I want to start a seminary. This may seem like a “bold desire,” like something that’s too fanciful, or else too premature. Let me begin by saying, this is a dream of mine, not necessarily something I’m trying to do by the time the fall semesters come around, when the “corona cares” have dwindled. This is something that I would love to be able to have a part in at some point in my life. That said, there are a number of things I would like to be part of said seminary that address various needs and shortcomings in the current seminary system.
First , I would like it to be classically oriented materially. I was extremely blessed to have been shaped before formal education by R. C. Sproul and then to take my initial church history course with Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin. I took a course in Medieval Theology and another in Calvin and the Reformation, and I took a course on the Person of Christ with Dr. Stephen Wellum. In my doctoral studies, I have taken a course in Protestant (read Reformed) Scholasticism. I’ve been committed to confessional Baptist theology since before starting my schooling. Each of these have ensured two things. One, they have forced (i.e. allowed!) me to deeply engage in original source reading, with what’s been called the “Great Tradition.” My initial major in college (before I changed to ministry) was military history, and for that program the opening course was called, “Research Methods in History.” It stressed the importance of engaging primary works and then conversing with secondary sources. When I was introduced to Reformation theology, I found that they had the same concern, to show that they were holding fast to the line of truth that was given in Scripture and handed on through the ages. They loved to show from the sources, biblical, patristic, and medieval, that they were not departing from orthodoxy but reforming the church according to the truth. As I read in various courses, in addition to my own reading, I was being taught by voices of the ages. Dr. Haykin once told an anecdote from his own education where he responded to his fellow students, who were Roman Catholics, that when he read the Fathers he could only recognize that they were preaching the same faith that he held to. This has been my experience as well, and it is why I hold the Puritans in such high regard. In my understanding, the Puritans (and their continental cousins) are something of a high water mark in the Christian tradition, taking in the best of the ages through the proper lens of the Reformation. The second thing this background and particular track of education did was show me how varied someone’s education can be. While I was being taught and thinking through classical articulations of the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of Scripture, and the importance of history (i.e. tradition), fellow students and those at other schools were hearing about a passible and complex God, a Trinity where the Son and Spirit eternally submit to the Father, Scripture’s ability to be bent every which way, and tradition’s subordination to private readings. Some have encountered good classical theology and then forgot to read such theologians as Turretin (or Bavinck), who carefully distills classical theology and maintains a strong affirmation of the Reformation. However, most encounter the shallow, eminently practical (read pragmatic) theology that has more in common with modern education and trade schools than the contemplative-praxis of past pastor-theologians. Thus, I would like such a seminary to be materially sourced in classical theology and exegesis. By classical, however, I don’t mean “ends at 1516” the way many insinuate today. I mean, “continues through Reformed Orthodoxy,” such that we would be reading such men as those encountered in Muller’s PRRD. When’s the end of Reformed Orthodoxy? Honestly, that’s not as important as many historians try to make it. I would classify Gill’s work as methodologically and materially Reformed Orthodox, but almost as one born out of season. Not to mention the fact that Bavinck could be read as rearticulating Reformed Orthodoxy. It’s nice to be able to silo eras, to disconnect them from the years that precede and follow, but dates are often more arbitrary than people assume. They’re helpful for an intro course, less helpful for real conceptualization.
