As a board member, administrator, or faculty member, perhaps you wonder from time to time whether theological education is worth it all. Why give of your treasure — and so much of your valuable time — for this institution, when there are other worthy endeavors that you could be supporting? And perhaps you have a great answer to that query on the tip of your tongue, because “why theological education” is a perennial question. In fact, Timothy Dwight was thinking about this question when he spoke at the opening ceremonies of Andover Seminary.
Andover, the first graduate-level theological school in America, opened its doors in 1808. Before then, aspiring ministers usually learned through apprenticeship with a local pastor after they finished college. But Dwight, the president of Yale College, believed something more was needed, so he made an argument for formal theological education. His answers are 205 years old, but they can still help us today.
Time to study
Too often, Dwight lamented, ministers began “very imperfectly fitted for their profession,” because they did not have enough money to “pursue their studies through a sufficient length of time.” Andover sought to address this problem by providing the resources necessary for future ministers to devote themselves to study for a time. Many today are not equipped to lead with conviction or thoughtfulness because they have never devoted a season of their lives to intensive study. The days of free seminaries are over, but affordable theological schools provide an invaluable service to future ministers and the communities they will lead.
One of the greatest strengths of Andover Seminary, Dwight argued, was that it would have a library that was “sufficiently various, and extensive, for the purposes intended.” Broad and deep reading should be one of the main purposes of theological education, he believed. Professors may teach and mentor, but they also force students to read. A good library gives access to vast amounts of knowledge and distilled wisdom otherwise unavailable. That’s why strong theological schools continue to invest resources in books and databases.
Mastering any one of the “branches of Theological Learning” is enough to exhaust “the utmost talents of a single man.” Therefore, Dwight observed, it is impossible for a single pastor to adequately educate those he mentors. A theological school, on the other hand, has professors who devote themselves to a level of study and teaching that is not possible for a single minister. Don’t hear Dwight (or me) wrong. Practical training is essential, and theological schools cannot fully meet this need. That’s why local congregations should not outsource pastoral training altogether. But in most cases, it takes both a pastoral mentor and a strong theological faculty to train a fruitful minister.
The other students
“All ministers ought to be friends,” said Dwight, and in order to develop friendships, they have to know one another. He also said that when “ministers are educated separately and solitarily, this knowledge, in ordinary cases, cannot exist.” Campus-centered theological education strengthens the unity within denominations and between churches by building bonds between ministers. Some forms of online education run the risk of undermining this benefit of theological education. Whatever delivery method is used, theological institutions should continue to prioritize the community-building function of theological education.
In making his case that such a thing as a seminary was needed, Dwight concluded by assuring his hearers, “The doctrines, which will be taught here, are the doctrines of the Reformation.” He went on to explain how Andover would strengthen New England’s churches. Not all seminaries want to pass on the same doctrine as Dwight did. But all would be wise to have a clear sense of what they do believe, and of the faith community they exist to serve.
Mark Rogers is on the pastoral staff of CrossWay Community Church in Bristol, Wisconsin. This article was abridged with permission from a blog post that first appeared at www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/11/12/why-go-to-seminary/.