Discerning the Mind of Christ in a Pluralistic World: Theological Education in a New Environment

Just a few days before his death, the great Lutheran theologian of the past generation Paul Tillich is reported to have confessed that if he had the opportunity to rewrite his three-volume Systematic Theology, he would widely engage world religions in that project. This was due to his brief exposure at the end of his life to forms of Japanese Buddhism as well as influence from his famed Romanian religious studies colleague Mircea Eliade. The recent ecumenical document-in-the-making “Religious Plurality and Christian Self-Understanding” reminds us of the most prominent challenge the Christian church faces in the beginning of the third millennium:

Today Christians in almost all parts of the world live in religiously plural societies. Persistent plurality and its impact on their daily lives are forcing them to seek new and adequate ways of understanding and relating to peoples of other religious traditions. . . . All religious communities are being reshaped by new encounters and relationships. . . . There is greater awareness of the interdependence of human life, and of the need to collaborate across religious barriers in dealing with the pressing problems of the world. All religious traditions, therefore, are challenged to contribute to the emergence of a global community that would live in mutual respect and peace.1

It is now obvious to us even in the American context—and the situation is even more urgent in most European settings—that Christian faith can no longer be taken as the religion of the land. According to recent polls, more than one-quarter of Americans have changed their faith allegiance or confess no faith. Both religious diversity and pervasive secularism have transformed American and European cultures in dramatic ways. In the Global South, religious diversity is taken for granted and is a matter of fact in many areas; secularism fares much more poorly there. Consequently, “We do our theology from now on in the midst of many others ‘who are not . . . of this fold.’ Our own faith, if only we are aware of it, is a constantly renewed decision, taken in the knowledge that other faiths are readily available to us.”2

What kind of theological education would best prepare men and women to discern the mind of Christ in this kind of diverse, pluralistic, heterogeneous environment? What are the virtues, attitudes, and practices that would facilitate the vision of those who wish to engage the manifold ministries of Christ in the third millennium? Are there any theological hints about how to best think of the pedagogical task in the ministerial setting?

Paul’s christological hymn in the second chapter of Philippians follows a curious order of discussion. Contrary to the typical post-Enlightenment “from theory to practice” intuition—which, indeed, is here and there evident in the Pauline correspondence, such as in the structure of Romans 1–11 (teaching) and 12–16 (exhortation)—the apostle first lists virtues and practices that embody a Christlike lifestyle of the faithful: unity, love, compassion, selflessness, humility, and so on. Only thereafter does he lift up Jesus Christ’s kenosis and sacrifice as the theological template. Obviously, the mind of Christ (v. 5), standing in the middle of the passage, has to do with both ends, so to speak: teaching and exhortation, belief and lifestyle, theory and practice. Let us imagine a diverse, dynamic, and multifarious vision of theological education in service of a similar ethos of ministry in our pluralistic world.

In a highly acclaimed and programmatic work titled Between Athens and Berlin: The Theological Debate,3 David H. Kelsey of Yale University outlines the underlying epistemology and theology of theological education using two cities as paradigms. “Athens” refers to the goals and methods of theological education that are derived from classical Greek philosophical educational methodology, paideia. The early church adopted and adapted this model. The primary goal of this form of education is the transformation of the individual. It is about character formation and learning—the ultimate goal of which is the knowledge of God rather than merely knowing about God. Being crafted, as it were, into the daily following of Christ, rather than mere book wisdom, was the goal of Christian adaptation of the “Athens” originally secular pedagogical vision. Personal development and spiritual formation stood at the forefront.

The second pole of Kelsey’s typology, “Berlin,” is based on the Enlightenment epistemology and ideals, which of course remind us of the (German) Enlightenment’s radically different vision. Whereas the classical model of “Athens” accepted the sacred texts as revelation containing the wisdom of God and not simply knowledge about God, in the “Berlin” model, critical reasoning and rational enquiry reign. The ultimate goal of theological training is no longer personal formation based on the study of authoritative texts. Rather, it aims at training people in intellectual affairs.

Are we left with these two models of paideia? Are they enough to equip theological students for the pluralistic world? Hardly. Elsewhere I have suggested that two other models could be added to the menu. Former Fuller faculty member Robert Banks’s “Jerusalem” model refers to the missionary impulse of the Christian church in its desire to spread the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). In an important work titled Revisioning Theological Education, Banks argues that if Martin Kähler’s classic dictum “Mission is the Mother of Theology” is true, it means theology should be missional in orientation.

The ultimate goal and context of theological education should thus be missional, which, at the end of the day, fosters and energizes the church’s mission. It is, however, more than what is usually taken as “missiological” education as in the training of foreign missionaries: It is about theological education building the “foundation,” which is the mission of the church in all aspects of the church’s life and work. It is nothing less than “mission beyond the mission” to quote our own community’s motto. This missional orientation is of course in keeping with the current ecclesiological conviction according to which mission is not just one task given to the church among other tasks such as teaching or children’s work, but that the church is missional by its very nature, and thus, everything the church does derives from its missional nature.

