the future  of  theological  education  in  Europe

  (From Petros Vassiliadis (ed.), OIKOUMENE and THEOLOGY. The 1993-95 Erasmus Lectures in Ecumenical Theology,  EKO 11,  Thessaloniki 1996, pp. 11-24)


It is a widespread conviction nowadays that ecumenism, has recently entered into a delicate and crucial stage, with clearly evident the signs of a decline. The tragic events we experienced since the great changes in Europe - with Churches, sometimes even from the same tradition, not in solidarity with, but fighting, each other; with the great powers not with a vision to built a better and just society, but with a clear plan to establish a "new world order", equally unjust as the old; and with the nations and the peoples not desiring to live peacefully with the "others", but wishing to cleanse them -  are just a few indications that the titanic ecumenical efforts of the past definitely need re-orientation. K. Raiser, the present Secretary General of the WCC, has recently[1] reflected on this issue and suggested a radical shift in the ecumenical paradigm.

Whether one likes it or not, the process of the development of a new United and integrated Europe, i.e. of a giant multi-cultural entity, will inevitably shape the future of the peoples not only of the eventual member states, but of the entire world; after all Europe is, and is certainly destined to remain, the spiritual cradle of human culture. By saying, of course, this I do not by any means underestimate the importance and enormous value of what has been achieved on the spiritual and cultural level in other non European parts of the globe. I would only wish to underline the great responsibility that falls on the shoulders of Europe to keep the spiritual balance in the extavagant technological race of our meta-modern  era. Coming from Hellas (Greece), that tiny but with great history part of the globe, which has determined not only the formation of the renowned classical antiquity, but also the transformation of the early Jewish christian community into an ecumenical Christianity,  I feel very sensitive about the role Christianity, especially through its academic institutions, is called to play in this respect.

a. The ERASMUS Project in “Theology”. It was this agony that has forced the Theological School of the University of Thessaloniki, Greece, to undertake an initiative to establish in our continent an Inter-University Cooperation Project in the field of Theology, within the framework of the so-called ERASMUS educational program of the EU. The Project, three years old now, with the participation of the Universities of Thessaloniki (Greece), Bochum and Münster (Germany), Durham (Great Britain), Madrid (Spain), Copenhagen (Denmark), Oslo (Norway), and from next academic year with the participation of Bologna (Italy), Reykjavik (Iceland), Joensuu (Finland), and Lund (Sweden), is ecumenical in its orientation and purpose. It consists of student and faculty exchanges,  especially between Theological Schools of different traditions, educational and research programs, as well as curriculum development programs, i.e. a critical evaluation of the existing curricula with the view of changing them. Above all, however, the project’s vision is to invite the academic resourses of our continent to sit together and thoroughly examine the Church’s - and consequently Theology’s - role in the shaping of of the future Europe.

Needless to say, of course, that our involvement in the ERASMUS program is by no means an affirmation of, or even surrender to, the plans of the technocrats in Brussels. On the contrary, it is our determination to challenge the existing orientation and contribute to a more authentic witness by christian theology to this irreversible  process of shaping the future of Europe, not in isolation from the rest of the world and especially from the developing third world, but in collaboration with all the existing theological resources. I personally believe in a dynamic encounter of all the existing traditions in Theological Education, from the East and the West, the North and the South, especially the new educational experiences developed in the Third World. A synthesis of all the existing models will definitely renew the educational opportunities of Europe. A Europe that ignores, or even does not take seriously into account, the third world is doomed to fail, not to mention that it may also endanger its existence.

b. The WOCATI Peflections on Theological Education. This global nature of theological education has led some of us in the project to participate in, but also contribute to, a worldwide process to improve and if necessary reassess our theological education. This process has quite recently taken the form of a worldwide network under the name WOCATI (World Conference of Associations of Theological Institutions), various working groups of which have been reflecting for the past two years on various aspects of the future of theological education. Your dean Prof. Turid Karlsen Seim has been pioneer in linking the WOCATI vision with the European theological setting

What follows are some  preliminary reflections of a working group of WOCATI on the future of theological scholarship and research,  to which I have contributed on my capacity as a European ERASMUS co-ordinator of the above mentioned project.


 Two are the most important and necessary perspectives in contemporary theological education: Globalization, i.e. the search for a a coherent, ecumenical, global awareness of the theological task, and contextualization, i.e. the unique expression of it in the various particular contexts. Coherence is important in that it expresses the authenticity and distinctiveness of different contextual theologies, as well as the need to bring these contextual theologies into inter-relationship with others. 

