Is it Time to Write the Eulogy for Seminary Education? It Depends Upon Which Seminaries.

Frederick Schmidt wrote a recent article wondering about the future of seminary education, entitled, Is It Time to Write the Eulogy?: The Future of Seminary Education.  The article begins by saying, “our seminaries are dying and the Master of Divinity degree has been discredited.”  Schmidt writes about a shrinking pool of prospective students, and notes that a large number of “mainline seminaries” are selling their buildings, property, cutting faculty and eliminating programs.

And there, my friends, is the give-away.  Schmidt, who writes a column for what the Patheos website still refers to as “mainline Protestants,” is describing a mainline that is no longer the main line.  It is fast declining, and so are its seminaries.

According to Rodney Stark, one of America’s preeminent scholars of religion, it is time to redefine our terms.  Stark is quite forthright in saying that the true mainline Protestants in America are now evangelicals.   And the old mainline is, in his words, the “sideline.”

In other words, it may be time to consider writing a eulogy for mainline seminary education, but it is not for evangelical seminary education.   Among ATS schools, evangelical schools are proliferating and their numbers remain strong.

Stark and others note the “evangelicalization of Protestantism.”  The churches that are growing, he says, have evangelical clergy. Not only that, but he ties the decline in numbers in the old mainline churches with what is happening theologically in the seminaries.   As denominations get liberal, says Stark, they shrink.   Liberal clergy lose their faith. They no longer believe in the Bible as God’s Word.   Or they disbelieve in the divinity of Jesus Christ.  Or they decide that they are no longer in the business of saving souls.  Instead, their preoccupation becomes left wing radical politics.   Stark lays the blame for this decline of the old mainline at the doorstep of the liberal seminaries.

All of this interests me because I am now the president of a reformed, evangelical seminary (RTS Orlando https://www.rts.edu/orlando/).  And from what I see, business is ramping up and seminary education (at the right schools) is more important than ever.  By the way, by “right schools,” I mean seminaries that hold on to basic Christian orthodoxy.  That is, they believe in the truthfulness and supreme authority of the Bible.  They believe in the gospel of Jesus with a passion, and find an urgency to share it because people’s eternal destinies are at stake.

Once a seminary abandons its belief in the supreme authority of the Bible, they set their theological soul adrift.   Eventually they let go of orthodoxy and redefine the gospel.  Something else besides the real incarnation, atoning cross and bodily resurrection of Jesus becomes the center.

Here’s why this seminary eulogy does not apply to a seminary like RTS.   And here’s why seminary education at the right schools is more important than ever:

  1. The gospel is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes:  first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.” (Romans 1.16,17)   This gospel was and is the best news on earth.
  2. The knowledge of God is the most important knowledge in the world.   It was A. W. Tozer who wrote in the chapter, “Why We Must Think Rightly About God,” from his book Knowledge of the Holy:  “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its ideas of God.” Hence the need to give people a true knowledge of God.
  3. Seminaries rooted in the Word train men and women in Biblical wisdom like no other institution.  That is what makes us unique.  This wisdom is exceedingly important for the church, and for civilization.  The core belief driving this is that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 2.3).
  4. Related to this, seminaries train students to study the Word and know the Word in the original languages.   They train students in Christian spiritual formation.   Along with this, they train in subjects related to living a God-glorifying life—subjects like biblical and systematic theology, Christian ethics, church history, practical theology, preaching, teaching, worship, prayer, Christian leadership, missions, evangelism, pastoring, apologetics, etc..
  5. Preparation for faithful, competent and creative Christian ministry is more important than ever.   We live in a complex, fast changing world.  The spiritual battles are hotter, and the stakes seem higher than ever.   So when it comes to training for ministry leadership and soul care, we must encourage the very best training possible.   We demand it of our doctors and our engineers.  Can we demand less of our pastors and spiritual leaders?   That’s why good, quality seminary training is so critical.  And that is why quick fix training, through  easy degree diploma mills, undermines the ministry of the church.  To be a spiritual force in the twenty-first century, our leaders need the best and most thorough training possible.
  6. Seminaries play a strategic role in the life of the church and nation.   We desperately need strong and healthy churches.   Healthy churches bring Christ’s redemptive hope to our communities.  As our communities are transformed, so goes our nation.   Churches generally do not rise above the spiritual level of their pastors.   And the seminary is the critical institution for training pastors.   Pastors are either made or marred in the seminary.

