A Philosophy of Theological Education – Part I

Unfortunately, Mark Noll is right. Arising out of revivalism, American Evangelicalism tends to substitute pragmatism for principle. He also writes, “To put it most simply, the evangelical ethos is activistic, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian . . . dominated by the urgencies of the moment” (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 66, 12). This ethos plays a key role in charting the course of any philosophy of theological education. Of course, such pragmatism is not unique to Evangelicalism. William James’s influence upon Western culture extends far beyond the narrow confines of American Evangelicalism. So we should acknowledge that pragmatic concerns affect philosophies, including those of theological education, across a broad spectrum—religious and secular; denominational and independent; Baptist and Lutheran, evangelical, fundamentalist, progressive, and liberal. For my present purposes, this simply means that the contemporary river of Evangelical pragmatism is fed by two streams: revivalism and William James.

As a Southern Baptist historian, theologian, and educator, the principles that concern me most in a sound philosophy of theological education are theological ones. However, before I begin to set forth elements of my  philosophy, I think I need to develop the challenges and my concerns a bit further. If Michael Spencer, Scot McKnight, and the Pew Forum have it right, doctrinal commitment is diminishing among Evangelicals, Southern Baptists included. What is extremely frightening is that so-called, “Post-evangelicals,” are abandoning such basic evangelical commitments as biblical inerrancy and the unity of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, and a growing number of of those who self-identify as Evangelicals—perhaps as many as half—entertain the idea that several religions other than Christianity are salvific. I fear that what Spencer finds to be true among Evangelicalism, also threatens Baptists. (See Michael Spencer, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” Christian Science Monitor, 10 March 2009; Scot McKnight, “The Ironic Faith of Emergents,” Christianity Today, September 2008, 62-63; Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” 4.)

Evangelicalism, then, is in a new era. In Christine Wicker’s book, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church, we see a progressively perishing Evangelicalism that is increasingly scorned by American society. For she claims, Americans are “less doctrinaire. More changeable. More flexible. Less religious” (p. 56). If the portrait she paints is accurate, we can anticipate increasing pressure in our Southern Baptist communities  to become “less doctrinaire” and “more changeable.” To think that Southern Baptist and other  Evangelical seminaries and churches are not already experiencing such pressure would be naïve. Some may see the pressure to become more flexible and less doctrinaire as benign. But it portends a great danger—namely, the temptation to replace principled theological reflection with a doctrinal apathy and pragmatism that sees such reflection as incompatible with the survival of our Christian schools and conservative seminaries.

The ever present pragmatism within Baptist and evangelical life I fear, inevitably leads to an educational philosophy that will secularize and corrupt our institutions. May I just take a moment to rehearse for us some of Paul’s words on the importance of sound doctrine in Christian ministry?

Paul tells Titus that the elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9).”

Furthermore, Paul tells Titus that his own teaching must accord with “sound doctrine (Titus 2:1).”

The Apostle also warns Timothy that he should “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths (2 Tim 4:2-4).”

I could go on. But my point I think is clear. We cannot afford to allow a cultural trend of pragmatism and distaste for doctrine and theology to set the tone for present and future conceptions of ministry. The seminary is essential to this mission.

Therefore, in this multi-part series on a philosophy of theological education I wish to set forth key principles that I believe should frame our understanding of a seminary’s ministry. Check back for part two.