The question, of course, is how this coherent, ecumenical, global perspective is to be achieved.  Central in this respect is the concept of dialogue, but also of unity,  i.e. the question of where does the locus of christian faith reside. 

a. The excellence of theological education. The inter-relationship between contextualization and the search for a coherent, ecumenical, global perspective gives rise to a re-examination of what constitutes the excellence of theological education. Criteria of excellence of theological scholarship must include serious consideration of the sources, methods and purposes of such scholarship.

b. A  new understanding of scholarschip. It is important  at this point to turn to the understanding one has of scholarship. There is a tendency to identify authentic scholarship only with a limited number of theological methods. It is commonly used in relation to writing and research completed within a university context, and/or published in scholarly and professional journals and books. To limit the understanding of scholarship to these forms can be an undue restriction and be a serious disservice to other ways in which theological scholarship can be undertaken and expressed.  For example, in addition to the forms of scholarship directed to the search for new information and understanding and integrating these findings into new perspectives, there is also the importance of the scholarship of praxis.  In this form of scholarship recognition is given to how learnings can both arise from the life of communities and how these learnings can be applied to address human problems.

c. Critical inquiry. By broadening and deepening our understanding of both the theological task and of the meaning of scholarship in the ways suggested above, further attention is required to be given to the importance of critical inquiry.  These forms of critical inquiry, as with all criteria for excellence of theological scholarship, must be congruent with the nature and purpose of any particular theology and the method it follows. 

d. Partners in Theological Education. One fruitful way of exploring further the issues involved in bringing critical inquiry to bear upon one's theological scholarship and research is an examination of the role played by one's partners.  Partners have a two-fold meaning:

 (i) They represent the other disciplines necessary to assist theology to explicate the meaning and truth of christian revelation. Within the western tradition of theological scholarship, the disciplines of philosophy, history, and literary and textual inquiry have been prominent and influential partners.  More recently., the disciplines of psychology, sociology, and hermeneutics have become of greater importance. However, other forms or expressions of theology, especially many from within the southern world, have utilized the insights of different partners and/or appropriated the insights of the traditional partners in different ways.  Thus we have seen the emergence of the disciplines of political science and economics as partners to theological scholarship, as well as a different appropriation of such disciplines as history and sociology being followed.  The impact of this is to make one aware of the different forms of critical inquiry that will arise from the influence of one's partners in theological scholarship.

(ii) Partners also mean the people to whom theology and theological education is addressed.  If theology is to be addressed to the  entire people of God, then there needs to be an expansion of one's awareness of the influence of some partners previously overlooked in much of theological scholarship.  Increasingly christian theology is evolving in contexts that are heavily influenced by the presence of people of other faiths.  And this is true also for Europe. In addition to this,  recent developments in liberation and political theology have been influenced by the recognition of the partnership of the 'forgotten' people, or the 'non-people'; those crushed by the forces of the dominant culture.  When theological scholarship and education accept the presence of these people as partners in the theological enterprise, new forms of critical inquiry are needed.

Theologians are faced with a two-fold task of establishing criteria of excellence which are congruent with both the historic christian tradition/s and, at the same time, appropriate for their particular cultural contexts.

It is to be noted that for many the starting point of theological scholarship and research is no longer the common christian core of doctrine but the experience of the people of God in a given context.  Such scholarship includes a profound recognition of the importance of the experience of the poor and marginalized in their society, whether that be due to social, economic, political or religious reasons. 



 The theological importance of dialogue is strengthened within contextual theologies.  For here, the theologians are engaged in a fundamental form of dialogue between their identity as Christians and their identity as people of a particular culture and society. The respectful but not uncritical listening and talking with other people, constitutes one essential component of theological scholarship. The importance of dialogue is intensified when we acknowledge as christian theologians that we, too, are partners on a journey towards appropriating the fullness of God's grace and truth.  Thus we must be open to the way our partial insights are to be challenged and enriched through our willingness to enter into genuine dialogue, not only with fellow Christians, but also with people of other faiths and others with whom we live and work.

Contextual theologies have given attention to the dialogical method of education.  Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1971) in his critique of the traditional forms of pedagogy (the '“banking” concept of education), maintains that this not only tends to prevent the free development of students, but has another, often unrecognized, effect.  The '“banking” system can be a powerful agent in preserving the status quo, which many experience as oppressive and dehumanizing.  This tendency has been noted by many educators especially in the southern world.   Freire suggests a new form of education, the “problem-posing” concept, which is dialogical in nature, whereby both teacher and student become partners on the journey of searching for the truth.  The importance to theological scholarship and education of this dialogical approach to education is that it not only promises an atmosphere of creativity, but is also a way of leading oppressed people to liberation.

