Americans are busy people who continue to conquer a big place which has, since the 18th century, offered wealth and great influence to those who work hard and who produce a product or service valued by others. Education, per se, has not always been valued for itself. Presently, undergraduate education is highly valued, judging by what the market is willing to pay, as a means to future success. Judging by her graduates, however, what is being sold to the student isn’t always education, at least not as that idea has been traditionally defined. What the culture values is the economic result of having attended an undergraduate school and having obtained a credential. Evangelicals (and too many Reformed folk) are children of this anti-intellectual culture and they often look at the training of pastors in the same way. They like the credential and the license it brings to serve the church but they don’t seem to care for the process or even the substance of education as much as they desire the credential.
This antipathy for genuine education appears in a variety of ways but one way in which it has manifested itself is in the proliferation of ad hoc seminaries where the faculty is unqualified , not residential, or non-existent. The problem is, since many undergraduates have not received a proper education either in high school or in college as they are considering where to attend seminary they are poorly prepared to evaluate what constitutes a good seminary education. For starters, they don’t know what are the marks of a true school. Let me propose three: Genuine learning, genuine faculty, and proper recognition.
Without genuine learning there can be no true education. By learning I do not mean only or primarily the dissemination and accumulation of information. This is what many students think (or have been taught to think) that education is. This class of student thinks that the teacher is in possession of information that the student must have in order to complete the course and get on to the “real work of ministry.” The information collector sits in class and busily transcribes (almost always by computer now) every word from the teacher’s mouth without stopping to evaluate the character, significance, or significance of what is being said. Every word is treated as if it were as important as every other word. When the information stops flowing the collector stops typing. Analysis, if it occurs, is delayed to the end of term cram session.
Nor do I mean, moving to the other end of the spectrum (as I learned from Thomas de Zengotita and I’m being reminded by Jean M. Twenge’s Generation Me) what the Narcissist assumes. The Narcissist is the sovereign arbiter of what is to be known, what should be learned, and what (if anything) shall be learned in class. If the teacher’s goals match up with the Narcissist, so much the better for the teacher.
By genuine learning I mean memorizing the grammar, understanding the logic, and and mastering the rhetoric of a discipline. The grammar is the basic stuff of any intellectual enterprise. In my discipline (church history) the grammar is composed of the facts of the biography, circumstances, and intellectual history of a given person, episode, or movement. For example, it is impossible to study the council of Nicea without understanding when the Council met, why it met, and under what circumstances. These things must be mastered before one can analyze the significance of the Council and its product (the Nicene Creed). Genuine learning takes into account the internal structure of a discipline both in general and in particular. Thus the student of history must understand how history itself works and how and why things unfolded in any particular case. Third, a student must learn the language of a discipline, i.e., how to talk about it intelligently and even how to explain it to others. If you can’t explain something to someone else, how well do you understand it yourself? Yes, there is intuitive knowledge but schools cannot major in intuition!
Finally, a genuine education requires a student to think well and clearly, to be stretched, to develop critical faculties. More than once I’ve heard from prospective and students in various schools that they chose this or that school because, in effect, they were sure that school would not challenge them to re-think or even think through their convictions. In other words, such students choose a school because they are confident that it will reinforce their existing convictions or even validate their prejudices. Let me illustrate. I recall, some years back, receiving a paper from a student (in order to be excused from a preliminary course) which proposed to show that a view propounded by a certain (then) faculty member was wrong. It doesn’t matter exactly what the issue was except it was one on which there are a variety of reasonable, well-grounded, views and about which there is no clear unanimity among orthodox scholars. Now this student may have been correct in his conclusion but what troubled me was that the student knew the correctness of his conclusion before he had ever engaged in a thorough or careful study of the matter. The student had not learned a syllable of Greek or Hebrew (or any other ancient languages or any modern European languages for that matter). He had not engaged with any higher-level critical study of the issue in any way nor was he capable yet of doing so, but he was undeterred in his confidence. It never occurred to this student that he might be wrong or that he could be wrong or that there might be things which he needed to learn before coming to iron-clad conclusions. A year or two later, the student transferred to a school where he was confident that his certainty would not be disturbed and I suppose his confidence was well placed. I submit that such an approach does not constitute genuine learning.
