On Choosing a Seminary

William B. Evans Articles
On Choosing a Seminary

William B. Evans

In my current academic position I do a good deal of pre-seminary advising.  Undergraduate students often come to my office expressing an interest in attending a theological seminary after they complete their bachelor's degree at the College where I teach.  I welcome such conversations because I personally had a wonderful seminary experience, and I have experienced first-hand the value of a good seminary education.  In my own case, seminary work prepared me well for further study and it had a profound impact on my approach to ministry.  In fact, seminary had a deeper impact on my intellectual development than did my college years.  And of course, few things are more important to the life and health of the church than ministerial education.  In short, much is at stake in the training of ministers, both for individuals and for the church as a whole.  

At the same time such conversations give me pause, and for several reasons.  We are talking, after all, about a huge personal investment in both time and money.  Because of required internships and other practical ministry requirements, the old three-year B.D. and M.Div. curricula have expanded to at least four years for most ministerial students.  Moreover, a quality traditional seminary education is not inexpensive.  Though it is sometimes possible to do seminary education on the cheap, students who make their seminary decision simply on the basis of perceived "value" may miss out on a lot of what the traditional seminary education has to offer.

Another thing that gives me pause is the fact that the seminary approach to ministerial education is, if not in crisis, at least open to question and criticism.  It is, after all, a model that is barely two centuries old.  Prior to the rise of seminaries in the early nineteenth century, ministerial education was conducted in the university context, and before that in the monasteries and in cathedral and catechetical schools.  Today, seminary education is championed by some and deprecated by others, and it is increasingly common to find ministers of large churches with no seminary education at all.  That being said, at this point no other model of theological education is either sufficiently codified or sufficiently implemented so as to be a strong competitor to the seminary model.  In other words, while there probably are other ways to skin the cat, the seminary option still prevails for most who are considering God's call to the ordained ministry.  

There are, of course, certain obvious things that prospective students should look for as they consider and visit schools.  Is the school unequivocally committed to the full authority of the Bible as God's written Word, and is it passionately committed to teaching students how to handle that Word in a careful and responsible manner?  Are the professors effective teachers?  Are they well-trained and publishing substantial contributions in their fields (and by "substantial contributions" I don't mean vanity-press monographs and popular internet articles like this one)?   Are the professors accountable in some meaningful sense to a church body for their beliefs and behavior, or are they simply intellectual entrepreneurs without ecclesiastical portfolio?  In other words, are at least many of them ordained ministers in a denomination that takes church discipline seriously and holds its ordained ministry accountable?  Do the professors and administrators model excellence in their teaching and preaching, or do they give the distinct impression that the path to career success in the church lies in being a church politician, or if you will, an ecclesiastical apparatchik?    All these matters are important.  Many seminary students have their conceptions of the ministry largely formed by such people.  

At the same time, prospective theological students need to pay attention to their own spiritual lives, both before and during seminary.  They need to have realistic expectations; they should not, for example, expect the theological seminary to provide a sustained four-year "spiritual high" for its students!  To this end, students would do well to read and pay close attention to Carl Trueman's "The Importance of Being Earnest: Approaching Theological Study" (Themelios 26:1 [2000]: 34-47), a fine essay that will, in my estimation, be read for many years to come.    

A Taxonomy for Seminaries

The main thrust of this article, however, is that prospective students choosing a seminary need to recognize that schools differ, that there is no such thing as "generic seminary education."  Just as students need to be concerned about "fit" when they choose a college or university, so also they need to pay close attention to the distinctives of the seminaries they are considering.  But how does one identify and appraise these differences?   After attending two seminaries and a university divinity school myself and after sending many of my students off to seminary, I have concluded that the ethos of a theological seminary, the soul of a school if you will, can be characterized in terms of its response to three sets of polarities, each of which is to be viewed as involving two poles on a continuum.  Bear in mind that no school will match these categories completely.   These three sets of polarities, in turn, form an interpretive grid that some of my students seem to have found useful.  These three sets of polarities are: (1) the graduate school of theology vs. the school for pastors, (2) catechetical vs. critical, and (3) ecumenical vs. confessional.  Though this grid arose out of reflection on the current state of conservative Reformed theological education in the United States, it is probably applicable to a much broader range of schools.

Graduate School of Theology (GST) vs. School for Pastors (SFP)

It almost goes without saying that, as professional schools for the training of ministers, all theological seminaries will claim that their mission is to "train pastors."    That being said, they do this in different ways and with different emphases.  Some schools stress formation of the "pastor teacher" or the "scholar pastor."  Schools that devote institutional resources to publishing significant scholarly journals and that have respectable Th.M. and Ph.D. programs are likely to fall into this "graduate school of theology" category.  Other schools insist that they exist primarily to train people for successful pastoral ministry, and they often devote enormous institutional resources to developing practical ministry competencies in their students.  

