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On Theological Education and the Church’s Health

January 30th, 2019 | 18 min read

By Joshua Heavin

In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Alan Jacobs described the realization that compelled him to write The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis: “…what was so strange is that… right in the middle of the war… all three of these people [Auden, C. S. Lewis, and Jacques Maritain among others] were talking about education, and the formation of young minds and young characters. And I thought, what a strange thing to be talking about in the middle of a war.” Jacobs elaborates:

I thought, that explains it, that’s why these guys are thinking about education, because they’re thinking about rebuilding the Western democracies after the war. They see the end of the war coming, they believe that they will win, so what do we do then? How do we educate the next generation so that they don’t do what we did?

I am concerned that a few recent trends in theological education aimed at growth carry ramifications that over time can prove harmful to the church’s health, but there are notable exceptions that are reasons to be hopeful. Overall, although formal theological education has always changed throughout history, we at the very least need to be aware of how several recent challenges and changes will affect the church in decades to come.

What’s the Problem?

Formal theological education is in trouble. On the surface, this claim may appear to be mistaken; enrollment at some of the largest seminaries is still in the thousands, and the rapid expansion of online or hybrid distance education has made theological education more accessible than ever. Arguably, one might object, we are living in a golden era of theological education; there are more resources and opportunities available to more people than are even remotely comparable with centuries past.

However, the means by which some of this growth has been accomplished has not been without some significant losses. For instance, in the catalogues of most theological seminaries and divinity schools both evangelical and mainline, Greek and Hebrew requirements are trending downward. They are rarely pre-requisites for biblical studies classes, which consequently are based mainly on the translated English Bible rather than close interaction with primary sources. Moreover, many seminaries have reduced the hours required to get a Master of Divinity, the standard degree for ministerial preparation, to only 72 hours.

Many students are pursuing shorter Master degrees or abandoning the M.Div altogether, despite there being “no indication that reducing Master of Divinity credit hours leads to increased enrollment,” according to Chris Meinzer, senior director of administration and chief financial officer at the Association of Theological Schools, the primary accrediting agency of American seminaries and divinity schools. Some schools have re-structured degree programs to require less traditional classes (systematic theology, church history, biblical exegesis, etc.), and allow students to take classes oriented towards more hands-on skills for work in churches, and some offer degrees in leadership formation and other skills marketed as being more practical.

Meanwhile, although some schools are expanding, many older schools are financially struggling, even “on the brink of collapse” as profiled by The Wall Street Journal. Many seminaries are increasingly reliant upon hiring only adjunct faculty positions rather than full-time professors, a widespread problem currently disrupting higher education as a whole.

Now, in defense of these institutional decisions, we should welcome attempts to expand theological education, reduce costs, and remove obstacles to theological education. We should especially welcome all such efforts towards empowering historically underrepresented communities to attend and lead in formal theological education. We need to take even greater measures to avoid policies or creating systems that directly or indirectly privilege students from certain backgrounds discriminatorily over others.

Nonetheless, in spite of these good intentions, functionally diluting theological education in the trends outlined above will not be without extremely serious implications for generations to come. Consider, for instance, the following three examples of how this is already occurring.

Problem 1: Form and Content Cannot Be Separated

First, the content of theological education is necessarily affected when it is delivered in forms that are disconnected from an embodied community who studies, worships, and lives together. Even in hybrid-delivered classes where students meet over Skype and then get together in-person for weeks at a time, the actual education itself is drastically different. Rather than talking over and processing lectures together at the coffee table, spending un-planned time together building friendships, sharing meals, and getting to know each other’s families, online education necessarily means that you can’t truly know the people that you are learning with. There is something different about being in class weekly with women and men whom know you and who you know, with whom you have served and suffered together, as you study God and the things of God together.

Alternatively, while an intensive modular class may allow students to attend a course they otherwise could not attend, the content of such a class is affected by its format. How is a class different, for instance, where you receive the entire semester’s worth of in-class learning through six all-day sessions, compared to a more traditional class that has an hour’s lecture weekly, time to ruminate on the material over the course of months, and conduct informal discussions in-person over the assigned reading with faculty and other students in between classes? While online discussion forums can be helpful, they are not comparable to the critical and constructive ideas that can be generated in undirected discussions amongst friends and even foes. Similarly, how is the life of a school affected when adjuncts are increasingly utilized while full-time professors are phased out, who might otherwise oversee the coherence of a program or have relationships with students across multiple classes?

