Is There Need Of A Revolution In The Theological Curriculum?
Berry Street Essay 1923
President Franklin C. Southworth, D.D., LL.D.


The curriculum of a theological school determines for bet­ter or worse the intellectual development of its members dur­ing their student days, and is sure to affect their mental lifeand their pulpit utterances in the early years of their ministry.It may determine also to a larger extent than is generally be­lieved the efficiency or the inefficiency of the minister in deal­ing with the tasks of his profession.

In the normal course of events it is the theological faculty which formulates the theological curriculum. In view, how­ever, of the vast importance of such formulation for the churches which the schools are serving it is highly desirable that the schedule of courses be subjected from time to time to the most searching criticism from those who are competent to offer it. I have taken this opportunity, therefore, of bringing the subject of my paper, not to a governing board, but to company of ministers as the ultimate tribunal to pass judg­ment on the kind of thing which the seminary is doing. Those of you who have subjected yourselves to the seminary process.and have since doing so tested the work of the seminary by the exigencies of a pastorate, should be able to formulate a body of expert opinion which a theological faculty would find of the utmost value.

A few weeks ago, along with a group of representatives oftheological schools, I was permitted to sit in conference with Dr. Robert L. Kelly, of New York, and to listen to a report from him concerning the theological seminary survey inwhich he has been engaged during the last three years. In his forthcoming printed volume Dr. Kelly will give a group picture of the evolution of the seminary curriculum during the last fifty years. He selects somewhat arbitrarily seven repre­sentative seminaries of different denominations: Garrett, General of New York, Lutheran of Philadelphia, Oberlin, Princeton, Rochester, and Union; examines their curricula as set forth in their catalogues, first of 1870, second of 1895, and lastly of 1922; and notes the changes which have come about.

The curriculum of 1870 he found was practically the same for the seven seminaries. The Old and New Testament in the original languages and in English hold the field. The languages were mastered to discover better the exact shade of meaning which the plenarily inspired scriptures were expected to convey. An accurate exegesis was essential; for the Bible was the source of inspiration and spiritual living, the material for sermons and the data for theology.

In 1895 Oberlin alone of the seven seminaries named hasceased to require Hebrew. The chief emphasis seems still to be on exegetical theology. Church history, systematic the­ology and practical theology stand in the same general rela­tion as before.

During the last half of this fifty-year period there hasbeen introduced into this group of seminaries a large numberof electives, and the number of required hours has been di­minished. Electives are still exceedingly rare, however, in the majority of the one hundred and thirty-seven seminariesreporting, and we are given the somewhat startling informa­tion that the seminaries of the country, in so far as their in­struction is concerned, are living not in the present but in the past. A quarter of the curriculum of the more advanced seminaries of the country seems, according to Dr. Kelly, to be devoted to such subjects as have to do with the minister's technique and mastery of his tasks, whereas three-fourths are devoted to data drawn almost wholly from previous centuries. In a few instances like Garrett,Union,Boston, Harvard, andtheUniversity ofChicago, the most noticeable progress hasbeen made in bringing the curriculum up to date. At least 80%, however, he assures us, of the seminary curricula of the United States is devoted to the study of the past and only20% to the present. Dr. Kelly has arrived at this conclusion not only through a study of catalogues and replies to questionnaires but also through actual visits to more than one hundred seminaries. Only in a very few seminaries, of which he cites as examples Union, Yale and the University of Chi­cago, does he find an opportunity for specialization.

