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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Am I Distinguished? (Don’t Answer That)

Yesterday I started teaching two classes at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Never heard of it before? Not surprising. It’s a small, liberal seminary, affiliated with the UCC, the UMC, and the UUA. I taught a class there in 2012, and last summer I was approached about teaching more. And about a title. So they gave me on: Distinguished Lecturer in the Practice of Theology.

That’s a pretty fancy title for an adjunct professor, but it looks good on the back of a book. Plus, I’ve never heard of anyone with that title before. A Google search shows that no one else in the world has this title, so it fulfills my need for uniqueness.

A funny thing about that title is that I rarely lecture. I do with undergrads, but my pedagogy with grad students — heavily influenced by bell hooks — is to ask trangressive questions and catalyze discussion.

The two classes I’m teaching are dissimilar.

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Honest Scholarship May Not Be Possible at a Christian School

Mickey Maudlin, the capable and well-connected managing editor at HarperOne (think Rob Bell), has an interesting thought in his latest newsletter.  He is promoting the latest book by NT Wright, and proposing the Wright breaks the mold of biblical scholarship by writing from a confessional posture, but still producing popular books.

But I’m most intrigued by his intro:

FF Bruce

The late great Bible scholar F. F. Bruce once remarked that he would not have been able to do his work if he had taught within a confessional institution, such as a seminary or Christian college. What I found odd about his comment was that he was, at the time, often listed as one of the top evangelical New Testament Bible scholars of the day. Why would his work change if the results of his scholarship aligned with the faith commitments of those schools?

I think the answer helps explain why conservative Bible scholars rarely write books that break out into the wider market. What many admired about Bruce’s work was the sense that his conclusions were based on where his arguments led him and not on where he needed to land. One did not perceive that he was steering his readers to the “evangelical” position; instead, readers sensed his curiosity and delight in solving the puzzles he posed. (via Surprised by Bishop Wright by Mickey Maudlin | News and Pews from HarperOne)

Let me ask — and be honest — Do you think that a scholar at a confessional school truly has the freedom to come to whatever conclusions her/his scholarship leads to?

I don’t.  Not if they don’t want to be fired.  And I can affirm this by the emails I’ve received from evangelical college professors who affirm gay relations and rights based on their own academic work, but are unable to publicly state that because they’d be fired.

The Future of Seminary: Wrap-Up

This post is part of a Patheos symposium on the Future of Seminary Education.  You can see all of my posts in this symposium here.

There’s a lot of really good stuff on the Patheos symposium, maybe the best stuff that’s ever been collected on this subject, and from a very wide range of perspectives.  You’ve got everything from an evangelical saying that seminaries need to doctrinally retrench, to a former evangelical who runs an inter-faith seminary.  I don’t think it’s even possible to have a wider range than that.

The robustness of the conversation has, I must admit, surprised me.  It seems there are still lots of people who really care about graduate theological education.  I think that’s a good thing.

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