Lessons Learned Studying Theology in Europe

By Paul Silas Peterson

My dear old teacher Dr. Todd L. Miles, who is not very old at all, asked me to write something about my experience of studying theology in Europe. As a side note, I remember how Prof. Miles would always take time after class to discuss theological questions with me and other students. I learned a lot from these conversations and I am very thankful for this. I acquired an MA at Western Seminary in 2005, then moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, to earn an MTh degree. Later I moved to Tübingen, Germany, where I completed a Dr. Theol. degree. I now live in Germany and work at the theological faculties in Tübingen and Heidelberg.

I had a great experience in Edinburgh and Tübingen and learned a lot at these faculties. I especially enjoyed and continue to enjoy the academic rigor, the wide array of theological seminars, guest lectures, theological conferences and the endless discussion and debate.

When reflecting on my own experiences at Western Seminary and at the theological faculties in Edinburgh and Germany, I think that there are many things to praise about all of these institutions and that there is a lot that we can learn from one another. One of the things that is especially admirable at the German faculties is the excellent focus on learning the basics of theology, including the five major subjects of theology: Old Testament, New Testament, Church History, Systematic Theology and Practical Theology. A solid grounding in these subjects is an excellent preparation for the ministry. In Germany, students training for the ministry and doctoral students in theology are therefore required to take exams in Old Testament (with Hebrew translation), New Testament (with Greek translation), Church History (with Latin translation), Systematic Theology and Practical Theology.

Many theological faculties and seminaries across the English speaking world today are sadly eliminating the requirements of Hebrew and Greek. Of course, Latin has long been forgotten in the vast majority of the English speaking theological world. It is very encouraging that Western Seminary continues to focus on the Biblical languages. At Western, students in the classic Master of Divinity (M.Div.) expositional program, for example, are required to take four full courses in Biblical languages (OTS 508: Introducing the Foundation for Hebrew Exegesis; OTS 509: Hebrew Reading and Syntax; NTS 508: Introducing the Foundation of Greek Exegesis, and NTS 509: Greek Reading and Syntax). The same requirements apply for the Master of Arts (Biblical and Theological Studies) exegetical program.

As the architects of the curriculum at Western Seminary know, Hebrew and Greek are invaluable for studying theology. While the gospel can be translated into any language and simplified in a few words (“for God so loved the world…”), the full range of Christian theology can only be grasped with the help of Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Furthermore, when it comes to the history of Protestant theology and many contemporary debates in Protestant theology, the German language is also very important. Of course, other languages are also very important depending on the specialization.

By praising the German curriculum, and the magnificent libraries in Germany, I do not mean to encourage academic snobbery. That is something which should always be discouraged. I praise the German theological curriculum because it equips pastors and teachers for a life of effective service, be this in the church or in ecclesial institutions. Pastors and teachers are, after all, expected to bring out of their treasure things new and old.


Along with the languages, the strong emphasis on the history of doctrine and the history of the church is another praiseworthy element of the German theological curriculum which I have come to admire. This is also important in the English speaking world, but perhaps not to the same degree. In order to understand our own doctrinal positions and theological disputes, it is important to understand how we got here in the first place. For this, we need a strong grounding in the history of doctrine.

Besides the emphasis on the basics, another strong point of the German theological faculties is the sense of freedom. This is especially the case in departments of Systematic Theology in Germany. Something similar can also be found, of course, in the English speaking world. I benefited from precisely this method of teaching at Western Seminary as a student. In this approach, a student is introduced to the diversity of positions in theological issues in conversation with the Scriptures and the historical confessions. After presenting both the strong points and the weak points of various theological positions, and the various possibilities for interpretation, the teacher presents and defends his or her own position and invites the students to do the same. In Systematic Theology there is also a continual reflection on the truthfulness of theology as it is confirmed in the affections of the faithful, demonstrated through the internal and external coherence of the teachings, articulated in dialog with philosophy and the natural sciences and finally brought into application in the practical ministry of the church – which in turn raises new theological questions. Within this broad framework of Systematic Theology, one can rightly understand the Christian faith as a faith seeking understanding.

As the Holy Spirit leads the churches in different contexts to Jesus Christ in witness to and in service of the world which the Father loves, all Christians are invited to contribute to this work of the ministry. To be effective servants, we need both the theological basics and the freedom of the Spirit: For freedom we are set free. With the basics we are better equipped to use our freedom wisely and to respond to the different contexts in which we are working. In this regard, the emphasis on Practical Theology in the English speaking world and in Germany is truly exemplary. In all of these contexts there is a strong emphasis on understanding the church in the world, the components of a good church service, the methods of pastoral theology, effective Christian education, the essence of a good sermon, counseling and the ministry of the church in its social work. One of the strong points of the faculty in Edinburgh is the willingness to bring theology into conversation with many different disciplines and fields of research and study. These are also some examples of the practical application of theology. Western Seminary is similarly strong in this area in that it focuses resources on missiological research and counseling programs.

There is indeed much to learn from one another. One of the things that is strong across the English speaking world is the emphasis on communicating the faith in a practical way through information based faith courses. Some of these new introduction courses to the Christian faith in the congregational context are being discussed in some German churches and theological settings today. In these discussions, some of the ideas popular in the English language contexts are being closely analyzed, and in some cases modified and adopted. Just as there is a lively English language reception of German language theology, there is also a lively German language reception of English language theology. In the passage through the intercultural exchange, one which goes both ways, ideas and approaches are often modified or transformed as they are adapted to the specific context.

While the ministerial contexts are in some ways different in America and in Europe, there are many opportunities for exchange and collaboration in service of the larger purpose of Christian ministry. If we continue to encourage the exchange, we will continue to learn from one another. While there are many differences, and many good differences, there is also something that brings glory to God in the unity of the Spirit, indeed in the bond of peace. There is a deeper meaning of cooperation and exchange in this sense. It is called communion.

Paul Silas Peterson is an Academic Assistant at the Protestant Faculty of Theology of the University of Tübingen (Germany) and at the Theology Faculty of the University of Heidelberg (Germany). He teaches theology at both of these faculties and works with a team of people on the first edition of Cotton Mather’s Biblia Americana. He graduated from Western Seminary in 2005.

4 thoughts on “Lessons Learned Studying Theology in Europe

  1. Excellent post, Paul. We certainly do need both “the theological basics and the freedom of the Spirit.” Thank you for that reminder. Tim

  2. As a doctoral student at LMU Munich, I can relate with your insights in this post. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Awesome post with lots of information for all students those who are eager to learn in Europe. Thanks for sharing. I hope your experience should encourage other students.

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