Some Reflections on the Seminary, the Church, and the Academy

Should the theological school be considered an “academic” enterprise? Or is it a “churchly” endeavor? Yes and yes. Or, so says Richard Mouw in his recent monograph, The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship. In the next-to-last chapter, “The Seminary, the Church, and the Academy,” Mouw argues that the theological school is an academic manifestation of Christ’s kingdom, and yet it is a manifestation closely related to the church.[1]

Mouw begins the chapter by providing a concise overview of the struggles within the Christian Reformed Church in the late 19th century, in which the Free University of Amsterdam (associated with Abraham Kuyper) promoted an essentially non-ecclesiastical model while Kampen Theological Seminary (where Herman Bavinck spent the large portion of his career) operated under ecclesiastical control. Kuyper was anti-ecclesiastic because of his doctrine of sphere sovereignty, which argues that each sphere of human culture (e.g. the academy) has its own unique integrity and should not be controlled by another sphere (e.g. church).

Mouw notes that the “theological school” is an interesting case study for proponents of sphere sovereignty (of which Mouw is one), and argues that the theological school’s ontology is of the academy and for the church. For him, the theological school is an academic manifestation of Christ’s kingdom. It is a kingdom manifestation not because it is a church, or is essentially churchly, but because it honors God in the way it conforms to God-given principles and norms for academic-type work.

He further argues that both churches and theological schools are manifestations of the same kingdom of Christ. “To emphasize,” he writes, “that the church and the theological school are together accountable to something larger than either of them is to guard against the impression that either entity exists simply to serve the other’s interests. A theological school may be accountable to a specific ecclesial body, but it also has other accountability relationships—not the least being its relationships to the larger world of theological education.” For this reason, there exists a special pattern of accountability between theological schools and the church: “the theological school is indeed in the academy; but it exists there to make the benefits of academic life available to the church, and out of a deep love for the church’s life and mission.”

Theological schools, Mouw argues, should be accountable to church bodies because ecclesial concerns necessarily should shape and inform its curricula. Although the theological school might also focus on other constituencies such as relief organizations, occupation-specific laity groups, parachurch organizations, etc., its most significant focus should be on the struggles and challenges of congregational life. In exactly this manner, the theological school is “more than” an academic institution. The church should expect its theological schools to complement the church in spiritual formation, community involvement, psychological training, etc. In fact, in doing these “more than” activities, the seminary can impress upon the broader academic world the significance of such matters.

Toward the end of the chapter, Mouw provides a nice summary and distillation of his view when he writes, “Theological education needs to be free to pursue its unique functions in the context of the kingdom of Christ. In insisting on this I am not espousing an unbridled ‘free inquiry.’ As an evangelical Calvinist I am convinced that theological education will be at its healthiest only when it is grounded in a deep commitment to biblical orthodoxy. I firmly support the maintenance of confessional boundaries that define and safeguard that commitment to evangelical institutions. Theological educators ought not to lust after a promiscuous intellectual freedom. We are bonded to the Word of God, and to the cause of the Savior whose cosmic redemptive mission is infallibly revealed in that Word. This means that our academic callings can never be pursued in a way that distances us from the church over whom the Savior reigns as Lord.” For Mouw, the theological school is “an academic manifestation of the rule of Christ” which is accountable to the church.

My response will be limited to a brief reflection on the hybrid nature of theological schools such as the institution at which I am employed, the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Although we are indeed an academic manifestation of Christ’s kingdom, the seminary is essentially church-related.  We exist at the pleasure of the SBC and in order to train ministers for SBC churches, missionaries for the IMB, and leaders for the convention entities. We operate faithfully and gratefully within SBC confessional boundaries. We want our education grounded in the worship and witness life of the redeemed community. For this reason, we require our students to be meaningful members of their churches. Further, we build “churchly” elements into the seminary’s life and curriculum: we have chapel services, promote spiritual formation, community life, and evangelism.

And the seminary is not a church. A seminary is distinctively different from a local congregation. We do not baptize or administer the Lord’s Supper. We do not endow any members of the seminary with pastoral authority. Unfortunately, however, seminary students can (either consciously or unconsciously) allow seminary to replace church. The chapel services become congregational worship, the professors become functional pastors, and a student’s peers become the members of their “covenant” community. If and when a student allows seminary functionally to become his church, he warps and distorts God’s purposes for the seminary and does so to his own detriment.

Although the seminary is church related, it is an academic manifestation of Christ’s kingdom. SBC seminaries are called forth by Southern Baptist churches in order to serve the church in the academic aspect of its discipleship and leadership training. Our education includes academic elements: we deliver lectures, administer exams, seek accreditation, publish journals, require Chicago style for our papers, and participate in conversation with the broader academy. These are essentially academic elements of seminary life; they are not “churchly,” and yet they count as “kingdom work.” For each aspect of the seminary’s life is to be brought under the Lordship of Christ and normed according to his word.

