The Divine and Human in the Seminary Curriculum -- By: Darryl G. Hart

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 65:1 (Spring 2003)
Article: The Divine and Human in the Seminary Curriculum
Author: Darryl G. Hart


The Divine and Human in the Seminary Curriculum

Darryl G. Hart

[D. G. Hart is Professor of Church History and Academic Dean at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. This article is his inaugural address.]

I. Introduction

What do church historians do and why do seminaries appoint them? Although standard fare for the kind of professional introspection that inaugural lectures invite, such questions may not be obviously interesting because of the poor health in which the study of church history now stands. But in order to make a case for the value of church history in theological education, we need to be clear first about how church history is faring.

The first measure of church history’s poor vigor comes from the academy. Here it is important to see that over the last third of the twentieth century the field has declined dramatically. One might think that the fall of church history in American universities would actually have occurred a century before, when higher education in the United States secularized and theological disciplines found shelter in the divinity-friendly confines of the seminary. But a remarkable thing happened to American higher education in the twentieth century. During the 1940s and 1950s university and college leaders, who feared that the scientific orientation of education was distorting an understanding of the true nature of things, established religious studies departments as a way to stop the secularization of the American mind. One of the subjects taught in these departments was church history. And for a brief fifteen-year span the field appeared to be part of the academic mainstream, that is, until other Americans, most notably Supreme Court justices, figured out that religion, even the generic Protestantism of the mainline denominations, was unfit for public consumption. Consequently, in the decade after the last of the Court’s rulings that banned prayer and Bible reading from public schools, the field of religious studies lifted high the banner of diversity and scientific method, and church historians retooled by becoming religious historians. Since 1970 or so most historians have perceived church history as too parochial and dogmatic for the cosmopolitan and liberal setting of the university. In the words of David W. Lotz, church historian at Union Seminary in New York, “By 1970 ... old-style church history, grounded on Christian theology and its faith claims, had given place to new-style religious history, grounded on the methodology of secular history and its demand for empirical warrants.” Which means it is far easier to

have a university press book published on the ritual life of German Americans than on the debates over wo...

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