Dialogue is also essential to the way the various contextual theologies are to inter-act with each other.  The unity we share in Christ does not mean the acceptance of any one particular theological expression as being universally definitive, nor does it mean a disregard of each other's witness and theology.  Therefore, the dialogical process should concentrate not only on the one Gospel, but also on the ways its truth is being expressed in different contexts and with a range of cultural resources. 



After affirming the contextual nature of theology, and taking account of the indispensable nature of dialogue to the theological task, let us now turn to the inescapable question:  Wherein does the unity of christian theology reside?  Even the very term “globalization” can imply another form of domination which would endanger the autonomy of the various contextual theologies. 

However, for theology to seek for a coherent, ecumenical, global perspective requires the recognition that christian theology, no matter how many and varied be its expressions, must have a common point of reference, a unifying element within all forms of theological scholarship and research.  We should, therefore, focus upon the issue of unity in both general terms and in the specific ecclesiological use of the term as the on-going search to restore the given unity of the Church.  This includes consideration of the unifying and saving nature of the Christ event, continually re-enacted through his Body, the Church, in the life-giving and communion-restoring Holy Spirit.  After all, theological education is a worldwide enterprise fundamental to the mission of the Church.

Thus theology, both as the conscience of the living community and one of the fundamental tasks of the community is inextricably related to the Church. By understanding the Church, not in institutional terms but as koinonia, as the people of God called to witness to God's restoring presence, then the nature of the theological enterprise needs to be restructured.  In particular, theological scholarship and research should be directed in such a way as to educate not only Church leaders but the entire people of God.  The prime purpose of theological education is not to educate pastors, priests or missionaries - in other world professionals - in order that they may preserve and propagate certain christian truths and ethical norms, but to build authentic christian communities, proleptic manifestations of the kingdom of God.  In this way, theological scholarship is conditioned by the nature of the Church with its unity given as gift and demand by God.

This given unity of the Church, which does not necessarily mean a strict unified structure, is given expression in an adherence to a broad understanding of christian tradition.  Such  an understanding affirms not only the centrality of Christology, but also the constituitive nature of Pneumatology, i.e. the normative nature of a trinitarian understanding of christian revelation.  This trinitarian understanding affirms the ultimate goal of the divine economy, not only in terms of Christ becoming all in all both in an anthropological, i.e. soteriological, and in a cosmological way, but also in terms of the Holy Spirit constituting authentic communion and restoring the union of all. 

The communion God seeks and initiates is not only with the Church in the conventional sense, but with the whole cosmos.  Thus the unity of divine revelation, as represented in the broad understanding of christian tradition, is for the entire created world, not only for believers. This understanding of unity is important to keep in mind as it challenges a potential distortion wherein unity is identified with the maintenance of denominational loyalty, which in turn can be an exercise of oppression, excluding suffering people from the community of the people of God.

This understanding of unity in theological scholarship informs and challenges all expressions of contextual theology. It does not locate the unity inherent within christian theology with any ecclesiastical or doctrinal system, and recognizes the varied forms of human and social existence.  In this way, it is congruent with the methodologies and goals of contextual theology.  However, it also challenges these theologies in pointing out the indispensability of an adherence to a broad understanding and acceptance of christian tradition as that which gives expression to the given unity of the Church.



After identifying the above three necessary component of contemporary theological scholarship, let us discuss the impact of these upon the methods of scholarly research. Are there common levels or approaches that transcend the diverse contexts in which such scholarship occurs?  It is universaly recognized that one standard approach is been that of the critical method, with its varied modes of analysis, critique, evaluation and historical reference. It is acknowledged that critical inquiry is a necessary dimension of searching for excellence in theological scholarship.

It constitutes the rigorous evaluation of the sources of theology and of the ways they have been transmitted within the variety of historical contexts.  It also involves being critically aware of the forces, intellectual, social, cultural, political and religious, that shape the nature of one's perspectives and presuppositions by which one interprets the received tradition.  It is important for this critical inquiry to incorporate the subtle nuances of context within its approach and methodology.  Critical inquiry must be accountable to the context and thereby assist in enriching one's experience and understanding of the context.  This in turn requires such critical inquiry to be conducted in a dialogical manner, incorporating a partnership with one's community and carried out in concert with many disciplines.

a. Beyond  the rational and historical forms of scholarhip. This approach recognizes many forms of critical inquiry.  The effects of contextualization and dialogue means the expansion of critical inquiry beyond the rational, historical forms, dominant in most northern theologies.  For there are ways of knowing that are outside the commonly accepted forms of critical understanding.  These include the importance of intuitive, artistic and emotive sources of theological understanding.  While these forms must discover means of critical or communal accountability, excellence in theological scholarship must seriously consider such meanings as admissible, indeed desirable.

