The Crisis in American Theological Education
An address delivered by Dr. John N. Oswalt at the Fall Convocation of Wesley Biblical Seminary as part of the annual Chamberlain Holiness Lectures and the Minister/Lay Conference, October 1994 (At the time, Dr. Oswalt was the Ralph Waldo Beeson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and is currently serving there again as a distinguished professor of Old Testament): It can hardly be questioned that theological education in the United States is in a crisis situation. While enrollments are better than anyone predicted 5 or 10 years ago, analysis of those figures is not comforting. In many cases, it is a burgeoning D. Min. program which is boosting the overall enrollment figures. But that is a limited pool which already shows signs of having reached its peak. In other cases, enrollments have been held up or increased by the admission of women. In many of the denominationally supported institutions, women now make up more than 50% of the student body. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, but thus far, at least, most of the women graduates either do not enter the pastoral ministry, or if they do, do not remain in it very long. This trend is also emerging with male graduates, with as few as 35% from some institutions actually taking pastorates. Of those who do, churches often complain that they are not competent to lead a church. As a result, many of the largest churches are declaring that seminaries are irrelevant to the life of the church, and that they themselves can do a better job of preparing pastors through an internship setting. Thus, although relatively stable enrollments are tending to mask the crisis, the fact of the crisis should not be overlooked. It is entirely possible that seminary education as it has been practiced in America for the last 300 years is in the last flush of a terminal illness. What has brought about this crisis? Clearly one of the contributing causes is the crisis of faith which has overtaken all of Protestantism in the last 100 years in Europe and America. This crisis of faith centers upon epistemology and the nature of the Bible. For those without philosophical training, "epistemology" is the study of the origins and nature of knowledge. How do we know the truth about God, the world, and ourselves? For all of its history up until the present, the Church has believed that God has revealed the essential structure of truth in the Bible. Humans do not discover ultimate truth; rather, it has been revealed to them by God, who stands outside the cosmos. Thus, the Bible is the canon, or measuring rod, by which all truth claims are to be judged. To be sure, throughout the Middle Ages, this truth was mediated through a supposedly authoritative Church, and that produced modification and corruption of the truth. But even then, the Church pointed behind itself to the Bible, and whenever the Bible was truly heard, as in the case of Francis of Assisi, reformation followed.
Ultimately, of course, an entrenched hierarchy refused reformation, and the Protestants were forced to break away. Having seen what Church authority had done, the Reformers determined that the Bible alone would be the authority. So the situation remained until the 19th century. By that time, enlightenment thinking, with its exaltation of human reason, had gained full sway. Whatever was not discoverable by, and amenable to, human reason was relegated to the realm of myth. Reason, not the Bible, was the sole arbiter of truth. Since much of the Bible is suprarational and supernatural, it was necessary to deconstruct the Bible so that a rationally acceptable explanation of the origins of Hebrew religion could be reached. This reasonable explanation ended up by showing that the accounts which we have in the Bible are completely untrustworthy. Interestingly, at the same time this was happening, that is, in the last half of the 19th c., the Church in Europe and America was probably at its most powerful and influential point, but it was running on momentum.
The upshot of the rationalist enterprise was that the Bible was discredited as a source of truth.
It was a source book on the growth of the Hebrew religion, and could be used by specialists to reconstruct the actual development of that religion. Furthermore, it could be used as a source book for some of the most valuable religious discoveries which humans have made. But it was certainly not a repository of revealed truth, and could not be used in that way.
It was this radically new understanding of the Bible which sparked the so-called Modernist/Fundamentalist conflict which captured so much of the religious world's attention in the 1920s and 1930s. It was this conflict which gave rise to such seminaries as Westminster in Philadelphia and Asbury in Wilmore, Kentucky. The sad truth is that modernism carried the day, so that with no exceptions it is the critical orthodoxy today in the mainline denominational seminaries and in those connected with universities. The end result is exactly the one predicted by our fundamentalist forefathers of 75 years ago:
We have come to believe that truth is discovered in developing human experience. Thus, since human experience is so varied, truth has become almost hopelessly relativized in the world at large, and even in the Church itself.
