Whither the Seminary Model?

William B. Evans

My good friend Doug Sweeney at TEDS has just posted a very thoughtful piece about the future of seminary education on The Gospel Coalition website.  Sweeney makes some points that are consistent with observations that I offered on this site awhile back.  We agree that the church is facing a crisis of basic Christian education, as the biblical and theological knowledge taken for granted several generations back is increasingly rare.  Furthermore, we both recognize that the seminary model of education is of recent vintage (barely two centuries old), and that there may be other ways to skin the ministerial-education cat. 


According to the "seminary model," prospective Christian ministers complete a four-year bachelor's degree before going on for three to four years of more specialized academic and practical-ministry training at a theological seminary.  But there are some problems here, one of which is related to the fact that the theological seminary has been perhaps the most important engine in the "professionalization" of the clergy--the notion that the Christian ministry is another of the "helping professions" in which ministers are to conform to humanly generated standards of professional "best practices" as established by guardians of the guild (such as the Association of Theological Schools).  Of course, the intent of all this was to raise the status of the ministry in the broader culture.  Ironically, the reverse has happened, and this is probably testimony to the fact that a grand confusion of categories has been at work.  Properly understood, the gospel ministry is simply not a "profession" (like medicine or law) in the secular sense of that term (for a critique of this trend, see John Piper's Brothers, We Are Not Professionals [2002]). 


Another problem is the cost of the seminary model--both in money and time.  In today's academic economy, many students graduate from college with tens of thousands of dollars of debt.  Then they are expected to undertake another three or four years of seminary study, incurring still more debt along the way.  And all toward the goal of a calling that, on average, does not pay all that well! 


There is also the issue of educational quality.  Several generations back, Presbyterian seminaries assumed that their students would come directly from liberal arts colleges, where they would have learned classical languages and the western literary and intellectual tradition.  That pattern simply is no longer the case, though the seminary I attended in the 1980s still paid lip service to the ancien regime by regarding a working knowledge of Greek as propaedeutic to the seminary curriculum.  Now, however, there are many more seminaries competing for a much more diverse and less well-prepared student clientele.  The tuition-driven character of many schools has necessitated de facto open admissions policies which then welcome students to a mix of traditional and distance-education courses.  The net result of all this, at least in some cases, is that many seminary courses are taught on the undergraduate, bachelors-degree level at best. 


Finally, there is the problem of potential redundancy.  Students from Bible colleges or Christian liberal arts colleges who major in Bible or religious studies may well find that part of their seminary curriculum is a rehash of what they already learned on the undergraduate level.  I have heard such comments more than once from graduates of the school where I currently teach as they reflect on their seminary experiences.  Indeed, some of the seminary courses they take may be less academically rigorous than what they encountered in college!


Dr. Sweeney in his article issued a salutary call for discussion.  "The time is ripe," he says, "for dialogue, even charitable debate, regarding the best way forward."  But getting this necessary discussion started has been difficult.  Many Christian leaders with something important to say on the topic are themselves heavily invested in the seminary model (as seminary teachers, administrators, or pastors who serve on a seminary board of trustees).  In addition, the path to ministerial ordination in many American denominations is transcript-based and thus tied to the seminary model.  My own denomination, for example, requires that prospective ministers "present evidence of having obtained a baccalaureate degree, or its equivalent, from an accredited four-year college or university, as well as evidence of a theological education embracing three years of satisfactory work in the seminary of this denomination or in a seminary approved by the Presbytery."  The net result of this is that there are, at least for American Reformed Christians, few viable alternatives to the seminary model at this time, and the M.Div. degree is the de facto union card for entry into the ministry. 


Nevertheless, the times they are a-changing.  The solution to the current crisis will doubtless not involve a wholesale replacement of the seminary model.  It continues to work well for some students, and I, for one, am extraordinarily grateful for the seminary education I received back in the day.  The question is rather, what new models of ministerial education will emerge alongside the seminary model, and how open will churches be to embracing these alternatives?