The problem with theological education

Justin Taylor has an interesting quote from John Frame on what’s wrong with evangelical theological education today. I’d be curious to know what you think about it.

I cannot help but mention my conviction that this problem is partly the result of our present system for training theologians. To qualify for college or seminary positions, a theologian must earn a PhD, ideally from a prestigious liberal university. But at such schools, there is no training in the kind of systematic theology I describe here. Liberal university theologians do not view Scripture as God’s Word, and so they cannot encourage theology as I have defined it, as the application of God’s infallible word. Students are welcome to study historical and contemporary theology, and to relate these to auxiliary disciplines such as philosophy and literary criticism. But they are not taught to seek ways of applying Scripture for the edification of God’s people. Rather, professors encourage the student to be “up-to-date” with current academic discussion and to make “original contributions” to the discussion, out of his autonomous reasoning. So when the theologian finishes his graduate work and moves to a teaching position, even if he is personally evangelical in his convictions, he often writes and teaches as he was encouraged to do in graduate school: academic comparisons and contrasts, minimal interaction with Scripture.

In my judgment, this is entirely inadequate for the needs of the church. It is one source of the doctrinal declension of evangelical churches, colleges, and seminaries in our day. Evangelical denominations and schools need to seek new methods of training people to teach theology, educational models that will force theologian candidates to mine Scripture for edifying content. To do this, they may need to cut themselves off, in some degree, from the present-day academic establishment. And to do that, they may have to cut themselves off from the present-day accreditation system.

John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, p. 278 n. 6.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on December 14, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Marc,

    As you have nailed it (with Frame), I gave up on the so-called Academy years back, and chose the pastoral life alone. I would do it again! Sure I still read some of the academy, but I seek to mine it for the Church, and the People of God. And note, I am older and saw this early, even in the Anglican Communion.

  2. I would not go so far as to say this is “entirely inadequate.” People in the church need someone who is able and capable of explaining current academic discussions. Not long ago a young man in the church asked me about the New Perspective. In seminary all I heard about the NPP was “stay away from it.” So I parroted what I heard. Only when I did the hard work of research was I able and capable to give an honest answer. Furthermore, I no longer view NPP as a threat. There is much I agree with.

    • It is always funny to me when people speak so generally on such issues, as the NPP. I am one that seeks something of the Federal Vision, though critically I follow it as a classic Anglican. Though I am not one for the NPP myself. It has yet to be really given to the laity. For it is really an Academy doctrine, in the main. But the Reformation has been found tried and true! I’ll go with both Luther and Calvin!

  3. It would seem that Frame is working within the post-modern framework in which he finds himself. The relationship of Seminary to Academia seems to be a subset or perhaps a reflection of the idea that theology is one science among many which has grown out of the modern movement. Dr. Frame is simply arguing against one of the by-products of modernism, and in doing so demonstrates the influence of post-modernism. Which does not necessarily invalidate his comment.

    If we keep Christian “scholarship” closely tied to secular academia, one science among many, then we have to play ball with their rules. However, if we intentionally disconnect from academia, we must be prepared to jettison all that pertains to it.

    Yet even that still fails to address Frame’s complaint. Certainly, I am aware of churches which use alternate models for preparing men for the ministry, models which fall far outside the seminary model. I know of at least one pastor who has been in the ministry for decades and who preaches the Word well. Perhaps the Church is actually responding already to the same stimulus which drives Frame to write this, and we will see a shift continue over the next century.

  4. Let me first state that I doubt that I have any decisive thoughts on the issue (so read the below as a tentative position on my part). Nevertheless, I would like to engage the comment in a minuscule manner.

    First, from the context, it seems that “this problem” is kataphoric and a deixis for his premise that, “ . . . there is no training in the kind of systematic theology I describe here.” I haven’t read John Frame a great deal, but I would surmise his systematic theology is heavily influenced by his epistemological position, presuppostionalism. In that sense, then I would have to disagree with Frame; most importantly for hermeneutical reasons, as all metaphysics have presuppositions. These presuppositions, I think, ought to be challenged on all fronts. Like Kierkegaard once postulated, “What would be the use of discovering so-called ‘objective’ truth, of working through all the systems of philosophy and of being able to review them all and show up the inconsistencies within each system? What good would it do me to be able to develop a political theory and combine all the intricate details of politics into a complete system, and so construct a world for the exhibition of others but in which I did not live; what would it profit me if I developed the correct interpretation of Christianity in which I resolved all the internal problems, if it had no deeper significance for me and for my life; what would it profit me if truth stood before me cold and naked, indifferent to whether I recognized her, creating in me paroxysms of anxiety rather than trusting devotion?” My question in response to Frame would be why should his proposal of Systematic Theology be the only system taught to aspiring Theologians. Moreover, he assumes, it seems to me, that his system is a necessary and sufficient condition for “doing theology.” But is this true? Are there not other “systems” that are beneficial “for the edification of God’s people”?

    I find his characterization of professors, namely, “[they] encourage the student to be ‘up-to-date’ with current academic discussion and to make ‘original contributions’ to the discussion, out of his autonomous reasoning,” a tautology, arising from his epistemic authoritarianism. Doesn’t his castigation of “professors” prod us to consider the thinking of others? Moreover, his statement bespeaks of a hasty generalization — that, dare I say it, needs justification through empirical research.

