Commentary on the recent blogs concerning Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the departure of a female professor of Hebrew from its theological faculty (see here and here below) surfaced issues relating to the purpose and value of seminaries as institutions for the training of pastors. The history of seminaries as institutions is too vast for a blog, so I will confine my observations to modern evangelicalism and its seminaries, to highlight how these seminaries are fostering the dissolution of Protestantism in America.
THE BENEFITS OF SEMINARIES
These are easy to identify and to defend, and they are three:
Economy of Scale. An ecclesial communion (e.g. Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, whatever) which desires its future pastors to be trained to certain minimal standards can do so more efficiently by pooling resources (money, personnel, property) which benefit all the congregations of the communion. At least, that’s the basic idea. Megalopolis Presbyterian Church, with its 10,000 members and 50,000 square-foot office building beside its 7,000 seat sanctuary, and its $10 million annual budget could field its own pastoral training programs, satisfying not only its own needs, but also those of many other Presbyterian Churches. And, perhaps, that is precisely what many Presbyterian Churches will do once more, even if they have significantly less resources than Megalopolis Presbyterian Church. But, originally, seminaries as we know them today in America evolved as cooperative efforts of many congregations through denominational structures.
Focused Purpose. A candidate for a pastoral vocation can concentrate his preparation into a relatively small amount of time. Some of his studies (e.g. Hebrew and Greek) could proceed most effectively when he can compress the time invested to learn the basics. By allotting full-time to studies, he far more quickly amasses many of the tools of his pastoral trade: at a minimum, an overview of Bible, theology, and pastoral praxis. No one ever supposed a seminary graduate is “finished.” But, those who built and administered seminaries supposed that they were an efficient and effective way to lay a solid foundation for a life-time of ministry.
Coherent Curriculum. Baptist seminaries don’t have courses (much less majors) in liturgics. You don’t expect a Methodist seminary to require 12 semester hours of study on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Missouri Synod Lutheran seminaries probably don’t offer a course entitled “Famous Papal Bulls and How They Have Shaped Our Faith.” Roman Catholic seminaries don’t offer practicums on “Getting Slain in the Spirit.”
Seminaries necessarily incarnate the spiritual life of the Christian community that gives them birth, as they arise out of a matrix of convictions based on the Bible and sharpened by the spiritual culture that passes on its life from one generation to another. Seminaries exist to perpetuate the faith of previous generations to the next.
THE LIABILITIES OF SEMINARIES
Seminaries have liabilities that correspond to their capabilities.
Scale Pre-empts Sanctity. What has greater spiritual credibility in the ordinary pew-sitter’s imagination: the 30 acre, $100 million campus, with its faculty of 150, its staff of 300, its 5 million volume library? Or, the pastor of a congregation of 100, occupying 1 acre campus, with its staff of 3 volunteer secretaries, and, its 175 person sanctuary? When the seminary’s faculty crank out 50 to 75 books a year, each of them with 30 pages of bibliography and three or four pages of footnotes in 8-point type at the end of everyone of the 25 chapters, who is going to listen to the pastor of that pipsqueak parish church when he objects to the seminary’s learned corps of Wise Men?
After 20, or 30, or 50 years, who has a national reputation? Pastor Buckeye of Podunk Community Church? Or, the Rev. Dr. Augustus Scholasticus, Ph.D., Th.D., Th.M., Doodah Professor of Systematic Theology and Chairman of the Faculty Senate at Magna Presbyterian [or Baptist; or Methodist; or Episcopal; or Whatever Church] Theological Seminary?
Purpose Pre-empts the Past. Seminaries were originally created to perpetuate the faith and practice of earlier generations of Baptist Christians [or Presbyterians; or Catholics; or Methodists; or Whatever Kind founded the Seminary]. But, these schools invariably “morph” over time into institutions whose purpose is to perpetuate themselves and their ever-evolving notions of what pastors are supposed to think and do. Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and similar schools had the preparation of orthodox clerics as their primary mission at their founding.
