Evaluating Trends in Seminary Education, past & Present

I have been pondering Paul Martin’s recent blog on Reform the Seminaries! The article that he refers to—Neela Banerjee, “Students Flock to Seminaries, but Fewer See Pulpit in Future”, The New York Times (March 17, 2006)—is mostly centred on the trend away from pastoral ministry in mainline denominational seminaries. Yet, the trend is not restricted to such institutions. Even in Evangelical schools, according to Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, this trend is quite evident. Paul is convinced that money—ever a root of many evils—is at fault here. No doubt the cost of doing seminary today can introduce a pragmatic element into student recruitment and thus the catering to all kinds of extra-ecclesial ministries. But, at the core, surely the problem is theological? Is it not a loss of confidence in the church? Is George Barna’s recent registry of his loss of faith in the church a reflection of a widespread problem? If I am having problems with the church little wonder I would be reluctant to become its lead representative!

There is a circular action here: the move away from pastoral ministry in seminaries reflects a larger disenchantment with the church while at the same time this lack of passion for the church has become de rigueur in the theological academy and further fosters negative attitudes towards the church. Again, no wonder some megachurch/quasi denominational bodies have given up on the seminary and are starting their own schools for their own pastors.

Of course, the impact of seminaries upon the church is nothing new. I was reading this afternoon Joseph Stennett’s The Complaints of an Unsuccessful Ministry (2nd ed.; Circular Letter of the Western Association, 1753) (http://www.mountzionpbc.org/books/JS_complaints.htm). Near the end of the circular letter, Stennett notes that if enquiry were to be made into the reasons for the “remarkable disregard the gospel meets with in our own times [i.e. the 1750s],” a number of reasons would be forthcoming:

  • First, there was a growth in a love of luxury;
  • Then, there was “pride in natural and acquired knowledge, which are too often the attendants of a long series of civil and religious liberty”;
  • Third, Stennett was not slow to take note of the fact that “our fountains of learning are corrupted.” What this meant was that “many unrenewed men, who are strangers to experimental religion themselves, have taken upon them to be the ministers of it to others.”
  • Finally, the preachers of Stennett’s day needed to be more like the Puritans of the previous century—“ whatever improvements we have made in the politeness of our address, I doubt we have lost much of that serious and striking manner, in which our fathers, in the last century, delivered this message to the consciences of men.”

I find it noteworthy that Stennett traces the problems of making inroads for the gospel in his day to what he calls “our fountains of learning.” In this regard, what was true then is true now. When a seminary begins to lose confidence in the Scriptures and drift from an orthodox Christian heritage, the growing “rot” of its teaching (see 2 Timothy 2:17) is spread far and wide through its graduates.

This brings me to a topic that has occupied much of my thinking over the past month or so: what is the raison d’être of the school, Toronto Baptist Seminary (TBS), where I am Principal? Surely part of it is to buck this trend that Aleshire comments on.

Toronto Baptist Seminary was founded in 1927 in the midst of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy to train pastors since it was rightly deemed that solid leadership in local Baptist churches was essential to the well-being of the movement. Over the years it has done this work faithfully as well as trained many others for other Christian vocations.  

We need to keep on doing what we have done historically. Now, more than ever, churches in the Greater Toronto Area need a school that will stress pastoral ministry as well as the training of potential missionaries. God helping us, we need to be a center for pastoral formation, and the training of church planters for here at home and for overseas.

Please pray for us that we might be found faithful!