This article argues that theology belongs in the university not because of its relationship to the other disciplines but because of its relationship to the church. It discusses Schleiermacher’s understanding of theology as a practical science oriented towards Christian leadership in society. It argues that Schleiermacher’s account provides an illuminating perspective on the history of academic theology in Australia. Theology belongs in the university not for any internal methodological reasons but because of specific contextual conditions in societies like Australia where Christianity has exerted a large historical influence. The article concludes by arguing that the ecclesial orientation of university theology is compatible with the aims of public theology, given that service to the Christian community is a means by which the common flourishing of society can be promoted.
Until the early nineteenth century, universities understood their vocation in terms of cultivation, formation, Bildung. Young people were to be formed in the classic virtues of the true, the good, and the beautiful. The university disciplines were inherently conservative since their mission was to hand down the best that had been received from the past. Cultivation of a learned aristocracy depended on the transmission of an inherited civilizational legacy – hence the priority of the Greek and Latin classics in university education. The University of Berlin, founded in 1809, marked a radical departure from the vocation of universities as it had been understood until that time. Wilhelm von Humboldt helped to draw up the intellectual framework for this new type of research institution. He described it as an institution devoted to Wissenschaft, a comprehensive term that embraces every kind of disciplined academic investigation. Wissenschaft, he proposed, deals ‘with ultimately inexhaustible tasks’; institutions devoted to such tasks ‘are engaged in an unceasing process of inquiry.’ The new type of university, von Humboldt said, would combine research and teaching in a unique synthesis of ‘scientific education’.1 The life of the university, in other words, would be driven by research, and such research would serve the dual goals of building the great edifice of knowledge as well as educating a scientifically minded generation of leaders.
On the face of it, theology might have looked like an endangered species under the conditions of the new research university. Theology itself, after all, is not research. Theology is faith thinking, fides quaerens intellectum. Faith, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, is ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ (NRSV, Heb. 11:1). That means faith already contains within itself an impulse to know. ‘Imperfection of knowledge belongs to the very nature faith’, as Aquinas says.2 Faith gives rise to a search for knowledge not because of anxiety or scepticism but because of a fundamental assurance. As soon as it becomes self-aware, faith assumes the form of theological thinking.3 But this search for knowledge is not research. Throughout most of Christian history, theology has been found in the pulpit and in the catacombs and in exchanges of personal letters, as well as in apologetic and polemical writings whose aim was not to contribute to the sum total of human knowledge but to respond to occasional crises in church life. Most classic works of Christian theology would never qualify as research in a modern university. Augustine’s Confessions, Irenaeus’s Adversus Haereses, Origen’s De Principiis, Gregory Nazianzen’s homilies on the Trinity, Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Divine Love – none of these could be called ‘research’ even though they are marked by a relentless spirit of inquiry, self-criticism, and openness to truth.
Research, by its nature, can always be classified ‘in an overall system of scientific knowledge’.4 The founders of the University of Berlin assumed that knowledge forms a unity, or at least enough of a unity for scholars to identify ‘gaps’ and to ‘fill’ those gaps with new research. Knowledge itself, pursued along these lines, is always growing and advancing. Each new contribution is legitimated or disqualified according to its relationship to the existing body of knowledge. Whether the kind of knowledge sought by theologians has a place in such a scheme was, in the nineteenth century, far from certain. One of the intellectual architects of the University of Berlin, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, argued that theology would have no place in the new university and would need to be pursued in other, smaller institutions geared toward professional training rather than Wissenschaft.5 In response to Fichte, Friedrich Schleiermacher stepped in with a counter proposal to show that theology can legitimately take the form of research and hence that it has a secure place in the new university system.
In what follows I will outline Schleiermacher’s conception of the place of theology in the university and will argue that this account provides an illuminating perspective on the history of academic theology in my own Australian context. Following Schleiermacher, I will argue that the academic legitimacy of theology depends on theology’s practical orientation toward Christian leadership in a given society. Theology, I will argue, belongs in the university not because of its relationship to the other disciplines but because of its relationship to the church. Far from being the ‘queen of the sciences’, I will argue that theology is not essentially or necessarily an academic discipline at all. It can, however, legitimately become a university ‘science’ under certain historical and social conditions, not because of its organic connection to other disciplines, to knowledge, or to the university but because of its organic connection to Christianity. Finally, I will conclude that this Schleiermacherian account is compatible with conceptions of public theology that prioritize theology’s orientation toward the common good.
