Pastoral Formation in Theological Education: Retrospect and Prospect by John Kleinig

If we want to talk about theological education we need to agree on what it involves.1 How then, do we Lutheran teachers of theology understand the teaching and learning of theology? Is the study of theology like the study of any other academic discipline, or does it differ in nature and purpose from other areas of study? You here at this seminary have been engaged in a debate on these and other similar issues as you have designed and implemented your new curriculum. I would like to add a few of my own observations on that topic and on how we can meet the challenges that may face us in this decade.

In recent times there has been some discussion in our circles in Australia as to whether we should view theology either as a body of religious knowledge, theory, or as a process of reflection on religious experience, practice. It is true that this alternative reflects much of modern critical theory in education and pedagogy. It is also true that this issue has led to a lively debate, particularly here in the USA, on the nature of theological education. Yet the trouble with this discussion is that the underlying distinction between theory and practice assumes that we learn theology in exactly the same way as we learn to master any other intellectual discipline.

But that is not so! It is instructive that the formal disciplined study of theology was not pioneered by philosophers but by catechists, such as Origen in the advanced catechetical school in Alexandria. They did so because they held that the study of theology differed from the study of philosophy and other disciplines in that it had its own unique ἀρχή, its starting point, its foundational principle, which was Christ and God’s words. They knew that the study of theology presupposed baptismal regeneration and realized that it was properly done in a liturgical context. We can see this, quite clearly, already in Hebrews 5:11–14. There its author distinguishes between “the foundational elements of God’s words,” τὰ στοιχεῖα τῆς ἀρχῆς τῶν λογίων τοῦ θεοῦ, and the mature understanding of “the word of righteousness,” wisdom that was learned from practice in the art of distinguishing good from evil. They knew that in the study of theology the student was addressed, critiqued, and reconstructed by God. And that most radically!

The discussion on the relation between theory and practice in the learning of theology is not new. Christian scholars in the Middle Ages, who had been influenced by Aristotle, engaged in a lively debate on whether the study of theology was best pursued in the contemplative life, the vita contemplativa, or by practical experience in the active life, the vita activa. Was it basically a matter of theory, or a matter of practice? Or was it a matter of wisdom that came from the interaction between theory and practice?

In a number of places Luther picked up on this question and gave it due consideration. While he was most inclined to view theology as the getting of wisdom, he was uneasy about the whole framework of that medieval discussion. He held that it was based on a false antithesis, an unhelpful distinction that failed to do justice to the gospel and the work of the risen Lord Jesus. He therefore made a significant counterproposal. He maintained that, basically, the study of theology was neither learning a body of knowledge (theoria), nor learning by reflecting on experience (praxis). He held that principally it was engagement in the vita passiva, the passive life, or, more accurately, the receptive life.2 It does not begin with what we see or do or think, but it derives from what God thinks of us and says and does to us. It depends on what we receive from God.

All other academic disciplines presuppose that we are active subjects who discover the truth with our own mental powers of observation and reflection. But in the study of theology we do not act; we are acted on. To use the title of Reinhard Hütter’s fine study, Suffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice,3 we suffer divine things.4 We speak only as we are spoken to; we work only as we are worked on; we appropriate what is given to us. In the study of theology we receive everything from God; we do nothing by ourselves and construct nothing for ourselves. Rather, we are deconstructed and reconstructed by the study of theology, if it is allowed to operate as God has ordained. The process of spiritual deconstruction goes beyond the normal mental reconfiguration that is part and parcel of study in any discipline. It includes all aspects of a person’s character from the conscience to the body. Yet it is largely ignored, even though it is an essential part of theological formation. Paul refers to it as the death of the old Adamic self, which clears the ground for the resurrection of the new receptive self in Christ.

Our ongoing reception from God governs all our theological thinking and doing. This, as you all know, has been explored at some length by Oswald Bayer in his helpful study, Theology the Lutheran Way.5 We are, of course, called to understand God’s way of working in the world, in the church, and in our lives. We are also called to work with God in the world and in the church. But we do not discover the things of God either by studying theology as a body of knowledge, or even by reflecting on our experience in the light of theology and other bodies of knowledge. We can only speak as we hear. We can only give what we receive. We can only know as we are known. We can only do God’s work if we are faithful recipients of God’s word, its hearers in the divine service and in our meditation on it. We can only be good stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor 4:1), if we ourselves have been initiated by his word and Spirit into the mystery of Christ and participate in it (Col 1:25–27). We know the things of God and work with him in the administration of his grace only as we are enlightened, transformed, and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

So, if we are to make sense of theology as a body of knowledge and understand our experience theologically (and that includes all the bad things that happen to us and others!), we need to be renewed in our νοῦς, our mentality, by the Holy Spirit, so that as we are conformed to Christ, we receive the mind of Christ. Before we can discern what God is doing in the world and in our own experience, before we can work with him both in the order of creation and the order of redemption, God must be at work on us and in us through his word and Holy Spirit in the church.