If our ‘theological education’ is identifiably theological at all in preparation for service in the church and the world, theological education can never be reduced to mere data transfer. Theological education aims at becoming the kind of people who are disciplined into the humility requisite to pray, speak wisely about God, love God, and love others for the glory of God in service to the church and the world. How will it affect the content of theological education to extract it into these new forms?

Problem 2: Language Skills and Distraction

Second, we should be concerned about the long-term implications of so many students preparing for ministerial service with only a cursory introduction to the biblical languages. As Protestants, we should be concerned that many students preparing to work in churches who just celebrated the 501st anniversary the Protestant Reformation are doing so without the competency needed for sustained reading of the Hebrew Bible and Greek Testaments.

Moreover, beyond seminary graduates who become pastors, we need to consider the consequences of these shrinking language requirements in seminary degree programs for those who might go on to become scholars and theologians. Ironically, there has perhaps never in history been a better time to learn an ancient language, with an abundance of amazing tools and resources available.

Perhaps, as Alan Noble has argued, we in our ‘distracted’ age are less inclined to memorize a new grammar in order to read ancient texts deeply because at any second we can find whatever information we’re looking for about these texts on our phone. However, my concern here is not at all an attack on seminary students for not working hard enough. Many, if not all, seminary students are forced to work full- or part-time jobs or internships in order to afford formal theological education. Many students are thus unable to healthily devote themselves fully to their studies, and this is especially the case as they try to avoid going into crippling seminary debt to obtain a three or four year graduate degree that comes with no job security.

In other words, according to Cameron Trimble, “The crisis we have is that if you’re graduating with a Master of Divinity you’re likely graduating with some significant debt and then you’ll struggle to find jobs and jobs that pay really low wages.” Sometimes seminaries are forced to make not consequential decisions (such as relying on adjuncts and online classes rather than hiring full-time faculty) in order to survive or remain financially viable, but these decisions will significantly affect the formation of the church’s future leaders, and not always for the better; declining competency in Greek and Hebrew are foremost examples in this regard.

Problem 3: The Tyranny of the Present

Third, with respect to church history, the majority of seminary degree programs only require students to devote six hours or less to survey courses. While there are wonderful exceptions, we should consider how that trend has already and will continue to affect the church when replicated over decades. When the church faces yet-unknown moral crises and theological dilemmas in decades to come, from what first principles do we hope that the church acts? What theological instincts do we hope are formed now into future leaders, or from what resources do we hope that generations to come will draw upon when they act morally and reason theologically? Now, and in the future, will the functional legislators of the church’s handling of the ever-urgent concerns of the present be trained theologians or journalists and celebrity-influencers?

If we intend to deliberately form a trajectory towards a healthier manner of navigating such problems, we should today expect seminary graduates to have devoted serious attention to extended readings of some of the most influential and significant texts in the church’s theological tradition, whether from Irenaeus and Augustine, to the Cappadocians and Maximus, to Aquinas and Calvin. Notably, there are already some commendable efforts being taken towards this end, and these efforts need to be amplified.

To clarify, the call to take primary sources in the church’s tradition seriously is not a veiled call for the recovery of a lost Western or white civilization. We all the more so need to become aware of how our theological traditions have historically affected others and a great starting place for American Christians is Jemar Tisby’s newly released The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. Moreover, we need to learn mutually correcting insights from the contributions to the church from the women and men of historically marginalized or historically under-represented communities in Christian history, such as black church traditions and theologians from the far east and global south.

A Cumulative Concern: Where Do Theological Educators Come From?

These trends among others, when compounded over decades, can create an unhealthy trajectory for the church’s formation of future pastors, but especially future scholars and theologians. Where will our future scholars and educators come from, or what will they be like, given these trends? Consider Carl Trueman’s observation that:

While the authority of Scripture has gripped the Evangelical imagination for much of the last century, mischief has been done to other Christian essentials. Recent years have revealed that some of the most influential Evangelical theologians of the last few decades were not even Trinitarian in the catholic, creedal sense. Vital classical doctrines such as divine simplicity, impassibility, and immutability are now at a premium, redefined beyond recognition or rejected out of hand. Errors that cost lives in the sixteenth century have been laughed off as minor blemishes on otherwise revered individuals and august institutions—a trivialization that reveals a terrible historical ignorance of both the creeds and the Reformation itself.

