Tag Archives: seminary education

Redeemer Seminary, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, and the Parachurching of Reformed Theological Education

Bill Evans head shot

By William B. Evans

[Full Disclosure: For well over twenty years I’ve taught at a denominationally affiliated College and Seminary.]

Readers of this blog are probably aware of my interest in theological education (e.g., here and here and here). Although I’ve spent much of my professional academic career teaching undergraduates, I’ve also taught on the seminary level at a number of institutions. I have friends and acquaintances teaching at many seminaries, and I keep my ear to the ground.

The impending closure of the Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas is now known to many. Responding to overtures from the Redeemer Board, Reformed Theological Seminary will, according to RTS Chancellor Ligon Duncan, implement “a two-step plan whereby Redeemer would ‘close with dignity’ and RTS would petition ATS and SACS to begin offering theological education in Dallas, while helping Redeemer and its students in all possible, prudent ways.”

Having taught systematic theology at Redeemer as an adjunct professor I’m sad for the students, whom I found to be both engaged and engaging, the faculty, and staff. According to reliable reports, all Redeemer faculty and staff will be terminated as of December 31, 2016.

Redeemer Seminary began in 2001 as the Dallas Campus of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and was spun off as in independent institution in 2009. The timing of that development was significant. As WTS in Philadelphia moved steadily to the right in the wake of the Peter Enns controversy (a trajectory I’ve chronicled here and here and here and here), the Redeemer faculty self-consciously sought to perpetuate what has come to be known as “Middle Westminster”—the Westminster ethos that prevailed from the second generation of faculty until the recent lurch to the right and is exemplified by the careful biblical scholarship of people like Moises Silva, Ray Dillard, and Richard Gaffin, and the generous Reformed orthodoxy of systematicians such as Sinclair B. Ferguson (who subsequently was part of the founding faculty at Redeemer). I took two degrees at WTS in the 1980s before going off to Vanderbilt for my Ph.D., so I think I have some background to speak to this.

Doubtless there are multiple backstories here—having to do with leadership, fundraising, and student-recruitment challenges at Redeemer. What I find more interesting is how this particular episode has played out within the larger scope of conservative Reformed theological education, and the way that context has been profoundly conditioned by successive iterations of what has been called the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.

As those with an interest in church history are aware, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy proper raged in earnest from about 1920 until 1930, with conflict especially prominent in the Northern Presbyterian and Northern Baptist churches, with the former especially important for our purposes (the best study of which is Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates [Oxford UP, 1991]). By 1926, conservative efforts to enforce creedal orthodoxy and biblical authority had failed and the PCUSA moved steadily in the direction of a more inclusive and diverse vision (a history ably chronicled in Lefferts Loetscher’s The Broadening Church: A Study of Theological Issues in the Presbyterian Church since 1869 [UPenn, 1954]). In 1929 Princeton Theological Seminary (until then a conservative bastion) was reorganized so as to reflect the theological diversity present in the church, and J. Gresham Machen and other conservatives promptly left Princeton to form Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. With the formation of Westminster a template was established—when conservatives lost control of denominational educational institutions they moved on to form independent, parachurch agencies to replace them. This template would be used repeatedly in subsequent decades.

By the 1950s, similar conflicts over doctrine and Scripture were raging in the Southern Presbyterian Church (then known as the PCUS), and these debates eventually led to the formation of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Jackson, Mississippi in 1966 and the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973. RTS was even more explicitly parachurch in its organization—to this day its governing board is made up of laymen (primarily attorneys and businessmen) rather than ministers. Unencumbered by denominational constraints and enjoying both able leadership and considerable financial support, RTS has since expanded beyond its origins in Jackson to campuses in Orlando, Charlotte, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Houston, Memphis, New York City, RTS Virtual, and now Dallas. As an RTS executive said to me recently, RTS has figured out a financially viable model of professional theological education. He’s right, and RTS has been very aggressive in pursuing that model.

Fast forward to the 1970s through the 1990s as somewhat analogous conflicts emerged within the Dutch Reformed community in this country (though the ethnic character of the Christian Reformed Church meant that these debates would have a somewhat different character and result). Concerns about the denominational seminary (Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids), led to two more parachurch seminaries being formed—Mid-America Reformed Seminary (initially located in Iowa before moving to Dyer, Indiana) and Westminster Seminary in California.

