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.