Systematics and curricular sequencing, 1

We cannot teach dogmatics if we do not teach certain other things first. I've been on about thinking theologically, but we also do many other things in the formation of a pastoral candidate, which are necessary. Balancing all of the needs of a seminary curriculum has become one of my new hobbies, and people keep throwing balls (and clubs and knives and rings) into the mix. It's good to have friends to help you juggle!

We teach the history sequence as H1, H2, Confessions, with H2 as an oft-delayed course seniors return to. The history sequence, at least in part, precedes the systematic sequence of S1, S2 and as seniors a (re)Constructive theology. If you take it with the right professor, you will get the patristic and reformation dogmatic backdrop as history before you get it in the systematic doctrine surveys. (Which is what S1 and S2 are, just as much as H1 and H2 are history survey, whatever periods and areas they may cover under different instructors.) We teach ethics as an optional sequence, one basic class and the second 300-level class, both elective and competing with other optional sequences to provide that one required extra area course. All of which is of course paralleled to the ongoing ministry formation sequence.

You can tell my concern is with the instruction in systematics, by and large, but how we teach systematics depends on a great deal of formation of the student as theologian. Here, we place history and confessions prior to systematics, which fits with our presentation of the content of systematic theology. This design is telling when it comes to what we think theology is. We aim to build a foundation of early historical (especially creedal/conciliar) and polity-dogmatic (especially creedal/confessional) understanding on which the heavier (and later) bits of dogma can rest in order. And practice comes higher up the edifice, built on doctrine (except ministry practice, which we're training them in by immersion as a "learn by doing" task). Ethics as practice only arrives as warnings, especially about sex and power. Which we surely require, but perhaps if we built basic ethical practice into the beginning, we'd have fewer needs to use the clue-by-four on the back end.

So much is affected by the fact that internship is the third year, and that the fourth year is cleanup and supplement. We have two years in which to generate solid formation usable by the students in their practica. Not all of the things that should come before internship can come before it. The necessity is for building an extensible structure, a framework that is easy to fill by a student who wants to fill it and to whom the content has been made accessible. Modular education design. This has a major impact on sequencing, especially when compared with curricular design that presumes it can fit everything in a linear fashion into two years of instruction.

There are ways the problem set mirrors processor architecture and cluster computing. We teach long-pipeline, in-order execution and attempt to fill up everyone's caches with properly-sequenced data. When system architecture and load-handling match, this is great. We can even tolerate a few cache misses, and do small-scale resequencing to compensate. But the truth of this design is that it only works well in monocultures. You can't blame reality on the second-career folks either -- the fact is that educational populations have never been monocultures, and we've just been weeding out those whose learning architectures don't match our instructional architectures, and doing so for a very long time. You adapt to the professor or suffer. Perhaps the solution set also participates in this analogy.


  1. The problem is complicated further by the question of how/where instruction in the Bible "fits" into an MDiv program; e.g., do biblical literacy and knowledge of interpretive approaches (not to mention an awareness of the theological diversity of biblical writings) support instruction in systematic theology and/or vice versa? Elsewhere you've identified another complication, i.e., significant differences in student "readiness" prior to the commencement of their seminary careers. We might add, too, the challenges faced by faculties whose time and energy are increasingly squeezed by the challenges of budget cuts and diminishing resources, as well as an academic culture (generally speaking) that tends to reward publication over teaching.

    - Former seminary prof

  2. As a hopeful future seminary prof, I appreciate the comment. I might even invert the problem with where the Bible fits to where systematic theology fits -- its place is by no means guaranteed, where the Bible certainly should be. I'm still in the early struggling phases with this set of problems -- while the academic culture and financial problems are nearly universal in higher ed, dealing with them while tailoring output for seminary ends complicates matters.

    Thank you for adding insight to my thoughts!


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