Through surveys of incoming students and prospective students my colleagues at Western Seminary found that the three most important factors considered when people choose a seminary are:

(1) Doctrine

(2) Faculty

(3) Academic Reputation

…or Athanasius, or Augustine, or Calvin, or Wesley, or…

There is no way for me to know if this is true of everyone considering seminary, but I imagine that doctrine has to play a big part for many people.

Personally, I chose Western Seminary with doctrine a little further down the ladder. When I enrolled at the San Jose campus it had to do first and foremost with my acquaintance with some of the seminary’s alumni. It is one thing to read a brochure; it is something altogether different to be told, “You will enjoy hermeneutics with Dr. Gary Tuck. I know I did!” Also, the campus was near where I lived in San Francisco and I had no plans of leaving the City at that point.

I think I could have been as happy at Fuller Theological Seminary or George Fox Evangelical Seminary as I have been at Western Seminary. In fact, there may have been areas where I would have been more comfortable at these other schools (e.g., the ethos surrounding women in ministry).

Doctrine does matter though. As an enrollment counselor I have learned that for many it comes down to one’s “bibliology.” That seemed to be the major watershed in my experience. Some people will not go to a school where the professors do not speak of Scripture as “inerrant.” Others won’t go to a school where professors speak of Scripture as “inerrant.” They may prefer “infallible” or “trustworthy,” but “inerrant” is far too strong.

Denominational affiliation was not that important, but there was a form of denominationalism that I have seen influence students. They may talk about “Calvinism vs. Arminianism” or they may want to know how many professors are dispensationalist or whether the school is “Reformed.” There are some who want to know if your school is connected to the “emerging church,” and whether you say “yes” or “no” it could determine if they attend your school. Others want to know if you are connected to “The Gospel Coalition” and your answer matters.

Let me express one caveat about prioritizing “doctrine” when selecting a school. You cannot separate doctrine from pedagogy. (I will say more about pedagogy in a future post.) If you attend a seminary that is a little further right or a little further left on the theological spectrum that you are personally (my seminary was further right on many subjects) you can have a wonderful experience if the professors are OK with students having differing opinions.

As a student at Western Seminary I never felt like I had to hold to a certain view to avoid being blacklisted or receiving a bad grade, but I know those types of seminary do exist (from the right and from the left). Be careful to avoid seminaries where the pedagogy is more about downloading information into your mind than it is about teaching you to think. My professors taught me to think. They shared their views, yes indeed, but I was allowed to have mine as well. The only requirement was that I argued my position well and that I showed that I had thought deeply about the subject.

If I were starting my seminary search again I would make a list of doctrinal positions that I prioritize. Create a taxonomy. Does the seminary have to share a certain confession about the nature of the Bible? Should they affirm women in ministry? Do views on the sacraments matter? Do you prefer a small tent seminary or a big tent seminary? This will help you know what seminary may be best for you.

In my next post I will discuss faculty.