Mastering Divinity

On graduation day I usually overhear M.Div. candidates joking around,
 asking one another “How does it feel to have mastered divinity?” It is
 a rather strange name for a degree, isn’t it? The arrogance to have
 claimed mastery over God! It seems to me that some clarification is in
 order, not to stop the jokes (keep ’em coming!), but to grasp the
 nature and purpose of a seminary education.

History has a demystifying effect. So let’s a do a little history. The
 medieval roots of a master’s degree are linked to the craft of
 teaching. One who is a “master” is a teacher, i.e., one who
 apprentices others in a craft. To have earned a master’s degree in a 
field is to have acquired sufficient mastery in a subject matter to be
 qualified to teach it others. So a master of divinity is one who is
 qualified to teach divinity to others.

But what is divinity? Obviously, it has something to do with God. But
 “divinity” is no synonym for “God.” It’s not a noun, but a form of the
 adjective “divine.” To master divinity is to be ready to teach divine
 things. One cannot master God! But one who has earned an M.Div.
 ought to have sufficiently mastered divine things to be able to guide
 others in them.

But what are these divine things? One way to think about it that 
I have found helpful was the way the discipline of divinity was organized by our seminary’s namesake. In a manner characteristic of his time, John Wesley spoke of three kinds of divinity: speculative, controversial, and practical. Speculative divinity pursues knowledge of God for his own sake. Controversial divinity engages the doctrinal differences between Christian traditions, taking a stand among them and arguing one’s case. Practical divinity consists in reflection on and instruction for the Christian life.

So, to the extent that this ordering befits the subject matter, a
 master of divinity should be ready to teach others concerning God, the
 Christian tradition, and the Christian life.

As one would guess, Wesley demonstrated a strong preference for the
third of these categories. He himself read and wrote in all three 
types of divinity. But the focus of his work was practical. When
 publishing a fifty volume Christian Library for training methodist
 leaders, both ministerial and lay, he explicitly selected only “the
 Choices Pieces of Practical Divinity.” So seminary education in the
 tradition of John Wesley fittingly accents the practical over the 
speculative and controversial.

Perhaps we could revise our conclusion, saying instead that a master of
 divinity should be ready to teach others to live the Christian life.

Not so fast! We must handle with care the Wesleyan commitment to the
 primacy of the practical. To be true to our school, we should fervently uphold this prioritizing principle. But we must understand what it means and entails.

First of all, practical divinity includes the study of Christian doctrine. Wesley did not reduce practical divinity to the “how to”
 of ministry. Many of the works included in his Christian Library would
 be classified as “theology” in today’s terms. Practical divinity is not simply the
 assemblage of ministerial skills. Wesley knew that ministry skills were best
 acquired through doing, not reading! And the point of these skills is to cultivate the inner life Christians in order to fuel their work of transforming the world. So his understanding of practical
 divinity included considerable reflection on the inner life. And he understood that such reflection requires the language of Christian
 doctrine, especially the doctrine of salvation. And so the practical
 includes the doctrinal.

Second, the primacy of practice permits a subordinate place for controversy. Despite his rightly celebrated “Catholic Spirit,” Wesley himself wrote many works of
 controversial divinity. In his mind, these works were not distractions from the practical, but defenses of the practical. Wesley took up his pen most often to debate doctrines that bear direct implications for the Christian life. He was especially diligent against antinomianism, i.e., doctrines that undermine the law of love. Furthermore, as his movement grew, Wesley increasingly felt the 
need to defend its distinctive doctrines and practices. After his
 death, the methodist movement became an independent constellation of
 traditions in need of the identity formation provided by rigorous
controversial divinity. This need was first met by Adam Clarke and
 Richard Watson. It then 
flourished in the nineteenth century heyday of methodist dogmatics. It then
 went underground during the twentieth century, when it was 
kept alive by the marginalized holiness churches. So the Wesleyan 
heritage of practical divinity permits a place for controversial divinity.

Third and finally, the 
primacy of the practical does not entail the rejection of the
 speculative. Wesley never turned his back on
 speculative divinity. He encouraged methodist preachers in training to
 read metaphysics and other “cultured” works. He himself engaged in
 much speculative reflection. A good number of his 
later sermons are dedicated to a contemplative exploration of the 
eternity, perfection, oneness, and triunity of God. Interestingly,
 these sermons appear later in his carefully organized collection of 
sermons. The practical matters of new birth, the law, sanctification, 
temptation, etc., always came first for Wesley. But he knew that the
 primacy of the practical does not entail the rejection of the
speculative!

So, taking our cues from our namesake, let us restate our conclusion one last time: a master of divinity should be ready first and foremost to teach
others to live the Christian life, but also to understand the Christian tradition and to know God himself.

This way of putting it asserts strongly the priority of
 practicality without diminishing the place of seeking knowledge of God 
for his own sake and the formation of identity in a Christian
 tradition. Let us never loose sight of the primacy of the practical!
 But let us be diligent to keep the practical substantively rooted in
 Christian doctrine and accompanied by deep contemplation and rigorous dialogue. May speculative and controversial divinity always be
 subordinated to, but never eliminated by, practical divinity!

Let’s keep the jokes going about the strange name of our degree. But
 let us also ask one another: Are you ready to teach others divine
 things? Are you ready to teach others to live the Christian life, to 
seek knowledge of God, and to be formed in the Christian tradition?
 Have you in fact mastered divinity?

John L. Drury

19 November 2012

  • BWhitesel

    Excellent encapsulation of the implications of a master of divinity. With your permission John, I will use this with my students. Thank you for stating it so well.

    • snrpstr1

      @BWhitesel – I TOTALLY agree, so much of my journey has been spent trying to ascertain what I’m supposed to expect from seminary. I will admit I only realized what I should/could expect since I have beeen at Wesley!