Book | To Understand God Truly by David Kelsey

To Understand God TrulyKelsey, David H. To Understand God Truly: What’s Theological About a Theological School. 1st ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.

An Appreciative Response to David Kelsey’s book To Understand God Truly | by Steve Thomason | A Term Paper Presented to Professor Patrick Kiefert | Luther Seminary | As a Requirement in Course ST8475 The Congregation | St. Paul, Minnesota | 2013

 Author and Occasion

kelseyDavid H. Kelsey was a professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School when this book was written in 1992. The book—To Understand God Truly: What’s Theological About a Theological School—was born out of ongoing conversations with Kelsey’s colleagues who sat on the Issues Research Advisory Committee of the Association of Theological Schools regarding the reformation of Theological Education.

A Brief Summary

Kelsey presents a utopian proposal for how a Theological School could be truly theological. His central premise is clearly and repeatedly stated throughout the text:  “the overarching goal of a Christian theological school is to understand God more truly by way of study of the Christian thing in and as Christian congregations.” This is set in contrast to the state of typical contemporary theological schools which err on one of two sides of a continuum. On the one side is the school in the tradition of Athens. The ancient Athenian tradition, embraced by the early church fathers, extols sapientia and focuses on the formation of the individual student into deeper levels of introspective wisdom. On the other side is the school in the tradition of Berlin. This school extols scientia and focuses on reason as the highest value and form of knowledge. Schleiermacher created this proposal in the early nineteenth century as a way to validate theological education within the Enlightenment milieu. Schleiermacher proposed that theological education exists to train professionals for the skills needed to carry out the service of a necessary function in society, namely church leadership. The theological school which Kelsey proposes sits as a crossroads hamlet in the dialectic tension between Athens and Berlin.

His argument is built upon some key assumptions. First, he states that God cannot be known directly, but can only be known through the direct study of secondary things that lead to the understanding of God.[1] Second, to understand something is to develop a habitus that leads one to the appropriate capacities to act in relation to the thing being understood.[2] Third, there is no such thing as an essential or abstract knowledge of any thing. All knowledge or understanding occurs only in the concrete particulars. Fourth, there is no such thing as a universal essence of Christianity. There are only plural responses to the odd ways that God has been and promises to be present in the world. Christianity is the plurality of the Christian thing, manifest in four basic ways of knowing God: contemplation, discursive reasoning, affections, and action.

Kelsey’s argument has two loci. The first is the congregation and the second is the theological school.  The theological school pursues its goal to understand God truly by working about, against, and for the particular congregation.[3] He defines the local congregation to be

a group of persons that gathers together to enact publicly a much more broadly practiced worship of God in Jesus’ name, regularly enough over an indefinite period of time to have a common life in which develop intrinsic patterns of conduct, outlook, and story, and that holds its conduct, outlook, and story accountable as to its faithfulness to biblical stories of Jesus’ mission and God’s mission in Jesus.[4]

Congregations are self-defining, self-critical, public, practiced worship which exist in social spaces and forms. Each particular congregation may lie on the road to Geneva (Reformed Tradition), the road to Trent (Roman Catholic Tradition), the road to Azusa (Pentecostal Tradition), the road to Augsburg (Lutheran Tradition), to name a few, but it is not merely a variation of the larger essence called Christianity. Rather, it is a particular and concrete lens through which the theological school can seek to understand God truly.

The theological school is also a concrete particularity that is comprised of persons who form a set of practices designed to pursue the theological goal. These schools have their own unique social location and require physical means and polity to sustain them. Kelsey proposes that the theological school should form its curriculum around the goal of understanding God in and as local congregation through three theological forms and their corresponding questions. The first is constructive theology that asks, “what is it?” The second is critical/practical theology that asks, “Is it faithful to what it claims to be?” The third is apologetic theology that asks, “Is it true?” The pursuit of these questions will require the application of multiple academic disciplines, e.g. sociology, historiography, ethnography, psychology, etc. However, these academic disciplines are not an end in themselves, but serve as tools to assist in the theological task of seeking to understand God in and as the local congregation.

Theological schools run into trouble when they see themselves as institutions that exist solely on one side of the Athens – Berlin spectrum. The Athens school seeks to develop deep individuals, as if the theologian could pursue God as an inward journey toward an abstract ideal. The Berlin school seeks to develop trained professionals adept in either the skills of academic discipline for the sake of academic discipline, or as professionals adept in the skills needed to lead the local church, e.g. leadership, preaching, pastoral counseling. Both of these pursuits are definitely involved in theological education, but they can never be the goal. It is only when the theological school sets it goal to understand God truly in and as the local congregation and utilizes and evaluates all of its academic practices toward that goal, in the comparative particularities of the plurality of God manifest in congregations, that it will ever produce fully formed and adequately skilled ministers and leaders for the church. Anything other than this would not be theological. The theological school is not the church, but stands in relation about, against, and for the church, so that the church may be kept accountable to the purpose of being the church and the theological school may have the lens through which to know God truly.

To Understand God Truly

An Appreciative Response

I was encouraged and inspired by this book. It did, however raise two questions for me. The first question has to due with the scope of Kelsey’s imagination. Is it correct to pose only Athens and Berlin in dialectical tension? Is this not merely a Western European story? Are there not Jewish Rabbinical school traditions? African? Asian? The plurality of God and the tension of pedagogical paradigms surely extends into these horizons as well. How, then, would this broadened dialectical tension change the shape of Kelsey’s argument?

Secondly, does Kelsey go far enough with his utopian proposal? His proposal does dramatically reconfigure the theological curriculum from what is normally found in so-called theological schools today. However, his school is still physically and socially located as an institution. Does this not perpetuate the institutional problems of high cost and the temptation for self-preservation? Is it possible, if indeed theological education is about, against, and for the local congregation, to also imagine a way in which the theological school could physically exist within the local congregations as a network of organic intellectuals pursuing the goal of understanding God in and as the local congregation? What might this utopian vision look like?


[1] David H. Kelsey, To Understand God Truly: What’s Theological About a Theological School, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 31.

[2] Ibid.,  124-129.

[3] Ibid.,  164.

[4] Ibid.,  137.