Truth is whatever those with the loudest voices make it to be. But above everything else, nothing can be true, which calls upon a person to surrender his or her independence, convenience, or comfort.
But someone says, "Surely that kind of rationalistic dismissal of the Bible's supernaturalism is all passé now. Many learned people are telling us that the enlightenment is dead." It is surely true that there is a general turning away from the idea that reason can explain the meaning of life and cause humans to behave in reasonable and responsible ways. Furthermore, we are seeing a new fascination with spiritism and the occult. We watch bemused as a movie star discourses with great seriousness upon her former life as a dancer in the court of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut in 1500 B.C. But interestingly enough, none of this has produced any shift in the attitude of either the critics or the general public about the Bible.
The same movie star who announces that she has been reincarnated 10 times can, when asked about the crossing of the Red Sea, sniff that she does not believe in miracles. What we are seeing is the continued worship of reason in the realm of time and space, the world generally relegated to science, while in the realms of ultimate meaning we are rapidly abandoning reason and all its ramifications. The result is that all the worst results of the Enlightenment: its narcissism, its individualism, its autonomous will, and its relativism, remain, while its better results, especially the subjection of the desires to reason, have been lost.
The challenge for theological institutions which aspire to remain orthodox is to retain the authority of the Bible. This challenge to this retention comes in two forms: on the one hand, while the professional guilds of Biblical scholars exhibit today an almost bewildering array of opinions about the origin and character of the Bible, they are agreed in one thing, the history of the text certainly cannot have been what it seems to have been. Yet, if we once grant that conclusion, all is lost. Every one of the Bible's teachings is suspect if its claims about its own history are untrustworthy. How can we obtain higher degrees for our future faculty if all the institutions granting such degrees are destroying the very foundations upon which we depend? We must not discount this threat. The history of the last 150 years show that it is entirely possible for a person whose initial faith was gained in an orthodox environment to retain that evangelical faith while shifting the ground of his understanding of the Bible sometimes in radical ways. Then, since the person still has an evangelical testimony, we conclude that his destructive views of the Bible must not be so bad. But it is the students who will draw the true conclusions of the professor's views. Then, too late, we wonder why our students are not holding true.
The second challenge is in some ways more dangerous, because it is more subtle. This is the continuing challenge to make the Bible and theology simply two more of the subjects with which a theological student should be familiar. Without question the twin facts of the increasing complexity of our life and the disintegration of our culture has made it imperative that ministers today have a host of competencies and skills which it was not necessary for their predecessors to have. This has placed a terrific burden on the theological school curriculum. Generally, the expansion of the curriculum in the so-called practical areas has come at the expense of courses in Bible and theology. This has come about because of the unexpressed change in the understanding of the place of the Bible and the theology springing from it. Instead of seeing knowledge of these subjects as foundational to everything else in the curriculum, that knowledge is said to be on a par with knowledge of, say, the behavioral sciences. Thus, in-depth acquaintance with Biblical and theological truth is no more necessary than in-depth knowledge of the behavioral sciences, and is, in fact, considerably less "practical." In the press for space in the curriculum, Biblical and theological professors who ask for disproportionate space are accused of being self-serving. In liberal institutions where the Biblical and theological courses are both dead and deadly, it is understandable that their influence upon the curriculum would be minimized as much as possible. But it is hard to understand why this would be allowed to happen in institutions where it is claimed that the Bible is the source of all truth. Nevertheless, such is the sinfulness of the human race that we are constantly attempting to minimize our dependence upon the Bible, even when we say we depend upon it for our very life. This is the central crisis of our age for theological education.
The vitality of the churches in Eastern Europe who have taken the Bible at face value is a blasting judgment upon the Church in the West, which has taken the Bible as an artifact to be dissected and has cut its own umbilical cord in the process.
