Education without ethos is simply unsustainable given the indefatigable impulse toward rogue individualism.
As was once said of conservative philosopher Russell Kirk, “if you stand still long enough, soon or later your avant garde,” so can be said of my experience with confessional theological education. Avant garde, an adjective typically known to express the belligerently unique of contemporary culture, can also collapse its own definition when uniqueness means a slow revolt in the opposite direction. Confessional theological education, I would argue, represents the antithesis of a culture enamored with progressivism and has in itself become avant garde.
Americans and evangelicals no less have been fed on a steady, turbulent diet of believing that independence of thought as self-expression and rogue individuality are the values to be cherished above all others. It’s the climax of autonomy born from the Enlightenment.
Many today consider confessional theological education of any stripe threadbare—outdated, restrictive, indoctrinating. Having been exposed now to both non-confessional theological education and confessional theological education, I believe—unequivocally—in the latter and would have it no other way, personally speaking.
At present, I am working on my master’s degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a seminary instituted under the auspices of the Baptist Faith and Message, and more unique to the seminary itself, The Abstract of Principles. Both, fortunately speaking, are taken very seriously and minute deviation from the articles on the part of the faculty is not only frowned upon, but subject to dismissal. Sounds rigid, right? Not so fast.
Three years ago, at an unnamed Christian university which I attended, I began to have serious questions over whether it was legitimate for women to serve as pastors. It was an honest struggle wrought from serious investigation and hermeneutical curiosity. One day after class, I innocently approached my professor asking his guidance on this issue. His answer, “You’ll have to determine that answer for yourself. It’s not up to me.”
Now, in one sense, I can appreciate his brief reply and in truth, this institution is founded upon at least a minimal evangelical confession. He was pressing me to investigate the issue for myself (which, thankfully I did). On another level, however, the manner in which I approached him was not under the banner of academic mystique, but serious pastoral need. I was seeking guidance on an issue that often sends people on very different trajectories in their theology. At that particular time in my life, I was more concerned on being correct on this issue than I was navigating the correct hermeneutical lens in which to interpret the book of Revelation.
Go ahead and insert every pejorative label that you may have for my educational preference: Foundationalist, or, even worse, “Modern.” Yet Southern Seminary is unequivocal where it stands in its convictions—theologically, socially, and culturally; and in this capacity it is harkening back to the mission of higher education in general—moral, spiritual, and ethical formation. And conviction, often pilloried by the rebels in our midst, is where foundations are laid.
I do not want to categorically condemn non-confessional theological education; to each, reasonably speaking, their own. Yet, what I am attempting to argue is that confessional institutions breed a stronger identity and mission. Dissent is less likely to occur because individuals enter the institution voluntarily. Gone are the days where students are apathetic to authority.
I would encourage everyone to study and examine the ethos of their educational institution, particularly if it is a theological institution. I believe you’ll find a direct relationship between the health of the institution confessionally and the vision of the institution at large.