(Reprinted with permission from Theological Studies. Review by T. Howard Sanks S.J.)

W. Clark Gilpin’s A Preface to Theology is really a history of Protestant theological education in the United States from 1720 to the present. Gilpin is particularly attentive to the social context in which theological education has taken place. He terms it “the American circumstance,” namely, “the transition from theology done in the context of nationally established churches to theology done in the context of religious pluralism and the separation of church and state.”

In the period 1720-1830, the most common method of theological education was a ministerial apprenticeship, known as “reading divinity.” This could be haphazard and isolated, however, and so the first institution for theological education, Andover Seminary, was founded in 1808 by the Congregationalists. By the mid-1820s some fifteen other seminaries representing Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Reformed had been established.

From the beginning, these schools were perceived as having a double role in society—as purveyors of a religious tradition and as institutions of innovation, free inquiry, and reform. These dual expectations generated tensions between the schools and their various constituencies. The tensions became even more acute with the emergence of the modern American research university in the latter part of the nineteenth century, when theology became another graduate department whose purpose was not only ministerial education but the extension of knowledge by original research.

Gilpin suggests that the historic tensions in theological education continue today because of the shifting relationships among theology’s three publics: church, academy, and society. This is reflected in the current discussion about the public character of theology. This volume provides no answers but helps put these current debates in a larger historical perspective.

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