Nick Norelli wrote the other day on the seminary being a place that provides education for people who will be serving the church (here). He wrote that the purpose of seminary is not to produce mere scholars. I agree. I am in my second program with Western Seminary. It is an educational institution that provides the church with pastors, assistant pastors, teaching pastors, youth pastors, missionaries, church planters, and so forth. This is the purpose of the institution. It is the desire to assist the church in her proclamation of the gospel. It does not exist primarily for academia.

This does not mean that the professors do not interact with academia. We have professors who interact with evangelicals from a wide breadth of perspectives at ETS as well as an even broader range of perspectives at SBL every year. This means that when these professor return to the classroom the primary objective is to make the church better, not the academy. But these professor are still part of the academy.

I have noticed that there has been a lot of discussion across the blogosphere on some things Dan Wallace wrote regarding Dallas Theological Seminary being an institution that can be involved in the academic round table even though there is a confessional statement that prevents students from going beyond a particular line of orthodoxy (see here). Some like Doug Magnum (here), James McGrath (here [which for some unknown reason mentions my blog series on Perrin’s Thomas: The Other Gospel] and here), Mike Koke (here), and Pat McCullough (here and here) have responded that it is somewhat of an oxymoron to assume you can ask your students to be “confessional” while going where the evidence leads.

In some sense it might very well be that this is so. There are many who find that the evidence has not lead to a place where one can no longer maintain a particular doctrinal confession. There are others who might find that the evidence leads away from the particular confession of the seminary of which one is part. My thoughts on the matter are if you find yourself believing things that are no longer acceptable in your seminary you can (1) avoid those topics, graduate, and see where it leads you from there or (2) transfer to another school.

There is no reason to attend a seminary you know exist for the primary purpose of assisting the church if you are going to try to wreak havoc on your fellow students who simply want to know how to interpret the Scriptures a bit better before teaching adolescents at church on Sunday. If you feel that your classmates and professor are disingenuous go elsewhere. It is that easy!

To answer the question, no, I do not think you can have as much academic freedom studying somewhere like Dallas Theological, Westminster Theological, Gordon-Conwell, or any of these schools as you can studying at UCLA, UNC, or other programs. On the other hand, you may have a hard time presenting conservative views in your dissertation at one of these schools, so the bias goes both ways. So here is my answer to Nick’s inquiry about the difference between the seminary and the university: (1) I am glad I attended seminary and that I have had and I currently have the opportunity to do biblical/theological studies in the context of the church, but (2) if and when I have the opportunity to do a PhD I do not want to do it through a confessional school for the very reason that it is true that a PhD (at least in my mind) is where you attempt to be as objective as possible while addressing a particular subject for the sake of academic credibility. If you graduate from your PhD with the same beliefs or similar ones, fine. If you change your views, fine. The point is that you are at an institution where this is the purpose and it is between you, your conscience, and God.

I would be elated to study under someone like Bart Ehrman at UNC. I would enjoy doing PhD work at schools ranging from Claremont, to Duke, to Durham, or Aberdeen. I wouldn’t mind doing a dissertation on a subject like the Gospel of Judas.

Does this mean that I think a PhD from DTS, Gordon-Conwell, and the likes is not academically legitimate? Of course not! It only means you must admit you are still seeking to address a subject that is related to the life of the church and therefore you are limited by the confessional nature of Christianity. You are doing a PhD not so much to wrestle with your own issues as you are to wrestle with an issue you’d like to answer as you serve the church.

Final statement: I think both approaches to academics are valid. I think the seminary should continue to serve the church. I think the university should continue to serve the individual and the academy. There will be a blurry line at times, but this is a tension with which we must live. As for me, I am glad to have had the opportunity to study at seminary but I look forward to possibly engaging the university someday as well if the Lord wills it.