On the face of it then the situation seems to be somethinglike this: A man decides to study for the ministry aftersome searching of heart and after arriving at the convictionthat whether he is equal to the demands of the ministry ornot it is an enterprise of vast human possibilities. As theresult of previous experiences which have come to him there has somehow emerged before him a commanding ideal in theservice of which he finds a sufficient meaning for his career. As was said of St. Francis, "A man finds the germ of a new vocation bursting forth in him, and seized by a passion imperious as the very voice of God, he takes upon his conscience: the work which is henceforth to be the work of his life." Now when a man deliberately enters a vocational school to be trained for the ministry of religion, he naturally, even if his emotional reaction is not that of St. Francis, expects to learn at least what the ministry is, what the instruments are which a minister is called upon to use, and the various ways by which these instruments may be most serviceably employed. The student has been led to believe that Christianity is the instrument which may be used by him in healing the ills of the world and obtaining an answer to the riddle of life. And if he is likely to be worth his salt as a minister of religion he is interested in Christianity much more as something that is still going on than as something that once came to pass. What happens when he arrives at the seminary, and examines the schedule of courses? He learns that the point at which he is expected to begin, in case he is eligible for a degree, is the study of Hebrew;—a language no longer commonly spoken by any division of the human race and totally with­out relation to any other language which he has ever heard or read. To make sufficient progress in the Hebrew language so that he will be able to use it later will require at least one- tenth of the hours which make up his theological course.  Often a much longer time is required. In addition to Hebrew there is Greek for those who are not already acquainted with it. A modest estimate of the time necessary to acquire a working knowledge of both these languages would be eight­een semester hours, or one-fifth of the entire number allotted to the three years.

And after the languages have been acquired, then comes Exegesis or the interpretation of the documents under con­sideration. An examination of the curricula of the more ad­vanced seminaries of the country for 1922 brings out the fact that of the four general divisions into which seminary courses usually fall, namely exegetical theology, historical theology, systematic theology, and practical theology, more than one-third of the course is given up to exegetical theology. The proportion of hours given to exegetical theology in the less advanced seminaries is appreciably higher. In Princeton, for example, it is 47%. The requirement for the leading seminaries of the United States, however, stands at present as follows: exegetical theology 34%, historical theology 14%, systematic theology 24%, practical theology 28%. The elec­tives offered at these same institutions are recorded as follows:  exegetical theology 40%, historical theology 14%, systematic theology 22% and practical theology 24%.

Now it is the custom of seminaries to set students at work on Hebrew and Greek in the early portion of their course and to pass from these subjects to the history and interpretation of the sacred documents. Contrast for a moment this situa­tion with that which we find in a school of medicine. A young man is not admitted to a reputable medical school in our day until he has pursued college courses in such subjects as chem­istry, physics and biology,—subjects which deal directly with the one object to which the medical school limits itself, name­ly knowledge of the human body. When he leaves college for the medical school his attention is directed to anatomy at the moment of his arrival, on the theory that although the medical course requires four years and is followed by at least a year in a hospital, his time is too precious to be wasted on any extraneous matters. I am even informed that the ex­ceedingly limited amount of instruction devoted to the his­tory of medical theory and practice proves notoriously un­popular. Medical students are quick to show their impatience with anything that delays them in getting at the subject for which they came to the school.

But what would happen if there were introduced into the medical school the method of the seminary? The procedure would be something like this: Since the study of the diseases of the throat require the use of the laryngoscope, we will, adopting the method of the seminary, require a course lasting through the whole of the first year and a part of the secondyear on the construction of the laryngoscope. But since no one can really understand this complicated instrument with­out at least an elementary study of optics, we will preface our courses on the laryngoscope by a required course in optical science. And incidentally we will announce certain electives on the construction of the microscope and the tele­scope,—with the result that the student who came to the institution expecting during his four years to learn something about the entire human body arrives at the beginning of this study in the second semester of his third year.

A few days ago I received a letter from a young man de­siring admission to Meadville from another seminary. He wrote as follows: "I am an ordained minister, thirty years old, married and have two children. I am just finishing my first year in …… Theological Seminary and University. By the endof June I expect to have the following credits: Greek, 10hours; Comparative Religion, 5 hours; O. T. Prophets, 3 hours; Religion and Literature of the Hebrews, 5 hours; Hebrew Language, 5 hours; Geology, 5 hours; Bible, Nature and Authority, 3 hours; Music, 2 hours."

The writer of this letter was quite without means. He was beginning the study of theology at an age when most young men are well embarked upon their professional careers. His wife and children were in the meantime enduring a somewhat precarious existence, looking anxiously forward to the time when the husband and father should have completed his edu­cation. At the end of a solid year of vocational study he was still about three centuries distant from the present theological era, and he was studying at one of the more progressive seminaries of the country.