Trueman’s diagnosis here touches not a nerve but a main artery of Nicene Christianity. Consequently, we need to inquire: who would evangelicals like to have teaching in theological education fifty years from now, or what kinds of scholars would evangelical churches like to rely upon in decades to come? Under the current conditions, who will desire to go on and do further study if our M.Div. programs are less-equipped to prepare students for further study, and when secure job prospects do not follow the financial risk of pursuing a second master’s degree for two or more years and then a doctorate for three to ten years?

Most professors in evangelical seminaries today find themselves attempting to navigate three worlds simultaneously: the world of evangelical church life, the world of evangelical scholarship (such as the annual meeting of and publications associated with the Evangelical Theological Society), and the world of broader critical scholarship and religious scholarship that does not necessarily self-identify with Christianity (such as the annual meeting of and publications associated with the Society of Biblical Literature). Evangelical seminaries tend to prefer professors who have some experience working in churches, and rightly so, considering that seminaries largely exist to train students for Christian ministry.

Hence, evangelical seminaries tend to prefer professors who have themselves gone to an evangelical seminary for their M.Div. education. But additionally, seminaries understandably often tend to hire people who have a Phd from institutions with better academic credentials than most seminaries can provide in their own Phd programs. This creates an informal but common expectation that future theologians, scholars, and theological educators will personally take on the financial and vocational risks of attending college, spending three or four years getting an M.Div, and then an additional three to seven years or more to get a Phd, but then doing so only to find an increasingly brutal job market.

For the future of theology and theological education, our current, somewhat haphazard status quo is still producing scholars and theologians. Occasionally, individuals will receive scholarships and grants all the way through this long process and then find a tenured position. However, many other prospective scholars take on serious debt apart from the usual job prospects typically associated with the debt-investments of law or business school, and only find part-time adjunct positions after graduation.

Many others are only able to pursue this decades long education while working full- or part-time jobs, hence sacrificing significant time with their families while being able to only partially devote themselves to their studies. That informal system is far from a deliberate plan aimed at creating long-term health for the church and the church’s future pastors, theologians, and educators. We should hope that training to become a theologian proceeds from a sense of calling by God to serve the church, and we should hope that the training of theologians is rigorous, requires resilience, and involves sacrifice. Nevertheless, placing such a severe amount of stress on so many families and individuals for such an extended period of time as our current informal system involves is not a recipe for creating healthy persons, let alone healthy theologians and doctors of the church.

We need to ask ourselves today – what kind of biblical commentaries do we hope are written fifty and one hundred years from now, that our preachers will consult? What kind of theology would you like to see written about, lectured upon, memorized, examined, catechized, sung about, and discussed at hospital bedsides one hundred years from now? What resources for moral formation, sacramental practice, and ethical reasoning do you hope ministers and lay leaders will consult in decades to come when they face the yet-unknown questions and situations of the church’s witness and worship?

Where do we go from here? We need to value theological education.

The complex factors bearing upon these issues cannot be redressed in one essay, but I hope here to have encouraged churches to think through the implications of these trends in formal theological education. But constructively, I want to join my voice with others seeking to humbly, patiently, and persistently encourage the church to value theological learning. As Karl Barth rightly observed, “the whole church must seriously want a serious theology if it is to have a serious theology” (Church Dogmatics 1.1.77).

Is there a doctor in the house?

First, we need to probe the place trained theologians play in our ecclesiology. Notably, in his Ecclesiastical Ordinances of 1541, John Calvin argued that there were four offices in the church: elders, pastors, deacons, and… doctors. Calvin’s belief that the church should have doctors as an office has been largely abandoned by his Protestant successors. Within an American context, that is arguably less a consequence of intentional debates regarding whether or not ‘doctor’ should be an office in the church, and more a consequence of broader decline in Protestant ecclesiology. For example, the longest of the four books that make up Calvin’s 1560 edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion is devoted to ‘The Holy Catholic Church.’ But by the time Charles Hodge wrote one of the more influential systematic theologies in American history in 1872, despite mentioning the church throughout, Hodge did not devote a single chapter or section of his three-volume work to the doctrine of the church.

In contemporary North American Protestantism, some denominations have organizational affiliations with institutions of higher learning, but many seminaries and divinity schools operate as parachurch organizations or businesses through informal associations with networks of churches. Simultaneously, whether consciously articulated or not, almost every church already relies upon Christian scholars regularly; in addition to using translations of the Bible, there are too many problems and questions that require expertise for the average pastor to be capable of addressing. Hence, it is worth asking: ecclesiologically, what is the place of ‘doctors’ in our churches? We are using them already – but arguably in a haphazard manner. Whenever a new controversy arises, it is not uncommon for many pastors to expect that X well-known scholar at Y generally-trustworthy seminary will have something to say, and to then support their conclusions.