Theological education therefore involves the reception of Christ’s performative teaching of law and gospel; it involves the transformation of our minds through our growth of faith in him and our insight into his word, so that we, in turn, can pass on to others what we ourselves have received. In theological education what is taught cannot bypass the learner, but it must, as it were, become incarnate in him, so that it can become incarnate in others.6 So the primary goal in the study of theology is spiritual formation by the Triune God. It may, quite incidentally, result in the making of meaning from experience, making sense of what happens to us, which, by the way, is always a communal enterprise. It will, of course, equip students for the work of ministry. But that is not its main purpose. Its main purpose is the renewal of the mind, the acquisition of a new mentality and a godly vision of life that sees as Christ sees, and thinks as he thinks, and judges as he judges, a mind that resonates sympathetically with his mind.

In short, as St. Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 2 we gain “the mind of Christ” by the study of God’s word and the reception of the Holy Spirit, the mind that is assimilated to Christ, the enlightened mind that knows God’s way of thinking and understands “what God has freely given us” in the risen Lord Jesus. This helps us both to work with Christ and to suffer with him in the administration of God’s grace, for working with him involves suffering with him. So in his second letter to young pastor Timothy, Paul urges Timothy to prove himself as a good workman in God’s house who “rightly divides the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15) as he is daily empowered, by the Spirit, to “suffer abuse” with Christ for preaching the gospel (2 Tim 1:6–8; see also 2 Tim 2:3, 9). The ability to endure abuse that is meant to silence and intimidate and shame qualifies him to be a good pastor, a herald of the gospel who by that endurance displays the gospel in all its life-giving power.

As I see it we will continue to face many challenges to our Lutheran theology of reception in this decade. Here are but a few that we face in Australia.

  • The disappearance of the family altar and of sound Lutheran spirituality from members
  • Pastors who have been taught to offer inept psychological counselling rather than spiritual care to their members and people in need
  • The prevailing Pentecostal-Protestant theology that teaches the real absence of Christ and separates the Spirit from the word
  • The spirituality of neo-Gnosticism with its contempt for the created order and the body, a spirituality that sanctions abortion, euthanasia, divorce, and homosexual intercourse
  • The managerial approach to church leadership and organization with its reliance on psychological and sociological data as a modern kind of divination
  • The view that success in the ministry of the gospel can be assessed by a pastor’s performance rather than by his faithfulness in receiving and delivering divine gifts
  • Theology and practice that is “Unitarian” rather than truly Trinitarian7 with a proper understanding of the order of relations in the Trinity and the cooperation of all three persons of the Trinity in dealing with us
  • The growing disillusionment of the Lutheran churches in Africa and Asia with the Lutheran World Federation and their need for theological help in countering the challenges of Pentecostalism, secularism, and Islam
  • The resurgence of Islam and its spread in the so-called Christian West with its promise of law and order and its charge of sacrilegious immorality against the church

To face these challenges confidently and faithfully, we who confess the receptive life of faith in Christ may need to attend to the following things in theological education.

1. We may do well to focus on the mystery of Christ present and active in the church.

  • Dealing with spiritual realities that are physical and yet transcend what we can see: 2 Corinthians 4:18
  • Ministry as mystagogy with pastors as stewards of God’s mysteries: 1 Corinthians 4:1
  • The role of God’s word in the initiation of the saints into the mystery of Christ: Colossians 1:24–29
  • The work of the Spirit in understanding and participating in that mystery: 1 Corinthians 2:6–16

2. In our seminaries we should build our teaching and learning around the practice of daily worship and weekly congregational worship as the means by which the Triune God speaks his critical and constructive word to us and acts on us through his recreating and renewing Holy Spirit.