1 A Practical Science: Friedrich Schleiermacher
Schleiermacher’s small but portentous book, the Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study (1811), redefined the discipline of theology as a branch of knowledge in the spirit of Berlin Wissenschaft. The most important point comes right at the start when Schleiermacher defines the ‘science’ of theology: ‘Theology is a positive science, the parts of which join into a cohesive whole only through their common relation to a distinct mode of faith…. Thus, the various parts of Christian theology belong together only by virtue of their relation to Christianity.’6 In Schleiermacher’s idiom, a speculative science (like mathematics) concerns knowledge of essences derived from first principles, while an empirical science concerns knowledge of particulars based on empirical observation. By contrast, a ‘positive science’ includes both speculative and empirical elements, but harnesses these for practical purposes. In describing theology as a positive science, Schleiermacher points to its methodological diversity, and more importantly to its practical orientation. He defines a positive science as ‘an assemblage of scientific elements that belong together not because they form a constituent part of the organisation of the sciences, as though by some necessity arising out of the notion of science itself, but only insofar as they are requisite for carrying out a practical task.’7 Theology then is not like mathematics or physics or even like history or literature, but more like law or medicine, fields of study that are oriented toward practice. The kind of methodological purity proper to mathematics would be quite out of place in law, since legal studies proceeds not by first principles but by practical aims that can be fostered by a range of academic methods. The study of law does not have an essential necessity arising from its object, nor does it have the same kind of empirical givenness as botany or biology. The discipline of legal studies is more eclectic and more contingent. Such a discipline can arise only in a certain kind of society with a certain kind of history and legal profession. That is how it is for theology too. Theology arises as an academic discipline, says Schleiermacher, because of the practical requirements of church leadership (Kirchenleitung).8 Like Kant before him, Schleiermacher singles out theology, law, and medicine as the three ‘higher faculties’ of the university precisely because of their practical nature.9
Orientation toward practice, for Schleiermacher, is the only thing that gives theology its ‘scientific’ character. Otherwise the work of theology could be broken up and absorbed by those other disciplines from which theology borrows its methods: history, literature, languages, and so forth.10 Only service of the church gives these diverse methods and objects of study their coherence as a single discipline. Hence for Schleiermacher the sub-disciplines of theology – biblical studies, church history, and dogmatics – culminate in the crowning work of practical theology. In practical theology, the ends of the whole discipline become explicit.11
That is not to suggest that the content of theological studies derives directly from the church, or that every item of research has an explicit goal of practical Christian service. Nor does it mean that church leaders dictate the priorities of theologians. Under such terms theology’s service of the church would no longer be scientific (wissenschaftlich) service. Schleiermacher argues emphatically for the ‘scientific spirit’ of theological work: after all, his reason for writing the Brief Outline was to defend the place of theology in the organisational structure of the new research university. He argues that theology serves the church best when it adopts a spirit of free academic inquiry while harnessing its powers of inquiry for the good of the Christian community. Theology, as Schleiermacher says elsewhere, needs to be ‘useful’ by setting out ‘what has validity in the Christian church or what one is convinced should have validity in the Christian church.’12 The church’s belief is conditioned by history but is not wholly a product of history. Hence, for Schleiermacher, theology is more than historical description. Although the substance of faith is unchanging, one can never pinpoint exactly what that unchanging substance consists of; the only way to get at it is to explain the meaning of faith as it exists here and now in one’s own time and place. And since the church is an historical community, the only way to investigate the meaning of faith today is to enter into dialogue with the way faith has been understood in the past. A scientific approach to theology, Schleiermacher argues, draws its legitimation from the ‘dialectical’ demands of this movement between the past and the present, between historical and systematic thinking.13 Theology belongs in the university to the extent that it pursues this dialectical endeavour with academic freedom and with a practical orientation towards the flourishing of the Christian community in its own time.
