(Reprinted with permission from the Washington Post Book World, written by Robert W. Paterson.)
Three new books represent widely differing approaches to the role of theological education in the life of the church. From across the Atlantic comes Theological Perspectives on Christian Formation, edited by Jeff Astley, Leslie J. Francis, and Colin Crowder, a collection of twenty-nine previously published journal articles, many from a decidedly liberal viewpoint, woven together into one volume by two British ecclesiastical foundations. Issues facing theological education in the wider church are addressed in seven essays, but the focus of the book is Christian education, broadly defined. The volume caters to the mainline crowd, complete with sections exploring trendy approaches to Christian education, including postliberal, liberationist, and feminist. While a few essays are commendable, and while some insights are tucked away in the book here and there, the volume as a whole is disappointing. It will most likely serve as a reference tool, perhaps gathering dust in some library, providing a perfect illustration as to why Alister McGrath found spiritual emptiness in the religious left of the Church of England.
Nor is the discussion advanced by Changing the Way Seminaries Teach, a volume that deals more with the Christian education of ministers. This extended report assesses a five-year program funded by the Lilly Endowment and the J. Howard Pew Freedom Trust to improve the educational program at twelve North American seminaries. The program, however, was not aimed at reducing class size, raising faculty salaries and competence, or exploring the relationship between Christian character and ministerial skills. It was a “global” consciousness-raising effort, challenging what it claims is the schools’ provincialism and isolation from the resources of the Third World church.
While the book accurately gauges what happened—and what more needs to be done—in terms of the ethos, curriculum, and faculty at these seminaries as a result of the project, what globalization really means is anyone’s guess. Its trendy, anti-Western, anti-white-male rhetoric and its utopian vision divert attention from the indigenous challenges of theological education in the United States today. Those needs can no more be served with “immersions” of Third Worldisms than seminaries in Korea or Kenya can be improved with “immersions” of Americanisms. In fact, as William Willimon and Thomas Naylor of Duke University suggest in their new book, Downsizing the U.S.A. (Eerdmans), “localization” more than “globalization” may be the crying need of the times.
Whatever Changing the Way Seminaries Teach and Theological Perspectives on Christian Education lack, however, is more than compensated for by the strong showing of Theological Education in the Evangelical Tradition, edited by D. G. Hart and R. Albert Mohler, Jr. This collection of papers, presented at a Lilly Endowment-funded conference at the Institute for Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, provides penetrating insights into theological education from some of the nation’s finest theological educators, including Timothy George, Richard Mouw, and David Wells. Also contributing essays are the volume’s editors, two promising educators under the age of forty.
The book’s strength is in its articulation of the conceptual unity that holds evangelical theological education together. It explains how the evangelical approach to training ministers differs from both old-line Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions. That difference, the book illustrates, relates not so much to institutional or formal arrangements but rather to a distinctive set of expectations. “Evangelicals,” the introductory essay summarizes, “have been especially wary of religion that appears to be automatic or routine, and they have desired ministers and leaders who have experienced firsthand a vital and deep encounter with God’s grace and who could instill and reproduce such characteristics within other believers.”
The volume highlights the historical dimension of that conceptual unity, contending “that the problems seminaries face today are not dramatically different from those that confronted evangelical theological educators in the past.” The book even suggests that many of the difficulties facing evangelicals today are rooted in the past; James Bradley of Fuller Seminary, for example, illustrates how the English-Puritan tradition of “practical divining,” with its goal of subduing scholarship to the professional training of pastors, did little to prepare evangelicals for the onslaught of critical and scientific thought in the nineteenth century.
While strong on historical analysis, Theological Education in the Evangelical Tradition is weak on prescription. The concluding four essays, “The Future of Evangelical Theological Education,” are brief, reflecting more afterthoughts than serious discussion. The insights offered in this book, however, would seem to lead quite naturally to some “definitive guidance,” perhaps some kind of standardization of ministerial preparation to guide evangelicals in the twenty-first century.
The time for raising or rethinking standards could not be better. As David Wells outlines in “No Place for Truth,” the pastoral vocation today is in crisis. Ministers have become, in Wells’s words, “dislodged from the network of what is meaningful and valuable in society.” The structures of modern life, he says, “offer no plausibility for the work they do.” Ministers have even lost standing in the Christian community, especially its evangelical expression. The bonds that tie pastors with congregations are weaker than ever; traumatic “forced exits” of pastors, according to a study in Leadership magazine, have reached epidemic proportions. Most public-school teachers have far greater stability and workplace protection, higher salaries, and more generous benefits than ministers.
The pastoral crisis will not be solved overnight, but perhaps the seminaries and the denominations they serve could begin with attention to quality rather than quantity. This shift will not be easy; it would cut the fuel line that has fostered the proliferation of evangelical seminaries in the past twenty-five years. But the hard questions need to be asked. Do evangelicals in North America really need sixty-three divinity schools educating 30,000 potential ministers? Has the mass of these institutions really enhanced pastoral quality and effectiveness? Because they compete with one another for market share, evangelical seminaries are not very selective in their admissions policies. The result is a pool of graduates who do not measure up academically or personally with corresponding professions as well as an oversupply of candidates who struggle to receive a call from a particular congregation or ministry.
This situation will not change unless the churches and the seminaries become genuine stakeholders with students, working together to sponsor and accept only promising candidates, subsidizing their education and funding residency programs, and helping them secure calls. Because the churches today could not realistically commit themselves to 30,000 students, this approach would significantly lower seminary enrollments, but it might reap revolutionary results.
While the popular nature of evangelicalism will resist recommendations like these, the time has come for bold yet respected voices in church and academy to wean evangelicals from the thoroughgoing pragmatism that has contributed to the crisis in the pastoral vocation. For without singleminded devotion to preparing, strengthening, and upholding qualified pastors in their ministry of word and sacrament in the context of local, healthy congregations, the evangelical faith can only face an uncertain future.