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