Adding It All Up

McPhersonCollar13An Integrated Curriculum is the Core of The Way of Wisdom

The Rev. Dr. Clair McPherson
Professor of Ascetical Theology

“I enjoyed my various courses at General, but I could never see how they added up.”

That may well be the most common negative comment GTS graduates tend to make. Even the very best students have said that, while they found courses interesting and seminary life rewarding, the curriculum simply did not seem to cohere, except sporadically and unintentionally.

The graduate school-academic-scholarly model, which has until very recently provided the primary paradigm for seminary education, is partially responsible for this. In this paradigm, each discipline or, as we tellingly label them, “academic specialization,” has seemed a discreet field of inquiry, hermetically sealed and, essentially, abstract. (One eminent professor at General once scoffed at the idea that anything he taught in the classroom might have anything to do with what was said in Chapel.)

This perpetuates the ivory tower liability that gives academia in general, and seminary education in particular, its unsavory flavor for the general public, and also the sense of cognitive confusion that makes so many seminarians feel that they are wasting their time, even when they are academically successful.

An integrated curriculum is, in the first place, a pragmatic response to that weakness. Systematics, liturgics, spirituality, history, scripture, music, ethics, homiletics, and pastoral care will increasingly appear to be integral parts of a theological whole, rather than discreet islands of specialized interest.

Theology, we believe, is the obvious and fundamental unifying principle. The various professorial chairs at GTS are all labeled chairs of this or that branch of theology: moral theology, liturgical theology, biblical theology, ascetical theology, historical theology. Theology is, in this understanding, not only the systematic study of revealed truth, but also the study of the ways God is praised, served, apprehended and loved through all the traditional areas of study. In the sense in which the Cappadocians used the word, every one of us is a theologian because we seek to lead a God-ward life: the one who prays, says Evagrios of Pontos, is a theologian, and a theologian is one who prays.

At the practical level, this means that we shall plan, and teach, within the awareness of one another’s syllabi, and that we shall deliberately highlight ideas, themes, topics, facts, and visions shared among our disciplines. For (an arbitrary and fictional, but entirely possible) example, we might deliberately schedule a study of sin, in Systematics, during Lent, echoed by a study of the sacrament of reconciliation in Liturgics, of penance in Ascetical Theology, of early medieval devotion in Church History, and in New Testament, the study of the Letter to the Hebrews, and the Levitical sacrificial system in Old Testament.

Beyond that, it is our conviction that emphasis on an integrated curriculum can reveal a synoptic vision within the faculty that has been there in potentia but never before realized. Many members of the faculty share such a vision already, and the encouragement of this common vision can be a source of tremendous and unprecedented strength.

And as far as our liturgical life in Chapel is concerned, not only is it connected to what happens in class, it is the first place classroom work can be tried and tested. Chapel is where we speak and listen to the God revealed to us in Scripture and study.


News Quarterly Summer 14_CoverThis article originally appeared in GTS News Quarterly, Summer 2014, The Way of Wisdom issue. To read all articles from General Seminary about The Way of Wisdom, go to