    On the other hand, I agree that an ongoing discussion with Scripture ought to occur (and I wonder if his statement is true: is Scripture so neglected as he assumes?). However, I sense that Frame overlooks the role of hermeneutical philosophy in ones reading the text of Scripture. I also concur that the church doesn’t need Ph.Ds to fill the pulpits, but I disagree in the sense that whoever does fill the pulpits needs to be aware of current doctrines and philosophies, so as to destroy every fallacious argument for the cause of Christ (1Cor 10:5). I very much agree with Peter Kreeft’s analysis, “The University ought to create little Aristotles, and the Church ought to create little Christs.” I do make an emendation to Kreefts’ suggestion, in that it is the students duty, held accountable in the community of believers, to learn how to integrate the two.

    I might add, that I personally am not a systematic theologian, but an aspiring Hebraist. I do concur with Frame that theological training needs revamping, and I would suggest that integrative thinking is something that needs consideration.

    James Tucker

  5. I think the observations posted here are good. I personally have avoided formalizing my education – and have suffered shunning from opportunities greater than occasionally leading a sunday school class – because I do not believe in “the academy” as you’ve called it. Universities and what they produce only solidify the divide between laity and clergy that was never meant to be to begin with. Does that mean anyone in the congregation can preach? The Holy Spirit gives that gift – not some university dean or some denominational bureaucrat. I’m a heretic. I admit it. I also see well meaning Christ loving people damaged or worse by induction into the conclaves of seminary superiority. Indeed philosophy has trumped God’s word all too often. Let us be honest. I read much on these blogs (not this blog in particular) that are so high speaking and theotechnical (yeah, I can make up Christianese words too) I can’t follow them. No wonder people hop from one denom to another. They can’t make heads or tails of what this or that doctrine means and there’s a smorgasbord out there to choose from. If those God calls to lead His people would make Christ their doctrine, read and apply scripture as it is written instead of making villains of others with specks in their eyes, and speak to their brothers and sisters instead of broadcasting to their congregants the bride of Christ would be one body glorifying her Lord. ***holy xxxx, pass the tylonol***

  6. “Liberal university theologians do not view Scripture as God’s Word, and so they cannot encourage theology as I have defined it, as the application of God’s infallible word.”

    This sounds a little to me like begging the question. Mr. Frame is starting with a presupposition (“the Bible is God’s word, inerrant and infallible”) and looking to avoid any study of the Bible that might encourage open-minded study and possibly even revising one’s opinions.

    I apologize if I’m misreading the situation, but it sounds to me like Mr. Frame is more interested in indoctrination than theology or biblical study.

    • This is begging nothing, but meeting the problem from Christian presuppositions! A lost element it appears in the Church today. To argue from the mere evidential is really a weak position. Note too, we cannot escape the spiritual reality even at the academy level.

  7. I just see what Frame is saying as consistent with his presuppositions; i.e. that Scripture is his epistemological foundation [and Scripture understood in a particular way] — this is, as they say, the principium of Reformed Theology. What else should would expect Frame to say?

    Although, I must say, I do believe that Theology should primarily be done as “Church Theology” and not “Academic Theology;” how we should “divide” those two realities is the harder question in my estimation. One that Barthians argue about quite often (just check some of the recent Karl Barth blog conference discussions).

  8. Sorry I wasn’t able to log in earlier (for some reason students actually expect you to grade their papers!). But, thanks for some great comments. Let me offer just a couple thoughts of my own.

    First, I like how he pressed on the importance of theology that is grounded in the needs of the church. That is critical if we’re going to keep seminary from becoming an intellectual “game” that is internally satisfying by eternally bankrupt. (I like the games, so I know how easy this is to do.)

    But, as a couple of you have suggested (esp. Chris), I do think there’s a bit of a false dichotomy going on in this statement. We can’t do away with the careful and reflective thinking that academic theology (at its best) encourages because there are issues that require this kind of analysis. I’m sure Frame would agree. But, his statement does seem to push a little far in the other direction.

    And, I would very much like to say that not every seminary fits in the mold that Frame describes. I’m definitely biased, but I think Western does a very nice job engaging academic issues rigorously while still remaining grounded in the needs of the church. And, I know we’re not alone in that. So, I take Frame’s comment more as a caution about where seminaries can go than a description of where they must.

  9. Hello Marc,

    I think about this a great deal, and I find myself with mix feelings many times. I come from a fellowship that does not send any of it’s pastors to bible college/seminary, all training is done through the local church. As people begin to understand their gifts and calling we work with them through a mentorship program and give them plenty of “on the job training”. I guarantee you none of these men and women know who NT Wright and the like are, and not sure they even care (yeah that bugs me a bit), but yet these men and women are dedicated to God and their calling and would make any necessary sacrifice to preach the gospel to those that don’t know Christ. I have a friend who planted 4 churches that are all doing well, and today he is doing missionary work in Estonia.

    This is by no means a perfect solution, as I think the weakest part in this training is not enough theological/biblical training. However in my particular church we have made big steps in rectifying this, but that’s mostly because I have pushed for it, but it is not common through out our fellowship.

    I think that there should be two tracks in Christian Academics, one track to produce scholars and another to produce pastors. There will naturally be some overlap, but much of what the scholar will do and produce is not required by a pastor. I know this goes against what all Christian academics will teach, but a pastor does not need to know Greek or Hebrew to pastor his church. I think we need both, and in some cases an individual will be able to straddle both worlds.

    I like to invite you and visit our church and meet the president (we are good friends). Plus you have a Hispanic last name you’ll fit in really easy ;). I’ll tell them your my cousin LOL

  10. I feel like anti-intellectualism is lurking behind this quote. Evangelicals only take learning so far. Then they quit. The fall back on spirituality. They don’t push through to the other side.

    • I think this is something that we’ll always struggle with. Every legitimate criticism (e.g. no mere “head knowledge) has a corresponding weakness (e.g. intellectualism) that you need to constantly guard against.

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