Second, I would like it to be classically oriented methodologically. Another experience I’ve had that has influenced my thinking, for what I would consider the good, is my involvement and concern with classical education. We homeschool our four children. If you have encountered homeschooling for any substantial amount of time, you know many different styles of homeschooling exist. Some parents homeschool in a way I believe to be detrimental to the children and society, essentially allowing their children to decide what (or if!) they want to learn for the day. Most homeschool families are not that way though. They look for a good math curriculum, a good phonics/grammar/literature curriculum, a good science curriculum, and so forth, and cobble together what it seems like the kids need to know. Such families have often kept their children out of the public school system because of the anti-Christian ideology that pervades it, an ideology that can be nearly impossible to counteract considering the fact that the children are there for most of their waking hours. This definitely plays a part in why we have homeschooled our children. But another reason we’ve homeschooled our children is the opportunity it provides us to educate them in a manner better than they would receive in a public school and at a price we can afford (classical Christian schools regularly charge $6,000–$9,000 per student per year). We believe our children will likely be more thoughtful and virtuous members of society than they would be if they were in a public school system that despises the past and despises the faith. We have used the curriculum of Highlands Latin School, provided through their press company Memoria Press, but there are others such as Veritas Press as well. Additionally, I also taught a year at a classical Christian high school. What does this have to do with seminary? I am convinced that the mindset of reading through the ages would be particularly helpful for the seminarian. Most schools now will have prerequisites for some courses, but other than those few, the student has the freedom to choose what they want to take and when. The result is usually a cobbled-together education that leaves holes in understanding and deficiencies in organic thinking. So, step one would be to create a program that is not open to student manipulation. Step two would be to create a program that seriously understands the importance of building a body of knowledge, not just imparting bits of information. That would apply to the fullness of the program as well as the particular aspects of the program, such as exegesis and theology and practical ministry. Read how the New Testament interprets the Old Testament, and then how the Fathers, Medievals, Reformers, and Post-Reformed continued to clarify and reform their interpretation through those ages. Then turn to modern commentary and engage it thoughtfully, knowing that you have been shaped by primary engagement with the Bible itself and then by the thinking of Christians across the ages. Do the same with any doctrine or practical ministry activity. (As an aside, this method and model follows the general principle of grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages in classical education).
Third, I would like it to be classically oriented practically. What I mean by “practically” refers to organization, practice within the seminary, and practice beyond the seminary. In terms of organization, it is appropriate that the teachers of the seminary are ordained ministers. This follows the command in 2 Tim. 2:2 that the faith be handed on to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Since my vision for a seminary is the vision of a Reformed Baptist, the ordination has the particular definition attached to our ecclesiological principles. We hold that ordination is finally an act of the local church under the Word and Spirit at the recommendation of other elders. We hold that “elder,” “pastor,” “bishop,” “overseer,” “minister,” etc. are interchangeable terms, and so all the elders of a local church ought to be ordained. (I leave aside the debates over whether Baptists should affirm something called ordination; I think what I’ve provided above shows how I understand this).This means that it may not be the primary preaching pastor who teaches in such a seminary, but he should be a recognized pastor/elder in a local church. Inside the seminary, it would be classically oriented in terms of internal practice by means of set times of communal prayer and Scripture readings, memorization, singing of psalms and hymns, and other activities of communal life in view of those going into ministry. Professors in such a setting would be more like tutors and mentors than untouchable, unapproachable conveyors of information. This would, to a large extent, prohibit either online or part-time programs. In some sense, it might look like the old monasteries without the expectation of lifelong monastic vows. Third, it would be classically oriented in terms of subsequent practice in that it would encourage students to be true pastor-theologians. Who can deny that the Puritans are models here? They saw the life of the pastorate as the life of a thinker and teacher rather than as the life of a CEO. Muller says, “Seminaries have been guilty of creating several generations of clergy and teachers who are fundamentally ignorant of the materials of the theological task and prepared to argue (in their own defense) the irrelevance of classical study to the practical operation of ministry. The sad result has been the loss, in many places, of the central function of the church in the West and the replacement of a culturally and intellectually rich clergy with a group of practitioners and operations-directors who can do almost anything except make sense of the church’s theological message in the contemporary context” (quoted in Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 29). The Christian ministry was once populated by some of the sharpest minds in their era, from Paul to the Cappadocians, to Augustine to Calvin to Owen to Gill. I think this change is due, in part, to the ever-broadening focus of seminaries. When they think of themselves as training people for a broad range of “ministries” rather than training the next generation of pastor-theologians, they must necessarily weaken their standards and broaden their foci. They must waste many of the students’ time with courses that fulfill the demands of accrediting agencies and student expectations. They must offer programs in “Urban Ministry” and “Communication Studies” and “Business Administration.” Instead of seeing practical ministry as the outworking of biblical and theological principles, as those things that you learn in the context of your local church while you’re going through your ministerial training, they have to worry about developing a good program that will meet the felt needs of the students who will then worry about the felt needs of their congregations. No longer are Christian leaders leaders, they are facilitators. They simply facilitate the fulfillment of felt needs in both the seminary and the church, and this teaches husbands and parents to do the same in their homes. Can we really wonder why the church is in the state it is when our seminaries, the “seedbeds” (from Latin semen), are in the state they’re in?