Amidst concerning trends on the cost and future of theological education, where will our future scholars and educators come from, or what will they be like, given these trends described above? Beyond plans for educating ministers, denominations need to think more intentionally today about the theological educators of tomorrow. At best, such questions are not unimportant but simply outside the purview of smaller churches who barely survive the weekly grind of ministerial life.

Alternatively, it might be the case that churches and pastors who do value theological education are content to assume that seminaries themselves will take care of creating theological educators. Undoubtedly, these parachurch ministries who strive to serve churches are made up of persons who love the church. However, it would be a mistake for the church to outsource the formation of its scholars and theological educators to parachurch seminaries and graduate schools because their interests are not necessarily identical, and hence churches cannot merely assume that the informal relationships between churches and seminaries will create the kind of leaders the church needs.

At worst, rigorous theological education and the creation of skilled theological educators and scholars can simply become unimportant to churches and pastors in exchange for focusing our limited resources of time, attention, and money towards more practical or immediate ends. A particularly dangerous trend in this regard is a conflation of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ with populist anti-expertise resentment: why do we need an elitist member of the Bible scholar intelligentsia to explain the historical context of some passage or the systematic relationship between doctrines – isn’t that creating a ‘priesthood of scholars’ between the individual and their Bibles? To the contrary: precisely because of the priesthood of all believers, we all the more so should encourage every member of the church to value what is happening in theological education today. The ‘priesthood of all believers,’ at least for the Reformers, was not about theological immediacy or populist individualism; Calvin explains that:

…as our ignorance and sloth (I may add, the vanity of our mind) stand in need of external helps, by which faith may be begotten in us, and may increase and make progress until its consummation, God, in accommodation to our infirmity, has added such helps, and secured the effectual preaching of the gospel, by depositing this treasure with the Church. He has appointed pastors and teachers, by whose lips he might edify his people (Eph. 4:11); he has invested them with authority, and, in short, omitted nothing that might conduce to holy consent in the faith, and to right order. In particular, he has instituted sacraments, which we feel by experience to be most useful helps in fostering and confirming our faith…

I will begin with the Church, into whose bosom God is pleased to collect his children, not only that by her aid and ministry they may be nourished so long as they are babes and children, but may also be guided by her maternal care until they grow up to manhood, and, finally, attain to the perfection of faith. What God has thus joined, let not man put asunder (Mark 10:9): to those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother. [John Calvin, Institutes, IV.1.1]

Even if an individual Christian never attends graduate school, the church’s health is inextricably bound up with how it trains theologians and educators. The ‘impractical’ minutiae debated in the ivory tower today has the potential to raise armies and shape the world of tomorrow; philosophical revolutions from a few decades ago are ubiquitous in our current world of entertainment and social media. To the extent we undervalue formal theological education or neglect participating in scholarship is to abdicate a valuable opportunity to prepare the church for service to Christ for the good of the world.

Valuing Theological Education in the Pastorate

Second, where theological education is not valued by churches, institutions of higher learning will not long be able to proceed with intellectual rigor and depth aiming at long-term health. Obviously, the church is not a classroom, and shepherding the flock of God is not academia. Moreover, simply because a pastor remains intellectually curious and theologically engaged by no means ensures that a congregation will be interpersonally healthy or theologically informed. However, if pastors are content to perform their work apart from a lifetime of theological learning and curiosity, the likelihood is small that their congregation will value formal theological education. Where this is widespread and coupled with biblical illiteracy in our churches, and compounded over decades, the viability of seminaries and divinity schools will become more and more difficult to sustain.

It is a relatively common conclusion of seminary students upon graduation that they have only begun to realize how little they know in the grand scheme of things, and how much more there is to explore. For me personally, a particularly dangerous view I held before seminary was that while I didn’t know everything, I thought that I more or less knew what the things were that I didn’t know and needed to study. But upon graduating with my M.Div. and reflecting upon my prior disposition, I realized that I didn’t even know what the things were that I didn’t know, and I was only just beginning to learn what to value. I knew that I didn’t have all the answers, and I didn’t expect to learn all the answers to everything in seminary; however, I thought I knew which questions were worth asking, and didn’t yet know that I was only just beginning to discover how inexhaustibly vast, demanding, and wonderful it could be to inquire after God and all things in relation to God. Before seminary I knew that Anselm was important for a few reasons. But it was only through assignments that required me to slowly trace the steps of how Anslem reasoned theologically that I begin to start learning how to theologize or critically appreciate the principles through which he operated.

