Seminaries and Spiritual Formation: A Reply to Michael Haykin

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My friend and fellow church historian, Michael Haykin, has offered a gracious, thoughtful but pointed response to an earlier post of mine where, almost as an aside, I expressed certain thoughts on seminaries and spiritual formation. The offending paragraph in my post reads as follows:

This is a real challenge for theological educators as it is one area where seminaries cannot go very far in meeting the need.  Indeed, I find the whole notion of 'spiritual formation' within seminaries to be somewhat problematic: seminaries impart knowledge and skills which are essential for ministry and which cannot be acquired with like ease in a practical mentoring situation; they also provide a context for developing important and useful friendships which will last a lifetime; but they cannot really engage in spiritual formation in any deep way.  Certainly, the professor can and should strive to model  Christian behaviour; but the real, deep, lasting spiritual formation for ministerial candidates takes place in a church context just as it does for every other Christian.  The church is where the word is preached, the sacraments administered and discipling takes  place.
In his response, Michael points to the classic pamphlet by B. B. Warfield, The Religious Life of Theological Students as offering an alternative approach.  In this work, Warfield clearly articulates the notion of the seminary as a place of Christian discipleship.

These are deep waters and no fully satisfactory answer can be achieved in a couple of blog posts but I would offer a number of observations and clarifications by way of response to Michael's specific concerns.

First, the first sentence of the paragraph is important to my overall point, although not quoted in Michael's response.   To say that seminaries cannot go very far in this area is not to say that they cannot go anywhere at all.  Thus, I suspect that, if Michael and I really do differ on this matter (and I am not sure that we do), it is a difference of degree not of kind.  I certainly want to affirm that I hope and believe many students do grow in their spiritual maturity at both Westminster and Southern through the influence of their teachers, by both precept and example.

Second, I do think that differences between Old Princeton and most contemporary seminaries are significant in this matter.   Unlike Westminster, TEDS, Gordon Conwell etc., Warfield's Princeton was an agency of the Presbyterian Church and thus formally answerable to the assemblies of the church; and it was also far more narrowly focused in purpose than most seminaries today.  The former is perhaps of no more than technical interest to non-Presbyterians; but for Presbyterians, it does make a difference to how the work of the seminary is understood in relation to the church.  

The second point is of obvious importance to all: seminaries in Warfield's day by and large trained men for the ordained ministry.  Today, that is not the case, with perhaps a majority of seminary students studying theology for reasons other than a call into full-time pastoral ministry.   I might stress at this point that I do not regard this change as a problem but it does have wide-ranging significance for how seminaries understand themselves and what students expect from them.  Specifically, on the matter of spiritual formation, I believe that it can create potential for confusion.

The background to my original comment lies in the current confusion over the answers to questions like these: what does the seminary do that the church does not?  And, more importantly, what does the church do that the seminary cannot?  In a day when student numbers and class sizes are much greater than they were in Warfield's time, and when there is perhaps more confusion about what the church is than in previous generations, the potential for the category of 'spiritual formation' to take on a life of its own at seminaries and to supplant work the lion share of which belongs to the church is much greater than at previous points in history.  Indeed, the emergence of 'spiritual formation' as a separate category and even a separate job title in the seminary world speaks directly to this.   Ironically, I may be closer to Michael than he thinks: I do not think that seminaries need somebody doing 'spiritual formation' precisely because I think that seminary professors should all be doing it, with the key qualification that this is only to the extent that they can given things such as the restrictions of class size and seminary purpose.  

During my six years as Academic Dean/Vice President for Academics at WTS, I came to enjoy the role of Andrei Gromyko at strategy meetings.  As Gromyko was renowned for saying 'Nyet' whenever the Americans suggested anything at the UN, so my mantra at strategy meetings when colleagues started to talk as if the seminary had primary responsibility for spiritual formation was 'No.  The church should be doing that.  Our first responsibility as a seminary is to stress to the students that we can only do so much.  They need to be involved in local churches.'   'You are OPC; we expect you to say that,' came the typical answer from my PCA colleagues.  But I think my point still stands: seminary and church do different things; and the blurring of the line between them, of which the emergence of 'spiritual formation' in seminaries is symptomatic, is a very real problem.

As I say, I think Michael and I are actually closer than he thinks.  But I very much appreciate the opportunity to clarify the background to my comments.  Maybe there's a co-authored book or article here, Michael?

Posted August 8, 2012 @ 9:46 AM by Carl Trueman

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