2 Practical Science in an Australian Context
Schleiermacher’s account has a lot to offer current debates about the place of theology in the university. Such debates, it seems to me, quickly gravitate toward abstract ideals: idealised conceptions of a ‘university’, of ‘science’, and of theology’s ‘object’ and ‘method’. I find it hard to relate such abstractions to my own experience of academic theology in a number of institutional settings in Australia. Nowhere in Australia has theology ever been pursued as a disinterested speculative science that derives its integrity from the uniqueness of its object and methods. Educational institutions in this country are deeply imbibed with a spirit of pragmatism, and that is true of theology too. Australian theology has for a long time been located in small and relatively isolated denominational seminaries. In some cases these have formed consortia that have in turn been precariously affiliated with a university. Even where theology is embedded in universities, it maintains intimate ties to ministry formation, church leadership, and, importantly, denominational funding. As an academic discipline, theology in this country tends to run automatically along Schleiermacherian lines simply because of these close denominational ties.
In short, Australia has Benthamite universities – pragmatic centres of utilitarian training – that have, by historical accident, ended up with Schleiermacherian departments of theology. The theologians who work in these institutions tend to perform overlapping leadership and engagement roles in their host denominations. I worked for a decade in Charles Sturt University’s School of Theology, a hybrid arrangement that was created by an accreditation partnership between a Uniting Church seminary in Sydney and an Anglican seminary in Canberra. As a theologian I was embedded in the organizational structures of both church and university. The denomination paid my salary and the university paid for research and sabbaticals. I reported on my research output to the university and on my church engagement to the denomination. I taught university classes in theology and facilitated ministry formation panels for the church. I went to chapel every morning and the library every afternoon. I sat on the university’s ethics committee and the denomination’s working group on doctrine. Not that I was working two jobs or performing two roles: I worked in a university, aligned to the norms of university culture, as a means of serving the church. All the time I was pursuing my own vocation as a researcher and teacher, but my academic vocation was inextricably linked to the denominational culture and the specific cultural and ecclesial contexts of my students’ experience of faith. Even without reading Schleiermacher I might have come to the conclusion that theology, as I experienced it, was a practical discipline that investigates, interprets, and challenges the praxis of church life.
In the Australian context, the Schleiermacherian model comes with intrinsic problems that require constant negotiation. A first is the tendency of church leaders to hold a direct sway over the priorities and directions of theological research. This occurs mainly through the power of financial incentives and through the denominational politics that sometimes surround faculty appointments and funding allocations. Though the challenges here are real, the situation for theology is not really all that different from the kinds of constraints, incentives, and pressures that universities face whenever they partner with external stakeholders. It is not a bad thing for theological scholars to have to navigate the same kinds of constraints and incentives as scholars from other disciplines. A second problem, particularly pronounced in Australia, is a tendency toward theological parochialism. To varying degrees, different institutions tend to serve their own denominational agendas without drawing them into a larger ecumenical conversation. The tendency is compounded by the tyranny of distance which is always an important institutional constraint in a country as vast and as thinly populated as Australia. Theological isolation has a geographical as well as a denominational element. This challenge, though, is not insurmountable. Faculty members in all institutions today have the means at their disposal to foster a catholic and ecumenical spirit, and there are many encouraging efforts in that direction not only through formal research collaborations but also through moderation, benchmarking, postgraduate examination, and other cross-institutional administrative functions. Often enough, it is the regulatory environment more than our own ecumenical sensibilities that drives us to collaborate in these ways. That is, arguably, one of the major advantages of operating in a secular university sector and having to submit to the institutional norms of that sector which are typically more collaborative, self-critical, and ‘catholic’ than the culture of denominational institutions.
So although theology in Australia is constrained in unique ways by its denominationalism and by the tyranny of distance, such constraints need not be lamented. They are the conditions under which theological work is possible at all. In Schleiermacher’s analysis, it is precisely within the context of such constraints, where academic and ecclesial currents come together, that the ‘scientific’ character of theology can emerge.