Real learning is often painful because it requires a genuine student to put to death familiar and cherished notions and to confront new and unfamiliar ones. It causes self-examination and that is usually painful. It requires the acquisition not only of new skills, which can be difficult, but it also requires the formation of new ways of thinking which is never easy. True education is a counter-cultural undertaking. One must break from the prevailing culture of “busy-ness” and enterprise (whether commercial or religious) in order to become educated because real learning takes time, patience, and sacrifice.
A Proper Faculty
Next we must distinguish between those schools that have a proper faculty and those that do not.
One of the difficulties that prospective students face in evaluating possible seminaries is that of determining the quality of the faculty. My own experience is not atypical. When I came to seminary in 1984 I knew virtually nothing about the seminary except that Jay Adams taught there and that my good friend and fellow member of St John’s RCUS (Lincoln, Neb) a friend loved the school and that it was in San Diego and it had a famous name. To be sure, I expected that it would adhere to rigorous academic standards and I knew (and know) Chuck to be a very good and thoughtful student and a reliable guide. I suppose they sent me a catalogue but I don’t remember reading it very closely.
Today, of course, with the advent of web it is much easier to learn about a faculty. Even with the arrival of easily found information, one still must make sense of it all. One reasonably objective way to evaluate whether a seminary faculty is qualified to provide a true education is to look at their credentials.
A century or more ago it was relatively common for teachers at the seminary level to lack a PhD or to have an honorary doctorate (e.g. D. D.) as in the case of the founder of Westminster Seminary, J. Gresham Machen. None could doubt Machen’s scholarship or learning and few in his day did. Today, however, because of changes in the academy, because of professionalization and specialization of academics, most college and seminary teachers have some sort of doctoral degree and it’s become expected that anyone who teaches at the undergraduate (BA/BS) or graduate (e.g. seminary or MA/MDiv) level will have a doctorate; but are all doctoral degrees the same? Do they all reflect the same quality of of research and scholarship? This is a sensitive area but one that needs to be probed. With the rising expectation that seminary teachers will have a PhD combined with American ingenuity, there has developed classes of doctoral degrees that are are not all the same.
The standard academic doctoral degree is a PhD (or in one case, D.Phil). A PhD is not necessarily a degree in the field of philosophy per se but it is an earned degree awarded to students who (typically in the USA in some branch of the liberal arts) have completed an MA (or two), passed two years of coursework in preparation for comprehensive exams, and successfully completed and defended a sustained, detailed, piece of original academic research grounded in original sources and accounting for the relevant secondary literature. This research is conducted under the supervision of an experienced faculty member and sometimes under the supervision of an entire committee and is presented to a committee and defended orally. Such a program usually takes not less than five years and frequently as many as seven years to complete. In the UK and Europe doctoral research presupposes a more rigorous secondary and post-secondary education and thus not always as lengthy but usually no less rigorous. Typically this work is undertaken in an accredited (to be addressed below) university setting and under the supervision of a recognized (e.g., properly credentialed and academically published) scholar in a given field. A select few seminary PhD programs have, in certain instances, outstanding scholars which help to compensate for their relative lack of resources as compared to those available to state schools with public funding or to prestigious private schools with large endowment funds.
Not all PhDs are the same. There are schools that do not meet the criteria laid out above, which regularly bestow PhDs upon graduates on the basis of research that would not merit such recognition in university or even in an accredited seminary. A real PhD thesis will be accessioned in a library in an accredited school and shall have been subject to genuine peer review. These second-class PhDs, however, lack the substance of an actual PhD. In medieval terms, such a PhD is a mere nomen. It is a name only, a fiction, and not a reality. I am aware of schools that award such PhDs that are not available for review by the academic community and that are not subject to peer review.
