On March 5-6, Dr. Carl Truman delivered a series of messages for the 2019 den Dulk Lectures at Westminster Seminary California. Entitled “And Miles to Go Before I Sleep: Reflections on Church, Seminary, and Bi-vocational Ministry,” Trueman offered analysis on these three areas of kingdom living in his typical engaging way.
Being a newly minted seminary president, I was most intrigued by his insightful lecture on seminaries he called "Follow the Money", which you can listen to here. His critique of modern seminaries, given from his experience and vantage point as a former seminary professor and administrator, is fairly devastating at points. As such, it deserves a response. So I wanted to interact with the main areas of Trueman's concerns, but before I do I offer the following clarifications.
First, please know that I am not responding because of sour grapes, of being "left out." At one point in his lecture, Trueman lists all the Reformed seminaries in the United States but does not mention Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, saying "there may be more but those are the ones I could think of as I was preparing this lecture." Having seen and spoken with Carl at Grove City College not too long ago, I'm positive he meant no slight to RPTS. As I rather think of RPTS and myself like Gideon did - "my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s house" - we are use to being off most people's radar anyway. So I find this omission humorous, not offensive. As the Reformed seminary closest in proximity to him now, I will look forward to future opportunities to have Carl think of us more.
Also, I do not respond in order to disagree with Trueman's concerns. I think his analysis is insightful, is brilliantly stated, and rings true. We are certainly not above his concerns at RPTS, as I believe a number of them hit home. So understand that this post is not a critique of his critique or, worse yet, seeking to defend our seminary from his assessment. To do that would be to fall into the very dangers he is warning against.
Rather, I wanted to take a stab at hopefully providing some proper responses to the alarms Trueman sounds. He himself said at one point in this lecture, "By the way, I'm a historian. I like to point to problems. I have no solutions," which drew an appropriate laugh from the audience and from me. This sentiment was not entirely true, as he did offer some suggested solutions to his own critiques. However, I am a practical theologian, whose job is to take theology and seek to apply it appropriately to the problems. Knowing that Trueman likes to promote Luther's emphasis on a theology of the cross rather than a theology of glory, I reflected on how seminaries might respond in a cross-like way as I listened carefully to this lecture. That is what this post is all about. As I have an upcoming board meeting, I found this exercise a helpful one in preparing my heart for it.
Under the main areas of concern Trueman raises in the bold print, I summarized in my own words his point in an italicized paragraph or two. I then give some ways I think seminaries should offer godly responses. If my solutions seem naive or idealistic in contrast with his scholastic, sanctified cynicism, chalk that up to my inexperience and my tendency to look at things through rose-colored glasses rather than a jaundiced eye.
Marketing of the Minor Difference
Trueman explained what Freud called the "narcissism of the minor difference." This phenomenon is the tendency of those who are near in proximity or relationship to one another to constantly feud and ridicule each other. Groups that are the closest to each other tend to fight with one another in order to build their own community identity.
In the Reformed seminary world, the significant overhead costs combined with competing for the same, shrinking pool of students puts pressure on seminaries to promote themselves in distinction to other institutions. While Reformed seminaries hold to the same confessional documents and theology that emphasize their catholicity, the free market in which seminaries operate forces them to trumpet their distinct history and practices, in contrast to others, to attract donors and students. This jockeying for a distinct place in the minds of others creates a seminary culture that shapes its students and their future ministries.
Certainly this pressure is a real one that RPTS, especially in the area of distinctives, has fallen prey to in its history. We also acknowledge that the recruiting pressures are real, and it is not only other Reformed seminaries that we feel pressure from but also the multitude of non-accredited regional and digital training institutions that are popping up. How should seminaries respond?
Build Christian collegiality between seminaries. Nothing like true friendship to help overcome the tendency toward one-upmanship in the kingdom. If Reformed seminary presidents build communication and friendships with one another, if professors spend time on other seminary campuses teaching and lecturing, if joint ventures in writing in fields of specialization are pursued, if administrative staff talk to one another at recruiting events such as career fairs or general assemblies, it becomes more difficult to "demonize" other seminaries. Those in seminary leadership should make such collegiality an important priority, not a low-on-the-totem-pole, act-nice-only-when-I-have-to one.
Thank the Lord for and promote the strengths of other seminaries. Thomas Watson said about the human condition, "Our nature is an abyss and a seminary of all evil, from which those scandals that infest the world come." Certainly we could substitute the word "institution" for "nature" in that quote and put it in the mouths of the leaders of many godless seminaries in the land. Indeed, we just recently had a new student say truthfully, if somewhat naively, about another non-Reformed seminary he had visited, "They don't even believe the Bible over there!" So in a theological world filled with liberal, Christ-less seminaries, how grateful we should be for other faithful institutions that truly uphold and teach the Reformed confessions with us.
