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The Seminary as an Academic Community

Introduction:

A seminary forms several, overlapping communities for the purpose of serving the Church.  These communities are: an educational community, a spiritual community, a ministerial community, an academic community, and an interpersonal community.  Such communities clearly overlap in several ways with the Church—and with churches—and this is a positive point and calls for various, ongoing discussions to foster the relationship.  Yet there are distinctions between what the Church and churches can offer and what a seminary, serving the Church, can offer.  Here, I intend to discuss the seminary as an academic community.

The Academic Community:

While a distinction between an educational community and an academic community is somewhat forced because the two overlap significantly, some distinctions are important to make.  An academic community may, for example, be research-oriented rather than educationally-oriented.  There are times when an educational institution suffers because faculty are so research-oriented that they do not attend to the teaching and training of students.  On the other hand, an institution so focussed on the latter may lose its contribution to other publics—when there is too little of an interest in academics.  The issues here are wrongly phrased in terms of ‘practical’ versus ‘academic, ivory tower’ education.  Academics can be extremely practical, such as in medical research.  The same goes for Biblical, historical, ethical, theological, missional, and ministerial research.  Thus, the question is rather, ‘In what ways should a seminary function as an academic community?’  The answer given here is expressed specifically in terms of the Evangelical seminary as an academic institution.

Undertaking New Research

There are new things to discover in every field of study in the seminary, not just educating students in already existing material.  Contrary to a comment one often hears, there is actually a considerable amount of research to do in Biblical studies.  Also, if theology is understood to be more than a system of thought, then there is a considerable amount of work to be done as theology is explored historically and contextually.  Ministry subjects need to understand current issues and trends and respond to them, such as in engaging new demographic studies for the Church and society.  The seminary as an academic community should ask, ‘Where does new research need to be done?’

Engaging Other Publics

The seminary should not be a cocoon for its own constituents but should engage other publics.  Sometimes this means one Evangelical tradition engaging another Evangelical tradition, especially if the seminary itself represents only one Evangelical tradition.  The seminary also needs to engage other religions, and this calls for academic research.  Also, the seminary needs to engage academic, cultural, global, and non-Evangelical publics.  There is something to be gained in such engagements academically, as ‘iron sharpens iron’ (Prov. 27.17).  This engagement is also apologetic, since we are to be able to give an answer for our faith (1 Peter 3.15).  A problem arises when an ‘academic political correctness’ ethos sets in and the seminary no longer understands academic work as a clear articulation of orthodox faith (from ‘first principles’).  All too often, such an ethos entails a destructive self-criticism that adopts methods and presuppositions of opposing worldviews.

The Seminary’s Primary Constituency: the Church

The primary constituent of the seminary, however, is the Church.  Plato and Aristotle forever asked the question, ‘What is the end/goal of such and such a study?’—politics, ethics, rhetoric, etc.  The seminary’s academic interests have the primary end of serving the Church.  Learning Greek and Hebrew in order to exegete Biblical passages is an academic goal, but to do so in order to be able to translate the Scriptures into languages without Bibles, to be able to teach God’s Holy Word, to be able to preach in worship, to be able to answer questions about the faith, to be able to challenge bad practice or heresy—these are the sorts of goals that a seminary helps the Church meet when academic study has the Church’s mission and ministry as its primary end.  This does not dilute the academic purpose of the seminary; it rather locates and focusses it, and therefore helps academic study to perform its purposes well.  This is the virtue of academic study.

Intentional Research, Group Study, and Conferences

One of the problems a seminary often faces is that it takes no lead as an institution in intentional research.  Rather, academic research is left to the interests of individual faculty.  While individual research should be encouraged, the seminary should also offer direction as an institution to engage various publics.  That is, it should play a role beyond the academic interests of individual scholars and, as an academic community, make an academic contribution to the Church in the pressing issues that it is facing.  This can be done by holding conferences on particular topics that address real issues for the Church in Biblical studies, the Church’s faith and practice, and the Church’s mission and ministry.  Such conferences would call for cutting edge research on a given topic and then produce an edited book or articles for a journal that can, in turn, provide leading discussion for a wider public.

One example might be helpful.  The identity of ‘Evangelicalism’ is in something of a crisis.  This is largely because the definition is losing its historical rootedness and is being given various meanings in the present to serve political ends.  Evangelicalism as a movement can easily be manipulated or swayed in one direction or another without historical, theological, and Biblical definition, and only academics committed to engaging with the movement will be able to keep it on course.  An Evangelical seminary has a particular role in defining what Evangelicalism means, and this needs to be done through conferences and publications.

Academic Publications

While mentioned already, a particular point needs to be made about academic publications.  A seminary that intends to provide some direction and oversight academically needs to do more than encourage its individual faculty to publish.  It needs to do more than be sure that students are reading opposing viewpoints and are trained in academic methods.  It actually needs to take control of the publication industry itself.