If material for medical study is the human body the ma­terial for theological study is presumably the human soul. Certain historical documents throw considerable light on the functioning of human souls in the past centuries; but it is no more necessary that we as ministers should learn the languages in which these documents were written than that a physician should learn how to construct the laryngoscope, no more necessary that a minister of religion should be a thoroughly trained exegete than that a physician should be an authority on the science of optics. I make these state­ments without disparaging at all the study of Hebrew andexegesis. I am merely holding that they have no necessary connection with a minister's vocation. I am not underesti­mating the importance of the Old and New Testaments inunfolding a chapter in the religious history of the human race of consummate significance for ministers of religion. But the fact that these documents are of transcendent historical interest does not mean that a preacher of the gospel in the 20th century should be compelled to read them in the original or even that he should be able to apportion a single chapter to the various authors or redactors. To compel a candidate for a divinity degree, as many seminaries are still doing, not only to devote one-third or more of his time to exegetical study, but also to include in this study the mastery of Hebrew and Greek, is to recall him from the world in which he is and which he hopes to serve to the world that was.  It is to divert him from the study of man for which he came to the seminary to the study of the formation of documents.

The demands upon the 20th century student of theology, —scientific, practical, literary, historical, and philosophical,— are many and various. His is the most modern f all the professions. However important it may have been in the past that seminaries should produce scholars who could  decipher hieroglyphics and make nice distinctions as to the date and authenticity of documents, there is now such general agreement as to the dates and authorship of the Old Testa­ment books that that kind of scholarship is no longer as important as formerly for the minister of religion. It has proved on the contrary a dangerous by-path that has led many aprospective minister from the study of religion to the study of archaeology, and has even diverted theological professors from the business of training ministers to the business of translating inscriptions. Late in the 19th century when a university was born full grown in a great inland city, it was necessary to seek temporary quarters for its school of the­ology. It was characteristic of the working of the theological mind that the building selected should have been an oriental museum. It is not surprising that to the general public a theologian seems analogous to an antiquarian. It is said that it took the ancient Egyptians three thousand years to create a mummy; but I know plenty of seminaries which can com­plete the process in three years.

It is superfluous for me to remind you that the theological curriculum as we find it is a survival from another age which though removed from our own by little less than a half century had a totally different conception from ours about the nature and origin of man. For this former generation Bible was an infallible account of the history and destiny the race, an inerrant record of the expressed will of Almighty God concerning human conduct. This view of the Bible obviously demands the closest scrutiny of the whole, of book by book, chapter by chapter, and sentence by sentence.

Of course Darwin and the Higher Criticism changed all that; and from every progressive seminary biblical authority is now gone forever. But though Darwin published his "Origin of Species" in 1859, and the work of Darwin had alreadybeen preceded by that of Baur and Strauss, the same minute verbal study of the Bible is going on in most of the seminaries which went on before Darwin's time.

Now I am one of those who hold that the religious experience of Jesus as it is set forth in the gospels and that Paul as it is described in the epistles are enormously important for us as preachers. Some of us moreover must learn how to translate the documents from the original tongues and to pass judgment on matters of date and authorship. In view, however, of thefact that the successful minister of our time, called upon to study a variety of subjects which were quite foreign to the seminary in the days of Darwin, I am con­strained to ask whether the requirement of exegetical study has any longer a place in a modern seminary.

It is easy to make apologies for the situation as we find it. Seminaries exist, we are told, not only to train men for the ministry but also to promote theological science. "To pro­mote theological science" is a phrase that sounds well. Are we altogether sure that we understand what we meanby it? We are usually quite clear as to what is meant by the promotion of medical science through the discovery of anti­toxin, or the x-rays, or the distribution of disease germs by mosquitoes. The result of such discovery is the immediate salvage of human life on a large scale. But what about the discovery of a work concerning the Hittites, or the identity of the king of Egypt by whom the children of Israel wereheld in captivity, or the historicity of Joshua? Should we excuse a theological professor for lack of intelligent interest in his students as prospective preachers and pastors on the ground that he is promoting a theological science of this kind?