I have said that Schleiermacher posits ‘church leadership’ (Kirchenleitung) as the practical end of academic theology. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the church in Germany was still a prestigious social institution. Ordained ministry was still held in high regard as one of the nobler professions. It seems incredible today to see Schleiermacher ranking theology alongside medicine and law – the three highest professions and hence the three highest academic disciplines. It would be hard to find many people today who would attach that kind of esteem to theological studies or a career in the church. In our time a science of theology tethered exclusively to ministry formation would be doomed, given the declining numbers of members and ordination candidates in most denominations. But Schleiermacher’s conception of Kirchenleitung is not restricted to the clergy. As Wilhelm Gräb argues, such ‘leadership’ encompasses all who ‘take on a responsible role for shaping the life of the church’, as opposed to those who participate more or less passively in the church’s life.14 The church is manifest not only in congregations but also in innumerable institutions and community organizations, from schools and health care providers to social services, aid organisations, networks for conservative business people or radical activists, as well as small informal gatherings like Bible study groups. The church’s life is also manifest in lay vocations in virtually every sphere of society. All such instantiations of Christianity in society involve individuals who have, for whatever reasons, taken responsibility for the church’s life and witness. To fulfil their responsibility, such individuals need the supportive, challenging, reassuring, and unsettling work of Christian theology.
3 A Non-Necessary Science
If Schleiermacher’s account helps to explain why theology is situated in universities in Australia, it also points to the contingency of these arrangements. Theology belongs in the academy to the extent that it supports Christianity in society: this implies that theology belongs in the academy only where specific social and historical conditions obtain. Would an academic discipline of Christian theology belong in a university in a predominantly Muslim country, where Christians comprise only a fraction of one percent of the population? Would there be a place for academic theology in a country whose culture and social institutions had developed with virtually no historical reference to the Christian faith? These counterfactual questions illustrate Schleiermacher’s point that theology’s organic connection is not to the academy but to the church and to the presence of Christianity in society. Only a society already deeply marked by Christianity will have any intelligible rationale for a practical science of theology. If theology belongs in the university, therefore, it says more about a given society than it does about theology as a special domain of knowledge.
It is sometimes alleged that theology belongs in the university by virtue of its special object and methods of knowing.15 Not for practical but for speculative and theoretical reasons, theology is claimed to be the ‘queen of the sciences’ because of an essential relation between theological knowledge and all other kinds of knowledge.16 Other disciplines are methodologically unable to justify their own assumptions and first principles. Physics, for example, has no answer to the question why reality is knowable and not unknowable. The disciplines are also unable methodologically to justify their own ends. Medical research, for example, has no answer to the question why human life is worth saving. Theology alone has access to such knowledge since theology takes into account the divine logos, the created order (including the order of human rationality), and an ultimate telos that encompasses all things. All academic disciplines are thus judged to be incomplete without theology. They hang suspended over a methodological abyss, unable to justify their first principles or final ends. Theology is said to serve the other disciplines by supplying what they lack – that is, an integrative vision that demonstrates the essential unity of knowledge. Theology occupies a privileged vantage point from which everything else in the university can be properly seen in relation to the whole.
But what exactly are theologians aiming at when they argue for a recovery of theology’s privileged status as ‘queen’? Are they advocating a total reorganisation of the university faculties? Or do they only mean that theologians ought to perceive their discipline as queen, even if nobody else recognises the fact? And how can theologians assume a regal role if they are the only ones to recognize their own legitimacy? Even if, by a curious turn of events, departments of theology were empowered by university administrators to serve as queen of all disciplines, what would such an arrangement look like in a university today? One can imagine perhaps how theology might inform the humanities, given that all historical disciplines in western societies are more or less entangled with the history of Christianity. But it is harder to conceive how theology might exert a regal influence – or any influence at all – over the disciplines of engineering, information technology, Japanese language and literature, sport and exercise science, and the rest. In short, the claim that theology is ‘queen of the sciences’ is best understood as a doctrine that some theologians embrace by faith rather than an idea with any practical applicability to the actual existing disciplines of a modern university.