In some cases, however, even accredited schools are capable of awarding second-class PhDs. A few years back I was asked to serve as an outsider reader or referee of a PhD thesis being done at a large, well-known evangelical seminary. I read the thesis and found it interesting and suggestive but lacking in several ways. The student had made a good start but it was evident that he was not expert in his field. The thesis demonstrated ignorance of basic works and skills in the field. It could have been an MDiv honors thesis or perhaps an MA thesis but it was not yet ready for prime time. I sent my evaluation to this effect and suggested that the student needed about 2 more years of study before submitting the project for final approval. Imagine my astonishment when, two weeks later, I saw a notice that this fellow was now the Rev Dr So and So, PhD. Normally, in a university setting, a recommendation like that by an external reader would be decisive. I guess this school will not be sending me any more PhD theses to evaluate.
Before a prospective student invests thousands of dollars and thousands of hours into a school, he ought to determine whether the faculty of a given school is properly educated (which is a matter of substance) and properly credentialed (a matter of form). Do most of the faculty have real, credible PhDs from real, credible (e.g. accredited) schools with a track record of outstanding scholarship? Here’s one clue that something may be amiss: Does the seminary faculty hold their PhD degrees from the same school in which they teach? This is not a fatal problem but it raises questions. Here is a second clue: is the seminary run by a single family? Here is a third question: Could this faculty hypothetically teach elsewhere, at a real, well-recognized school?
There is also a class of so-called “professional” doctoral degrees, e.g. DMin which are aimed at busy professionals who do not have time to leave their profession to return to school for a traditional academic course of study. The professional doctoral degree does not usually meet the tests set out above for an academic degree. In the interests of full disclosure, my employer had a DMin program for several years but we closed our program at the same time many seminaries in North America began theirs. Typically these programs do not require knowledge of original or foreign languages nor do they require original academic research. This is not to say that there are no good DMin projects, there are but they are the exception rather than the rule. The nature and proliferation of this degree is such that David Wells complained, in print, some years back about the “DMin-ization” of the church. He was getting at the problem which lies beneath the need for pastors to augment their credibility by becoming “Rev Dr So and So, DMin.” There are schools who have faculty members whose credential is a DMin. Again, this is not fatal but, caveat emptor. It is fair to ask why a faculty member has a professional and not academic degree and whether that degree is sufficient preparation for the course of study in which instructor teaches. I’m not thinking here of visiting or adjunct faculty but rather about full-time, residential faculty.
A second objective mark of the quality of a faculty is the number of credible academic and popular publications by that faculty. Again, I’m not suggesting that if a faculty has not written much that it is necessarily a poor faculty. The original faculty at WSC was busying founding an institution in what was then still something of an ecclesiastical wilderness for Reformed confessional theology, piety, and practice. In the nature of things they had not time in the early 80s to do a lot of research and writing. We’re all conscious here of standing on the shoulders of those of our predecessors and teachers who carried heavy teaching loads and who traveled and made it possible for us to write more than they. Still, it is fair to ask whether a faculty has produced notable, academically responsible, peer-reviewed, and recognized doctoral research and publications. Has the faculty published in peer-reviewed journals? Has their work been of service to the churches? These are fair questions.
There is a third mark that should be mentioned briefly. The first two marks have focused on the substantial and formal academic qualification of a seminary faculty. This is reasonable since we are discussing those whose vocation it is to teach in and conduct research in schools. Nevertheless, since we’re also talking about a seminary faculty it’s also important to recognize that the school exists to serve the visible, institutional church. Thus, it is fair to ask whether and to what degree a seminary faculty is involved with and serving the visible church. In my school our faculty are ministers or elders in NAPARC churches. We serve on consistories and sessions (the assembly of elders and ministers of local congregations) and are delegates to classis and presbytery (the regional assemblies of pastors and elders) and to synods and general assemblies (the national assemblies of pastors and elders). We preach, we administer the sacraments, we do house visitation, we counsel, and we visit the sick. Balancing all this with a commitment to academic excellence is demanding but it is our calling.
The quality of a faculty is at the heart of the seminary experience and judging by the correspondence I’ve received and conversations I’ve had with prospective students many of them are unaware of what it is that makes a seminary faculty properly prepared to offer an education. It will be well for the prospective student to investigate the quality of a given faculty before committing time and funds toward an education that a faculty may not be prepared to offer.