Indeed, we should thank God in prayer for them. If other Reformed seminaries have struggles or even crisis, we should especially intercede for them and offer help to them. We should point out and utilize helpful materials they are producing. In recruiting, if another seminary might actually be better for a potential student because of its location, the faculty is better equipped and/or offer degrees in a certain area of training the student needs, the ecclesiastical affiliations for that person are stronger, etc., as Trueman suggests we should not hesitate to honestly propose that he or she consider that school.
Recognize that friendly, non-hostile competition is healthy. I think Trueman would agree with this thought. Just as in sports playing against a strong team that you respect can make your own team better, so it is in the seminary world. Yes, aggressive and demeaning competition is unhealthy and not of Christ. But recognizing what other schools do well, learning from them, and seeking to improve your own ministry ultimately creates a greater standard of excellence among schools and brings a greater blessing to the church.
When Your Universe is Small, Your Tiny, Local Gods are Powerful
This provocative subtitle in his lecture refers to how many seminaries are born out of controversies and struggles, and so begin to identify with the persona of their founders or big name theologians. "Myths of origin", or the power that the creation of a ministry has to grip the imagination, often also create a culture of institutional affinity toward certain figures. To pay salaries and benefits, seminaries often market these big names and fail to criticize them because they have reached a god-like status in their midst.
Commend key theologians but do not idolize them. Incredibly in the Reformed world, we who cry out Soli Deo Gloria! can virtually in the next breath shout Soli __________ Gloria!, filling the blank with our own theological hero. We should recognize this proclivity for what is - idolatry. We fall to the temptation of hagiography because identifying with a certain figure gives us a sense of importance. Yet it leads to forming Corinthian-like camps in the kingdom if we are not careful. Encouraging proper assessment of their contributions and fostering an environment of prayer at a seminary I believe help guard against this tendency.
The next two responses need to be kept in careful balance and even tension with one another.
Offer honest classes on church history that emphasize the catholicity of the church over the distinctives of your own denomination. As Trueman states, just because a person is a bigwig in the history of a certain seminary or denomination does not mean that the person is necessarily that looming of a figure in the totality of church history. I have a book of short biographies on key figures of church history that, in the last chapter, has three or four times as many pages on the denomination's lesser known father than it does on people like Augustine or Calvin. Seminaries should avoid that approach in the classroom, teaching a broader sweep of church history.
Teach with humility the unique emphases of your theological distinctives. Seminaries do have certain emphases that can be helpful to the greater church. In the Lord's providence, He has given these theological "aromas" to a seminary. The school does not need to be ashamed of the unique accents it may place on certain doctrines that have been preserved through its sense of history and mission. For instance, students at RPTS will receive a healthy dose of teaching on such things as the mediatorial kingship of Christ, public covenanting, or psalm singing. Yet as these topics are taught, it is vital to do so in a humble and persuasive way, rather than in anger and pride.
Intellectual Incest Breeds Idiot Children
If the above subtitle was provocative, this one is far more so! What does Trueman mean? He is continuing with the thought above, that when seminaries become isolationist they develop an "us versus them" attitude. They become suspicious of outside influences and, given inherent blind spots in their theological system and overemphasis on certain distinctives, begin to narrow down to protect their turf and consequently become inbred. A spirit of Pharisaical pride is cultivated and breathed in by the students. The seminary can begin speaking in terms of manifest destiny, using pious, kingdom language to describe their initiatives and projects as if they were ultimate in nature.
Read more broadly. This suggestion is actually the main application that Trueman offered in his lecture. Despite saying he did not have any solutions, he did encourage this one at least to students. Seminary curriculum should contain a healthy dose of classical theological literature, not just a focus on the literary minutiae of the theological or ecclesiastical camp of the seminary. One encouraging trend for the church at large, that the seminary should encourage, is reading and discussion groups of classic texts. Reading beyond our own camp helps maintain an appropriate balance in our theology.
Bring in visiting lecturers. Westminster Seminary California is demonstrating what all seminaries should do by having Trueman there in the first place. Cross pollinating the institution by having men from other Reformed denominations and seminaries address the seminary community sows healthy ideas and removes some of the stale air staying in our own camp can create. I know that at RPTS having outside speakers at our daily chapels, men who are orthodox but yet have different experiences and ministries than what is common to most of us, stimulates new thinking and discussion.
Read the theological journals of other seminaries. Most seminaries now offer their journals online, as RPTS does, making access free and easy. The simple act of reading the thoughts of professors at other institutions can guard against this intellectual incest of which Trueman warns.
Scour your advertising pieces and remove arrogant, over-the-top rhetoric. Again, toward the end of his talk, Trueman does encourage marketing a seminary's strengths, but doing so in a way that is positive, does not make the strengths sound ultimate, and does not demean other institutions. A healthy exercise for seminaries would be to examine closely their advertising pieces and see if they honestly believe it communicates the spirit of Christ in them. Or do they exude an arrogant, holier than others attitude?