Of course, there are still denominational seminaries in the conservative Reformed orbit—Covenant Theological Seminary (PCA) and Erskine Theological Seminary (ARPC) come to mind—but one fact is abundantly clear: the conservative Reformed community has in large measure outsourced theological education to parachurch agencies. For all the blather in such circles about “connectionalism,” when it comes to theological education at least, conservative Presbyterians don’t seem to have much of an ecclesiology!

It’s worth noting that conservative Lutherans and Southern Baptists don’t do things this way. There the emphasis is on church-affiliated seminaries, and those denominational schools are doing quite well.   In fact, efforts to form more moderate-liberal schools in the wake of conservative victories in the SBC (e.g., the Cooperative Baptist schools) and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (SEMINEX) have not been particularly successful.

The difference here is both obvious and crucial—theological conservatives in both the LCMS and the SBC were able to gain and maintain control of their seminaries, while the Presbyterians lost Princeton, and Union in Virginia, and so on, and thus felt compelled to adopt the parachurch model.

In retrospect, the Presbyterian trajectory was probably inevitable, though should be viewed as a concession to weakness and failure rather than a mark of strength. But has there been a price to be paid for this outsourcing to parachurch groups? Indeed, some (perhaps many) would say that the current system is working rather well. But I see a number of potential downsides to this Reformed parachurching of theological education.

First, decision making, especially in a context dominated by lay leadership, is going to be driven by financial, market, and other practical considerations rather than by churchly concerns. No matter the pious rhetoric of “service to the church” that one may encounter, this is the reality. Or, to phrase it somewhat differently, institutional agendas will often transcend churchly agendas.

Second, this practical bent has been accompanied by the increasing dominance of the “school-for-pastors” model and the “pastor-scholar” as a primary faculty profile (for my take on different models of seminary education, go here). After all, that’s where the market is. As I wrote in a post a number of years back:

Concurrent with this we see the rise of the “scholar-pastor” model in Presbyterian circles (i.e., a well-known and popular pastor who happens to have a Ph.D. from somewhere). A problem here is that first-rate scholarship is a full-time job, and some of these (there are, to be sure, some blessed exceptions) are not really equipped to drive the theological discussion forward. And where are such people publishing? I see lots of popular-level books but fewer and fewer volumes coming from university presses, or from traditional Evangelical academic publishers like Eerdmans, Baker, IVP, Paternoster, etc.

And this emphasis has, not surprisingly, been accompanied by a decline in Reformed intellectual leadership within the broader evangelical world. In fact, when we think of schools now setting the intellectual and theological agenda for evangelicalism we tend to think of schools like Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Gordon-Conwell, Fuller, and Southern Baptist—some of them denominationally affiliated, some not, but none of them explicitly Reformed.

And this scholarly eclipse is not perplexing. When faculty are viewed as commodities and there is often a price to be paid for even thoroughly orthodox theological creativity, we shouldn’t expect much in the way of scholarly contributions.

Third, there is the matter of theological influence on the churches. Seminaries have a tremendous role in molding the sensibilities of the clergy, and do we really want the theology of ministers to be shaped by the well-heeled supporters of parachurch seminaries rather than by the church? The increasing dominance of literal six-day young-earth creationism (LSDYEC) within the conservative Reformed community, as I see it, has rather little to do with careful theology and exegesis and a lot to do with reaction against a secular culture and the way that reactionary impulse has been embraced by certain seminaries.

Fourth, there is the related question of market domination. We are not too far from a situation in which one particular school is dominant within the American conservative Reformed context. Is this healthy for the church? The Presbyterians of old were right, it seems to me, in establishing multiple denominational seminaries, and the cross-talk between various schools in the nineteenth-century was incredibly productive theologically (Princeton vs. Union, Princeton vs. Yale, Princeton vs. Mercersburg, Princeton vs. Danville, and so on).

The repeated references to Old Princeton in this post lead to this last point. Awhile back I noted that the comprehensive theological vision of Old Princeton is now pretty much dead. I wrote:

To be sure, elements of the Old Princeton legacy persist at a number of evangelical seminaries, but the total package—that breathtaking combination of wide-ranging scholarly attainment, healthy confessionalism, and a balanced view of the nature and authority of Scripture—is hard to find. Two prominent evangelical seminaries—Westminster and Fuller—were founded with the express intention of continuing the Old Princeton tradition, but both have moved away from it (albeit in very different ways).   Perhaps the death of the Old Princeton approach was inevitable, but I can say with confidence that the life of the church has not been enriched by its demise.

