How Not To Train Pastors

I see that someone is starting an(other?) online seminary. The whole business of online/distance seminary education is troubling. Because the confessional Reformed churches (i.e., NAPARC) are conservative and theologically oriented, we tend to attract ideologically committed folks. That’s okay but it means that we might have more than our fair share of ideologues and even a few crackpot groups (e.g., King James Only – “if it was good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me” and geocentrists – “Copernicus and Galileo couldn’t tell a galaxy from a candy bar”). Since, by intent and its very nature, online seminary education skirts the usual educational process, the usual faculty interview and appointment process, and of course, the regulatory process, it’s hard to see how the growing trend of online “education” will help us curb the tendency toward wackiness in the conservative Reformed world.

It’s also hard to see how an educational institution that relies entirely upon online libraries and tutors will produce a genuinely intelligent ministry. There are a lot of great books online (e.g., via Google books) but most online books are in the public domain which means that they weren’t published before 1923. Would you trust your health to a doctor or your legal well being to a lawyer who had only read medical or legal texts published before 1923? If you don’t mind not having access to polio treatments (1952), I guess that’s a choice but as a matter of public health it would be best if everyone didn’t see that physician.

There has been considerable discussion about this post over at The Puritanboard. The PB thread was started my my friend Jerrold Lewis. I haven’t read his blog post, so I’m only responding to the discussion on the PB.

I see there has been clucking about the the fact that Clark doesn’t seem to know that the cost of computers has come down.  I wrote the “necessity” essay about 10 years ago or so. Still, a laptop can run $1500 without much difficulty.

As to whether this is like the home school v. traditional school debate, that’s interesting because we home school. I recognize that primary education was done at home or at least privately for centuries. The modern idea that primary/secondary (seminary being post-secondary) education must be conducted in a factory is quite novel and has proven to be not entirely successful. There is a rather large difference between home schooling and distance ed: home schooling is still a face to face tutorial whereas distance ed is not. There is also a significant difference between the general education that occurs at the primary and secondary levels (trivium) and the more technical education that occurs at the post-secondary levels.

The proposal that we should go back to the 19th century American model of full-time ministers training candidates for ministry seems to ignore several facts. First, it’s been tried and abandoned. It was abandoned because it didn’t work very well. It was an ad hoc way of dealing with circumstances not a principled rejection of the University (which is where ministers were trained for centuries before the New World). Further, the Old Side was quite critical of the Log College and quite preferred that candidates for ministry receive a formal theological education.

There are massive practical problems with ad hoc theological/ministerial education. The fact of intellectual specialization has been in evidence since the 13th century – it’s not a wholly modern phenomenon. The speed of specialization has increased with the development of communication technology (printing, telephone, computers etc). The amount of information that must be learned and processed is considerably greater now than it was in the 19th century.

The movement away from the Log College to Princeton was a natural development that followed a pattern that is evident in the early medieval and high medieval periods. We had catechetical schools in the early church organized around a single teacher (still face to face education mind you!). Those schools became associated with cathedrals (sort of an ecclesiastical county seat). Those cathedral schools were larger but not specialized. One “prof” taught both the arts (trivium) and theology. The need for specialization helped create the universities in Oxford and Paris with distinct theology and arts faculties. There was already too much for one person to teach by the 12th century. That process has only continued.

Today, it is not possible for even the most brilliant minister to tend his flock, study for his sermon, and keep up at a professional level (let’s assume he has a PhD and is expert in a given field) with one field let alone four to seven departments, depending on how one divides things. It’s not even possible for a full-time scholar who doesn’t have the daily demands of telephone calls, pastoral calls, hospital visits, small groups studies, crises, sermons, catechism lessons, and planning and session/consistory meetings (as our full-time pastor does) to keep up with more than one field. I teach in three distinct fields and I despair of doing a good job in each. Two of them are closely related (church history and historical theology) but just keeping up with developments and literature in the one theological locus I teach (the doctrine of God, not to mention the other loci of theology) is overwhelming!

