Ancient Future: The Future of Seminary Education

This post is part of a Patheos symposium on the Future of Seminary Education.

Please note that this post is from Dr. Ben Witherington, but Timothy Dalrymple posted it on his behalf.  So the ascription to Timothy Dalrymple is incorrect.

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While it may be true that traditional mainline seminaries are experiencing financial woes and are dying, this is more a reflection of the problem of mainline Protestantism than it has anything to do with the actual future of seminary education in general.  It has to do with the fact that mainline Protestant congregations are not producing many candidates for ministry more than anything else, and this in turn is a reflection of declining membership in such denominations, including precipitous declines in church growth by new professions of faith.  This is in fact much less of an issue among Evangelical churches, or Evangelical congregations among mainline churches.

The seminary where I teach,  Asbury Theological Seminary, continues to have 1600 students year after year, which is about the maximum we can currently handle.  The same tale could be told about various other Evangelical seminaries, including various Southern Baptist seminaries.  We are indeed seeing a decline of liberal Protestantism and it’s institutions,  but this says little about seminary education in general and it’s viability.  For this symposium, a series of questions were posted to us, as points of departure for commentary.  I will attempt to respond to the questions seriatim in what follows.

  • What is the purpose of a seminary education?

Seminary education can have a variety of purposes but in essence it is seeking to offer graduate level education to persons in training for some sort of ministry.  The fact that the shape of ministry is changing does mean that seminaries have to be creative and offer a broader scope of degrees and programs in the past (for instance a degree in cross-cultural studies for missionaries, or a degree in church planting or church leadership), but the essential mission and purpose of a seminary education remains the same.   Here is Asbury’s mission statement:

“Asbury Theological Seminary is a community called to prepare theologically educated, sanctified, Spirit-filled men and women to evangelize and to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world through the love of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit and to the glory of God the Father.”

I would say that we are doing a very good job of this, and one reflection of this is that in many conferences in United Methodism today, the majority of ordinands are from Asbury Seminary, sometimes the overwhelming majority in a given year are Asbury grads.

  • What are the challenges seminaries face?

Obviously the challenges are many, and not the least of these  is the financial challenge.  In my own denomination we have thirteen official seminaries.  At this juncture in our history we need about eight at the most.   I’ve even heard the tale about the opposite of the financial woe problems.  There is one seminary in America that has a $40 million dollar endowment, 30 faculty, and only about 40 full time students.   While the teacher to student ratio must be the best ever there, it is doubtful that institution is doing enough ministry to justify staying in business, with or without financial woes.

Seminaries which have for a long time not adequately prepared students to do apologetics, evangelism, or mission work are facing the obvious challenges that as America becomes increasingly less enamored with the Christian tradition, pastors find themselves ill equipped or unequipped to do apologetics, evangelism or mission.

A third challenge arises when a school strives so hard to be all things to all people that it so waters down the traditional curriculum that persons being trained for pastoral ministry know: 1) no Biblical languages; 2) have received little training in exegesis, and 3) no next to nothing about church history or traditional patristic theology, having traded in courses on such things for the latest theology d’jour on the contemporary scene; or 3) so much focus is put on giving a future minister practical skills for ministry, much of which he could get on the job, that again, the traditional seminary curriculum is given scant attention, with disastrous results when it comes to the primary tasks of preaching and teaching God’s Word to a Biblically starved and illiterate clientele.

  • How are you preparing for those challenges?

Our President Timothy Tennent has been leading us to lift up our eyes and to grow our global vision of ministry, and so we have begun doing more partnering with seminaries in Africa and India and elsewhere, claiming ‘the world is our parish’ not merely giving lip service to the notion.  We have a multi-cultural, multi-national faculty  and also have the most extensive and highly regarded fully accredited online educational system as well without in any way giving up on on campus education for all our students as part of their required degree training.

  • What are the challenges that clergy and the church faces?  How can seminaries address those needs?

One of the continuing problems for seminaries is when the faculty is loaded with pure academics who have never or very seldom served a local church, and really don’t know how to empathize with their students, or how to relate their teaching to what their students are actually doing.

