological Education: A Practical Handbook for Integrative Learning (esp. 97-104).

Reed however surpasses them all in his belief that theology in culture (see graphic on page 14-16) is only developed when the student progress through a new theological encyclopedia (a newly designed curriculum) that takes all of these many factors into account to create a unifying integrative whole that forms new holy habits through dialogue within the Christian community.  In this sense, Reed’s Church Based Theological Education paradigm (see summary here, full pdf here) is one of the most practical and comprehensive attempts at putting humpty dumpty together again by taking the best insights of educational theory and placing them back in their Jerusalem context, namely, the church.  The Antioch School Of Church Planting and Discipleship is the only curriculum (praxis not theory) that this author has seen that addresses all previously discussed models (Athens, Berlin, Geneva, Jerusalem, plus Das’ additional two) and finds a way to merge them into one complete whole – one ring to rule them all!  While Reed’s curriculum is not free from deficiencies, it nonetheless remains a unique expression of many decades of floating concepts now actualized, tested in both North American and more diverse multi-cultural contexts, and producing fruit within the church local and universal. 

The Emerging Consensus

The big take away is this:  Farley, Edgar, Ott, Reed, Das, Shaw all arrive at essentially the same conclusions about the need for a new controlling center, a new sequence of courses, a new thoughtful relationship justifying the inclusion or omission of a course of study and an explanation of how it relates to the larger vision especially to the church, along with new methodologies to communicate truth (e.g. dialogue/competency based projects for Reed; integrative papers for Shaw, etc.).  No matter the model chosen to bridge the chasm, it will always require adapting and shaping according to one’s particular context.  The question should now no longer be, “Should we change our theological education?”, but “How should we change our theological education, to what extent and in what way, following what pattern?”  The current Christian educational system for training ministry leaders is broken, but if we can set the bone now it can grow straight on its own.  If we can get aligned according to a unified biblical vision the rest of the body can walk without a limp.  If not, we will continue to hobble in the rest of the areas we consider next.   


Next Week:  Part 2 - Christian Ministry Fragmentation





[1] P. 12.

[2] Quoted in Farley p. 86.

[3] Schleiermacher’s philosophical framework involves many conceptual distinctions (organizing vs. symbolizing aspects of reason, moral activities vs. tasks, identity vs. individuality) which he uses to slice and dice and organize all of life into four quadrants each with its own respective institution (i.e. nation/state, free society/family, scholarship/university, religion/church).  The result of his work Lectures on Philosophical Ethics was to fix the orbit, as it were, of the various disciplines of university study into their respective departments.  

[4] P. 94, but see all of Chp. 6. Beyond Fragmentation in the Curriculum

[5] Understanding and Developing Theological Education, p. 40.

[6] P. 3.

[7]  See the helpful appendix in The Study of Theology:  From Biblical Interpretation to Contemporary Formulation, p. 41-60 for a more thorough review that includes Ebeling (who believes the fissures cannot be filled), Farley (who believes theologia provides the unifying flag with an emphasis on subjective transformation; see also Bauer who follows Farley), and Pannenberg (who leans away from Farley in emphasizing theology as science putting his weight on objective truth).  For more in-depth analysis see Between Athens and Berlin:  The Theological Education Debate by David H. Kelsey.

[8] P. 144.

[9] Scaer, David PA Critique of the Fourfold Pattern in Concordia Theological Quarterly V 63:4, 1999:  269-280.  He continues making his point in the article saying, “The same assessment could be made for Melanchthon, who, even without ordination, saw biblical studies in the service of preaching and, though a classicist, also wrote three of our confessions, most notably the Augsburg Confession. Trained in linguistics, he wrote the Loci, which is recognized as the first Lutheran dogmatics. To say that one clergyman is a practical theologian or a parish pastor and another is theologian is not only a disservice to our Lutheran heritage, but is exemplary of the disintegration of theology into autonomous and, in some cases, incompatible parts. Claiming a specialty uncovers a hidden arrogance on the one making such assertions for himself” (p. 273; Emphasis mine).

[10] P. 148.

[11] P. 177, not particularly helpful to those in education!  

[12] P. 178.

[13] P. 15. He quotes Darren Cronshaw who builds on Robert Banks summary and analysis but adds two more models (the contextual model focused on koinonia with one’s neighbor (i.e. the church at the local level) and the spiritual model focused on multiculturalism in the global south (i.e. the church international)).   

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