So, I take it that one would have to argue that it’s really not necessary to have specialists/experts teaching in each department (exegesis, systematics, history, and practica), that a general knowledge of these things is sufficient. In that case, one has embraced an apparently pious but anti-intellectual approach to training ministers. At the end of the day, that anti-intellectualism will show itself to be impious.

We’re training MINISTERS of the gospel here. We have a spiritual and moral duty to see to it that our ministers have the best education possible. They have the highest calling and the toughest job on the planet. They must be highly trained because they will be pressed on every side (I know!) and pulled in every direction. They will be called to render unexpected judgments in hospital rooms. They must be able to draw on serious (and prayerful) training received at the hands of ministers with highly specialized training. Ministers call upon that training every day in a hundred ways. Now more than ever it is evident that we cannot allow the training of our ministers to slip one iota.

Appeals to the apostolic era are non-starters. Unless you can raise men from the dead, shake off serpents, or heal the lame, unless you were at the feet of the Savior for 3 years and unless you had a tongue of fire on your head, if you would be a minister, you should go to seminary.

To the claim (in another post) that we should be reading mostly 400 year old books (which, as a teacher of history it is my calling to read and teach history) I ask, is that what John Owen did? Did he actually spend most of his time reading 400 year old books or was he one of the most well-read and intelligent theologians of his time? Was he fluent in contemporary Protestant, Roman, Socinian, and Amyraldian, and rationalist theology in Europe? Yes. The point is that we ought to read Owen (and the rest of the British and European classical Reformed theologians) but we ought to do in our age what Owen did in his. Were Owen alive today I’m quite sure he would be thoroughly versed in all the aberrant ideologies and theologies of our day as he was in his own day. He certainly wouldn’t be telling us that we should be reading mostly or only 400 year old theology at the expense of a thorough knowledge of the latest scholarship.

Finally, my question is why doesn’t the analogy with lawyers and doctors work? What is there about the vocation to the ministry that demands LESS training than the vocation to the law or the vocation to medicine? Why should ministers have a less rigorous education (or none at all?)

Are anti-brick and mortar seminary proponents willing to trust your legal and medical well-being to home-grown doctors and lawyers and if not, why not? If we may have ministers who have been trained solely by other ministers then why not lawyers and physicians trained solely by other lawyers and physicians? Because no lawyer who actually knew anything about the law would dare attempt to train other lawyers in place of law school. No sane physician would attempt to replace med school. There’s no way that a single person or even a private co-op could replace the work done in med school.

A seminary is quite like medical and law school. It is an extended internship/apprenticeship, arts education, and technical education in one over the course of several years. This combination cannot be replicated away from school. The alternatives all sacrifice one or more elements.

So, which of the elements are we prepared to sacrifice as we educate our pastors? Knowledge of the Biblical languages? Knowledge of archeology? Knowledge of church history (please say “no!”), knowledge of systematic theology? Time with experienced pastor-scholars who help to shape future ministers in and out of the classroom?

The good news is that we don’t have to sacrifice any of these things.

Well, the discussion over at the PB is still going. Here some responses from that discussion and elsewhere. To Jerrold’s objection I answer (expanding on what wrote originally): In the interests of time, I would like to focus on one question of principle rather than the particulars of your proposal.

We’ve been round this pole more than a few times and I don’t expect to convince you, but I hope that you will at least appreciate how it seems to me that your approach is a subtle sort of anti-intellectualism.

I think there is a difference between real, professional scholarship and that of the amateur variety. Frankly, most pastors are amateur scholars. By this I don’t mean to be demeaning, but it’s a fact. We do train pastor-scholars and we do expect our students and graduates to be able to recognize and use real scholarship in their ministry, but we don’t train them to do what we do. I realize that this is something of which seminaries are frequently charged (that we reproduce ourselves rather than creating pastors). Folk can’t have it both ways. They can’t say, “you’re reproducing yourselves” and when we stop, they can’t say, “you’re not producing professional scholars.” Few folks with an MDiv (which used to be a BD a few yers ago) are prepared to do professional scholarship when they leave. It’s not possible in most cases and it’s not desirable in most cases. What we do intend to do is to produce ministers who are well-trained, who are thoughtful and intelligent, but who are ministers.