b. The scholarship of praxis. Thus the importance of the scholarship of praxis comes to the fore. As mentioned before, this scholarship of praxis not only incorporates the theoretical issues of theology into its method, but also those '“texts” of Church practice and the impact of the material conditions of the particular context.  A scholarship of praxis embraces both an integrative approach to theological work by incorporating the non-rational elements of understanding, and the goal of personal and social transformation which is at the heart of the christian message.  The liturgical dimension, which is so important - at least in theory - in the Orthodox Church, is an important element for consideration. This form of integration of theological method and its responsiveness to the context can contribute to a new unity of theological scholarship and research.  For it can forge new directions in understanding how the redemptive work of God is inextricably linked to the witness of the Church to the ultimate goal of the communion of the whole cosmos in the Triune God.



The changes suggested above in theological scholarship and research will have considerable impact upon ministerial formation.  Many theological institutions are giving attention to this issue and a significant amount of literature is available in many regions of the world.  In this respect a number of questions should be raised :

a. The role of ministerial formation in Theological Education. Is ministerial formation a by-product of theological scholarship and research?  Or, does the goal of ministerial formation play a significant role in defining excellence of theological scholarship and education?  The strong emphases put upon the purpose of theological education as being for the whole people of God, and upon the scholarship of praxis, allows ministerial formation to contribute to excellence of theological scholarship. However, these emphases also challenge any restriction of theological education to any one group within the Church.

b. The importance of spiritual formation.  The importance of spiritual formation in both ministerial formation and in theological education is to be noted.  Recognition is to be given to the crucial importance of the Liturgy in some christian traditions.  In these traditions, the liturgy provides a significant means of overcoming the breakdown in confidence between scholarship and the Church which has been caused, to a large degree, by the fragmentation of theology into autonomous disciplines.  The liturgy can provide a means of ensuring a holistic soteriological and ecclesiological understanding of theological education and scholarship.

c. Theological education and Society. The nature of contextual theology, with its focus upon the concrete situations of the particular society means that ministerial formation cannot be pursued without those involved in such formation being in a significant and interactive relationship with their society.  This could entail a greater involvement by ministerial students in the socio-political life of their society.




In the light of the approaches to theological scholarship and research outlined above, a number of emerging issues  demand attention.  These issues are global in their impact, impinge upon most particular societies, and are of central importance to contemporary theological scholarship and research.

a. Human rights, especially the rights of women;

b. Economies of countries vis-a-vis the Divine economy, with special consideration to levels of international debt;

c. The growth of materialism and the consequent marginalization of

   religious values;

d. Increasing ethnic and religious conflict;

e. AIDS epidemic;

f. The spread of arms and the incidence of war;

g. Issues associated with the fullness and future of human life and human communities.

(Needeless to say that the list is indicative and by no means complete).


Our ERASMUS Inter-university Co-operation Project in “Theology”, the only one existing in Europe with a trully ecumenical perspective and purpose, and WOCATI on a global level, can provide the appropriate environment to foster ways in which theologians can pursue the import of these issues, both by developing coherent, ecumenical, global perspectives on the significance of these issues to theology, and by being informed and challenged by theologians from other contexts.




Ladies and gentlemen.

There is a growing awareness among ourselves that the classical approach to theology is in a certain crisis, or at least had run its course. Ever since the beginnings of medieval scholasticism, and even after the Enlightenment, theology was defined as a discipline which used the methods of the Aristotelian logics. Rational knowledge was the only legitimate form of knowledge. Theological education, thus, gradually shifted away from its eucharistic/liturgical framework i.e. away from its ecclesial, community, local context. The rational understanding of God and humanity had in fact led to a knowledge-centered and mission-oriented theological education. Most Theological Institutions in Europe, but also worldwide, have been structured in such a way as to educate  Church ‘leaders’, not the entire people of God, pastors or missionaries to preserve and propagate certain christian truths or ethical norms, not to build up local eucharistic communities. They lost, in other words, the community-centered and liturgically/eschatologically-oriented dimension of theological education. It is in our hands to develope a new understanding of our task, which is after all in accord with our common christian tradition.


[1]K. Raiser, Ecumenism in Transition. A Paradigm Shift in the Ecumenical Movement, WCC Publications Geneva 1991 (translated with modifications from the Germen original Ökumene im Übergang, C.Kaiser Verlag München 1989).