The churches themselves and the clergy face the challenge of dealing with an increasingly post-Christian and post-modern culture, but they have not been trained in seminary to deal with the shifting sands of our cultural situation.

  • What is the future of theological education?  What will a seminary education look like 10 years from now?

I would say the future of seminary education can be bright, if it remains true to the Gospel, and actually prepares people to do apologetics, evangelism, and mission, and not just to preach to the choir and do discipleship with the converted.    The problem however is not merely practical focus, it is theological.  Frankly, there are too many seminaries and too many seminary faculty members who do not believe that  Jesus Christ is the one necessary and sufficient means of the salvation  of all human persons, or even if they give lip service to this notion,  it is not reflected in the way they teach or the subjects they emphasize or the curriculum in general.   There is no urgency about seeking and saving the lost in many theological quarters in America.

In his 1937 landmark book, The Kingdom of God in America, Richard Niebuhr memorably prophetically described the message of Protestant liberalism as “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”  Those sorts of schools are still paying the price for such a theology and for them the future of theological education looks grim.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but my guess would be that in ten years the adapt or die process will have gone on long enough in America, and those seminaries will survive that are both well grounded in their Biblical roots, but are missionally minded, and future focused, looking for increasing ways to train people to be global Christians who are focusing on partnering with Christians around the world to do theological education.

* What new initiatives and / or creative conversations are shaping the life of your institution?

I have already described some of these, but I will close with the following statement our faculty has helped pen, and endorsed.   This reflects our commitment to be true to who we are, and not try to be all things to all people.

Here are the Asbury distinctives:

Sound Scriptural Scholarship

The Great Commandment tells us to love God with all our being, including our intellect. At Asbury Seminary, head and heart go hand in hand. Central to all academic endeavors at Asbury are two commitments: first to Jesus Christ as sovereign Lord and second to the pursuit of Truth. Courses in the classical and practical disciplines set the stage for lifelong learning and ministry. Asburians are trained to evaluate the complexities of life from a biblically grounded and theologically informed perspective. In addition to an accomplished faculty, the learning experience is enhanced through on-campus lectures by leading scholars from around the world. In our fervent quest for academic excellence and true spirituality, we echo John Wesley’s prayer,  “Let us unite these two, so long divided, knowledge and vital piety. Amen.”

Rich Wesleyan Heritage

Asbury Seminary has its roots firmly planted in rich Methodist soil. Its heritage can be traced back to May 24, 1738, when a young Anglican priest and Oxford don felt his heart “strangely warmed” during a prayer meeting in northern London. At that moment, John Wesley’s life was forever changed and Methodism was born. A spirit of revival swept through England and across the Atlantic to America. Thousands came to know Christ through the ministry of Methodist circuit riders like Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke. A century after Asbury’s final open-air sermon, Asbury Seminary was formed to carry on the passionate ministry of its Methodist forefathers.

Vibrant Spiritual Life

“Amazing love! How can it be, that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” These powerful and eloquent words from Charles Wesley’s classic hymn  And Can It Be are often passionately sung during Asbury’s lively chapel services. It is here that you will find the heart of the Asbury Seminary experience. During chapel, the community unites to worship through song, prayer and the dynamic preaching of God’s Word. These times of praise are anticipated and cherished. In addition to corporate worship, small group interaction and personal spiritual development are encouraged. Classes in spiritual formation are offered to nurture the student in his or her devotional life and to prepare the student for spiritual leadership. First and foremost, Asbury Seminary is a spiritually vibrant community seeking to know God and to make Him known.

Practical Ministry Preparation

Jesus had a revolutionary view of leadership. He said things like,  “Many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31), and “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26b). Service is the essence of ministry, and true leadership is impossible without a sacrificial heart. Asbury Seminary prepares ministers to respond to God and the needs of humanity in a broken world. This means: leading the way decisively, shepherding the flock faithfully, preaching the Word clearly, sharing the gospel boldly, counseling the troubled compassionately, assisting the poor persistently. The majority of our students serve the local church as pastors. Others seek training for the mission field, teaching, counseling, youth or music ministry. But the desire to serve unites our diverse student body.  Spiritual leaders are called, not born.  Asbury Seminary exists to help men and women fulfill God’s calling for their lives.

