Theological education: God’s work in the world and our response

Theodore J. Wardlaw considers what changes will strengthen theological education in our “between the times” period.

A couple years ago, my dear friend and colleague David H. Jensen ­– the academic dean at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary for almost half of my 20 years there as president – wrote wise words about the warp and weft of contemporary theological education as part of a 2019 sabbatical proposal he submitted to the seminary:

Protestant theological education is awash with prescriptions for what ails it at the present moment

Statistics documenting the decline in church attendance, the growing number of congregations that can no longer afford a full-time pastor, and panic about enrollment in most seminaries has become part of the air that theological educators and clergy breathe. At nearly every seminary board meeting, Association of Theological Schools gathering, church judicatory event or ecumenical consultation that I have attended over the past decade, people talk about the changing times, church decline, the need for innovative approaches to theological education and the demise of old models. Often these conversations verge on lament; sometimes they carry with them the promise of hope — if only theological education could “catch up” with the times. But most of the prescriptions for addressing the crisis in American Protestant theological education focus on the instrumental or the technical.

Jensen had surveyed the 2018 Association of Theological Schools biennial meeting and discovered that nearly all of its workshops and exhibits focused on (1) pedagogical innovation (online or blended learning, competency-based education, dual-degree programs, accelerated degree programs, curricular change and integrative courses), (2) institutional adaptation (school mergers and affiliation, global partnerships, economic challenges and educational assessment) or (3) the educational need of specific student populations. All of these workshops are necessary, of course, if schools are to adapt to ever-changing times.

“… how does a congregation go about the work of pastoral formation in an increasingly religiously diverse age?”

Yet one thing that is often lacking, Jensen wrote in his proposal, “is attention to the most basic question of a seminary’s existence: how does it go about the work of pastoral formation in an increasingly religiously diverse age? And how does it go about this work when the church’s voice and relevance is no longer self-evident in society?” Jensen answered his own question: “What is most important in theological formation is that it cultivates growth in wisdom and love of God.”

Theological education between the times

If it is true that we are living “between the times” – between long-familiar old models that seminaries have not entirely discarded, on the one hand, versus new models with which many schools are experimenting, unsure of how the experiments will end – then we are in a time of great creativity as well as great anxiety. Living through this upheaval and uncertainty takes wisdom, courage and patience.

Dan Aleshire, who served ably for years as president of the Association of Theological Schools, often said that two shadows perpetually fall simultaneously across the campus of any theological seminary. One shadow is from the past, and the other is from the future; seminaries are forever doing their work in that spot where those two shadows intersect. So we’re always living between the times. And most profoundly (and here is where I put the “theological” in “theological education”), we do all this in an era between the resurrection of Jesus and the wedding feast of the Lamb.

Theological education of the past

Ted Smith, a Presbyterian preaching and ethics professor at Emory University, has deeply studied the Association and cites several eras of theological education in North America. The earliest era, reaching back to the colonial period, was based on the apprenticeship model. A graduate from, say, Harvard College, might attach himself to a mentor pastor and work with that pastor to learn the Bible, theology and the various pastoral arts.

Then, in 1807, the era of graduate theological education began in America with the founding of Andover Theological Seminary, just a few years before the founding of Princeton Theological Seminary and my own alma mater, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia (now known
as Union Presbyterian Seminary). Soon enough came the era of university divinity schools, positioning theological schools as professional schools to shape “ministerial efficiency,” with “ministry” being identified as a profession just like law and medicine.

In 1918, the Association of Theological Schools was founded to govern this model. Such an association was initially resisted by fundamentalists and the Catholic church. But over time these denominations have come on board, and the Association of Theological Schools is now composed of more than 270 mainline Protestant seminaries, university divinity schools and now evangelical, Catholic and Pentecostal schools. This expansion indicates that a broad swath of American religion has ultimately bought into this professional model.