It is easy for a seminary to forget that it is a training school for the ministry, that its primary interest must be not subjects of study but human beings, that it may be success­ful in promoting that which goes by the name of theological science, and fail utterly to train competent ministers for our churches, or preachers for our pulpits. It is a scandal in any seminary that only a single man should be teaching homi­letics. It is to the credit of Union Seminary that it has desig­nated five of the leading preachers of the county for this great task. Every teacher in every seminary ought to be a trainer of preachers, whatever may be the special subject that is assigned to him.

By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their college or even their seminary degrees. If it transpires that the churches can get on just as well without the seminaries we may rest assured that they will dispense with them. We are frequently reminded that men like Robert Collyer and Edward Everett Hale achieved brilliant careers without training either in a college or theological school. Dr. Hale often said to pros­pective ministers that academic training for the ministry was quite superfluous and that all that was needed was to go out and preach to the American people in the America language. The advice would have been excellent for young men who were able to meet three conditions which Dr. Hale did not name. The first is that they must understand the American people; the second, that they must be able to speak to themin the American language,—two things which together constitute the chief task of the theological school at the present time,—and the third, like Dr. Collyer and. Dr. Hale,e that theymust have been born geniuses. A genius can frequently dis­pense with the entire academic process, but unfortunately geniuses are not usually discovered until after the time for academic training has passed.

Twelve years ago, on motion of a Meadville professor ata session of the General Conference, a commission on theologi­cal education was appointed by President Chas. W. Eliot toconsider and report on the things that are taught and thethings that ought to be taught in a school which trains menfor the liberal ministry, and to consider further the condi­tions under which theological education is carried on in ourown schools. The commission, of which Professor Peabody was chairman, took its task seriously and brought out thefact that our own seminaries are adjusting themselves slow­ly but surely to a new conception of the ministry which isthe result of the new conception of man that prevails in anymodern university. The seminaries exist, if the commissionwas correct in its conclusions, for the training of men to be­come leaders of churches; to preach, to pray, to inspire, tosupervise the work of religious education; to bring the forces of righteousness in the community to bear upon the sin andsorrow of the world. It made clear also the fact that the teaching of theology had been too abstract and theoretical, and that there was much confusion among us as to whether thetheological school should be vocational as the medical school and law school are vocational, or a graduate school of theo­logical research.

Such confusion still exists in many of the seminaries them­selves. In concentrating its attention as it has concentrated it on the history and literature of a chosen people and the growth of an historical institution, namely the Christian church, the seminary has often forgotten that its primary business is to train ministers who are to create out of the men and women of their own generation the kingdom of God. In order to be equal to this task a minister must first under­stand man as the material with which he is to deal. He must understand him as a physical being, the product of physical conditions; he must know something of the effect upon the human organism of the conditions in which vast numbers of human beings are compelled to live. That is to say, he must know something of biology, whether he knows anything of the other physical sciences or not, and he must know something of economics if he is to understand the forces which inlarge measure are creating modern society. He must knowsomething of philosophy, especially the philosophy of re­ligion, if he is to help men adjust their thinking to the factsof the universe as they encounter them and to their religiousfaith. He must know psychology if he is to understand thesignificance of the religious movements which sweep overthe country, and be able to apprehend the motives which un­derlie human conduct, and to use human beings to promote the ends of rectitude and purity. He must know the psychol­ogy of religion in order to understand the meaning of a ser­vice of worship, the influences by which their characters are shaped, and the appeals to which men respond. He must understand the nature of the child in order that lie may make use of sound principles in the training of children and in his work of religious education with the church as a whole. He must know literature in order that he may understand the interpretations of life which are current among his people,and may in turn make use of these interpretations as a teacher and preacher. It goes without saying that he must know at least in outline the history of religion from its crude begin­nings up to its more elaborate development in India and China and Persia, and above all in Palestine. Chiefly, indeed, he must know the religion ofIsrael and Christianitynot simply as historic faiths but as faiths which have mightilyaffected modern civilization, and have shaped the religiousforms and the religious beliefs of his own church and hisown community. He must know enough of the history ofChristianity to enable him in his capacity as a leader in theChristian church to profit by the mistakes of the past inhelping to direct the religious movements of the present. Heshould know, of course, the art of preaching so far as thisart may be taught. He should be trained as a leader ofworship, as an organizer of parish activities, as a representa­tive of the community in bringing upon the field the forces of righteousness to withstand the forces of evil. He must learn the ways in which religious faith may be made to sustain the sorrowing and comfort the dying.  He must be able, as aChristian minister, to use the power of a glorious tradition in enlisting men and women in a crusade against ignorance and bigotry and exploitation. Sustained and supported by the words of prophets and the deeds of martyrs and by the wit­ness of the historic church to the possibility of overcoming sin and promoting righteousness, he will be interested not so much in delving into religious history as in making the churcha power in his own generation. He needs in short to know man as he is at his best as well as at his worst, physically, in­tellectually, morally, spiritually; man in his environment as a social being as well as an individual; subject, indeed, to thecontrol of economic law and yet possessing within himself infinite capacity for good.

