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Renewing Public Protestantism: Seminaries

August 8th, 2023 | 5 min read

By Cameron Shaffer

By any conceivable metric, the Western church is in decline. Much of this deterioration has been induced by devaluing pastoral ministry’s central feature, namely equipping the saints for growth in the knowledge of the Son of God. This afflicts not only the broader evangelical movement, but also Orthodox Protestantism.

While plenty has been written on how to restore Christianity in the West (e.g. Tim Keller’s How to Reach the West Again, and ‘The Decline and Renewal of the American Church’; Jake Meador’s ‘Toward a Renewed Public Protestantism’) the focus has been on how to improve witness to the world. That is fine and good, but how the church bears witness should flow from what we are witnessing about. There’s been no meaningful call to action for equipping the church to repair its own ruins, partially because the theological and doctrinal health of the church has been taken for granted. What is assumed is soon lost, and the church has assumed its biblical health; the church’s posture, winsome or otherwise, is immaterial if all it is offering is in ruins.

And make no mistake that the American church is squandering the very basics of its witness. Orthodox Protestantism prides itself on being healthier than the broader evangelicalism of which it is a subset, yet it faces the same maladies. Our churches officially hold to Nicene orthodoxy while our people unwittingly embrace Arianism.

In times of crisis and decline, the instinct among institutions is to panic and get too creative for their own good. What the church needs is not to be reimagined, but to be restored through a resourcement from its own treasures.

Orthodox Protestantism, including my own Presbyterian tradition, has valued God’s ordinances as central to the life, witness, and mission of the church. Public worship on Sunday, composed of faithfully preaching the gospel as given in the scriptures, administering the sacraments, and devotion to prayer have historically characterized the church. While this is the work of the whole church, the responsibility to lead and disciple falls upon the pastor. The faithfulness of the pastor leads to the equipping and health of the church: The pastor’s exposition and application of God’s word, liturgical leadership, and humility in prayer are indispensable tools by which the church’s witness is upheld and mission accomplished.

It is not for the pastor to innovate or make the church his own. In the late 19th century, Dutch Neo-Calvinists critically noted that many American pastors made the pulpit a platform for their own personality and vision, yielding innovative and individualized philosophies of ministry. This ought not to be. An alternative, enduring model is found in the beautiful and practical guide to the ins-and-outs of pastoral resourcement in Lutheran minister Harold Senkbeil’s wonderful The Care of Souls (2019). Pastors are stewards of churches they inherit, not on behalf of the long-time congregants, but on behalf of Jesus, the chief pastor, and the greater church to which the congregation belongs. The pastor should safeguard the church’s dogmatic confession of faith and liturgical practices, not jettison or revise them. The ministry of the church, expressed in teaching and worship, should conform to the received and time-tested riches of the church’s theological inheritance.

Much of what ails the church today and has undercut its potency and witness is the loss of basic pastoral competency. The race to the lowest liturgical denominator, along with theologically and biblically illiterate pastors, has left the church weak and its witness murky. No amount of missional recalibration can compensate for this.

Part of the reason for this loss is the downgrade of pastoral preparation. Orthodox Protestantism has long held an educated clergy in high esteem, ostensibly because being a physician of the soul should require substantial training. Underlying this conviction is the principle that ministers should be equipped before they are deployed, and that pastoral ministry requires an in-depth understanding of scripture. Theological seminaries have historically served the valuable role of preparing pastors for field service by educating them to understand God’s word for the sake of the church.

Unfortunately, for the better part of the last few decades seminaries have diluted their programs. Seminaries have shifted their formal doctrine from robust confessions of faith tied to particular church traditions to brief and broadly evangelical statements. They diminished the hours for the Master of Divinity degree, exchanged competency in (and even exposure to) the biblical languages for translation software, and reduced biblical theology, doctrine, and church history courses, replacing them with topical electives and practical courses. Seminaries did this in large part because their customer base (pastors and churches) demanded it. The inevitable result? Pastors who practice without understanding. The church is in decline because it has pastors who may know techniques, but do not know God’s revelation. And now neither does the church.

To remedy this, including the significant cost of graduate education, several things can still be done on the front end of pastoral preparation. First, seminaries can raise the bar of biblical and doctrinal expectations for their students. Seminaries ought to require knowing biblical Hebrew and Greek before students take exegetical classes. Martin Luther argued that to lose the biblical languages is to lose the gospel, and John Owen asserted that the single best tool for a minister to know the mind of God was being able to read the Bible in the original languages. On the other hand, the most dangerous, counterproductive tool is to have a superficial familiarity with the languages, for that way lies a presumptuous, superficial familiarity with God and his word. Exegesis should not be done by lexicon or AI, and seminaries need to prepare students accordingly.

The bulk of the curriculum should be biblical and theological studies taught in a cohesive, confessional way that reflects the doctrine of the actual, denominational church rather than an amorphous evangelicalism. So that they are mastered by scripture, students need to be trained in how to read and study the Bible on its terms. Students should know both the content of scripture and how it all fits together. Students should be taught to think theologically, to understand not just what the church confesses, but how and why it does so. To that end, dogmatic studies should build off of biblical theology, informed and directed by the church’s confessional rule of faith with a goal of students not just regurgitating doctrinal bullet points, but being able to theologically reason for the sake of the church. In turn, church history should not be an afterthought, but a crucial avenue in which pastors are taught how to resource the current church from its venerable, Catholic heritage. Any practical training should only ever come after this, since practice flows from knowledge and understanding. While a seminary cannot provide understanding of all the ins-and-outs of daily pastoral ministry and church life, they can provide knowledge and understanding of God’s revelation. Along these lines, current pastors should demonstrate to their congregations the value of a ministry infused with God’s word, and urge potential students to attend seminaries that will train them in this standard.

Finally, churches need to value and demand that their pastors are trained to know God’s word thoroughly. Above all else, local congregations should prioritize feasting on God’s word in worship, and denominations should hold fast to their high ordination standards to ensure that their congregations receive such nourishment. And denominations should not let the tail wag the dog: seminaries exist for the church, not the other way around. While online education has been an invaluable boon to pastoral candidates without access to a seminary or money, nothing replaces the quality of in-person instruction. Too often, pastoral candidates choose the lesser option of online education because of funding. The American church is still very wealthy; if it values biblically robust and faithful pastoral ministry, it should pay for it. Congregations and denominations should fund the seminary education of their pastoral candidates. Seminaries are responsive to market forces, and churches, particularly connectional denominations, can leverage their resources to encourage schools to prioritize robust biblically theological education.

Before the different visions for reaching the West and renewing the church are to come to fruition, the church has to be willing to invest in its pastors. Christ’s call to the church is to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and to that end Jesus has given the church pastors. Churches shouldn’t be looking to find something new, but to recapture the practices that are biblical and have endured. Only then can renewal occur.

Cameron Shaffer

Cameron Shaffer (M.Div, Redeemer Seminary; M.Th, University of Glasgow) is the pastor of Langhorne Presbyterian Church in Langhorne, Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife and children. He can be found online at cameronshaffer.com.