The choice here for the prospective student is not necessarily clear-cut, however.  I've noticed that ministerial students tend to fall into two broad categories--there are "theoreticians" who thrive on intellectual puzzles and challenges, and there are "practitioners" who are always and insistently coming back to the "so what" question of relevance for ministry.  In some cases at least, the "theoretician" would be bored silly at the SFP, while the "practitioner" would be frustrated by the sustained attention to scholarly detail and theory at the GST.  The complication here is that both dimensions are needed for successful ministry that consistently moves beyond the superficial; in one sense, then, the practitioner needs what the GST has to offer and the theoretician needs what the SFP has to offer.  But in general the "theoretician" is going to be more attracted to and will probably be more happy at the GST, and the "practitioner" will gravitate to the SFP.

Catechetical vs. Critical

This second polarity is related to but not identical with the first.  In other words, I can envision an SFP that would be critical in orientation, and a GST that would be catechetical.  By "catechetical" I mean an ethos that seeks to transmit and perpetuate theological traditions and practices, and which, by and large, does not then go on to subject those traditions and practices to deeper critical analysis.  By "critical" I mean a school which does emphasize the deeper understanding and analysis of theological traditions and practices.  Faculty members at the "catechetical" institution are perhaps more likely to have an instrumental view of education and to "teach to the test" (i.e., the ordination exam), while teachers at the "critical" institution are more likely to pursue issues and content for their own sake. 

Of course, this polarity is open to some misunderstanding.  For example, this use of the term "critical" should not be confused with the Enlightenment "critical principle" which subjects everything to the bar of autonomous human reason.  Furthermore, just as this polarity is distinct from the first, so also it is distinct from the third polarity.  It is quite possible to do either catechetical or critical theological education in a confessional context.  In addition, recall that these two categories are poles on a continuum, and that the identification of a school as "catechetical" does not imply that no critical reflection takes place there.  By its very nature, a theological seminary is going to partake of both catechetical and critical elements.  The question here is the balance and overall emphasis, and discerning this balance is a matter of interpretation as well.    

Again, both approaches have their place.  The current crisis of Christian education today--the fact that many evangelical Christians are unable to articulate even the basics of Christian doctrine-- suggests that many churches need a renewed focus on the basics of their traditions.  What is needed, first of all at least, is not the critical analysis of the tradition but basic knowledge of the tradition itself.  The minister who succeeds in passing his theological heritage and tradition on to the next generation has done a good and increasingly rare thing!  Moreover, recent theological trends among Evangelicals suggest that some ministers are not well equipped to do careful and constructive critical interaction with their tradition without falling into a ditch.  On the other hand, somebody has to do the intellectual heavy lifting, and the critical approach to theological education becomes vitally important as traditions are faced with the task of contextualizing themselves in changing cultural contexts without losing their theological souls.  The tradition that does not critically interact with the great issues of the day will die sooner or later, and sooner in times of cultural dislocation and upheaval. 

Ecumenical vs. Confessional

The final polarity is probably the easiest to grasp.  The ecumenical institution seeks to service the ministerial training needs of a variety of denominational and confessional groups, while the confessional institution requires adherence by its professors and administrators to a particular, codified theological tradition (though it may welcome students from a wide variety of backgrounds).  The danger of the first is that the education offered can become a diffuse cafeteria or theological smorgasbord.  The danger of the second is that it can, on occasion, become parochial and isolated from the broader Christian context as it retreats into a theological ghetto.  Both approaches can provide a solid theological education.  That being said, the second approach will likely provide better preparation for those who seek ordination in a confessional church context, and it also is probably better able to help theological students "connect the dots" and learn to think theologically.  After teaching theology to undergraduates for over fifteen years, I have learned that one cannot teach "generic theology" or "theology is general."  Rather, students need to learn a particular system in order to sense how things fit together.  

Hopefully this taxonomy will prove helpful to prospective seminary students as they seek to understand how institutions differ.  That being said, such a taxonomy is only a starting point.  Prospective seminary students need to visit the schools they are considering, examine them carefully, consult with their pastors and other ecclesiastical advisors, and only then seek to make informed decisions.

A self-described "paleo-orthodox ecclesial Calvinist," Dr. Evans is the Younts Prof. of Bible and Religion at Erskine College in Due West, SC.  He holds degrees from Taylor University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (M.A.R., Th.M), and Vanderbilt University (M.A., Ph.D.).   He is the author of Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology (Paternoster, 2008).  He also served as an Assistant Editor of the New Geneva Study Bible/Reformation Study Bible and as Moderator of the 2005 General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.  In his spare time he writes the ARP Adult Quarterly Sunday School curriculum for the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.