A Tale of Three Seminaries

Twin Cities seminaries

The Twin Cities boasts three Protestant seminaries (forgive me if I don’t consider John Piper’s unaccredited school a seminary in full standing). They are Luther Seminary, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and Bethel Seminary. And I think that the rising and falling fortunes of these three can tell us something interesting about the landscape of the church in America today. [Disclosure: I teach at United, I am part of a Templeton grant at Luther, and I once made out with a girl in the trees behind Bethel. I have friends who teach at all three.]

Luther Seminary was initially founded in 1917 as the merger of three Norwegian Lutheran seminaries. Another merger with Augsburg Seminary (also Norwegian) happened in 1963, and yet another merger in 1976 with Northwestern Lutheran Theological Seminary (English) led to Luther Northwestern Seminary. In 1994, they simplified the name to Luther Seminary. Luther is the largest of the eight seminaries of the ELCA denomination — with incoming classes of well over 100 — but it has recently fallen on hard times. Due to falling enrollment and financial mismanagement, the president and CFO were let go and many faculty and staff were laid off.

United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities was also formed by a merger. In 1957, the United Church of Christ denomination was formed out of the merger of a couple denoms, and in 1962, UTS was founded as the merger of Yankton School of Theology (German Congregational) and Mission House (German Reformed). In the 1970s and 80s, UTS was at the forefront of liberalism, particularly feminist theology, and was among the first seminaries to enroll openly gay students. But their star faded, and in the last few years, incoming classes were in the low 30s. Today it serves primarily UCC, UMC, and UUA students.

Bethel Seminary was initially founded in Chicago in 1871. In 1914, it was acquired by the Baptist General Conference denomination and moved to Minnesota. Always evangelical in its outlook, Bethel made news in the 1990s when professors John Piper and Greg Boyd squared off, resulting in Boyd’s resignation and Piper’s withdrawal from Bethel and the BGC. In its heyday, Bethel was welcoming over 200 new students every year, but recently they’ve laid off all of their church historians as well as several other faculty members.

Here’s the interesting part:

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Richard Beck’s Progressive Vision

Richard Beck

Richard Beck is one of my favorite theologians of the moment. Maybe it’s just because I agree with most everything he says.

He teaches at a college that’s affiliated with the Churches of Christ. That’s not a progressive group — most of those churches still don’t use instruments in worship. I’m saying, it’s not easy for a Church of Christ theologian to publicly acknowledge that he’s “progressive.”

Nevertheless, Richard has taken up my longstanding challenge for progressive Christian theologians to say something substantive about God, about Jesus, about theology, and about what we believe.

If you follow Richard, you know that he is the KING od series. So, he’s in the midst of a double-digit series, spelling out his thoughts. He’s made the very unlikely pairing of two books to lead him through this: Greg Boyd’s God at War, and John Caputo’s The Weakness of God (I confess to only having read the latter).

Here are some highlights of Richard’s posts so far. For instance, from the opening post:

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How Much Do I Love Greg Boyd?

As much as you will after watching this:

HT: Keith DeRose

What #robbell Might Be Missing in #lovewins

I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve watched the videos and I’ve read reviews, and I read a post this week by Greg Boyd which attempted to show the logical inconsistencies of moral determinism (pardon the lack of links – I’m posting this via the WordPress for iOS app).

Greg’s post is entirely theological in its reasoning. He does not seem to take into account sociological or anthropological rationale. And neither does Rob Bell when, in interviews, he repeatedly insists on human freedom. In fact, Rob’s commitment to total human freedom, even after death, seems thoroughgoing.

This is called “rational actor theory” by social theorists, and it posits that human beings are free and conscious actors who independently determine their behavior.  Notre Dame sociologist, Christian Smith, for example, subscribes to a version of this theory (see his books, Moral Believing Animals and What Is a Person?).

I am not. I subscribe to a type of post-Marxist theory called “post-structuralism.” We are, each of us, bound up in structures and super-structures of sociality that determine and even dictate a large percentage of our behavior. In fact, much of our lives are spent in the self-deluded state that we’re choosing what we do. We don’t actually have much freedom at all, and our choices in life are strikingly limited.

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