As Alistair Begg reminded us this week, a minister is God’s servant. He’s called to preach God’s Word. Nothing can get in the way of that. Scholarship has to facilitate that. Any genuinely educated person should be able to recognize their own limits. They can see what real scholarship looks like and they know that isn’t what they do.

Real scholarship involves the reading of primary and secondary texts. It involves the critical appreciation of both. This is part of what separates professional scholars from amateurs. The latter only know what they read from the professionals and, to a larger degree, must rely on the judgment of professionals and they don’t always know how to do that well. They tend to know what the last book they read told them. They lack judgment. For example, I’m working on Olevianus’ Pauline Commentaries. Hardly anyone knows anything about them. Certainly pastors don’t and aren’t in a position to do. My students know what I tell them. Even if they could read Latin (a few of them can) they aren’t equipped to put into proper context what they’re reading. Most of our grads probably shouldn’t be slogging through a 16th century Latin text. It’s nice if they read our stuff and if that informs them a little about the way to read Paul or the way to preach (that’s one of the reasons I’m doing this work) but they ought to be with their people, in the hospital, in the nursing home, in homes, at coffee and most of all in the pulpit and doing the work of an evangelist.

I’m not saying that ministers are not meant to study, far from it. They are meant to study well and deeply. That’s what we train them to do. I am saying that they’re not meant to be full-time vocational scholars and the profs aren’t meant to be full-time vocational pastors (though our faculty are part-time pastors; we all preach, we all visit hospitals, we all serve our congregations; we all do counseling etc so we are not remote from the life of the church as some (not you) like to insinuate.

It seems to me that you’re saying that we really don’t need scholars (as I’ve defined them) to teach our students. You seem to be saying that it’s okay for well-read pastors teach other, younger, pastors. In my view, that is a form of anti-intellectualism, because though it professes to value learning, it only values it as a credential (“union card” to use Fred’s term) or insofar as it is immediately practical to the life of the church.

As to the nature of seminaries, I don’t have time to sketch the whole history of education, but I take issue with your characterization. A university education was the norm from the 12–13th centuries. Calvin’s lack of theological training was an anomaly and not entirely helpful. There may have been some benefits (some have argued) but arguably the Reformed after him and to clean up a bit because of his lack of training in some questions. There are things he didn’t anticipate. His humanism (which some have over-emphasized) did help him leave us with a sound hermeneutic which makes his commentaries still remarkably useful but you’ll notice that the Reformed did not quote him slavishly and even took issue with him not long after his death. Luther’s education was more typical.

To those who have complained about the time it takes, well, since the 13th century anyway, it’s always taken a certain number of years to earn a BA and then a BD or a Masters. These processes developed out of the practice and needs of the church before the Reformation and were revised but not fundamentally rejected by the Protestants. Were our primary education as strong as Calvin’s and our university training as strong as his (in classical education) we might be able to shorten things a bit, but even in the 16th century, when there was rather less to read, they still took their time.

One of Calvin’s great aims was to establish an Academy. He finally achieved it late in life. By the early 17th century, all the Reformed were university educated (with at least a BA, which in England matured to a Master of Arts) and many took a BD as well. Thus, the idea that a university educated ministry (a seminary faculty is, historically considered a university faculty in exile that has morphed in the 20th century into a tertium quid), is a product of the Enlightenment is something I don’t understand at all.

To these responses on the value of DE, I argue:

1. I do know about the online resources mentioned above, but those aren’t the things being proposed by the new seminary.

2. No one should think that a free chapter of a book here or there is a substitute for real learning. There is a chapter of CJPM available at the WTS/P bookstore site, but reading that is no substitute for reading the whole book.

3. Google can do a lot of things, but I don’t think that Google Books can violate copyright. That limits what they can present.

4. I use Libronix all the time. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m not aware that Libronix makes contemporary books available.

