Theology & Spirituality

What Should Seminaries Be For?

I’ve spent a fair amount of time reflecting on Timon Cline’s fascinating article from last year, “The School of Churchmen.” In particular, Timon raises an important question that, I think, all Christians would benefit from pondering at least once in a while: What should seminaries be for?

This question is particularly interesting to me because it’s one that I repeatedly asked myself when I was researching seminaries for my master’s degree. Speaking from my (admittedly very limited, and Protestant) perspective, it seems that there are three major components to a seminary education: 1) biblical theology; 2) historical and systematic theology; and 3) pastoral theology. Biblical theology places the student in direct conversation with the Word, requiring careful exegesis and sensitivity to linguistic context. Historical and systematic theology (my personal favorite) requires the student to consider how the principles outlined in Scripture have been understood over time, and the relationship between Christianity and philosophy. Pastoral theology challenges the student to not only proclaim the faith effectively, but apply it graciously to the lives of the laity.

If any of these elements becomes overemphasized to the exclusion of the others, serious problems result. When biblical theology is stressed without concern for either history or compassion, the result is an aggressive fundamentalism incapable of articulating a cohesive expression of the faith, and one that risks embracing interpretations long ago deemed deviant. When historical and systematic theology is overemphasized, the seminary turns into a history or religious-studies department—an entity lacking a genuine commitment to the normative authority of the Bible and unable to apply the Christian faith to contemporary circumstances. And when pastoral theology becomes the sole focus, the result is a humanitarianism ungrounded in any distinctly Christian commitment or historical tradition.

But seminaries undoubtedly play a larger role in the lives of their respective denominational traditions than simply lesson delivery, as historical events have repeatedly demonstrated. For instance, within conservative-leaning Protestant denominations, there is sometimes a tension between the views taught in seminaries and the consensus of the laity. The foremost example of this is historical-critical scholarship, which regularly advances theses that many conservative American Protestants would reject: Moses was not the actual author of the Pentateuch, the synoptic Gospels were derived from a lost, no-longer-extant linguistic source, many of the epistles attributed to Paul and Peter were not in fact written by them, and so on. The result of this disjunction between seminary and pew is a climate of mistrust: the laity are forced to speculate about their pastor’s true convictions, while the clergy must tread carefully to avoid disclosing their real opinions.

Once such a rupture between seminary and denominational culture develops, it can be very difficult to heal. Though some denominations (the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in the 1970s, and the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1980s) did successfully return their seminaries to conservative ground (admittedly through processes involving firings, walkouts, and much controversy), the same cannot be said of many mainline denominations. In part, this explains why those United Methodists with traditional views on sexuality, despite constituting a majority in the denomination, have been willing to negotiate the terms of an amicable departure rather than attempt to mainstream their views within the denomination as a whole: progressive views are simply too entrenched in the seminary and bureaucratic infrastructure. More recently, certain Southern Baptist seminaries have come under fire from the denomination’s conservative wing for allegedly teaching liberation-theology principles—a concern exacerbated by recent SBC debates surrounding critical race theory and the concept of intersectionality.

In my experience, there is an interesting premise underlying many of these controversies: If these seminaries are the institutions training the next generation of pastors, they need to be teaching views that align with those of the denomination as a whole. This intrigues me because, for better or worse, I’ve never been in an educational setting where I’ve been expected to agree with, or internalize, everything my professors said. Indeed, I don’t expect that I will (and I don’t) agree with everything my current seminary professors say. As a result, at least some of the force of this concern is lost on me. 

Perhaps this is my own issue to wrestle with, though. One of three things strikes me as likely true: 1) A student will always, unavoidably, end up evaluating what their professors are saying and forming their own conclusions; 2) I’ve simply never been placed in a context where the educational function is as much discipleship as is it is communication of information; or 3) I’m incorrigible and need to get past my own “hermeneutic of suspicion” in order to better internalize what I’m being taught. There’s a non-zero possibility that this is just a problem on my end.

What is certainly a serious and important concern, though, is the function of the seminary as a kind of “authority of last resort” for denominational matters. It seems intuitively obvious to me that serious questions of faith and morals are not properly decided by straight-up majority vote. So, whenever a challenging theological issue is up for consideration by the denomination’s governing body, at the very least I would think the seminary faculty should be consulted for their input. That, in turn, calls the seminary to do what it does best—integrate biblical, historical/systematic, and pastoral theology in a manner suited to the needs of the church. And it is for this reason that denominations ought to be aware of what’s being taught in seminary classrooms: if the theology of a denomination’s seminaries departs dramatically from the theology of the denomination as a whole, that divergence inevitably will out.

In all events, I completely agree with Timon that the demise of historical literacy has had devastating consequences for the church as a whole—and at least part of the blame for this lies at the feet of denominational seminaries that’ve neglected to “tell the whole story” of Christianity. Happily, at least in some quarters, that does appear to be changing.


John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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