And yet the seminary is not purely academic. It is called forth into existence by the church and in turn serves the church. It does not bow to secular norms for the academic disciplines. For each academic discipline which has a counterpart at state universities, we ask at least three questions: What is God’s creational design for this discipline? How has this discipline been corrupted and misdirected by human idolatry? In what ways can we bring healing and redirection to his discipline? By asking these three questions, we are able to transform (or in some cases, reconstruct) disciplines such as biblical studies, counseling, or ethics in light of God’s normative word.

I’ve limited myself to a few brief reflections, and wish to hear our readership’s reflections on this significant topic. Do you agree with the basic thesis of the blog? Is there anything you would add or modify? Do you see further dangers of misunderstanding the seminary’s place in between church and academy?



[1] Richard Mouw, “The Seminary, the Church, and the Academy,” in Richard Mouw, The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 191-205.

 

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  1. Nathan Finn   •  

    Bruce,

    This is a great post. I especially like the following paragraph:

    Mouw notes that the “theological school” is an interesting case study for proponents of sphere sovereignty (of which Mouw is one), and argues that the theological school’s ontology is of the academy and for the church. For him, the theological school is an academic manifestation of Christ’s kingdom. It is a kingdom manifestation not because it is a church, or is essentially churchly, but because it honors God in the way it conforms to God-given principles and norms for academic-type work.

    I think this is a helpful insight: theological schools like SEBTS are of the academy and for the church. I know that is certainly how I’ve articulated my own particular calling as a professor.

    We ought to consider reading the essay together as a faculty and having a discussion about it. Good stuff.

    NAF

  2. Malcolm Yarnell   •  

    Nice set of reflections. They seem to run in vein with Jason Allen’s recent comments, too. Mouw’s argument that the ontology of the seminary is academic struck me as turning the proper paradigm on its head, especially when one considers that the universities (and not just the theological aspect) arose from the desire to serve the Western churches. This sentence of yours is an excellent summation of my own understanding: the seminary or divinity school “is called forth into existence by the church and in turn serves the church.” Amen, and may we never forsake that paradigm. My only addition to your piece would be a reminder that theology provides critical reflection upon the preaching of the church from a biblical perspective, a task that may at times be positively priestly and at other times pointedly prophetic.

  3. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Nathan and Malcolm, thank you. Malcolm, I especially like your point that the task sometimes is to be pointedly prophetic. Well put.

  4. Jack Wolford   •  

    Just on the perifory . Whose ever name is on the Payroll Checks of the Help , and , whose ever name is on the Checks to Maintain the Seminaries is Who the Seminaries Serve ; however , while we have overseers at every Seminary the Entity in Charge is the SBC – and they have been out to Lunch . A lot of people have their own Kingdom untouched by human hands and if we don’t take definite actions to straighten things out quickly , we will be in a world of hurt .

  5. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jack Wolford,

    My dear brother, thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I confess I don’t entirely understand your comment. It appears that you are saying that the churches of the SBC are not really in charge of the seminaries, that the Trustees are untrustworthy and/or unable to do their jobs, and that seminary employees are beholden to their paychecks rather than to Christ.

    If you were merely saying that seminary folks need to make sure they are accountable to Christ and to the churches that birthed them and are charged with holding them accountable, I agree.

    But it appears you are going far beyond that type of statement, although your comment is ambiguous and does not give argument or evidence. As such, I’ll simply say that our trustees take very seriously their call to speak for the churches and hold the seminaries accountable. I see evidence of this regularly at SEBTS.

    BA

  6. David (NAS) Rogers   •  

    “And the seminary is not a church. A seminary is distinctively different from a local congregation. We do not baptize or administer the Lord’s Supper. We do not endow any members of the seminary with pastoral authority.”

    Some women with PhD’s and demonstrated ability to research and teach have been systematically removed from professorships in some of our SBC seminaries or never even hired to teach. And yet many take MDIV degrees and some enroll in PhD programs and write and present papers to men presumably (thus potentially “teaching” them) and yet they cannot serve in a position of professor even though the above citation says they do not have “pastoral authority.”

    Why can a woman make a comment in an MDIV class (presumably) which might enlighten and teach some of the men in the class and maybe the professor, and write and present a paper in a PhD class (presumably) and do likewise, but not hold a professor positions at some of our SBC seminaries? After all, they wouldn’t have “pastoral authority.”

    Also, some women write textbooks which may be in the libraries of some of our seminaries and professors’ libraries, and women also present papers at theological societies at which some of our SBC professors may sit in the sessions and possibly “learn” something . . . . and yet women may not hold a theological teaching position at our seminaries.

    I find these matters to be rather inconsistently selective in light of some interpretations of what the alleged biblical teaching regarding women in ministry is?

    These matters I do not understand.

  7. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    David,

    You are right that there is no direct command in Scripture concerning women teaching in seminaries. Seminaries are not churches, so the biblical injunction concerning pastors and elders does not apply univocally to professors on a seminary campus. Instead it applies analogically. In other words, there is an analogy between church and seminary. What is modeled in the seminary might easily assumed to be carried over into the local church. For this reason, the seminaries are more likely to hire a female for a teaching position that possesses only a “far analogy” with the church (e.g. church music), less inclined for teaching positions that possess a “closer analogy” (e.g. systematic theology), and not at all inclined for teaching positions that are a “close analogy” (e.g. pastoral leadership).