5. I notice in my students that they tend to read online resources less carefully than printed resources. They tend not to pay attention closely to online resources because they seem ephemeral. This is an inherent weakness in online resources. Yes, I’m aware of a new palm sized book reader. Great. Have you actually tried to use it? Talk to me when you’re wearing bifocals or reading glasses. I encourage students to print out there online assignments so that they can mark them up and read them actively. Reading is not just scanning words. See Mortimer Adler’s work on this.

6. I don’t foresee Amazon or other distributors giving away books anytime soon! They may be available online, but that is likely some time away.

7. Even if all contemporary books become available online and even if everything between now and 1923 becomes available and hard copy books are rendered obsolete it is still necessary for students and teaches to be face to face. I can no more teach a man to be a minister by distance than a medical school prof can teach a med student to be a GP or a law school prof can teach one to be a lawyer by distance. It’s not possible. There are too many intangibles that are not communicable by distance.

8. Technology is great but it gives us the illusion that we can transcend time and space, but it’s just an illusion. It’s not real. Even with computers, we’re still just creatures, we still have to live with limits.

9. One of those limits that we’re meant to learn some things in community, not in splendid isolation. Online community is not the same as actual face to face, personal communication.

A version of this post first appeared on the Heidelblog in 2007.

Who Should Go To Seminary?

Dan writes to ask this question. It’s a good and important question and the answer is in two parts: anyone but not everyone.

First, anyone may go to seminary. Since I teach at a seminary and I know how we operate, I’ll write out of my own experience as a teacher in a seminary. The faculty in my school are ministers or ruling elders and we are each called by our congregations or presbyteries to the work we do here on behalf of the churches. Nevertheless, a school is not the visible, institutional church. We do not presume to do the work of consistories/sessions (the local elders and ministers), or presbytries/classes (the regional gathering of elders and ministers), or synods/general assemblies (the national gathering of elders and ministers). We don’t call people to ministry or to mission fields. We don’t send people to congregations or mission fields.

As a school, our vocation is to work closely with and for the visible church to educate, prepare, and train men for pastoral ministry and to train and prepare other students for other vocations. About 70% of our students are in the MDiv program which prepares qualified men to serve (mainly) confessional Reformed and Presbyterian congregations. We also offer three MA degrees enrollment (in Biblical Studies, Theological Studies, or Historical Theology) in which is open to men and women. These degree programs are designed to prepare student to fulfill a variety of vocations. Our MA graduates are teaching in Christian school, serving as missionaries, counselors, earning PhD’s or other graduate/post-graduate degrees, or serving as elders in local congregations.

Let’s talk about two degree tracks, MDiv and MA and two types of callings, internal and external. First the MDiv and calling. If you’re thinking of pastoral ministry, if you have or are developing a strong desire to study, teach, and/or preach the Word, if you would love to be able to read God’s Word in the original languages and to explain it to other people, those may be indicators that you have an internal calling to pastoral ministry. Must you have seen visions, heard voices from God or other supernatural phenomena? No, in fact, we generally prefer if you haven’t since, if you’re currently receiving divine revelation it makes our job as teachers more difficult. Why would you want to listen to a mere historian when you can hear directly from God? I should think that sitting in a seminary classroom, watching mere mortals work through the difficulties of theology, piety, and practice would be exceeding boring when you’re hearing directly from God. What you need is a good secretary to write down these revelations, so you should call that temp agency right away!

If, however, you are a mere ordinary Christian who struggles to be consistent in his prayer life, who believes but doubts, who struggles with sin, whose experience of the presence of God ebbs and flows, who loves the church, the means of grace, the people of God, the lost, and most especially the Lord of the church, then you might be a good candidate for ministry and a for seminary. If you’re an undergraduate student and you never miss the college fellowship, if you find yourself with opportunities to teach or lead bible studies, then you might be a good candidate for seminary. If you’ve finished your undergraduate degree and are in business and If you’re good at what you do but you’ve had a nagging sense that you’re doing the wrong thing, that you should be spending your life for Christ in his church but you’re afraid to take the plunge because you don’t know how it will work out: you’re not alone. Come on in, the water is fine. Trust the Lord to provide for you (and your family). People do it every day here. If you’re working in a para-ecclesiastical organization or in congregational college ministry and you realize that you’re not really prepared for the work you’ve been asked to do, you should think and pray about real seminary where you can get real, face-to-face preparation.