The second crisis of theological education in America today stems directly from this first one. It is a crisis of vision. What is our calling? What are we supposed to be doing? Are we to be academic institutions with a smattering of "skills" courses? Or are we to be professional schools which have a few introductory "theory" courses? Are we to be a three or four year long spiritual retreat? Or are we to be church-business colleges preparing entry-level ecclesiastical managers? Particularly in the liberal institutions, all of these models have been put forward, and are being put forward, as the anchor of Biblical and theological truth has slipped.
The result of this drift is that more and more churches are losing patience with the theological school establishment. They are tired of being ministered to by broken people who went to theological school in order to solve their own spiritual and psychological problems, and did not. They are sick to death of ministers who are much more certain about what they do not believe than about what they do. They are frustrated by pastors whose fear of rejection has never been mastered by a passionate love for God and their flock. They are broken by a series of preachers who have betrayed their trust by talking about lofty spiritual matters while actually living lives of common sin.
While it is not always fair that the churches should lay these frustrations and angers at the feet of theological educators, it is often quite fair.
What are we about if it is not training capable pastor-teachers, evangelists, and missionaries? While we can hardly guarantee that every graduate will be capable in one or more of these fields, we must not hide behind the excuse that all we are doing is teaching certain subjects in theology and ministry.
If we do that, as we have, we should not be surprised if the churches begin to say to us, "If you cannot train them to minister to us, then we will do it ourselves."
Again, it is not surprising that liberal institutions are turning out fewer and fewer pastors. Their whole approach makes it increasingly impossible for them to do so. They have no gospel except the one of self-actualization which many other institutions in our society offer more effectively than the Church ever could. But what about evangelical institutions?
Will we catch the vision of producing godly men and women who love and understand the Word of God, who have been so far delivered from themselves into the love of God and humans that they can forget themselves in pointing men and women to new life in Christ and holy discipleship to him? This is the vision which we must not lose sight of today.
To be sure, the Church is rapidly changing. It is no longer one of the respected community organizations. Now the Church is generally seen as irrelevant to real life. Changes in worship patterns are confusing and sometimes downright frightening. The comfortable and the familiar are being swept away. Moreover, the collapse of our culture is producing a host of broken and damaged people who have been taught to see themselves as victims who have been deprived of their rights. Such persons do not think of giving themselves in long-term, self-forgetful service. Rather, they have been taught to get what they want, and to go elsewhere if they do not get it. The "Wal-Mart" type churches which have something for everybody are growing by leaps and bounds while the little corner churches which called for "a long obedience in the same direction" are withering and dying as a generation of simple, faithful people is being carried out the door by the undertaker. All of this places sometimes intolerable demands upon pastors, and upon those who would presume to prepare them. If the pastors are sometimes broken by the demands, who can criticize them? If they quit to do something unstressful, like selling life insurance, who can blame them? But even more to our point here, who can possibly hope to prepare them? Who could possibly give them all the personal, and spiritual, and academic, and managerial training which they need to survive, let alone minister, in such an environment? But if we do not, then who will? These conditions may indeed force us to reconsider the ways in which we fulfill our calling, but let them not turn us aside from that calling. Let us accept the challenge which they place upon us, but let us not lose sight of the vision to prepare godly pastors for this day.
The third crisis which is upon theological education today is a crisis of nerve. Since the days of the first Great Awakening on the American frontier, Christian institutions in America have been in a place of respect and privilege. Since the 1960s all that has been changing, now more and more rapidly. This crisis throws into bold relief a temptation which has always been with us, but now has much more serious implications. This is the temptation to cultural envy. It was this according to 1 Samuel 8 which drove the Israelites to insist upon having a king, and it was this according to Ezekiel 20 which drove them to the worship of idols of silver and gold. The rich and lavish culture of the Canaanites with its symbols of political stability and religious power left the Israelites feeling naked and exposed. They were called upon to abandon the symbols of power and prestige in surrender to God, and in trust in His provision. The Canaanites, believing that the symbols were the reality, were sure of their power to manipulate their environment so as to take care of themselves. But God is not this world, and the symbols are not the reality. We cannot take care of ourselves; we can only abandon ourselves to God, believing in His stated intention to bless us.