The third mark of a true school is quite controversial in some circles. By proper recognition I mean accreditation. This is not something that every prospective student considers and it may be something about which consistories/sessions are unaware. In case you think accreditation is unimportant you should know that a school’s accreditation status (or lack thereof) affects the ability of students to receive student loans, enter the military chaplaincy, and to attend graduate school among other things. Accreditation has more to do with the quality of a school than one might think. If a seminary is not accredited by one or more such agencies (i.e. a regional accrediting agency and/or ATS) that fact should cause the wise student to pause and consider why that might be.
Accreditation is a corollary to the academic peer-review process mentioned in above. Just as journal articles, chapters, and books are reviewed by other scholars before being accepted for publication so schools are also reviewed to see that they meet basic standards, to see whether a school is fulfilling its promises made to students and to prospective students. Accreditation evaluates whether a school is meeting certain basic academic and administrative standards (e.g. sufficient faculty, library, staff, and other resources). My school is accredited by two agencies recognized by the Department of Education: WASC (Western States) which accredits colleges and graduate schools and ATS (Association of Theological Schools). Beware that there are other bodies that offer accreditation that may or may not be recognized by the Department of Education.
In some, usually hyper-conservative/fundamentalist circles, the lack of proper accreditation is regarded a badge of courage. The rhetoric, at least in some instances, is “we’ve resisted ‘the man,’ those allegedly oppressive leftist bureaucratic types in the interest of biblical/confessional/cultural (fill-in-the-blank) fidelity.” Certainly there may be instances where accreditation is genuinely problematic on the basis of principle. For example, it wasn’t long ago that the Middle States (regional) accrediting agency threatened to remove the accreditation of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia over a matter of conscience. The courts intervened and the school’s liberty was preserved. In such a case ideologues were willing to use the accreditation process to force conformity. No one with conservative religious convictions should be naive about potential challenges in the accreditation process. Nevertheless, I’ve had conversations with visiting accreditation teams about such issues and, however much they have disagreed with our conclusions, they have always been respectful of our convictions and the intellectual rigor with which they are supported and the grace with which they are explained.
The proliferation of unaccredited schools presents a challenge to prospective students, to donors, and to churches who send students to school as part of their preparation for ministry. For one thing it means that they lack an external, objective measure of the health of the school. Imagine sending a child to a physician whose degree was not recognized by the American Medical Association. Does this mean that the prospective physician is necessarily a quack? No, but it does increase the probability. Just as most of us are not qualified to work on today’s high-tech cars, most prospective students (and their consistories/sessions) probably are not expert in educational administration. They may not be aware of all the moving parts that help a school to function. The accreditation process is designed to check all those moving parts (while they are moving!) to make sure that everything is in place. For that process a school produces an extensive series of reports. The visiting teams meet with the administration, the board, the faculty, and others to evaluate comprehensively whether a school is operating well and serving its students faithfully. In turn, the visiting teams produce their own reports. Accrediting agencies also produce annually a volume that records what is really happening in a seminary, how many students are actually enrolled and other relevant facts. The variance between what some schools report to the accreditation agencies and what they say in their publicity can be interesting to note.
Students considering an unaccredited school should think carefully about whether there is a legitimate reason for a school not being accredited or whether a school lacks a real accreditation (i.e. one recognized by the Department of Education) because it is simply a poor school and thus, likely, a waste of money. There are more than a few home-made seminaries, which are unable to provide the necessary education, which lack a qualified faculty, which lack the necessary library (and other) resources, that are all too ready to take your money and give you a degree. Would you attend medical school in someone’s basement? Would you trust your health to a physician trained at such a school? Why we should entrust the care of our congregations to pastors trained at home-made seminary? Consistories/sessions, classes/presbyteries and other bodies should consider why should we are sometimes willing to accept lower standards in our seminaries than we would for medical schools.
UPDATE 18 February 2015
This post was written six years ago. Since that time some things have changed. Gordon College’s regional accreditation agency appears to be threatening to remove their accreditation because the college president signed on to a letter regarding homosexuality. If the agency removes Gordon’s accreditation for articulating the historic Christian position on human sexuality and if that move is not overturned by the courts, then Christian educational institutions shall have to organize another, credible accreditation process.