Niebuhr on Theological Education

by W. Jackson Watts

It is common to modern American religious experience to consider the relationship between the Church and the Academy. Specifically, what is the proper relationship between local churches and Christian colleges, universities, and/or theological seminaries?

I’m often interested to see how people from the past have spoken of this relationship. Sometimes interesting insights come from unfamiliar quarters. Such is the case as I was recently perusing H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry.

Niebuhr (1894-1962) was a fairly distinguished theologian in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Best known known for his 1951 Christ and Culture (which is still in print and widely read), Niebuhr’s writings spans theological, church history, ethics, and several other fields. His career was mostly spent as a pastor and professor in the St. Louis area, an Illinois college president, and finally as a theologian and ethicist at Yale. However, he spent considerable years as a denominational leader and educator.

He was born into a family which belonged to the Evangelical Synod of North America, which over the years has merged with several other denominations, moving increasingly away from its origins as a church body of German Reformed heritage. As both a pastor and professor, Niebuhr had many years to think through the relationship between the work of the church and the work of the seminary.

Late in his career he directed The Study of Theological Education in the United States and Canada. This study was essentially a center founded under the leadership of the American Association of Theological Schools, though it was backed financially by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The work of this study center was to evaluate the purposes, methods, and perceived effectiveness of Protestant theological seminaries in North America. They consulted with nearly 100 seminaries, including faculty and students. They also met with a number of leading denominational executives from some of the larger church bodies at that time, as well as recognized pastors.

After much study into the nature of and purpose of the church’s ministry in connection with theological education, the first fruit of their work was a book authored by Niebuhr entitled The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry: Reflections on the Aims of Theological Education (1956). The volume, though out of print now, provides a great deal of insight in the climate of theological higher education of the 1940s and 50s, especially in the mainline church. I also found Niebuhr’s meditations on the role of theological education to be fascinating as well.

In the final section of the book, he speaks of the theological school as “the intellectual center of the Church’s life.”[1] He does not mean that the seminary necessarily does all the thinking for the church. A close reading will disabuse readers from thinking this is what he has in mind. Rather, Niebuhr’s conception of the mission of the church and the seminary is that love for God grounds and directs the intellectual work of both the church and the seminary. He explains as much in the following excerpt:

Though intellectual love of God and neighbor is not the supreme exercise of love, yet it is required and possible since man is also mind and does not wholly love his loves if his mind does not move toward them. He cannot truly love with heart, soul and strength unless mind  accompanies and penetrates these other activities as they in turn accompany and penetrate it. The coldness of an intellectual approach unaccompanied by affection is matched by the febrile extravagance of unreasoning sentiment; the aloofness of uncommitted understanding has its counterpart in the possessiveness of unintelligent loyalty. When the whole man is active the mind is also active; when the whole Church is at work it thinks and considers no less than it worships, proclaims, suffers, rejoices and fights.[2]

As I was reading this remark I couldn’t help but call to mind Leroy Forlines’ emphasis on the Total Personality. Just as Christianity in general speaks to the mind, heart, and hands, or our thoughts, feelings, and practices, the intellectual pursuits of the seminary facilitate the church by reminding it of love’s inextricable entanglements in this pursuit.

We should be clear that Niebuhr and Forlines (and Free Will Baptists in general) certainly don’t have a ton in common otherwise. Niebuhr’s thought largely embodies a form of liberal theology often called “neo-orthodoxy.” While mostly associated with Swiss theologian Karl Barth, neo-orthodoxy at its core is an attempt to move beyond Protestant liberalism, while still rejecting a traditional, biblical view of revelation. Additionally, theologians in the early-mid twentieth century who were associated with neo-orthodoxy, despite their significant differences, all made significant revisions to other historic Christian doctrines.

The main up-shot of Niebuhr’s insight above is the type of anthropological holism it emphasizes. I increasingly find a type of holism emphasized in the work of other theologians, namely those who have had invested significant time in church and denominational leadership, as well as the classroom. Niebuhr certainly had both, which probably enabled him to see how some of the errors which both the church and seminary could fall prey to as they carried out their respective ministries.


[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry: Reflections on the Aims of Theological Education (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), 107.

[2] Niebuhr, 111.


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