S. M. Hutchens provides a succinct description of the evolutionary phases through which these schools move from promoting the Christian faith to opposing the Christian faith. First, there is the Confessional Phase. Hutchens characterizes this phase thusly: “It knows why it exists, why this school is different from all other schools, and is energized by a missionary zeal that will without much hesitation eject teachers or administrators who do not cleave to its doctrinal and ethical Standards.”
This is followed by the First Embarrassment Phase, in which “the original denominational or confessional heritage of the school is downplayed—sometimes because of the difficulty of putting together a full or fully qualified faculty from the sect, but also because increased learning … frequently militates against its original beliefs.”
Next comes “ … the Ecumenical Phase where the school opens its doors to other forms of Christianity. It begins hiring teachers who are not of its own tradition, claiming thereby to be serving the Church at large.”
Following this is the General Religion Phase, in which “ … the school, surrounded by temptations to be ‘just like (academic) folks’ on every side, without firm doctrinal mooring or consensus, and with liberality as the administrative watchword” expects the faculty “ … to pledge allegiance to the conventional pieties of the group, but not adhere to a statement of doctrine.” At the end of the General Religion Phase “ … the beliefs of the founders have become something to be lived down. Administrators and catalogs speak respectfully about the school’s denominational ‘heritage,’ while at the same time making it plain, in so many words, this is a relic of the past that nobody really needs to fash themselves about.”
Hutchens names the final stage in the school’s evolution as The Final Embarrassment Phase in which the ruse is completely abandoned. “When the givers of the most substantial gifts are perceived not to object much, the school, with a nearly audible sigh of relief, abandons religion except perhaps as an object of study.” At this point, the seminary’s modern, updated Purpose has completely pre-empted its Past.
Magisters Pre-empt the Magisterium. In schools situated at what Hutchens calls the Confessional Phase, the professors are like the old Medieval Magisters, men licensed by the Church to transmit the communion’s received faith and practice. The true magisterium — the ecclesiastical authority to teach and to defend the deposit of faith received from prior generations — rests with ecclesiastical officers, whose duty it is to promulgate and to defend that faith. The seminary licensees, the professors, are understood by all to serve the church by faithfully transmitting that deposit of faith which the Church has inherited.
But, here, Protestants display varying degrees of weakness that correspond directly to the way their ecclesial magisterium functions institutionally. This is best understood by contrast with the Roman Catholic magisterium, which is vested in the Pope and the Bishops in communion with him. Whether one agrees with the Roman magisterium or not, it shows itself to have – in principle – the “machinery” for imposing the will of Rome’s Chief Pastor on Catholic seminaries. When this has not been done, it is a failure of nerve on the part of Rome’s officers who have all the levers they could wish to correct errant schools or professors.
But, Protestants have far fewer levers to pull within their own institutions, and the more decentralized the ecclesial organization, the fewer the levers and the more difficult to exercise those that actually exist. As explained above, the other liabilities of seminaries mitigate against anyone bringing them to task.
The consequence is that the seminary institution itself – at least among Protestants – becomes the de facto Protestant Magisterium. And, as such, it is very difficult to reform. If unreformed for long enough, a church school utterly escapes the ability of the Christian denomination to bring them to heel doctrinally. One can see this most painfully within the Southern Baptists, who have “lost” several of their flagship educational institutions to secular (and, often, anti-Christian) agendas. Where a Baptist seminary (such as SWBTS under Patterson; or Southern Baptist Theological Seminary under Mohler) is recovered to the service of Baptist orthodoxy, this is achieved only with the expenditure of much sturm und drang.
What I have not considered yet is the fallout from seminaries whose path of devolution is marked primarily by a growing endorsement of modern religious feminism and growing opposition to the patriarchal cast of Biblical Christianity. This, as it turns out, is pretty much the case with all evangelical seminaries today. The consequences of this dismal fact is the subject of the next blog.