But perhaps worst of all, I tacitly assumed seminary would provide me with the data bytes needed to be a pastor, as if formal theological education were the equivalent of a flash drive from which I could personally upload theological content. Undoubtedly, when formal theological education is faithfully pursued, graduates can become equipped with the tools and acquainted with the resources requisite for a lifetime of theological learning and Christian practice. But perhaps most important of all, it alone can produce the extremely unique and sustaining friendships not only over the course of a seminary degree program, but through the peculiar challenges that follow graduation in years to come and across a lifetime of faithful worship and witness. What will be the future of theological friendships given the rapid trends theological education is currently undergoing?

Commending Serious Theological Education as Worth Pursuing

Third, while churches still have youths zealous for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, we should seek to instill in them that it is a worthwhile, sacrificial, and valuable calling to devote oneself to disciplined theological training. Mark Noll’s 1995 The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind masterfully captured a historic tendency of evangelicals to focus their resources on more short-term and appreciably important practical concerns, but often to the neglect of investing deeply for the long haul into institutions oriented towards deeply-rooted moral and theological integrity.

If we hope to develop a resilient backbone in our churches capable of withstanding rapid social changes, if we hope to instill healthy theological instincts into our future leaders, and if we hope that those who come after us are equipped with healthy resources from the church’s tradition for reasoning from first principles through yet unknown ethical dilemmas, we need to invest in formal theological education today. Sadly, it is not uncommon for prospective evangelical leaders to wonder aloud whether or not theological training is really necessary for work in the church, whether such education might actually prove a hindrance to serving God, or for leaders in churches and seminaries to regard formal theological education as “not necessary, but it is advisable.”

Of course, a degree certificate in itself does not qualify a woman or man to be a servant in the church of the living God. As B.B. Warfield wrote a century ago, “A minister must be learned, on pain of being utterly incompetent for his work. But before and above being learned, a minister must be godly.” However, if we regard the ministry as at least as vital as the medical profession, we should expect as necessary that our pastors have at least been trained and examined lest their malpractice, whether intentional or not, seriously harm people. Notably, over the last few years several prominent evangelicals who never had any formal theological training have gone back to school to get a Master’s degree. Ed Stetzer recently interviewed Matt Chandler and Christine Caine about this, but perhaps the most widely publicized instance of this has been Joshua Harris.

All of us should commend the humble desire to learn and willingness to make sacrifices to attend seminary or graduate school later in life shown in these examples. Nonetheless, valuing theological education can not only help us avoid re-creating the wheel in each generation but perhaps avoid at least some unintended harm to others, as recently profiled in Joshua Harris’ apologies for mistakes made in his younger years. As Rachael Denhollander explained last January, our theology has tremendous potential to help but also seriously harm people: “One of the dynamics that you see in a Christian church that is particularly devastating is poor theology,” especially if “…people are motivated by poor theology and a poor understanding of grace and repentance and that causes them to handle sexual assault in a way where that a lot of predators go unchecked, often for decades.” There is too much at stake to undervalue theological education today.

Finally, for those youths zealous to begin working in churches as soon as possible rather than sitting in a classroom, we can learn from how Alyosha is described – or, what a truly costly sacrifice might be – in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov:

Add to that that he was to some extent a youth of our last epoch – that is, honest in nature, desiring the truth, seeking for it and believing in it, and seeking to serve it at once with all the strength of his soul, seeking for immediate action, and ready to sacrifice everything, life itself, for it. Though these young men unhappily fail to understand that the sacrifice of life is, in many cases, the easiest of all sacrifices, and that to sacrifice, for instance, five or six years of their seething youth to hard and tedious study, if only to multiply tenfold their powers of serving the truth and the cause they have set before them as their goal, such a sacrifice is utterly beyond the strength of many of them.

There are undoubtedly several different ways to responsibly approach Alan Jacobs’ enduring question: ‘How do we educate the next generation so that they don’t do what we did?’ My concern at present is that too few of us within the church are haunted by it.

Joshua Heavin

Joshua Heavin (PhD, Aberdeen) is a curate and deacon at an Anglican church in the Dallas area, and an adjunct professor in the School of Christian Thought at Houston Christian University, and at West Texas A&M University.