September 28, 2015
Some of Sioux Falls Seminary’s faculty and administration have both written and taught lessons related to the topic of theological education, its history, and its biblical foundations. As we look at the history of theological education, especially in light of the Great Commission, we continue a series through which we will share some of these works. This week, Dr. Nathan Hitchcock remembers one seminary from the past: Halle University.
Sioux Falls Seminary is trying to take the Great Commission seriously as it develops innovative, contextual, biblically faithful platforms for theological education. But we are by no means the first! Let us remember one outstanding seminary from the Christian past: Halle University.
The university at Halle emerged in the 1690s in large part under the leadership of Philip Jakob Spener (1635-1705). Already as a minister he had been pushing hard for the spiritual renewal of the Lutheran church. Spener was controversial in that he thought formal doctrine and polity should be deemphasized in favor of preaching the gospel, Bible reading, small groups, spiritual introspection, charitable deeds, and practical ministries. In particular, he had a heart for setting up orphanages. Halle University was an extension of his Pietist principles.
Under Spener, Halle University was becoming known as a place committed to praxis, vocational training, and innovative pedagogy. Yet it was not Spener but a man named August Hermann Francke (1663-1727) who would transform Halle University into one of the preeminent seminaries of its day. He did so by envisioning the school as the hub for Protestant missions. As one historian puts it, Francke had a “belief in the need for a world witness to Christianity,” which “motivated him to cross political and confessional boundaries.”
Halle University subscribed to holistic learning, requiring of seminarians extensive study in Bible, languages, and theology – as well as history, philosophy, physics, astronomy, and geography. Nevertheless, students there were being trained first and foremost for mission. Indeed, under Francke the university was able to train an army of international missionaries. In 1706, two Halle students were recruited by the king of Denmark to share the gospel with indigenous populations in southern India. They did so, going on to translate the Bible into the native language of Tamil. A host of international church planters followed, coming back from the ends of the earth with vital information about languages, culture, and methods of reaching distant peoples for Christ.
In its passion to fulfill the Great Commission, Halle also became a center for the training of Pietist pastors. Mission-minded ministers were trained and deployed throughout Prussia and all of Europe. Some of these zealous leaders would be the first to set up immigrant congregations in the new world, such as Henry Muhlenberg, who would become known as the father of Lutheranism in America.
Students at Halle University were sometimes accused of being navel-gazers, overly concerned with their own sanctification. But the charge could not stick. The members of Halle were actively involved in charitable deeds and initiatives for social justice. They insisted that inward piety be echoed by outward obedience. A major social emphasis in the early years was the education of youth through orphanage-schools, which in 1727 enrolled 2200 children. The holistic attentiveness of the Halle evangelists could be seen in the very campus of the seminary: their university complex contained an orphanage, a medical clinic, a printing press, an institute to reach the Jews, a library, and even a museum.
The example of Halle University can inspire us in numerous ways. Most of all, it reminds us that faithful theological education is built around the Great Commission. Knowing that all authority has been given to Jesus Christ, we go out to preach the gospel, baptize, and teach obedience to everything he commanded. The missionary school at Halle was faithful in its day. Let Sioux Falls Seminary be faithful today!