A Philosophy of Theological Education – Part 2

In this second installment on my philosophy of theological education I’d like to focus on the unique identity of the seminary in relation to the church and spiritual gifts. I hope that by doing so I will be able to lend credibility to the continuing, essential function of the seminary for ministerial training. I feel this is necessary because today there are voices, with growing volume, that clamor against the notion of necessary, gifted, specialized communities that God has established for the purpose of training men and women for ministry. In the place of such communities, these voices typically put the individual’s experience of the Spirit or perhaps a local church’s education program or other ministry.  More and more, young people who desire to pursue vocational ministry are questioning the need for a seminary education. Some churches encourage this trend. This trend, joined with the challenges of a culture that tends toward pragmatism and is less-doctrinaire, may cause some to question the necessity of a seminary education. I touched partly on the latter challenges in the first part of this series. I hope we can gain more ground in the second.

As I see it, this trend is, at least in part, grounded in a misunderstanding of the seminary identity, purpose and experience. Seminaries are authorized and supported by churches to accomplish a specific task. They are, first of all, communities of experienced, academically-trained, spiritually-gifted specialists. A seminary’s faculty consists of men and women who are specially gifted by the Spirit with the gift of teaching. They may have other gifts. But, they come together within a seminary to train, disciple and spiritually form God-called students into servant-leaders.  Seminaries are uniquely equipped by the Holy Spirit to be an ideal environment for the training of those called to the ministry. Seminaries serve local churches by doing the training, because the local church does not have the seminary’s fundamental, exclusive asset: its faculty. Local churches cannot offer the same concentration of spiritually-gifted, academically trained, ministerially experienced educational specialists.  For this reason, it is essential that churches must continue to agree that seminaries remain the prime environments, the indispensable communities, in which a called student should receive intensive theological and ministerial training. The seminaries cannot, of course, accomplish this goal apart from the churches. The churches provide necessary training environments of their own, as well as generous support for the seminaries without which, they could not exist.

It seems to me that Ephesians 4 provides the best biblical lens through which to understand the mission of a seminary. Among the spiritual gifts listed in Ephesians 4:7-16 are teachers. Such gifts are given by the resurrected and ascended Christ to his body, made up of local congregations, throughout the world. This one body of Christ knows only one God and Father, one Lord Jesus, one Spirit, one faith, one hope, one baptism (Eph 4:1-6). The gift of teacher is one of several gifts that Christ provides to the churches, spread throughout the globe. He makes such provision so that the members of his body might be equipped for service, built up, unified in the one faith and their knowledge of Jesus Christ and brought to doctrinal maturity. Such maturity protects us from false teaching and prepares us to speak the truth in love. After all, seminaries are THEOLOGICAL seminaries. Note the full name of the seminary I serve: Southwestern Baptist THEOLOGICAL Seminary.

The seminary, then, is a unique entity in which gifted teachers, the faculty, who are mature members of local congregations, are concentrated. A seminary purposefully gathers these exceptional teachers together in one place and organizes them in a manner most efficient for the purpose of training future leaders. That may include schools, divisions and departments. These teachers specialize in edifying ministers-in-training so that they come to a mature and trustworthy biblical, doctrinal, theological outlook on all things, whether evangelism, missions, preaching, pastoring, leading worship, music, teaching, or church planting. Each of these particular ministries is an opportunity to proclaim sound doctrine in a particular way. In all these modes of expression, God-called students are trained to speak the truth, the one true faith, in love. Neither aspect can be ignored in Christian ministry. We must proclaim the one biblical faith, yes, but we must do it in love. So a seminary must exemplify both. On the one hand theological education must be precise in the biblical and doctrinal content it passes on. For this we require specialists who can also teach, those who are gifted in pedagogy, communication and transference of trustworthy content that calls the student to the highest standards of accuracy and precision. The faculty member must be skilled in a variety of teaching techniques that can be adapted to particular settings. But, a faculty member must also exemplify love. He or she must teach the student lovingly with compassion, understanding, patience, sincere care and a commitment to mentoring.

Gathering a collection of such men and women in one place is the challenge for any seminary and ultimately it is the work of God. And when God brings such a group together, watch out! You have the makings of a great training entity, a great seminary.

I look forward to joining you again for part three.