With this backdrop, let us examine the last 50 or so years of American mainline Protestant theological education, particularly Presbyterian theological education. Fifty years ago, one of the most significant U.S. theological seminaries was Union Theological Seminary in New York. It boasted much of the patina of the Presbyterianism out of which it formed; but it was also a significantly ecumenical school situated, as it still is, within the shadow of Columbia University.

Union Theological Seminary boasted such notable faculty members as Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Edmund Steimle, and later James Cone and Donald Shriver. It sent graduates all over the world. One of its presidents, Henry Pitney Van Deusen, boasted that “the sun never set on alumni of Union Theological Seminary in New York.” Union, in other words, had a global reach.

Theological education of the present

Union Theological Seminary’s place in North American theological education has more recently been occupied, in my judgment, by Fuller Theological Seminary. Fuller was founded in 1947 by Charles E. Fuller, a fundamentalist radio evangelist. The seminary quickly grew to occupy a sizable 13-acre campus in Pasadena, California, as well as a number of satellite campuses.

The labyrinth at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Fuller has evolved from a backwoods fundamentalism into what I would call a generously evangelical seminary — one that has recently had two Presbyterian presidents. Fuller has had as many as 4,000 students and currently has a total enrollment of 2,277 students. From a high of 70 faculty members, Fuller is now down to some 48 faculty. Regardless of its comparative decline, however, in these days, the American seminary on which “the sun never sets” is likely Fuller.

In company with Fuller in this regard is certainly Princeton Theological Seminary. In spite of its own decline in numbers, it remains the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s largest seminary — and the world’s wealthiest seminary, with an endowment of over $1 billion.

Hefty endowments are great blessings. Presbyterian generosity and wealth have been channeled faithfully, for decades, not just to Princeton Theological Seminary but also to sister schools such as Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Columbia Theological Seminary, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and Union Presbyterian Seminary. All of this generosity enables the great gift of residential formation. I cannot think of one U.S. seminary with a strong endowment that is opting exclusively for an online education model. Where we hear arguments in favor of superior online options in the formation of pastors, seminaries are probably making those arguments because they have to rely on online models. But a number of seminaries are upholding residential formation because, through their endowments, they can.

The present-day landscape of theological education in mainline Protestantism cannot be understood without also understanding cultural shifts in America with respect to the decline of voluntarism, the rise of the “nones” and “dones,” the schisms in many mainline denominations and the smaller number of students interested in traditional ministry settings. In a profound sense, we are once again living between the times; and this time – which we didn’t ask for, which we’ve simply been given – is a time of deep historical changes that raise two fundamental questions: What is God doing, and what is the shape of our faithful response?

What is God doing?

Someday I hope to ask God that question in person. But the picture of God in Jesus Christ, to which I cling in times of uncertainty, gives me a vision that operates between the times. Speaking for myself, that vision is encapsulated in something Jesus said in Matthew 16:18. He looked at perhaps his most neurotic, clueless, impulsive disciple and said to him, “You are Peter, and on this rock [can you sense the humor?] I will build my church.” If that moment gives us a glimpse into what God is doing, it leads me to believe that, however hard we find it to fathom these times, one thing is for sure: God has not given up on the church.

What is our response in this moment?

If it is true that God has not given up on us, what then is the shape of our faithful response? I believe that the shape of our faithful response, in this moment between the times, involves seminaries doing what they can to inspire, inform and encourage the church.

We’ve done that in different ways across the last almost-hundred years. As I mentioned, Smith identifies distinct eras across the 20th and into the 21st centuries. He describes the era in which my father attended Columbia Theological Seminary in the mid-1940s as “monastic.” In seminaries of that era, predominantly single males lived in small rooms with a bathroom at the end of the hall, and they passed their days in a kind of rigorous discipline of academics, worship and piety.

The 1970s era when I attended Union Theological Seminary is more aptly described, says Smith, as an era that focused primarily upon professionalism. Ministry, along with law and medicine, was still one of the classical professions.