It is worth recalling here Karl Barth’s probing interrogation as to whether theology should be called a ‘science’ at all. Theology, Barth argues, does not have unique access to a unique object. ‘Theology does not … possess special keys to special doors.’17 Other disciplines like history, psychology, and philosophy could in principle carry out the theological task: here Barth echoes Schleiermacher’s observation that the methods of theology are all drawn from other disciplines.18 As a thought experiment, Barth imagines a hypothetical university in which every discipline contributes to a common search for theological knowledge. In such an imaginary university there would be no need for an academic discipline of theology because the church could draw whatever it needs, willy nilly, from other disciplines. The only problem is that this has never happened; nor is there any foreseeable future in which it could happen. So a separate discipline of theology steps in to fill the gap even though such a discipline has no proper ‘epistemological basis’, no ‘necessity of principle’, no ‘internal reasons’ for operating in an academic setting.19 Barth repudiates the notion that the nature of the university or the nature of knowledge as such requires the integrating influence of theology. Theology, he says, has no ‘systematic relationship to other sciences’: ‘It cannot think of itself as a link in an ordered cosmos, but only as a stop-gap in a disordered cosmos.’20 Nevertheless Barth concedes that theology should be described as Wissenschaft, an academic discipline, as long as the title is assigned purely for pragmatic reasons. Arguments for the ‘scientific’ nature of theology tend to have the apologetic aim of elevating theology to the supposed dignity of other sciences. In a mischievous reversal, Barth suggests that theology should be called a science to keep theologians from thinking too highly of themselves. We theologians should think of ourselves as part of a larger academic labour force – not as sages or mystics or conferrers of hidden wisdom but as ‘secular’ workers even when we are investigating the loftiest subjects.21 We might otherwise be tempted to exalt ourselves by imagining that our work belongs to the domain of sacra doctrina or sapientia. It brings us down to earth, says Barth, to remember that theology is ‘only a science.’22 This, surely, is the most deflating argument ever put forward as to why theology belongs in a university!
At least by implication, Barth’s analysis points to the contextual conditions that give rise to the legitimacy of theology in the academy. Such legitimacy says a lot about a society and its history, and very little about theology as such. There is no internal methodological reason for treating theology as a science – though Barth surely overstates the case when he says it ‘would make not the slightest difference’ to theology whether it was recognised as a university discipline or not.23 As Linn Marie Tonstad notes, the nature of theological work inevitably undergoes modification as it aligns with the norms and incentives of university research and teaching.24 Whether such norms and incentives are as straightforwardly pernicious as Tonstad suggests is doubtful though. In many domains of human activity, personal agency arises from the pressure of institutional constraints, even if one finds one’s powers channelled in directions that are common and not simply a matter of individual taste. Further, the distorting institutional factors noted by Tonstad can equally be observed in all academic disciplines. The fact that theology becomes complicit in the same incentives and limitations faced by other fields of learning is – to return to Barth – arguably the main advantage of the arrangement. Professors of divinity would like sometimes to have the intelligence, resources, and above all the leisure of the angels in heaven: but we are on earth and will have to do our best with the earthly resources at our disposal, just like our beleaguered colleagues in the English department and the school of nursing.
4 Conclusion: Serving the Church for the Common Good
I have been presenting a contextual exposition of Schleiermacher’s argument that theology is a practical science; it belongs in universities to the extent that it serves and supports Christianity in society. An objection to my account might be that it is too ecclesial and too little oriented toward society and the common good. In their recent book on the vocation of academic theology, Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun argue for theology’s orientation toward human flourishing. The purpose of theology, in their view, ‘is to discern, articulate and commend visions of the flourishing life in light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.’25 I am in full sympathy with this sentiment. I would only add the clarification that, for the most part, theology serves the common good by addressing those segments of the public that identify with the Christian faith or that take a lively interest in matters relating to Christianity. There is a special type of public theology that speaks directly to current issues in public life. From time to time there have appeared theologians with a vocation and a capacity to address a wide audience about matters of public concern. But for the most part theology serves the public good by supporting the vocation of Christians in society. Where Christianity is deeply embedded in public life, theologians can best aspire to serve the common good by serving the diverse vocations of Christians in society. To the extent that theology does this, it can play a modest but legitimate part in the university’s mission to promote a flourishing society.