Yet one further model can be added to complement, enrich, and challenge the theology of theological education. Named “Geneva” after the great center of the Reformation, this approach to theological education cherishes a confessional approach. It seeks to help students know God through the study of the creeds and the confessions, as well as the means of grace. Formation is focused on the living traditions of the community. “Formation occurs through in-formation about the tradition and en-culturation within it.”4

J. Moltmann illustration by D. Klitsie

As the German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann aptly puts it, a theologian only “merits dialogue” who is convinced of the truthfulness of a certain belief and deems it worth sharing with others.


Jürgen Moltmann (1926–) is a German Reformed theologian and professor emeritus of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen, Germany. He is most noted as a proponent of his “theology of hope”—based on the view that God suffers with humanity and yet promises hope through the resurrection. He has greatly influenced a number of areas of theology, primarily liberation theology.

But, to begin with the last, isn’t the confessional model the least relevant of the four in a pluralistic world? Shouldn’t one rather downplay any particular confessional standpoint in order to make room for diversity? Not necessarily—unless one wishes to go with what I call the “first-generation pluralism” that presupposes the similarity of all traditions as the condition for dialogue. Aiming at dialogue from that kind of modernist standpoint, however, is a contradiction in terms. Why dialogue when it has been established beforehand that differences and distinctive features do not matter? A dialogue only matters if it not only bears with but also facilitates genuine differences of convictions and unique testimonies. As the German Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann aptly puts it, a theologian only “merits dialogue” who is convinced of the truthfulness of a certain belief and deems it worth sharing with others. This has nothing to do with militant defeat of “the other” but rather with the desire to share a gift—a treasure! That kind of confessionally based, truthful dialogue also makes room for the other to be other. A powerful metaphor of this kind of encounter is that of “hospitality,” a concept well represented in the biblical canon as well as in various cultures. The above-cited ecumenical document “Religious Plurality and Christian Self-Understanding” reminds us that “in the New Testament, the incarnation of the Word of God is spoken of by St. Paul in terms of hospitality and of a life turned towards the ‘other’” (Phil 2:6–8).5 Borrowing from the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, we can make the term “other” a verb to remind us of the importance of not seeing the religious other as a counter-object but rather “the risky, demanding, dynamic process of relating to one that is not us.”6

Only the minister who is well established in his or her own tradition can learn how best to navigate a religiously plural and diverse environment—particularly when the rootage in tradition takes place in a community of faith that embraces the tradition and also gracefully critiques and revisions it. Personal development, character formation, and Christlike attitudes, cultivated by the patristic Athens model, offer great aid in that lifelong process. It is significant that for the first millennia or so the theologians of the church were bishops, evangelists, pastors, and other church leaders. Their theology emerged from and was shaped by daily practices of the community. To those theologians, the Jerusalem model’s missional orientation was taken for granted. Liturgy, worship, prayer life, and sharing in spiritual exercises was missionally oriented, particularly before the Christendom establishment arose, but to various degrees also thereafter.

However, we live in a different kind of world in the post-Enlightenment pluralistic society. There is no harking back to homogenous culture, shared values, and shared presuppositions. As a result, the Berlin model’s robust emphasis on critical thinking, analytic assessment, and questioning of all “foundations”—as unsatisfactory and reductionist as it is in itself when made the sole source of theological training of ministers, as it tends to be in too many “secular” university-based theological faculties—provides a necessary asset to ministerial cultivation. The highest-level theological education for the third millennium has to be mature enough to live in the sometimes painful dynamic tension between affirming tradition and questioning its presuppositions, embracing the biblical authority and challenging our deepest hermeneutical assumptions, as well as retrieving the ancient sources and applying to their study the most recent critical tools. Religious plurality, along with philosophical, cultural, and ethnic diversity, is a highly complex and complicated phenomenon. To penetrate its intricacies in order to discern the mind of Christ takes the best intellectual, spiritual, and theological powers. Theological education for the pluralistic world had better draw its resources from all of these cities—and beyond. Perhaps then our students are ready for a deeply missional dialogue/dialogical mission in this complex world of ours:

Dialogue is a basic way of life because Christians share life and contexts with neighbours of other faiths. This implies that they establish dialogical relations so that there is hope of mutual understanding and fruitful co-existence in multi-religious and pluralistic societies.

. . . Dialogue is no [sic] a substitute for mission or a hidden form of mission. Mission and dialogue are not identical, neither are they so opposed to one another. One can be committed to dialogue and to Christian witness at the same time.7

1. “Religious Plurality and Christian Self-Understanding,” #2, 3, World Council of Churches Ninth Assembly (Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2006, February 14-23), http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/assembly/porto-alegre-2006/3-preparatory-and-background-documents/religious-plurality-and-christian-self-understanding.html.
2. Douglas John Hall, Thinking the Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 209.
3. David H. Kelsey, Between Athens and Berlin: The Theological Debate (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011).
4. Brian Edgar, “The Theology of Theological Education,” Evangelical Review of Theology 29, no. 3 (2005): 211.
5. “Religious Plurality and Christian Self-Understanding,” #27.
6. Walter Brueggemann, The Covenanted Self: Explorations in Law and Covenant (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1999), 1.
7. “Theme Two: Christian Mission among Other Faiths,” in Edinburgh 2010, vol. 2: Witnessing to Christ Today, ed. Daryl Balia and Kirsteen Kim (Oxford, UK: Regnum, 2010), 47.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2013, “Have This Mind Among You: Philippians 2:1–11.”