Some of you may ask, “But isn’t there something like this in existence?” I answer: sort of. Talbot has recently started an M.A. program, but it’s not quite what I’m talking about here since it’s an M.A. rather than pastorally focused. Further, the school isn’t particularly known as being Reformed. Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies Seminary are both theologically consistent with what I’m saying here, and likely to be fairly consistent practically, but structurally they have had to maintain the typical course of instruction (maybe for the sake of accreditation?). In other words, what exists now that would provide the content I’m envisioning still exists in a structure I think has shown to be faulty.
But is this sort of idea possible? We know that there are many seminaries on the edge of closing, some even closing their doors, and all of them wondering about their finances. The question, at this point, is whether a vision like I’ve outlined above might generate enough interest to sustain itself? I believe there are a few things that should be taken into consideration when asking this question. First, if a seminary might close anyway, why not at least close your doors by doing the right thing rather than stay afloat by weakening the church? I recognize that’s more of a polemical charge, and only works if what I outlined above appeals to you, but if you do think it’s appealing, you probably also feel the weight of the question. Second, we must recognize that seminaries serve the church, by producing theological works and training minsters, and so really it should be a question of whether local churches and individual Christians would give toward such an endeavor more than whether an accrediting agency would approve it. I think we may just find that there are enough churches concerned about the state of Christianity and the state of the ministry to support something like this. There are three ways in particular that we could see churches supporting something like this. One, they could support it financially by giving money so that students would be able to devote their time to their training rather than juggling jobs with their full-time studies. Two, they could commit to pay elders/pastors full-time wages, or at least supplement the income they receive through the seminary, knowing that some of their time will be spent mentoring future ministers, which should be part of the “job description” anyway (e.g. 2 Tim. 2:2). This would reduce the financial burden on the school itself. Three, they could commit to looking to such a seminary for future elders/pastors and letting them serve in their congregations during their time in seminary. Related to this, they might also encourage those pursuing the pastorate (what I call “emplaced missionaries”) or the mission field (what I call “sent pastors”) to go to such a seminary. Third, when we ask whether something like this might be possible now, we must consider the state of various conversations. The recent “retrieval” movement, or whatever else you might want to call this recommitment to historic Christianity, has become quite appealing in many areas of theological life, and the full-orbed Christian thought that would be required in a seminary like this has been demonstrated in various works recently. Consider, for instance, J. V. Fesko’s work. He has written on theological topics like union with Christ, historical topics like pneumatology in the nineteenth century and the pactum salutis, and biblical commentaries. Unfortunately, it seems Baptists have been among the worst offenders of theological compartmentalization. Systematic theologians will do biblical theology, but not often close exegetical work, and NT and OT scholars will dabble in theology, but it often feels clumsy (at best) or dismissive of historical theology (at worst). A seminary like that outlined above would require professors to read across the ages and thus engage in the historical and theological discussions concerning Holy Scripture; every theologian an exegete and every exegete a theologian. Though the lack of familiarity with Latin (and other languages) may have been a deterrent in recent decades, we have seen an explosion in two areas. Many works have now been translated from their original languages, and the classical education movement will recover the ability of young adults to read many classics in the original. Our generation may struggle with limitations, since the translations are in the process of coming out right now and many of us learned Latin late, but we can have a system in place for the future generations to engage our tradition substantially when they mature. A fourth consideration when thinking about the viability of such a project is the practical matter of space and supplies. First, the concept outlined above seeks to be purposefully classical and obviously Baptist. Both Baptists and early Christians began their ministerial training in the context of local ministry. Though designated building space is preferable, there is no reason something like that outline above could not use a church building initially. Second, due to the prevalence of online resources, the need for a physical library would be minimal, even non-existent, at first. There is something about the physical page and designated physical space that encourages us to value and engage with material creation differently than electronic engagement, but online resources would at least provide a buffer for the initial stages.
Above, I have outlined the call to a new form of seminary, a form which concerns itself with training pastor-theologians, men who will think deeply about God with the church through the ages, feeding the flock entrusted to their care. I not only think something like this vision is preferable, I think it is possible. I think it is possible for us to discard with a system that has starved the church by training practitioners rather than pastors and to replace that system with an older and newer one that looks at ministerial training more along the lines of discipleship.