Pray? Yes, absolutely, I didn’t say that you should pray for extra-canonical revelation. Pray for wisdom (godly skill in understanding reality and applying God’s Word to it), pray for self-knowledge, pray for godly advisors (e.g. elders or pastors) who will tell you the truth about your self, your gifts, and your circumstances. These three gifts are relatively rare. Congregations and para-church groups are often reluctant to turn loose of good people and this reluctance may color their evaluation of your situation. Of course, if wisdom were easy to get we wouldn’t need large chunks of holy Scripture or the Holy Spirit would we? It isn’t easy to “get a heart of wisdom,” and we do need the Spirit to illumine Scripture and to enlighten our minds, hearts, and wills. Reality is a remarkably slippery thing. Self knowledge is a lot harder to come by than it might seem and especially when you’re young and don’t have a track record by which to judge. If God graces you with these three things then you are blessed indeed and on the path to the sort of maturity needed for pastoral ministry.

The second part of the call is external. The external call operates on two levels, informal and formal. if your local congregation has identified certain gifts for teaching, preaching, and/or leadership in you, then you should think seriously about seminary. If, when you teach, the elders and the congregation are edified, then you should think about seminary. The formal aspect of the process occurs when you appear before your consistory/session to ask for their blessing to attend seminary, when you come “under care” of a presbytery/classis (depending upon the situation).

Of course, this presumes that the candidate is in a confessionally sound Reformed congregation. If not, then this process becomes a little more difficult. I’ve seen cases where students begin to become Reformed outside of a recognizably Reformed congregation and the elders/pastors worked against the student! There are cases where ostensibly confessional congregations are beset with either the Quest for Illegitimate Certainty or the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience and thus the view of ministry is skewed by revivalism, pietism, fundamentalism, or moralism. These things can all make the external call more complicated. Some students don’t come from congregations that are recognizably Protestant and that makes the external aspect of the call more difficult.

In such cases or in cases where the external call has not been clearly defined before seminary–and it isn’t always, remember seminary is a school, a training ground, a place to test one’s calling and gifts not a place merely to confirm them–then that testing and confirmation must come during seminary. In any event our extensive and extended internship requirements provide opportunity for such testing and evaluation.

MA programs provide opportunity for preparation and testing for non-pastoral ecclesiastical service (e.g., as a ruling elder or deacon or in a Christian education program). We regularly send a small number of well-qualified graduates to doctoral programs in North America and overseas. Our MA students find a variety of ways to be useful in the church and in extra-ecclesiastical service (e.g. Christian school teachers, counselors, administrators).

With all that said, not everyone should go to seminary. Anyone may go to seminary but not every one should go to seminary.  The second part of the answer is who should not go to seminary.

Before I continue let me say, for the sake of our current students, that I am not thinking of any of our current students. I am generally very impressed with our students. They make a lot of sacrifices to prepare to fulfill their vocations and they are typically quite dedicated to their studies.

That said, I have known students who should not have been in seminary. They come in three kinds.

1. Those who already know everything and are simply seeking confirmation of their prejudices. I’ve seen lots examples of this but one stands out. I recall a student who had not been on campus for a week who submitted a paper (which in itself was legitimate and part of an administrative process) explaining why a certain interpretation of Genesis 1–2 could not be correct and why a certain learned professor (who reads multiple ancient languages) was all wet. Now, to be sure, there may be good reasons why that view is not the best understanding of Genesis 1–2, it’s possible that the prof was all wet, but I doubt that a seminary student who couldn’t read Hebrew to save his life is in a position to to know that and nothing in the paper suggested that he did. It was the work of an amateur. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that the student didn’t realize that he was an amateur. He was arrogant and seemed blissfully unaware of it.

