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.
Brian, nice post! Just about summed up a lot of my own thoughts on the issue.
On an unrelated note, I saw that mention of your posts on Perrin’s book and thought, “Am I missing some weird connection between the discussion about schools and Gospel of Thomas talks here??”…. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who thought that was odd… Whew.
I am not sure if James was implying that I, as a student of a confessional school, was somehow part of this discussion as I addressed a somewhat taboo subject for conservatives in the Gos. of Thomas. Unsure.
If this is so the reason I think Thomas isn’t legitimate in juxtaposition w. Mt, Mk, Lk, and Jn is not because I am a conservative, but because I find Perrin’s arguments more convincing that Koester, Patterson, Davies, Pagels, Crossan, DeConick, and the others of which I have read bits and parts.
Ehrman dates Thomas in the late 2nd century and he is not conservative. I agree with him. And it could very well be that some of Thomas goes very far back, even to Jesus himself in some form.
This may not be what James was implying at all, but honestly I have no idea why he mentioned me.
Nice post Brian and thanks for the link. I agree with you about being grateful for my experience at a confessional institution, but not being too keen on doing PhD work at one. To clarify my view, I think confessional scholars working under a statement of faith can still produce good scholarship. I think it depends how rigid the statement is; I could sign a statement of faith on the Trinity or inspiration of the canon, so long as I had the freedom to explore how such ideas developed historically and to draw my own conclusions based on how I interpret the historical evidence.
Sounds pretty close to what I have been thinking about the whole thing. However, never having gone to a seminary/confessional school I wonder about how the air free of general anti-Christian bias at times would taste.
I see.. hm… I didn’t get that impression in the blog post… oh well…
If we were doing redaction criticism on his blog post, I’d have thought it was a later editorial addition! anyway, post some notes on what you thought on logion 13! interested to see how that went
I should have my paper touched up and finished my Tuesday night. I will post some of my thoughts here as well as upload it to the page where I have been putting some of my papers.
what I want to know is how do you make the time to go to school, blog, and all of the other demands of life? Maybe I am just going through an adjustment period (just enrolled in school a month ago) but I am having a difficult time blogging. In a sad way it’s the easiest to set aside as it is more of hobby. It’s easy to Twitter, and post on Facebook which by the way I enjoy your Twitter updates.
I have been asking myself this very question.
See here: https://nearemmaus.wordpress.com/2009/12/07/a-time-to-be-silent-and-a-time-to-speak-reconsidering-the-blogosphere/
And here: https://nearemmaus.wordpress.com/2009/12/08/speaking-of-blog-failure/
Seminary and college are for different people. Some people are seeking to know God more and enrich their spiritual lives where others are more interested in getting their careers started and are willing to do the basics as far as God is concerned. It all depends on the person and what they are wnating out of life.
I have degrees from both seminaries and universities. In both situations, there are people who are cool with academic freedom and some who are not. It’s all case-by-case. If anyone thinks you’ll have more academic freedom in a university, you’re fooling yourself. Both systems have expectations for their students and ranges of acceptable thesis proposals and work areas; they’re just different. They have different interests. For me, I am glad that I did both. I think it is a richer experience.
On a side note, one reason I did my PhD in the UK was that I have found the UK to be more open to academic freedom in the theological disciplines than US universities. One reason probably is that the US has such a robust seminary system, so there is much more ideological ‘clumping’. If you don’t believe me, compare all the theological faculty at a random UK university against all the theological faculty at a random US university, according to theological bent. The US university will on average be far more monochromatic.
Very true, it is case by case. I have heard this from you and several others about the UK. It makes me want to study there more than the us (especially since I have yet to do the GRE)!
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