Sharing this news story about “the dying seminaries” with a businessman friend over lunch today, he said “Don, quite frankly, some seminaries deserve to die.”   He explained, if they have abandoned the Biblical gospel and the Holy Scriptures, they have lost their reason for existing.   But if they hang on to that Word which abides forever, they are desperately important.

I couldn’t agree more.

Categories: Education, RTS Orlando, Seminary Education | Comments

12 Comments

  • Coram Deo in Georgia says:

    I’m so thankful for RTS, where my son-in-law is a full-time student and his bride, my youngest daughter, is a part-time student. From everything I’ve read, your seminary matches the passion they have for the gospel of Christ–they met on the mission field and the Lord has been gracious to lead them to Godly training for where they’re to go next for His glory.

    I pray for the future of THE Church and for her leaders who are currently in training. I’ve seen so much godlessness (less of God, more of me) coming out of some quite ‘renowned’ cemeteries (seminaries); it really breaks my heart.

    Thank-you for this post and your in my prayers and you lead my two of my children and guide the whole of Reformed Theological Seminary for the Glory of God.

  • Jay Hawes says:

    Well said! I was quite taken back by the original article being a seminary student myself. It felt like it was challenging my calling, my reason for being in school. I know that I am called to be here right now and to learn.

    Thanks again,
    Jay
    MDiv. student @Denver Seminary

  • Drewe says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I quite enjoyed the second half where you are defining the role and importance of seminary.

    As someone who is considering a degree (part time though), it was an interesting post. I actually had a discussion with my wife last night as we were talking about different colleges – and how some have almost no entry criteria – you can believe what you like, just be ‘honest’ in your studies – and I find this disconcerting! If you don’t stand for anything……

    Anyway, thanks again.

    Drewe

  • Matt Murphy says:

    Thanks for this Blog. Very affirming in some major ways. I take my oral exams this week at Denver Seminary. God Bless with you in your new position.

  • Don-

    I could not agree more. Yet I do believe, and sense that you will also agree, that there is one leading indicator of failure in almost all seminaries—we do not equip leaders in a clear and effective way. Please do not misunderstand. This is not a criticism from the outfield but a passion written by a teacher who serves with several seminaries and teaches at Wheaton Graduate School. I see that our pastors are not generally strong leaders and our schools did not do a lot to prepare them to be great leaders. Can it be done? I think so but I really do believe that we have to have a big conversation about doing a much better (and more) intentional job. Maybe we can begin a chat about this when we talk next week. I love your blogs. They are insightful and encouraging.

    • dwsweeting says:

      John,
      Thanks for your comments. The thing I did not say in that post, that I should have, is that this is no cause for triumphalism at all. Nor is it an excuse to not seek continual improvement in our seminaries. We have to do that. And we have to keep engaging in conversations with students and pastors about how to better serve the church. I agree with your comment about leadership too.
      Don

    • Dan Claire says:

      John, I agree with the spirit of your comment, but wonder if you are mistaken in locating the problem at the seminary level. A lot of us in the church have unrealistic expectations of seminary graduates, because of unrealistic expectations of what seminaries can do. Leadership is like riding a bike. You certainly can learn some things from lectures beforehand, but you won’t develop the skill until you get out there and do it. And if you want to become especially proficient, then it’s best to learn by doing in the presence of a great coach. In my opinion, it’s no more realistic for us to expect great leadership out of seminary than great cycling. Leadership training, among other things, is what curacy is for.

      I’m not saying, by the way, that our seminaries shouldn’t aim for more holistic ministerial formation (i.e. head, heart & hands). I do believe that there is room for improvement, even within the confines of limited financial resources and outdated accreditation standards. But I think the primary focus of a long-term solution should be post-seminary training in healthy churches, where curacy is understood to be part of their mission.

      The big question, in my opinion, is whether evangelicals can work together to develop an ecosystem in which curacy is a natural next step after seminary. Getting churches & pastors & seminaries & donors all to collaborate in this way would take an act of God….

      • dwsweeting says:

        Yes….getting them to all collaborate is the challenge. Dan, thanks for your comments. I agree with you that some kind of apprenticeship, curacy, mentoring, has to be a part of the process. Some students do this while in seminary. That is, they slow their training down, get a part time ministry job that includes this kind of mentoring. So it can come during, and after. As long as it comes! Don

  • dwsweeting says:

    Jim. Thanks for your comments. Not the best phrase, I agree. Trying to get across the urgency of evangelism.

  • Jim says:

    “What is the “urgency of evangelism” when God has already decided who would be saved and who would not?”

    Are you unable or unwilling to answer the question?

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