Learning Lessons from the Past

Let me first of all apologize for not writing for the last several weeks. I have been busy with finishing two manuscripts and simply could not change gears sufficiently to write.

As a break from the mental grind, I went to one of my used bookstores the other day and discovered a book that has caused me to pause—and pause again.

The book is by Philip Schaff (1819-93), the well-known scholar. He is still well regarded for several of his volume on church history. However, the book that I bought by him is called Theological Propaedeutic (9th ed.; New York: Scribners, 1912 [orig. 1892]). The subtitle goes some of the way in explaining what this book encompasses: “A General Introduction to the Study of Theology Exegetical, Historical, Systematic, and Practical, including Encyclopaedia, Methodology, and Bibliography.” But wait, there’s more. It’s “A Manual for Students.”

As we know, theological education in North America has often been for those who have had no previous theological training. Whether the person was coming to do the B.D. or now the M.Div., the theological student will often not have previously studied any theology.

That is the situation for which this book was designed—so that the potential theological student would be adequately equipped for study. Schaff says in the Preface that this book was based upon a German model, although he wrote it uniquely for American theological students. They would apparently study this book for a year as preparation—that’s right, as preparation—before they undertook specialized and advanced theological study to be ministers.

When I took a closer look at all that this preparatory year was to include, I was astonished. The book is 536 pages, and has 287 small chapters, organized in five books. The introduction discusses the approach to a complete theological education (including an annotated bibliography on introductions to theology, with reference to works by John Chrysostom and Augustine among many others). Book I is on religion and theology, such as what religion is, the types of religions, the religious nature of humanity, and how theology fits into this.

Book II is on exegetical theology, and includes sections on biblical learning, biblical philology, biblical archaeology, biblical isagogic (historical-critical introduction), and biblical hermeneutic and exegesis. Book III encompasses historical theology in all of its types and branches. Book IV treats systematic theology, with sections on apologetics, biblical theology, dogmatic theology, symbolic, polemic, and irenic theology, ethics, and geography and statistics (I was shocked too, but he treats the present numerical condition of worldwide Christianity, just as it seems to indicate).

Just when you were thinking that the only thing Schaff was concerned about was the head-knowledge of the potential theological student, we arrive at Book V on practical theology, which comprises its many branches and sub-categories, such as the expected areas of ecclesiology, polity and homiletics (including 23 homiletic hints worth the price of the book), but also the less usual categories of Sunday school, liturgy, worship, hymnology, evangelism, and missions. At numerous points, Schaff also provides references to the major figures in the particular field of study, citing people now only occasionally discussed in graduate seminars. After the indexes, the book also has a 57-page list of books to help in building a ministerial library (and this is in 1912, one hundred years ago)!

This is one of the most incredible books that I have ever seen—and this is just meant as preparation for serious study of theology! No doubt, some of the ideas are expressed in now quaint language, and some of the ideas have been superseded.

Do I dare, however, say it? I think that probably many—perhaps most—North American seminary graduates today—those with M.Div. and other similar degrees—do not know many of the things discussed in this book at the conclusion of their degrees, to say nothing of at the beginning. Leaving aside the title of preliminary introduction, this book covers topics that many seminary students never touch, and the level of discussion of some of the material would clearly stretch many of our students today, and even a few scholars I know.

In comparison of this book to many of the seminary textbooks that are out there, these texts are clearly lightweight and superficial. Their scope of knowledge, the depth of treatment, and the biographical awareness are clearly inferior to Schaff’s single volume—and I am thinking of texts devoted to only one of the many topics that Schaff treats in his compendium. In fact, there are even some more advanced works that are not as astute as Schaff’s treatment of some issues.

Schaff’s book chimes a rude wake-up call for theological education and its supporting scholarship. It makes me wonder whether we have made any real progress, or whether we have in fact gone backwards in many ways in both theological education and theological scholarship.

Whose fault is it? It is the fault of teachers like me and my fellow theological educators who do not demand enough from our students and our institutions. It is the fault of our students for not demanding more of themselves and of us, their teachers. It is the fault of publishers who continue to value publishing drivel over serious work, and, finally, it is unfortunately the fault of the church for demanding so little of itself, its people, and its ministers.

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5 Comments

Filed under Biblical Studies, New Testament Studies, Old Testament Studies, Theological Education

5 responses to “Learning Lessons from the Past

  1. James E.

    Fascinating–will have to lok this one up.

  2. Talk about whetting the appetite; so begins my freebie e-book treasure hunt. After seeing Schaff’s work and being the president of the seminary, do you see any areas where the Mac MDiv will be getting an energy shot of yesteryear theological training?

  3. Next time I have students complain about how much they have to read, I will reference Schaff’s book and this post.

  4. Jeff Martin

    One can download the 2nd volume free online. As I am currently reading it, in my opinion, it is rather elementary and too general to be of much use. I can name numerous other books that would work better than this volume

  5. I’ll definitely have to search for this book. Comparing Schaff’s book with modern books covering approximately the same material demonstrates once again, apparently, the dumbing-down of theological education over the years. In his day (and before), Schaff could, for example, provide untranslated Latin and Greek quotations with every expectation that most of his readers would be able to provide their own translations, due to the existence of the traditional classical education. No more, however…

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