The seminary or theological college finds itself today under more fervent attack than perhaps at any time since the modern seminary became a fixture in Christian circles.
Its critics are many, articulate, and sometimes scathing. Let me enumerate three principal criticisms to which seminary staff and leadership must respond if they are to remain viable.
First, the seminary’s critics allege that the seminary has uncritically adopted a university model that privileges academic pursuits over training for ministry. Second, the seminary’s traditional focus on biblical studies, systematic theology, and ministry skills such as counseling and preaching comes under criticism as irrelevant to modern ministry and incapable of training adept servants for the modern or post-modern church and world. Third, seminarians are told that their institution has become inaccessible to most trainees for Christian service and—not an entirely separate concern—slave to an economic model that is no longer viable.
If these allegations are sustainable, then it appears that the seminary—and its younger brother, the Bible institute or Bible college—is doomed either to decline or collapse.
In the lines that follow, I will outline my own understanding of the dilemma that appears to threaten the future of the seminary enterprise.
What is a seminary?
I believe it is important at the outset to define what a seminary is, not least because the institution’s fiercest critics sometimes seem unaware of the breathtaking pace of change among seminaries worldwide.
It may be helpful to recall that the word ‘seminary’ is derived from the Latin seminarium, which means ‘plantation’ or ‘nursery’. The term refers to the function of the seminary vis-à-vis the church: it is meant to cultivate fragile and flawed human beings and to grow them up towards useful maturity. If we are to take the image in its full detail, we ought to suspect that the seminary spends little or no time in pollination, nor does it aspire to produce a full-grown tree. Rather, it plays a key role in the maturation and growth towards full functionality of plants—men and women—who have been conceived elsewhere and will only reach final form somewhere else.
So what does a seminary need in order to be called a seminary? Much more importantly, what components must it possess in order to fulfill its honorable purpose, regardless of what we decide to call it?
I believe that a seminary requires four such components:
First of all, it needs a brain trust.
Like the university with which it is joined at the hip, the seminary is a collection of scholars who are given leave to think about things that are important to its sponsor and to teach their students from the crucible of this thinking process. Over against the traditional seminary, it may or may not be necessary for these thinkers to live and work together in the traditional way. Modern technologies may have created interesting options in this regard.
Nevertheless, these thinkers, scholars, and trainers will need to be in contact with each other in the way that one of the Bible’s principle collections of wisdom calls iron sharpening iron.
Second, the seminary needs a library function.
I have chosen to use the more ambiguous term library function rather than library because the latter term has become too static to describe the reality to which it refers. The move from Gutenberg’s technology to a diverse information economy has overtaken all predictions. It has produced an educational environment in which digitized electronic capabilities are generating delivery of information in ways we could not have imagined ten years ago and will hardly recall ten years hence.
This migration of information availability out of privileged nodes and towards universal access has important implications for the library function as seminaries, universities, and virtually all other consumers of information. It is revolutionizing the way seminaries operate. Perhaps some will be surprised to learn how aggressively—occasionally with amazing naiveté—seminaries are pursuing digital delivery channels rather than resisting them. Many are leveraging new technologies to reconfiguring where and even whether the student has to go in order to participate in seminary education.
A library function is critical to the seminary precisely because the Christian church and the world it serves desperately need leaders who are part of what I am fond of calling the Great Conversation. The Great Conversation represents the discussion by wise men and women throughout the ages of topics that are both enduring and ephemeral. One might say that this conversation is available to us from the time that writing was invented, although Christians will understandably want to focus on the biblical period and the biblical literature as the locus of their most important conversations. Since the image of God in human beings is not limited to Christians, people who are believing, literate, and discerning will want to be part of that conversation in many of its forms, places, voices, and topics. A library function brings those voices into the reach of emerging Christian leaders.
No seminary can be a plantation or nursery without it because to do so would cut the young plants off from the nourishment that is not particular to their small place and time.
Third, the seminary needs a curriculum.
By this, I mean a path through certain fundamental disciplines that runs roughly from A to Z. It has a starting point and a finish line. This does not mean that a seminary graduate has learned all that he needs to know. Rather, I assume that there exists a recognized set of disciplines to which the people of God have every right to expect that their leaders have submitted themselves.
In many traditional western seminaries, arrival at the ‘Z’ of this path has been marked after three years of full-time study by a degree called the Master of Divinity (M.Div.). One can imagine other paths and other markers.
Now there is a reason why I insist on this point. It is the allure of relevance. Like many appealing prospects, relevance all too easily incites idolatry. Like all idols, it appoints itself as the god.
Let me illustrate with a second allusion to Proverbs:
All fools consider themselves knowledgeable. They are ‘in their own eyes’ too wise to have deep need of knowledge and wisdom. They presume to know what they need to know and to suffer no deficiency with regard to things they do not know.
At a young age and—more importantly—with little experience, they presume to have established what counts for life and work and what does not. They know what is relevant and they scoff—this is their defining weakness—at those who do not.
Those who are becoming wise know better. They are always a minority, alas. In biblical terms, they submit themselves to a process, to a people, and to a tradition that is more important, more intelligent, and better versed in things that matter than they are. They seek wisdom—a biblical notion that insists upon effectiveness—rather than relevance.
Much of this wisdom is embedded in the product of tradition that we call a curriculum.
Seminary curricula must change continually. Yet they should change slowly.
The seminary curriculum needs to train the emerging Christian leader in those things that are most likely to be true yesterday, today, and forever. Curriculum builders need to develop a self-aware and self-denying patience with the tradition which they have inherited and to modify it independently of self-referential allegiance to pedagogical and ideological trends. Trends are often fads in disguise, leaving their proponents and their followers too quickly stranded on sand bars when they thought they were running with the tide.
Now it is undeniable that most training of Christian leaders takes place in the hurly-burly of life with little or no reference to a curriculum. This is how it should be.
The seminary, however, is not the institution that effects the training of most Christian leaders. It is rather the plantation or seedbed for the kind of Christian leader who has been appraised by the church as most likely to tend influentially to its flock and to shape its future.
Finally, a seminary requires wise mentors.
Education for service requires information exchange. Students must become good stewards of a faith that requires control of a certain range of facts.
Yet if seminary education requires the training of minds, it ought not be mistaken for the training of minds alone. It is rather the shaping of human beings whose whole self is regenerated, reoriented and empowered by the cross of Christ and the power that raised Him from the dead. This regeneration, reorientation, and empowerment do not happen apart from human agency. The process requires wise mentors whose lives evidence vision, integrity, and competence. Such individuals are worthy of imitation because they live out the Pauline ethical triad of faith, hope, and love. What is more, they pass these virtues along to their disciples by dint of shared life and service.
It is not clear to me that technology can create a seminary education free of such human contact between wise mentors and submitted disciples. Even plants seem to grow better when they are spoken to. When Martin Buber famously described the potency of an I-Thou relationship, he unwittingly established a sine qua non of seminary education.
A seminary becomes a seminarium when its brain trust, library function, and curriculum come together in the life of a student who is shaped by a wise mentor.
Now the challenge and opportunity of our time require that we bracket concerns about the shape of the seminary in order to give due attention to these four functions. It may be that we work in a kairos in which a variety of configurations—both traditional and innovative—will allow us to loose (TO BE CONTINUED)