In our current era, though, Smith suggests that seminaries have taken on more of the character of an apostolate. In just a few decades, we’ve moved from a context of Constantinianism, in which the language of faith was so much thicker in the culture, to a post-Constantinian world, no longer so saturated in the language of the faith.

Seminaries as apostolates

In 1978 Fred Craddock, an obscure New Testament scholar from Enid, Oklahoma, gave the Beecher Lectures on preaching at Yale Divinity School. He based his lecture series on a Kierkegaardian statement: “In a Christian land there is no lack of information; something else is lacking.” And what Craddock did with that thesis was to encourage preachers to assume their congregations possess a residue of faith language and then to strive to make that language come alive in new and creative ways.

Now, just a few decades later, we are beholding a huge shift, for ours is no longer “a Christian land” and therefore there is a lack of information.

And thus seminaries are assuming the character of apostolates. An apostolate focuses upon announcing the Good News in new and creative ways to an audience for which that announcement is literally news. Frankly, a segment of most seminary student bodies is itself so new in the faith that the task of inspiring and informing and encouraging the church begins – to a greater degree than it used to – with informing a significant measure of those students sitting in the classrooms. It’s as if they are hearing this stuff for the first time — and some of them are.

On the campus of Austin Seminary, signs are posted at all vehicular gates exiting the campus: “Enter to study; depart to serve.” That’s the language of an apostolate.

The greatest number of our students at Austin Seminary are Presbyterians. A slightly smaller number are United Methodists. The rest range from Episcopalians to Lutherans to Assemblies of God members to United Church of Christ members – from African Methodist Episcopal members to National and Missionary Baptists to so-called “non-denoms” to the occasional Unitarian Universalist. In general, I appreciate – no, I revel in – this relative diversity. Presbyterians, after all, can be dangerous when left to ourselves. And I warm to the notion that we are an apostolate: a group of people going out in ministry to announce the Good News in a land where there is indeed a lack of information.

The emerging church

The church emerging in front of our very eyes is an expanding church, even if not always a growing church in a numerical sense. Many of its marks reveal directions and instincts that are new and different. But this emerging church will still need the foundations in which we specialize: theology, biblical interpretation, history, liturgy, homiletics, missiology, evangelism, Christian formation, sacred music, ethics, pastoral care, comparative religion and leadership. This church will still need people who know how to engage a congregation with a gospel word characterized by both substance and passion. It will need ministers who lead with integrity, courage, discipline and all the other pastoral virtues. And these ministers will need to know what to do in the darkest days.

The church emerging in front of our very eyes is an expanding church…

In 1941, Austin Seminary built its most prominent building ­— 81 years old now, and still the centerpiece of the seminary’s campus, it is a gorgeous English gothic chapel. It is beautiful, and it reminds us that worship is at the heart of everything we do.

In 1945 – four years after that chapel was built – a highly confidential, astonishingly secret, meeting was held in Nashville. Four people attended that meeting: the four presidents of the then-Southern Presbyterian seminaries. They met to discuss the possibility of abandoning each of their campuses – in Richmond, Virginia; Atlanta, Georgia; Louisville, Kentucky; and Austin, Texas – and of forming a combined Southern Presbyterian seminary in Nashville. Clearly, all four were experiencing strains and stresses that we can only imagine, and surely much of those strains and stresses had to do with the impact that two world wars had made on their student bodies. Theirs turned out to be a short meeting. They adjourned and went back to their respective campuses to think and pray about the matter. As near as I can tell, that was the end of it.

In the most depressing days of my own more recent work at Austin Seminary, when I wondered whether what I was doing mattered at all, I would think back to the story of that meeting in Nashville. I thank God that, for the sake of theological education in and beyond the American Presbyterian church, those four presidents considered together the bleakest and perhaps safest possibilities . . . and then went back to confidently dreaming of a more hopeful future. Their work was surely based on that two-part question: What is God doing in the world, and what is our response?