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • Ken Kinghorn

    Good overvew, Ben. Thanks!
    Ken Kinghorn

  • Dave C.

    There are small conservative evangelical seminaries that are struggling as well. Like much of higher education, it comes down to a cost issue and the pastor/congregation’s ability to service growing loans from both college and seminary. As once read, “What is difference between a Bachelor’s degree funeral and a Master of Divinity degree funeral?” [the cost of the education, I suppose].

  • Djohnson69

    Asbury’s numbers are good. So what? The more important data is in the question of whether the Asbury world actually effects an overall increase of Christian numbers over against the “post modern” culture. What is meant by “post modern”?…Ben should describe his competition.

    What ails Christianity in the west is what has always ailed it: it’s the Greco-Roman infection. Whether its MY personal salvation…or MY personal spiritual growth…or MY personal 401K….it’s all the same frame of reference. As Karen Armstrong says, “God has always come very hard to the west”. As one of my more rascally seminary profs put it, “The dirty little secret about (real) Christianity is that it is an eastern religion.”

    So, is Ben here claiming that the Asbury brand is really about a counter-cultural faith that challenges western egoism? No. You can sling around ten dollar words like “apologetics” all you like, but all the claims as to numbers present and future really only redound to sheep stealing from other disestablishing strains of western Christianity. And the numbers are starting to come in on evangelical decline. If Ben is claiming success with Christopher Hitchen’s constitutency, I want to see the data.

    Daniel G. Johnson, M.Div., C.Ph.T. (Certified Pharmacy Technician)

  • Anonymous

    Well Dan you know not whereof you speak. Asbury is frankly quite counter-cultural in various Gospel ways. But since you nothing about Asbury at all… then I would suggest you hush. Anybody who quotes Karen Armstrong as if she were some kind of actual theologian has just displayed their ignorance.

  • Danny Dawson

    “So, is Ben here claiming that the Asbury brand is really about a counter-cultural faith that challenges western egoism?”

    Uh, well if he isn’t, I think I will. If you disagree, please feel free to search the Asbury Chapel archives for recent examples showing that Asbury most definitely does not preach the virtues of Western thought and individualism. Examples can be found in ATS courses, as well – Basic Christian Doctrine generally covers the broad ecumenical faith, including Eastern Orthodox views. All Inductive Bible Study courses encourage use of commentaries and sources reflecting the contemporary culture of the Ancient Near East. Dr Witherington’s own Intro to the NT class uses many excellent examples of ANE cultural perspectives that challenge Western Christian assumptions, including overview of such aspects as collective societies and shame-based community values. One of the foundational tenets of Dr Tennent’s presidency has been personal AND social holiness – the idea that growth in holiness absolutely cannot occur apart from interaction with society.

    My experience has been that ATS does not compete against post-modernism any less than it competes against modernism or other such ideas. Extremely consistent in my education has been to discern the Christian message as it stands on its own, apart from all cultures, and understandable within all cultures.

  • CMann

    Asbury Seminary exist to prepare those who are called to minister (broadly speaking) the Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture first and expounded upon by the church fathers second. Asbury does not preoccupy itself with concern over the competiton, or what the culture is currently doing. Every historical era will have its particular culture as human beings have certainly witnessed since 33 AD. Asbury, since its founding, merely seeks to make a difference in this world for Christ and to join Him to advance His kingdom colored by a Wesleyan disquisition. As seminaries go, I think the results are clear that Asbury is fulfulling its own calling and mission statement with tremendous acumen verses the spiritual torpor I see in many other seminaries. In fact, I see it as quite a perdurable institution. Other Christians should be extremely happy that Asbury is doing its job. The evidence? I will site two. One is the difference Asbury graduates have made especially within United Methodism and secondly the scholarship produced by the likes of a Ben Witherington.

  • JH

    :-) I would say she is a better theologian thn the majority of those claiming to be one…