On its face, one of the most puzzling phenomena of the early years of confessional Lutheranism on our continent after the Old Lutheran migration to the states is the founding of a gymnasial education for pastors alone. The italicized words are important.
The Gymnasium, a type of education geared towards those who would be educated in Western high culture, is itself ultimately an inheritance of the Reformation and the Renaissance. The curriculum included The Greats, huge chunks of classical literature, and, of course, the ancient languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The system is still used today in Germanic Europe (by which I mean Germany and the Netherlands) for high-school-aged students as preparation for their university education in the faculty of the arts. From there, such students generally proceed onwards to teaching in the Gymnasia, to other professional studies such as medicine, law, theology, or to further education in the arts, such as an advanced degree in classics (klassische Philologie) or German literature (Germanistik), etc.
In the States and Canada, however, under pressures to provide the fledgling confessional Lutheran church here with a ministerium, and in a cultural context in which most of the Old Lutheran laity who migrated were tradesmen (my own ancestors who came in the first wave in 1838 were rope makers by trade from the Hansa-Stadt Stettin and environs, i.e., Kammin), it made sense, at least initially, to marshall the scarce resources of the Old Lutherans earmarked for education to educating their pastors (N.B.: it was frequently the case that school teachers were seminary graduates!). And so, using the old gymnasial system, itself an heir to Reformation and Renaissance educational reforms, coupled with a university system that complemented the gymnasial education (faculty of arts followed by theological faculty for advanced work), the Old Lutherans in North America built an educational system intended to serve the pastoral needs of the church.
Odd it was, indeed, given historical precedent in Germany, for such an education to be the domain solely of those preparing for the ministry. But even as leisure time became more available, resources more abundant, and the desire for an education beyond the primary grades more endemic among Old Lutherans in North America, a certain ossification set in, more of attitudes than anything else. Because only those preparing for the ministry had heretofore in North America taken the gymnasial-->faculty of arts-->theology/seminary route, therefore such a line was for pre-seminary/pre-ministerial purposes alone.
This turn of events has been unfortunate on many fronts. First, as the Old Lutherans were acclimated to life in North America, moving up the class-ladder and in so doing becoming educated, their education in secular institutions was nothing like that of the pastors. In other words, the opportunity to develop a profoundly shared culture between pastor and leading parishioners was lost. Second, the laity who sought to be educated were, in effect, robbed of the opportunity to know and understand how it is that pastors think about theology, much less keep up with them when they started “doing” theology. That might not sound as tragic to some as it actually is, especially since today we are heirs of that m.o. But consider: the professional laity, such as they were, that migrated to the States shared their education with their pastors from the earliest stages in the primary grades through the faculty of arts, and it was an education that, from Gymnasium through the B.A. included study certainly of Greek and Latin, and frequently also of Hebrew. Consider again: Philipp Melanchthon, the first Lutheran dogmatician and one of the most important early exegetes, was a layman his whole life long. The education that supported his work was the proto-gymnasial education of Renaissance and Reformation humanism through his M.A. in the faculty of arts.
This blunder in the early history of North American confessional Lutheranism has had several impacts that endure to today. First, the laity have grown increasingly suspicious of pastors and what they think of as a specialist education. Second, the gymnasial and arts education for pastors has grown increasingly attached to the goal of producing pastors, not well-educated Lutherans, whether they be lay or clergy. As John Henry Newman would be quick to point out, attaching liberal education to extraneous ends short-circuits liberal education, in fact, enslaves it. What remains in many cases is the form of a liberal education, but material handled illiberally or material hardly liberal at all. Third, because the laity have grown suspicious of this kind of educating, many of them labeling it, both explicitly and implicitly, as “useless,” we have witnessed across the whole North American Lutheran educational system a sort of acquiescence to the “practical.” Spanish has replaced Latin; psychology has replaced philosophy; an amorphous mass of courses, classical Hebrew; a term or two of Koine, classical Greek; and Rick Warren (yes!), De doctrina christiana—all this to the great impoverishment of the Lutheran mind. For everything you make room for in a curriculum, you are forced to exclude something else.
Reprising the Wittenberg ideal in liberal education, for lay and clergy alike, is the sole solution to this problem. The advancement and the continued prospering of confessional Lutheranism depends upon it. It is the case that even as I am writing this, forces are being brought to bear against a serious reckoning with our Confession by powerful stakeholders, men and women of influence and wealth, who frankly see no need for confessional faithfulness, much less for the kind of education needed to support it. In fact, they recognize something that we aren’t willing to: break the education and you’ve broken the “grip” of confessionalism. Or, to put it another way, educate differently for different results.
This is why, with stakes as high as the Confession of the Church of the Augsburg Confession, Renascentes musae education is imperative. The learnedness of the Confessions, for example, or of refined exegetical argumentation, is lost—and should we expect anything other than this?—on those who do not have the educational background to understand it, much less appreciate it. Certainly not everyone in a Lutheran parish has this capability. But those who set and drive the agenda for the church on earth generally do. And we do them a disservice by withholding the opportunity (officially, because such schools are closed to them or unofficially, because such an education simply is not available anywhere) to receive the kind of education that will enable them to foster the Confession of Christ and His Church, by which they, too, are saved.
And so there you have it. Gymnasial education for all, because that study lies at the root of the whole enterprise. In a dream world, this could be configured as in the past, with a classical high school (Gymnasium) followed by a strong liberal arts education (see below on “The Lock-Step Curriculum”). But not far from ideal, and perhaps more feasible, is simply a great liberal arts college with a curriculum uncontaminated by drivers extraneous to the purpose of, well, becoming really well educated.