All this is admittedly a large program; altogether toolarge, of course, to condense into three years at a seminary.Some say, therefore, that the three years should be expandedinto four. But four years are too long a period to hold ayoung minister back from the work of his life after he has completed his college course. Apostolic zeal is likely to bedampened by too long a residence in an institution of learn­ing. Many of the subjects which I have named, cannot,however, be introduced into the seminary course withoutboth increasing unduly the time demanded of the studentsand at the same time increasing the number of professorsto a point where in some of our isolated seminaries, theywould be more numerous than the students. And even ifthe seminaries were favorably disposed toward such an in­crease not many of them would be able to incur the expense.

Under these conditions there is one thing only that they can do; and that is to secure the cooperation of a college or university faculty if such a faculty is accessible, under whosedirection the student may undertake, before leaving the school, such of these studies as did not fall within his col­lege course, and may carry them on along with his more dis­tinctly professional studies. Seminaries without university connection and without the ability to secure such connection are heavily handicapped in their efforts to strengthen and modernize their curricula. They are grievously handicapped also in their efforts toward attracting students by the neces­sity of competing with seminaries which are affiliated with universities. In the opinion of all the eight Meadville pro­fessors who have taught at Chicago during the summer quarter, our connection with the University of Chicago and its affiliated schools simply for one quarter of the school year has" been of incalculable value.

It is perhaps too early in the history of Christian institutions to expect a school of religion to exhibit the same breadth ofview and the same clear-sighted intelligence in its relation to sister institutions as the schools of law and medicine.  Schools of theology have been founded almost without exception for promoting the interests of religious denominations.

It has been customary for them in the past to have little orno contact with schools of other fellowships. The transfer of professors from one seminary to another has been rare.It seems never to have occurred to them that it might be tothe advantage of all the seminaries if one of them were tospecialize in one branch of the theological science and an­other in another. Medical schools have, however, long beenengaged in such specialization. If there were as many va­rieties of medical schools as there are of theological schools,these institutions would not be crowded with students as theyare today. They would be discredited in the eyes of our foremostphysicians if they existed for any other purpose than the healing and prevention of disease. Thus are thechildren of this world wiser in their day and generation than the children of light.

I said a moment ago that seminaries have been founded al­most without exception to promote the interests of religious denominations. The only genuine exception that I know of in this country is theHarvardDivinitySchool whose changeof status during the last year is uppermost in the minds of us all. Its merger with Andover and its affiliation with theNewton,Boston andCambridge Episcopal schools constitutes an important chapter in American church history.

ThatHarvardUniversity should take a step like thiscaused no surprise. That the University of Chicago, foundedby a Baptist layman, with a divinity school originally Baptistthough it requires no pledges and puts no kind of theologicalrestraint either on professor or student, should lave followedthe example of Harvard, must have required sonic moralcourage. It was one thing for an institution atCambridge,endowed by Unitarians, withtwo score students, to becomeaffiliated with neighboring schools of the Congregational,Episcopal, Baptist and Methodist bodies. It was quite another thing for a seminary in Chicago, endowed by Baptists,with three hundred students recruited from various evangelicalbodies, to enter into relations of reciprocity on terms ofabsolute equality with Congregational, Disciple, Universalist,and Unitarian institutions; inviting professors of these seminariesto occupy its class-rooms and allowing full credit toits students for courses taken under any of the professorsof the affiliated schools. Catholicity like this had been previously unknown in denominational history.