    As for women writing books for evangelical publishers or presenting at theological societies: I see publishers and theological societies being even farther away from the church, analogically, than seminaries.

    I hope this brief response (to a complex question) is somewhat helpful.

    Blessings,
    Bruce

  8. Dr. J. Michael Palmer   •  

    Before I respond to the article I would like to respond to what Jack Wolford said. I have witnessed the leadership of Southeastern Seminary function with absolute total commitment to the Word of God and the Great Commission. I watched last week as a dozen or more young married adults (most with young children) were commissioned in the two plus two international mission board service at Southeastern. The spirit of sacrifice for the Great Commission FAR surpasses most of what I see in the churches today. The kingdom I see at work is the Kingdom of God! Certainly it is administered by fallible people. But the ones I see at work do so with humble hearts yielded to our Savior; they have God’s will as their daily guide and attempt to follow Him in the power of His Spirit. The seminary is the Lord’s and no human is building his own kingdom! I am glad to serve as a trustee to this fine “academic manifestation of the rule of Christ.”

  9. Dr. J. Michael Palmer   •  

    I love the statement in the article: “For each aspect of the seminary’s life is to be brought under the Lordship of Christ and normed according to his word.” Therefore this demands academic excellence and spiritual passion. The phrase Scholarship on Fire is one I like to describe the seminary. I would postulate that it is the “fire” that we need more of. We are in danger of allowing the world to press us (the seminary) into its sterile academic mold. The fact is that the academic, when applied rightly ought to produce an increasing “fire” in one’s mind and heart for the Person of Christ and those He came to save. I love the seminary. The Lord God has used it to continually shape my life through the disciplines learned therein. The lifelong result should be the multiplying of Gospel centered churches to every tribe and nation.

  10. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Dr. Palmer,

    Thank you for weighing in on the issues. I am grateful for you and the rest of the Board of Trustees!

    Bruce

  11. J. Snod   •  

    Dr. Ashford, thanks for the great post. I think it cuts right to the heart of a very critical issue for our convention and for our seminaries. Namely, what is the purpose of our seminaries? You give a balanced response to Mouw’s more academically-minded picture of a seminary. I think, however, that even within your response there is a nagging tension between our seminaries’ identity as academic institutions and as places for training ministry leaders. You write that our seminaries “are called forth by Southern Baptist churches in order to serve the church in the academic aspect of its discipleship and leadership training.” My question is, who is taking care of the other ‘aspects’? If we’re honest, within our convention–and within the general sentiments of most evangelicals–seminary education is the only recognized form of training for ministry within the pastorate, mission field, or organizational leadership. While Southeastern is leading the way in pushing out more “on-the-job” options through the 2+2/3 program and the equipping centers, our primary approach to ministry training remains indelibly academic. The academic aspect is indeed necessary, but it is by no means sufficient to train faithful leaders for the church. The question is: should we expect our seminaries to give this type of fully-orbed ministry training? If we don’t, who do we expect to do it? Somebody needs to write a dissertation on this. Oh, wait…

  12. Rob Canipe   •  

    I seem to agree with Mouw. However, I would like to read this book to see the rest of his thoughts and conclusions. I would like to add an another reason why the seminary would be under the church and definitely not separate from it. It may not have been mentioned because it is understood and obvious. However, the church was/is created, formed and instituted by God. The seminary is not instituted by God but man/the church. This is why I do not see the seminary as an autonomous entity. Only the church is an autonomous entity directly under the Lordship of Christ. This would lead me to a rabbit trail. I would also include the SBC and local associations within the same category as the seminary in this respect. That they are not autonomous, but church made and should remain under the direction of the church. I am not privy to the inside workings of the seminary and SBC, though it seems they are doing well. My concern is with the local level association. Just as the SBC and the seminary (at least some) adhere to the BFM 2000 which I have read to be the “consensus” of the churches. Liberalism has infiltrated some of our local associations (and there are still some seminaries and divinity schools) who operate as if they are autonomous and promote things that oppose the BFM 2000. The other thing I would like to add is how much I appreciate the questions you ask as you approach the disciplines taught on the academic level because you view these disciplines in light of their relationship to their Creator. I would like for someone, on an academic level, to tackle this issue from another angle. I am having a discussion with a group of men concerning such academic disciplines and their relationship to their Creator in the context of home school versus public school. One view point suggests that the aforementioned questions should not be limited to ministry related disciplines. However, all disciplines (math, science, grammar, etc) should be taught in relationship to their Creator, which the public school does not. My last point is a question. With the re emergence of the more Biblical model of elder lead churches, has the seminary re evaluated their approach toward pastoral training? If the seminary is under the church and the more Biblical leadership model for the church is to have a plurality of elders, are we still training men to lead as the single authority or are we looking to reach and train elders (lay and vocational)? Sorry for getting off topic.

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