Why Should You Come to Seminary?
Michael S. Horton
According to the surveys, most Americans have at least one Bible. They say they even revere it. Over half say they believe that it’s inspired and inerrant! Yet the same surveys reveal an appalling lack of familiarity with its most basic plot, characters, and teachings. The statistics are pretty even for those from evangelical, “Bible-believing” backgrounds.
A century ago, faithful Christians saw Christian colleges and seminaries fall like dominos to Protestant liberalism. After the reorganization of Princeton Seminary, J. Gresham Machen and other colleagues founded Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929, which became a model for solid scholarship in submission to Scripture. Today, most mainline seminaries are moribund or on their way to becoming night school for social workers, trying desperately to attract evangelicals with hip courses on spirituality or how to be “emergent.” However, in the post-World War II era, a resurgent evangelical movement created their own institutions and today many of these seminaries can boast faculties that produce a lot of the labor in biblical studies and pastoral ministry.
However, we’re now facing a different challenge, but it could prove just as disastrous for faithful witness. It’s the “dumbing-down” of Christianity, fueled in part by the weakening demand of the Christian faithful for ministers who are prepared for a lifetime of ministry. It’s no less of a tragedy to squander a great theological heritage for cultural approval than it is to miss out on it for cultural pragmatism. Before Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me.” We have to understand what that means. The whole Bible unpacks that pregnant announcement. And then Jesus adds, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…(Mt 28:19-20). What is baptism? The Trinity in whose name we are baptized? And then Jesus adds still more: “…teaching them to observe everything I have commanded.” Not just some things that we remember from Sunday school, books we’ve chosen for ourselves to read, and on-line sermons from preachers we admire, but “everything I have commanded.” All of Scripture for all of the saints. To make mature disciples, we have to become one.
As everyone knows, the rapid growth of Christianity has shifted to the Global South and Asia. For decades, evangelical leaders like John Stott warned of a crisis in theological education. Much of the growth has been led by Pentecostal movements, which have tended to downplay the importance of such training. Yet many solid evangelical and even confessional churches, both Lutheran and Reformed, have also spread rapidly. The problem that many of these leaders express is that there are too few seminaries and theological resources. Pastors are crying out for more rigorous theological education.
Meanwhile, in North America, where there are literally hundreds of seminaries, there is a shallowing of the curriculum. The emphasis on the original languages, theology, biblical studies, and theologically-shaped pastoral ministry is watered down by electives and special concentrations in all sorts of “skills” for “practical ministry.” And increasingly there is pressure to provide on-line degrees and satellite campuses.
What would you think if your doctor received his or her medical training on-line or by distance education? Most of us want doctors who have reputable degrees because we at least assume that behind that degree is a faculty with advanced studies and research in specialties that are brought collectively to bear on training doctors; a community of learning in which the faculty, too, is continually updating its knowledge and applying that knowledge to experimentation in the lab and even with actual patients. They only have a few years to become trained as doctors; they have the rest of their lives to practice. So why do we seem to value our spiritual health less than our physical well-being?
Addressing what he calls “the crisis of theological education,” Michael Jensen, a professor of theology at Sydney’s Moore Theological College, offers wise counsel on what you should look for—and avoid—in making this momentous decision. Anyone considering seminary should read his post. “If an institution is determined to give you what you want and to ask nothing of you, don't go there,” he says. “Education in general has become a market, and students have become consumers. This has been a disastrous change in mentality - because true education actually asks us to become disciples and to submit to a process of learning from authoritative teachers.”
This is why you not only need a faculty dedicated to scholarship and the church, very accessible to students, but a community of fellow students. As a student at Westminster California, I grew as much through these conversations as from the lectures. In fact, it was often in those conversations that things I had missed sunk in and I came to own them for myself. You can’t replicate that in a non-residential learning context.
In short, it just doesn’t make any sense to take a short-cut in your own ministerial preparation and then expect your congregation to take the difficult investment of becoming a disciple seriously. We may lament the characterization of Christ’s flock as “self-feeders” by some church growth leaders. We may get all worked up over George Barna’s celebration of “the Revolutionaries” who stop going to local churches and instead find their spiritual edification resources on-line. But why is it wrong for the sheep to take the easy path if it’s fine for their shepherds? As jarring as it is to say it these days, Professor Jensen’s advice is exactly on target: “Online or distance education is what the market wants at the moment. But we need to keep reminding ourselves it is a poor third best.”
Wherever you land for your studies, the holy office to which God calls ministers of Word and sacrament is ultimately of more lasting consequence even than the service we receive from our medical doctors. The Apostle Paul’s command to his young apprentice is for us, too: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).