An academic science of theology has another indirect way of serving the common good, and that is through its service to the university itself. The other disciplines do not need theology as their unifying principle; they are not lost at sea until theology comes along to reveal their arche and telos. Theology is not necessary to the proper ordering and functioning of the disciplines. Yet theology has gifts that can enrich the work of those disciplines. After the Australian Catholic University was founded in 1991, there was a protracted internal discussion about whether theology should be located within a larger Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The founders of that university wanted to ensure that theology would not become a standalone part of the organization but would find itself, in the natural course of things, involved in dialogue with the work of other disciplines. Eventually the university settled on a Faculty of Theology and Philosophy; the aim, at any rate, was to organize the institution in such a way that theology would contribute to the moral and intellectual flourishing of the university for the sake of a flourishing society.26
Schleiermacher’s conception of a practical science oriented toward the church is, therefore, compatible with the ideals of public theology. In most cases theology serves the world best when it serves the church – bearing in mind, of course, that ‘the church’ and ‘the world’ do no designate different classes of individuals or separate spheres of activity. The church is the world, in representative form, as it undergoes the drama and promise of God’s reconciling work in Christ. To serve that representation of a universal human flourishing is the mission of theology in a university.
Wilhelm von Humboldt, ‘On the Spirit and the Organisational Framework of Intellectual Institutions in Berlin (1809)’, in Michael A. Peters and Ronald Barnet, eds, The Idea of a University: A Reader, Volume 1, (New York: Peter Lang, 2018), p. 47.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, (New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1947–8), 1a2ae.67, a3.
See the insightful analysis in Edward Schillebeeckx, Revelation and Theology, Volume 1 (London: Sheed & Ward, 1967), pp. 95–113.
Zachary Purvis, ‘Education and Its Institutions’, in Joel D. S. Rasmussen, Judith Wolfe, and Johannes Zachhuber, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century Christian Thought, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 309.
See Zachary Purvis, Theology and the University in Nineteenth-Century Germany, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 86–109.
Friedrich Schleiermacher, Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study: Revised Translation of the 1811 and 1830 Editions, trans. Terrence N. Tice (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), §1.
Friedrich Schleiermacher, Occasional Thoughts on Universities in the German Sense: With an Appendix Regarding a University Soon to Be Established (1808), trans. Terrence N. Tice (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991).
Schleiermacher, Brief Outline, §6.
Friedrich Schleiermacher, Selections from Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Christian Ethics, trans. James. M. Brandt (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), p. 21.
Schleiermacher, Ethics, pp. 23–25.
Wilhelm Gräb, ‘Practical Theology as Theology of Religion: Schleiermacher’s Understanding of Practical Theology as a Discipline,’ International Journal of Practical Theology 9:2 (2005), 181–96 at 184.
For a classic twentieth-century treatment, see T. F. Torrance, Theological Science (London: Oxford University Press, 1969). For a history of the ‘invented tradition’ according to which theology was once ‘queen of the sciences’, see Gijsbert van den Brink, ‘How Theology Stopped Being Regina Scientiarum – and How Its Story Continues’, Studies in Christian Ethics 32:4 (2019), 442–54.
It is not my aim to survey the history here, but it is worth noting that most medieval universities did not originally have faculties of theology; that was a later development in the fourteenth century. See the illuminating study by Tomoko Masuzawa, ‘Theology, the Fairy Queen’, Modern Intellectual History (2021), 1–24 (pre-publication doi:10.1017/S1479244321000287).
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (London: T&T Clark, 1975), p. 5.
Schleiermacher, Brief Outline, §6.
Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 7.
Ibid., p. 10.
Ibid., p. 11.
Ibid., p. 8.
Linn Marie Tonstad, ‘(Un)wise Theologians: Systematic Theology in the University,’ International Journal of Systematic Theology 22:4 (2020), 494–511.
Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference, (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2019), p. 21.
For this anecdote I am indebted to an unpublished paper by Robert Gascoigne, ‘The Australian Catholic University Experience: Philosophy and Foundations in Practice.’