Thoughts on a Seminary Curriculum

ruminations by Peter M.. Berg

Open the academic catalog of any Lutheran theological seminary in North America and the contents will not be too dissimilar. While there will be the occasional course on "Native American Studies", or one of the many courses driven by the feminist agenda, there is still that core curriculum which has been the long-standing fare at most Lutheran seminaries. It is a quadrivium of sorts, which typically includes the four loci: exegetical theology, systematic theology, historical theology, and practical or pastoral theology.1 A fifth locus, missiology, has also been added to many seminary curricula (which should probably tell us something). While academic catalogues and seminary mission statements2 make claims for a unity of purpose, so that the loci have one focus, one wonders if the reality is somewhat different. There seems to be an internal rivalry between the various disciplines when it comes to pride of place, not to mention a disconnect between the disciplines them-selves. The mission folks are the Johnny-come-latelies to the scene, and so are easily dismissed. The church historians could care less that they're out of the running, lost as they are in pipe smoke and the incense clouds of the church's past. That means that the boys and girls in the exegetical and systematic departments are left to fight it out. Whose hand you raise in victory depends on who wins the debate about chickens and eggs. 


These internecine arguments are usually good-natured and the combatants all agree that any seminary curriculum must be united in Christ and find its true purpose in training pastors for the church. Yet one wonders if the seminary quadrivium is itself a detriment to a unified approach to training pastors, and so permit some meanderings on the subject and a proposal. Answers to questions pertaining to the training of pastors and seminary curricula must be found in locating Christ concretely, for where we find Christ, there we find his church, his ministry, his means of salvation, and finally, the Father. Once that is done, then the Church's didache or curriculum is set. Locating Christ, however, seems to be easier said that done, though it shouldn't be this way. The place where the Savior deigns to meet his people is so obvious that one wonders why we sometimes have such a difficulty in finding it. And let's get one thing straight, the answer is not "We find Christ in the Bible," as true as that is. The vast majority of believers did not come to faith by reading a Bible. We are not saved by the foolishness of Bible, but by the foolishness of preaching, whether upon our mother's knee or on the Lord's Day.  Therefore we find Christ in the Holy Liturgy: the family altar, the Mass with its preaching and Supper, the catechesis which leads to the Mass, the daily preaching offices, the occasional services, and the confessional. Here the Body of Christ is united with its Head. Here the heavenly Bridegroom is joined to his Bride. Here his gracious words are preached and heard. Here the one true faith is confessed. Here God's people pray for the people of God the world over. Here is the wedding feast of heaven taking place also here on earth. Here the hungry are fed, and the weary and distressed are comforted. And here the disciplines of a Lutheran seminary find their God-given fulfillment.3


Exegesis and systematics are pointless if they don't find their ultimate expression in the public preaching and catechesis of the church, and good preaching and catechesis cannot happen apart from good exegesis and systematics. These same disciplines also reveal the Wonder instituted on the night our Lord was betrayed and help us unlock the mysteries of this wonder. Church history offers the faithful sermonic inspiration from the story of the saints, and it also gives much needed warnings from the past. Practical theology is never more practical and pastoral than when a pastor hears private confession and grants Holy Absolution. Here's pastoral counseling at its very best. The missions department should be heartened to know that the confessions say that nothing packs 'em in like good preaching (and to that we should add, good liturgics).


Just from a practical standpoint arranging seminary academics and the life of the church around the Holy Liturgy makes perfectly good sense. When do most of the people of God gather in one place? When does the parish pastor touch the majority in his parish with the Word and Sacrament? When are God's people bound together in the confession of the faith, joined in song and prayer, and sacramentally united? In the Holy Liturgy, of course. This is the most important time spent by pastors and the people they serve. All which is done outside of the Holy Liturgy has its source in the Holy Liturgy, and only has relevance due to the Holy Liturgy.  


As was previously noted, what ought to be obvious has a way of not being so obvious. Just consider the position of the Holy Liturgy in the typical seminary curriculum. All too often it's reduced to a sub-category (along with homiletics), languishing somewhere in the multiplicity of courses offered by practical theology departments. If this isn't bad enough, liturgical scholars would generally agree that courses on liturgics offered at Lutheran seminaries short-change their students. A revolution needs to take place when it comes to the study of the Holy Liturgy. Required courses should be offered which deal in depth with the history, theology, and proper practice of the public services which form the Holy Liturgy, and which are the great treasure of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church. Another must in this restructuring would be better instruction when it comes to church music. The end result of this would be that the traditional quadrivium would be unified, with the Holy Liturgy as the only locus, and with all the other disciplines in service to it.4 In addition to producing pastors who could preach well and who would be well-schooled in the Liturgy, presiding with knowledge and grace, this would go a long way in curbing the independent bent of all too many pastors when it comes to personal liturgical creations.5 This would also result in a catholicity which would bind today's church to that of the past, and would join today's church together by a common liturgical tradition. What a blessing for Lutheran people who are increasingly becoming mobile to find themselves at home liturgically wherever they go, and to be nurtured by the richness of the church's liturgy.6 This would be a tremendous improvement over the status quo. As it stands now, we are no better off than the people of Israel at the time of the judges when every man did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6)  §



The Reverend Peter M. Berg graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 1974 and plies his upgraded conduct of the liturgy in the beautiful Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois. This article was originally published in the July 2004 issue of the Magpie.



1 The quadrivium ( literally, "four crossing roads") of the schools of the Middle Ages consisted of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. The quadrivium is associated with the church father Cassiodorus and the philosopher Boethius.

2 I noticed the other day that my muffler shop has a mission statement.

3 For a good statement on the united purpose of a seminary curriculum see the academic catalogue of Concordia Theo-logical Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN.

4 Even if an entire theological faculty would be in philosophical agreement with this premise, it's doubtful if this goal could be fulfilled without a radical structural overhaul of a school's curriculum, which means that this proposal has a snowball's chance in hell of becoming a reality. 

The course requirements for proper training in the Holy Liturgy would amount to that required for a Master's degree and must be taught by confessional Lutheran scholars. Until that happens, keep your cotton-pick'in fingers off the Liturgy! The Holy Liturgy in the hands of the typically liturgically ill-trained Lutheran pastor is about as comforting as a scalpel in the hands of this author. Two essential primers for a proper understanding of worship are "Way of Salvation, Way of Liturgy" by Fr. John Fenton, Bride of Christ, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, July 2002 and "Vere Dignum et Justum Est: Deeds Become Creeds" by Dr. Lee Maxwell, ibid, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, December 1999, and No. 2, March 2000. For the historical development of the Liturgy consult Luther Reed and Frank Senn.

6 The principle of AC VII, that churchly unity is not dependent upon lock-step liturgical uniformity, is not license for chaos. A high approach to the Liturgy allows for regional and parochial differences, but not for the liturgical schizophrenia which we now witness in the Lutheran Church.