But we, like the Israelites, lust to be like the Canaanites around us. We despise the appearances of powerlessness which trust in God seems to give. We are troubled by the ridicule of the rich and powerful around us, and we long for their respect, which is, of course, a vain hope. Their respect is only reserved for the ones over them whom they envy, and that will never, God willing, be us. All too often, the golden idol before which we bow is named "Excellence." We tell ourselves that God deserves the best, and that is true, but all too often our desire for the best is not for God's sake at all, but our own. We wish for the adulation and respect which "excellence" gives. I am frankly amazed at how often, and in what naivete, we allow the unbelieving world to define what excellence is. Excellence is having a Ph. D. degree from a faculty which long ago ceased to believe in a personal deity, and finds special revelation laughable. Excellence is having a certain level of endowment. Excellence is having plushly appointed buildings. What happens when we accept these definitions of excellence? We lose our ability to say "no." This is what happened in lsrael. When did Israel fall? It was not in 586 B.C. when Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians, nor even in 721 B.C. when Samaria was destroyed by the Assyrians. It was in 960 B.C. when Solomon, surrounded by the beginnings of his pagan harem, dedicated a Canaanite-styled treasure-house to the living God. Was Solomon insincere in his desire to give the Lord the best? Not at all. His only sin was to allow the Canaanites to determine the nature of excellence. Because Solomon did this, he himself progressively lost the ability to say "no" to a Canaanite culture, and his legacy was a split kingdom, whose weakness allowed an Egyptian who may have been Solomon's brother in-law to sack that glorious treasure-house within five years of Solomon's death.
This is what happens to us. How desperately we want the approval of the Canaanites. And to what lengths we will go to get it. Now the Canaanite culture around us asks what price we are willing to pay for their approval? Will we approve of homosexual ordination? Will we agree that the Christian conception of Jesus is simply an adaptation of a Jewish goddess called Hokhma, or in Greek, Sophia? Oh, we will not? What price are we willing to pay for that luxury? Loss of our non-profit status? Loss of our tax-free standing? Loss of the approval of accrediting societies? Will we refuse to have our identities shaped by cultural envy?
Will we stand when it is uncomfortable and unprofitable and even life-threatening? Or will we join this culture's "Gadarene plunge," as Malcolm Muggeridge termed it?
Hugh Latimer was a priest of the Catholic Church in England who became convinced of the Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace alone through reading the Bible. In danger of his life, he dared to teach eager students this truth in dark and out-of-the-way places. Eventually, as Protestantism swept into power in England, Latimer became a powerful and popular public figure. Had he succumbed to this Canaanite world's blandishments? Time would tell, for the winds of change were blowing, and all too soon Catholic Mary came to power and Protestantism was banned. Then the truth of Latimer's character came clear. If power and honor had been given, they were never sought, and when to stand for the truth meant laying all of that down, even laying his life down ,he was ready to do it. When he stood with one of his compatriots, bound on a huge pile of wood which would shortly become an inferno whose marks are still visible on surrounding buildings in Oxford, he spoke these immortal words, "Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day, by God's grace, light such a candle in England as shall never be put out." Prestige and power may come in the grace of God, but let them never, never come because we have sought them. And when they are withdrawn, as withdrawn they must be in this fallen world, let us not consider them worth any price at all. Rather, let us stand at all costs, for the truth of Jesus Christ, which has been revealed in the Holy Scriptures.
These are the crises which face theological education today:
The crisis of faith in the Bible, the Word of God revealed by Him, the standard by which all other claims to truth must be measured;
The crisis of vision: will we rededicate ourselves to the preparation of godly pastors who will give themselves away to God and their people?
The crisis of nerve: will we reject the blandishments of a Canaanite world and the whimperings of our own lust for power, respect and prestige, and stand alone, if need be, for the truth of God's word?
These are the crises we face—crises which will put many a theological school under the sod before 50 years have passed. May God grant that Wesley Biblical Seminary will not be one of them.