Religion and the Academy, Theology

Theology as Science in Russia and the German Model

Published on: October 20, 2017
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“The Moscow University was founded on the same principles as all German universities” – so says a Russian report from the early 1770s. Because no Russian professors were available, “no theological faculty was established […] That said, it would be beneficial to establish such a faculty for the training of the clergy” – so states the report.

Both the statement that theological faculties are necessary and the reference to “German universities” are still relevant today. Nowadays, we observe controversial discussions around this question in Russia.

There is a wide spectrum of positions here: “hard positivists” (“all the humanities are basically not science”), “moderate positivists” (“theology is, in contrast to the other humanities, not a science because of its denominational limitation”), “religiously-interested positivists” and “religious scholars” (who deny the scientific nature of theology because of its subjective character), neutral to benevolent “observers” and theological autodidacts (representatives of humanities dealing in theological issues), and lastly, the representatives of the Church (the “positivists” call them “clericalists”).

One of the central points of the discussion is: what would theology do at a university that is not already done by the other humanities? The vast majority of the advocates of theology at the university argue, among other things, that theology would “enrich” the university thanks to establishment of chairs for theology in all faculties (!). Do they consider theology to be a science with a special status?

The Church representatives refer to theology as “a church science” and talk of “spiritual experience” as a precondition for the study of theology. This confirms in the eyes of the “positivists” and “religious scholars” their doubts as to the scientific character of theology: “Experience” and the authority of the Church run contrary to any claims to objectivity.

There are, obviously, a whole series of issues that are not being discussed: Whether theology would benefit from contact with other sciences? What would be the concrete concept of theology? All participants in the discussion appear to assume that theology as it is today taught in the clerical seminars and academies would simply shift to the university.

Russian theologians often look to German theological faculties at state universities. I investigated the German model.[1] The situation there can be summarized as follows:

The legitimacy of theology in German universities is also in a constant state of justification. The result of the controversial discussion of the late 2000s until 2010 was published in the German Science Council report “Recommendations for the development of theology and religion-related sciences” (29 January 2010, 169 pp.). It contains considerations in favor of the continued presence of theology as a university discipline, a short history of theology at German universities, statistics and trends over the past 50 years, as well as a bibliography. The central point is that the “religious communities” and state work together – through contractual relations –  because education is their “common concern”. All parties have a vested interest in maintaining the presence of theology at the university.

The state has an interest to make the “religious orientations of the citizens” fruitful for ” stability”; the “differentiated expressions of moral sentiments” are important also in a secular society. At the university “the religious communities are faced with the task to continually reinterpret their faith under ever-changing conditions.” Thus “tendencies towards fundamentalism” can be countered.

The Churches have an interest in integrating religious orientations in the general social process of accommodation. Here a “translation” of the main religious ideas of the Christian faith takes place based on scientific methods and in categories understandable to the modern world. At the university, theology is forced to interact with other disciplines at eye level, which ensures that theology maintains high academic standards. Theology forces the other sciences to remain aware of the limits of scientific (“positivist”) interpretations of humanity and the world.

The following issues appear central in the German model:

What religion is, is determined in Germany by each religious community for itself. The state is neutral, only creating conditions for religious education. The financing of theological faculties by the state is not regarded as the financing of the Church. Theology is here not considered to be an extension of the Church. (For most Russian advocates of theology at the university, theology is seen so; the presence of theology at the university would in Russia mean the permanent presence of the Church.) The state pays for the science, not for the Church. Both the state and society benefit from an “enlightened” theology.

The scientific nature of theology is to be seen in the fact that the foundations of faith are examined in a rational discourse, including the use of transparent methods. The scientific character of theology is regarded not to be affected: a) by the denominational character of theology; b) by the search for truth (law and philosophy also work with theories of truth); c) by the personal religiosity of students and professors.

The question of the value of theology in comparison to religious studies and philosophy is answered with reference to the internal perspective of theology.

Theology profits from its presence at the university, because there it has academic freedom that protects it from Church limitations (sic!). A science that considers itself “ecclesiastical” ceases to be “science.”

Theology sees itself as only one of many disciplines and as one of many possible interpreters of the human condition.

German theology is marked by its interest in the human being. This subject is a hub, or a “hinge” of a dialogue with the natural sciences and with the world. This dialogue takes place in the language of philosophy which plays an immense role in Protestant and Catholic theology in Germany.

The concept of theology as science has not yet taken shape in Russia. The German model has once again been seen as a possible model, but it contains some elements (most notably its independence from the Church) which are unknown, alien and even unthinkable for the Russian Orthodox. Making reference to “the Germans,” Orthodox theologians in Russia should be aware that this leads to the necessity of a revision of goals, methods and subjects of theology, as well as of the role of the Church authority.


The full version of this article (with footnotes) is published in Christianskoye chteniye 3 / 2017, pp. 91-103.

[1] Four interviews s.: Bogosloviye v universitete: germanskiy case, in: Gosudarstvo, religiya, cerkov‘ v Rossii i zarubezhom, 34 (2016), 241-298. One interview s.: www.pravmir.ru/yoahim-villems-na-vse-neudobnyie-voprosyi-o-religii-est-otvetyi, October 20th 2016.

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