There are many indications that the example of Harvard and Chicago is bearing fruit.  The most notable is at University of Toronto and at McGill University, Montreal, about each of which has been gathered a group of four affili­ated seminaries of different denominations, collaborating in those departments in which they are able to collaborate, but preserving their full independence in those portions of their Work which it is better for them to do separately. At Montreal seven-eights of their work is taken by all the students together without giving the slightest offense to denominational susceptibilities. Similar cooperation of a more limited kind is going on in New York and in Berkeley, California. Such a tendency is obviously in the direction of catholicity as well as of economy. It is found in practice that though a single seminary is not rich enough to secure an instructor it desires in such subjects, for example, as church music or thetraining of the voice and does not need the full time of such an instructor, two or more seminaries may easily unite in securing him.

I have been advocating certain far-reaching changes in the theological curriculum, and have spoken of university affiliation as one of the ways of effecting some of these changes. Assuming now that you agree with me that the chief business of the seminary is to educate ministers, I wish finally to raise the question, how far it may introduce into its curriculum the clinical method with which the medical school has made us familiar. I mean, of course, that method of instruction where the student sees the thing done by his instructor or does the thing under the supervision of his instructor instead of sitting quiescent while he is told in a lecture-room how the thing is done. Harvard men of a gen­eration ago remember how Professor Peabody, by taking his classes in social science to visit institutions of philanthropy and charity, introduced into these classes the methods of the clinic.

Although much has been said in advocacy of the clinical method in ministerial training, it has been actually introduced thus far only in a few institutions. To introduce the method successfully requires a new type of professor who is, as yet, difficult to obtain. It is much easier for the instructor to follow the lecture method than to go with his pupils on visits to civic institutions and to supervise their work as student pastors.

Some instructors moreover have been diverted from the clinical method by the excessive claims that have been made for it. A theological clinic is different from a medical clinic because of the difference in its subject matter and in the aim ofthe instructor. The material for the medical clinic is moretangible and the end in view more immediate.

I am convinced, however, in spite of this limitation that even in theological teaching the clinical method has come to stay. The minister can no more be excused than the lawyer or the doctor from acquiring the technique of his profession. If he does not go out from the school with an intelligent in­terest in the alleviation and the ultimate abolition of the worst forms of poverty and disease and exploitation and crime he is not fitted for his task. He ought to be required to come in contact, while still in the school, with institutions dealing with those things. In this industrial age he should be compelled to learn before he leaves the seminary something about the relation of the church to industry. He ought not to wait until his schooling has come to an end before preaching to real people and wrestling with actual parish problems under the criticism of one or more instructors in the school.

If the time at my disposal were unlimited I should like to chronicle the successful efforts which several seminaries are making in the field of practical theology, efforts which combine inspection visits to social service agencies, conferences with experts in various fields of welfare, practice in social diagnosis and supervision of the work of student pastorates. Among those prominent in this field is the Garrett Biblical Institute of Evanston, Ill., whose electives in supervised field work are numerous, popular and successful. This work haspassed the experimental stage. As a result of it young min­isters are entering their first parishes with a knowledge of social and industrial questions which ministers of the former generation did not possess. They are beginning their careers with something of the same confidence and self command with which the young physician emerges from his internship in the hospital. The few seminaries which are offering these field courses find the time necessary for this clinical work by reducing the number of required hours for exegesis and church history and systematic theology materially be­low the requirement of the average seminary. In each of these there is, however, a rich choice of electives. I believethat it is a movement in the right direction: and I hope it will not stop until the schools in which you and I are most deeply interested shall have adjusted themselves more fullyby these methods to the severe tasks and splendid privileges of the minister's vocation.