The Seminary is Good for Local Churches, as Long as Local Churches Know What They are Good for
This statement is Trueman playing off a Richard John Neuhaus response to Hugh Hefner. After Hefner once said that "Playboy is good for women," Neuhaus responded, "Yes, as long as women know what they are good for." In the same way, seminaries claim to care for local churches, which can be powerful rhetoric, but sadly is often true only if churches know what they are good for. For often the seminary's real interest in the local church is in seeing it as a source for revenue, potential new students, and pastors providing free mentoring. Trueman encouraged students to ask some questions about their professors' and their own service to the local church.
Treat the church as the precious bride of Christ. How my former mentor, Dr. Roy Blackwood, whose funeral I'll be attending this week, drilled this into me and others. As he said, if you dare come to the local church and use her instead of serve her, you are putting your filthy hands on the beloved bride of the Lord Jesus! Thus, seminary administration must take great care in communicating and appealing to local churches in such a way that it does not abuse the church by simply seeking to profit from its giving funds and students. The seminary should respect the local leadership of the church and approach congregations in a way encouraged by the elders.
Encourage strongly the seminary community to be involved in and serve local congregations. Dr. Trueman did suggest this himself, but it deserves repeating. Faculty, staff, and students must never consider themselves above serving in the local church in menial ways. Professors should model service in a local congregation that is like family to them. Students should not check out of church for the years they are in seminary, thinking they are too busy for involvement. Rather, they should be putting heart, hands, and feet to their lessons by ministering in quiet ways in a local congregation.
Design assignments and practicums that push the students back into the arms of their pastors and congregations. If all seminary students are doing is sitting before lecterns and behind desks, they will have their heads filled up with knowledge but not experience the gospel in action. Jesus was on the move with His disciples! In practical theology courses especially, students should not only be learning about preaching, counseling, visiting, evangelizing, etc. They must be doing it! Partnering with local churches and ministries to provide these opportunities is essential to the balanced training of men for pastoral ministry and others for kingdom service.
The Wages of Debt is Spin
Seminaries were founded originally for the purpose of training pastors. But the expansion in seminaries to train people for ever widening ministries has created more overhead in facilities and staff, leading to the need also to expand income streams. One of these streams is tuition, and the need for more tuition means the need for more students, which in turn has led to offering more degree programs. This multiplication of degree programs has mission implications, as training pastors is no longer the sole function. Additionally, the degree programs have ecclesiastical implications, as now seminaries not only train pastors but have moved into the realm of offering theological training to many laypeople. This shift has blurred the line between what the seminary and church does. Further, this change has led to moral implications, because encouraging people to get degrees often leads them into debt situations.
Create a sense of community and kingdom interfacing within the seminary for the better training of men for the pastorate. In laying out how seminaries have expanded their degree offerings, Trueman warns of some of the pitfalls of this direction. However, I think these changes actually result in the better training of men for the pastorate. Having men training for pastoral ministry at a school where people from other denominations are present, women are in the classroom, laypeople are there getting a degree other than a Master of Divinity, and retired folks are auditing classes makes for a better training environment. Rather than having a sense of elitism and separation from the "commoners," they learn alongside and interact with them in the classroom.
One example of this. When I was at RPTS learning to preach in chapel as a student, it was largely just in front of my white professors and fellow M.Div. students. Today, our chapel is filled with people of color from near and far, mothers with children in tow, and congregants auditing a class. They learn to preach to a much broader congregation!
Connect local churches with the seminary by providing onsite training and resources to them. Again, I do not think it has to be a negative to say the line between the church and seminary is more blurred now. It used to be the seminary was separated from the people by being in an ivory tower with its resources and professors reserved for only an elite few, hidden out of sight of most in the church. Today, with digital communication, learning, and resources, the local church can not only see but participate with what is going on in the seminary. This connectivity can hold the seminary to greater accountability and greater service to the local church. It also allows for the ability to work together with local pastors in training their people for ministry.
Again, for other examples, last week I was on a Google Hangout with a distance learning student and his pastor thousands of miles away from RPTS. I discussed homiletics with them and in effect "deputized" the pastor in having him help me evaluate a student in his congregation in preaching. I loved this interaction and the sense of partnership in the gospel I shared with those brothers during that time. On another front, we are trying to use the resources we have to respond to needs in the church by providing such things as a pastoral refreshment program, a mercy class for deacons, and student profile pages so churches can see students' progress and availability.
Urge potential students to seek the approval and support of their sessions for seminary training. Dr. Trueman is correct that it would be a moral failing if seminaries encourage students to come and get a degree, but then leave with loads of debt. That's why seminaries should work with the leadership of the local church to ensure the potential student is coming with the blessing of his elders and has means to properly fund his education. There should be checkpoints in the application and interview process to ensure this is the case.
One last quote from Dr. Trueman is worth remembering. He said that all seminaries could vanish from the face of the earth tonight, and the kingdom of God would continue. But not so if local churches vanished. My predecessor, President Emeritus Jerry O'Neill, would often pray something very similar. He would pray that if RPTS was no longer serving the kingdom of God and the local church, that the Lord would close it down. To that I say Amen!