  • The presence and activity of all three persons of the Holy Trinity in the divine service
  • The means of grace as the means by which the Father gives us the Spirit through his Son
  • The connection between the Spirit and Christ
  • The connection between the Spirit and the external, embodied word that is written in the Scriptures, proclaimed and enacted in the divine service, and heard in proclamation and meditation
  • The ongoing reception of the Holy Spirit through faith in the written word
  • The descending and ascending Trinitarian dynamic of the divine service and daily devotions

3. We should promote Lutheran spirituality as the personal appropriation in faith of what God the Father offers us through his Son by the Spirit.

  • Prayer to God the Father through the Son for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in meditation and prayer
  • Meditation on the external, embodied Word for the reception of the Holy Spirit
  • Spiritual attack by Satan that produces our experience of God’s word in the mental, affective, and physical domain

4. We should teach our students how to use God’s efficacious word in the divine service and in pastoral care.

  • Pastoral work as the ministry of the Spirit with the word
  • The divine institution of the ministry as its divine empowerment with the Holy Spirit
  • The use of God’s Spirit-filled, Spirit-giving word to produce faith and growth
  • Doing the word by its performative enactment as law and gospel
  • Luther: we do everything with the word
  • Working withthe word in the divine service and in pastoral care:
    • Preaching and teaching with the word
    • Praying with the word
    • Meditating with the word
    • Singing with the word
    • Confessing with the word
    • Baptizing with the word
    • Administering the Lord’s Supper with the word
    • Ordaining with the word
    • Blessing with the word
    • Comforting and counselling with the word

5. We do well to regard our seminary curriculum as advanced catechesis, the process by which baptized people receive the whole Christian faith through the church and understand it fully for themselves, so that they can, in turn, pass it on relevantly and personally and faithfully in all its fullness to others.

  • Lack of Lutheran catechesis with students
  • Limited understanding and integration: reductionism
  • Danger of sectarian focus on a part of the whole counsel of God
  • The transmission of the whole faith in all its parts as guided by the rule of faith as given in the creeds and our Lutheran Confessions
  • Reappropriation of the loci method in dogmatics

6. We need to provide proper pastoral care for students within the seminary, so that they integrate what they learn, by understanding God’s word in the light of their experience and their experience in the light of God’s word.

  • Increasing number of high-maintenance students
  • Mentoring of students as spiritual fathers who listen to them and help them to understand their experience in the light of God’s word
  • Ministry to students with prayer and blessing
  • Provision of private confession and absolution for students

7. We need to understand all theological disciplines as modes of pastoral theology that finds its proper context in the liturgical life and mission of the church.

  • The problem with “practical theology”
  • Focus work in all disciplines on pastoral theology
  • Focus pastoral theology on the divine service and the rites of the church
  • Teaching beyond disciplinary boundaries
  • Exposure of lecturers to the new churches in the Third World for mutual enrichment

8. We need to acknowledge and promote learning within community.

  • The example of Jesus with his apostles:
    • Call to leave social context
    • Being with Jesus: Mark 3:14
    • Three years of communal training by saying and doing
    • Discussion with Jesus and each other
    • Formation by face-to-face interaction: As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the face of another: Proverbs 27:17
    • Learning from each other and teaching each other
    • Development of collegial practice and mentality
    • Learning of teachers from each other

I would like to conclude by recalling the words of our Lord in Matthew 13:52. They are recorded only by Matthew, a scribe who had, most likely, been trained in the law of God, but had used his knowledge to enrich himself as a tax collector. You may remember that after teaching in parables, our Lord asks his disciples whether they had understood his teaching on the mysteries of God’s heavenly kingdom. Then he concludes: “Therefore every scribe [every theologian] who has been discipled for the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” That is what we will be called to do this year and in the years to come until the close of the age.


1.         This article was presented to Concordia Theological Seminary’s fall faculty forum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, 2 September 2009.

2.         Here Luther uses passive in its grammatical sense as in his teaching on passive righteousness and passive holiness.

3.         Reinhard Hütter, Suffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

4.         See also Edward Farley, Theologia: Fragmentation and Unity in Theological Education (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1983).

5.         Oswald Bayer, Theology the Lutheran Way, Lutheran Quarterly Books (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

6.         Claus Harms puts this well in a memorable mixed language pun about preaching: Was nicht per du geht, sei perdu. We could translate this in an all too clumsy way: “Teaching that is not personally assimilated is lost teaching.”

7.         See the perceptive remarks of James Torrance in Worship, Community & the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1996). He distinguishes between unitarianism of three kinds: the first article with liberals, the second article with evangelicals, and the third article with Pentecostals.

John W. Kleinig teaches at the Australian Lutheran College, North Adelaide, South Australia, and is a contributing editor to LOGIA.