There are several reasons for this.  Most importantly, publishing houses are, more than anything else, businesses interested in financial viability and success.  Professors will receive contracts for publishing if their books will sell.  Clearly, however, not all academic material sells well: it is far more lucrative to publish popular books of a less academic nature, books that will sell well because they are controversial, or books that are not so controversial that they might damage the reputation of the publishing house.  The bottom line is that a seminary has chosen its faculty and should support them in publishing, and it should do so without an eye toward financial concerns.  Thus, a seminary should have a ‘publishing arm’ for its undertakings beyond its role of educating students in classrooms (although published works will be used in classrooms).

This publishing commitment of a seminary can more easily be done in the present day, since cheaper options than printed publications are available.  E-books and an e-journal are now respectable and can be made available at far cheaper prices to a far wider public than print publications.  A seminary should feel obligated to produce helpful material without the concerns of a publishing house to make money or please certain publics other than the ones it is already serving.  Indeed, as a ministry of the Church, a seminary should be concerned to provide inexpensive publications at various academic levels that can be helpful for the global Church.  (Sadly, I know of one Christian college that requires students to purchase books that its teachers publish00photocopied, spirally bound books--and charges over $100.  This practice needs to be called out as unethical.)  It should, therefore, not only publish its own faculty’s material but also make these available at minimal costs to people in the developing world.  An e-book sold on the seminary's virtual bookstore that is written by a faculty member could be sold at about $2.00 and the author could make the same money from the book that he or she would by publishing with a major publisher.  The seminary could offer a more academically reputable validation of the work than a major publishing house.

Academic Degrees

The seminary should also be concerned to provide academic degrees so that certain students may be formed in academic research for the Church.  A problem arises when academic research is considered as an end in itself as this research is then separated from the concerns of the Church.  A further problem arises when higher status is given to academic research that is independent from the Church.  This is a matter of setting up academic research in opposition to the Church, let alone a false, Modernist understanding of ‘objective’, scientific study.  We have lived long enough in a Postmodern critique of Modernity to know that the study of a tradition—research from first principles—is possible and even academically respectable.  Of course, as Christians, we reject certain assumptions of Postmodernity in favour of, as Alisdair MacIntyre calls it, ‘Tradition Enquiry.’[1]

If so, then a seminary ought to offer post-graduate degrees and do so with the full intent of providing a superior, academic education to students than what a university can give.  Universities have so framed academic study as independent reason that they have become oppositional to the Church.  More recently, they have become so beholden to set views and social outcomes that, especially in the humanities, their academic integrity is inferior to Christian tradition enquiry.  The seminary needs to offer masters and doctoral research degrees from within a faith perspective.  If it does not do so, it tacitly affirms a long-discredited view of academics (the separation of scientific research from faith), submits to more recent socially approved outcomes that undermine actual research, and relinquishes its mission.

Relationships with Other Institutions

Of course, not every theological institution will function as an academic community in this way.  There is a good place for other kinds of educational institutions in the Church, including Bible schools (which have, sadly, been declining in the West).  Since not every theological institution will function to the level suggested here for some theological seminaries, then one further suggestion in conclusion is that lower academic institutions should form relationships with other institutions that offer the academic activities discussed. 

A problem arises when a consortium of theological colleges is defined at the level of peer institutions: ones that have the same academic level of engagement and can offer cross-registration to its students or share the same accreditation.  Rather, it would be far better to arrange partnerships between lower level and higher level academic institutions so that they could work together.  If an academic seminary offering conferences, publishing, and educating students to the PhD level, e.g., were also in relationship with a lower level Bible college in the same country or abroad, the relationship would be a benefit in various ways to both institutions.  The academic institution too easily becomes self-focussed and wishes to establish itself in the halls of academia rather than be of service to the Church—this has happened repeatedly.  Academic institutions need to be connected to relevant ministries, from discipleship programmes in local churches to training ministers in poorer areas of the world to fulfilling the Church’s needs as it engages with its mission.  The lower level educational institutions, for their part, can then draw on resources that the more academic institution provides.  These resources now, thanks to advances in internet and computer technology, include lectures that can be delivered globally (such as by Digital Live) or made available in video (such as YouTube) format.  Such lectures could be used by missionaries and nationals as they relate them to the right academic level, translate them, and/or apply them in other contexts.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the seminary is, among other things, an academic community.  It needs to engage in certain activities beyond hiring academically qualified faculty in order to be an academic community.  It should engage various publics beyond just the students who are there for an education.  It should, for example, hold conferences, publish books, have a journal, make lectures available to other contexts, and offer academic degrees, including the PhD.  Alongside these academic activities, the seminary’s other concerns will hold it to the primary tasks of a seminary: the education and training of persons for ministry in the Church.  The seminary is not only an academic community; it is also a educational community, a spiritual community, a ministerial community, and an interpersonal community.  By remembering this, it’s role as an academic community will maintain the right focus for the Church.  The seminary exists to establish such communities, but it does so with the end or goal of serving the Church in its mission and ministries.  This includes the seminary as an academic institution.




[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame, IL: University of Notre Dame, 1990).  Cf. my Rival Versions of Theological Enquiry (orig. pub. International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague: 2005; revised (1st ch. only) in 2018 and available on the bookstore of my blog: www.bibleandmission.blogspot.com