Such an approach to learning establishes a poor basis for future ministry and service. Mature, patient pastoral ministry requires willingness to learn and change. It requires the ability to be wrong—to recognize when one is or has been wrong. It requires humility and the knowledge of what one is not and what one does not know. One who seeks confirmation of his prejudice is not committed to learning (or getting it right) but is only committed to “being right” and ultimately that is about power and not about truth. One who is seeking power is not preparing for ministry. Jesus did not pick up a sword but wrapped himself with a towel.

2. Those who are interested only interested in practica or what they refer to as “ministry” and not in “learning.” The juxtaposition of these disciplines is deadly for the church. This student is the one who asks, “Do we have to know this?” Nothing makes me want to expel a student from a course more quickly than this question. The short answer is, “Yes.” If a student is not interested in learning, if a student is has no genuine intellectual interest, if a student is not willing to read, learn, dig, and research then he will almost certainly be a mediocre preacher and minister. A seminary education is only a beginning. Those who treat it as the terminus of their education are ill-suited to serve a congregation. The Word of God is large collection of multiple literary forms in three languages and multiple contexts and settings. To preach that Word one must become an adept student of the congregation, of the Scriptures, of ancient cultures, of hermeneutics, of grammar, of homiletics, and of theology and history. The student who will not learn and who is not prepared to be a life-long learner will be ill-suited to address new counseling problems or difficult practical and theological problems in the congregation, classis, or synod.

3. The emotionally and spiritually immature. This is not to say that only those who have entire sanctification should attend seminary. In that case the entire faculty, administration, and board should have to resign en masse. Nor is it to say that we should not have young students. I enjoy the energy and enthusiasm of students just out of college. One hopes, however, that seminary students, particularly MDiv students, will understand that whatever sacrifices they are making to be here, many people have sacrificed a great deal to provide them with a place to study, a library, a faculty, and an administration. Donors and supporters made those sacrifices for the sake of the Christ, his gospel, and his church. Thus an MDiv student isn’t there by himself. It’s not a purely personal or private enterprise. He’s carrying the hopes of many others and preparing to serve Christ and Christ’s people. He’s preparing to bring the Word and the sacraments to people he’s never met. He’s preparing to counsel families and catechize children and to speak to people he can’t even imagine right now. He’s preparing to take on the most important vocation in the world. All honorable vocations are good and right before God and should be pursued as such, but there are two kingdoms in this world and only one of them is the kingdom of God with message of salvation from the king of the church. Thus the maturity in view is the sort of maturity that enters into ministerial preparation with joy and a sense of adventure but without self indulgence or narcissism.

Of course no one is mature enough. We all live by grace, but not everyone who lives by grace is ready for seminary. The irony is that it is probably the one who doubts that he is ready for seminary who is more likely to be ready! It’s those who worry if they are really saved who probably believe. It’s the ones who have no consciousness of their sins about whom I worry. Non-Christians don’t worry about such things. It’s the foolish pre-seminarian (or seminarian) who troubles me, who thinks he has everything in hand, who has no awareness of what he’s about to begin who gives me pause.

If one has limited spiritual interests, if one is unwilling to learn, if one simply wants his passport stamped, or, on the other extreme is satisfied to substitute intense religious experience for hard work, if one is not ready or willing to engage prayerfully and thoughtfully difficult questions, if one is unwilling to enter into the discipline of learning the biblical languages, of learning history and theology, the practice of the church and the other disciplines involved, then seminary, and certainly not the MDiv program is not be the place for that one.

This post, however, is not meant to discourage those who are struggling with their sense of call nor is it meant to add to the load of the burdened. It is meant to trouble the foolish, the arrogant, the senseless, and the immature. That’s a relatively small group. Frankly, I see a lot more of this lot on the web propounding the latest fads or their latest brilliant insight into the problem of evil than I do in the classroom but that’s the stuff for another post.


Education True And False

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.

Genuine Learning
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.