That eulogy notwithstanding, I continue to think that Old Princeton continues to provide a compelling model for theological education, and, moreover, that a denominational setting is probably the best way to achieve something analogous to Old Princeton for our own twenty-first century context. The question is whether conservative Reformed churches are willing to commit to such an endeavor.

Solving the Case of the Missing Mojo (2): Institutions Matter!

An earlier entry on this blog (“How Conservative Presbyterianism Lost Its Mojo”) regarding the apparent lack of broader influence of conservative Presbyterian leadership has provoked some interesting discussion.  For example, Darryl Hart used his at bat to take a swipe at his bête noire, Tim Keller, but he also raises some good questions about historical perspective.  Scott Clark dismissed what I had to say on the curious grounds that I’m a “theologian” (like Clark, my doctoral work was in historical theology).  He went on to challenge the idea that objective standards of measurement indicate decline, and he seems to regard the proliferation of conservative Reformed seminaries as a good thing.  Not surprisingly,  he thinks the problems of the community stem from a lack of robust confessionalism.  Reading between the lines, a conviction underlying both of these posts seems to be that we as Reformed Christians are called to be faithful rather than successful and influential, and it’s difficult to argue with that.

Particularly interesting were Matt Tuininga’s extended thoughts on the issue.  He seems to concur with the basic thrust of the original post: “What Evans captures especially well is the way in which Presbyterians have increasingly turned inward, becoming more and more obsessed with intramural squabbles over secondary and even tertiary points of doctrine, and even with turf wars between ever shrinking (proportionally) seminaries and denominations.”  Tuininga goes on to provocatively suggest that a “tragic preoccupation with tradition and with the forms, practices, and controversies of the past is actually undermining the authority of Scripture, the role for which our confessions were historically intended, and our faithful witness in the present.”  There was also some good give-and-take over on the Puritanboard.

Not surprisingly, this discussion seems to have touched a nerve.  After all, nobody welcomes marginalization and decline.  But as I noted at the end of the original post, description of the problem is one thing; solutions are quite another.   Reasons for this are multiple—the problems are both structural and ideological/theological, and these rather different sorts of problems are interrelated and thus cannot be discussed in isolation.

In a second post on the topic (“Solving the Case of the Missing Mojo [1]: Discernment and Interpretation Do Matter”) I focused on matters of theological method and style.  In a nutshell, my argument was that the broader cultural tensions have made us appear defensive, sectarian, and unpleasant, and have drawn some of  us into a series of theological moves that just dig us further and further into the hole of irrelevancy.  For instance, to the extent that we travel down theological cul-de-sacs such as literalistic views of origins (in the face of compelling exegetical considerations that have long been evident) we appear less than serious.  In this post we will focus more on the institutional dimension of the larger problem, with special attention to the status of denominations and the role of seminaries.

It should be obvious to most by now that the statistical state of the conservative Reformed community of churches is not terribly encouraging—the member churches of NAPARC are largely either plateaued or in slight decline (recent reports indicate relatively small gains and losses).  But let’s not miss the forest for the trees.  The broader pattern is that of a community of churches failing to maintain place in the larger American context.  Ethnicity (or the functional equivalent of it) and narrow theological niche marketing continue to be decisive for the denominational identity of some of these groups, and those are not recipes for broader influence.

The reality is that in the broader scheme of things (e.g., as compared to the diversity of mainline Protestant churches or the Roman Catholics) the NAPARC churches are amazingly similar on the doctrinal level—they all take the Westminster Standards and/or the Three Forms of Unity seriously.  Furthermore, simple economy-of-scale and redundancy considerations suggest that separate existence doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Ironically, NAPARC was formed with the express intention to “hold out before each other the desirability and need for organic union of churches that are of like faith and practice.”  But aside from periodic urgings from the RPCNA and the URCNA and books from people like John Frame we don’t hear much about that these days.

So, if conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches want to have more influence, they need seriously to reconsider both the ongoing practical difficulties and the theological scandal of maintaining separate existence.

Another limiting factor is the way that broader Evangelicalism’s parachurch impulse is also reflected in the conservative Reformed context.  In his recent book Bad Religion:  How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012), New York Times columnist Ross Douthat ponders Evangelicalism’s lack of cultural clout.  He attributes this Evangelical “cultural deficit” in part to “an unwillingness or inability on the part of Evangelicals to build the kind of institutions necessary to a vibrant Christian culture,” and here he especially highlights the impulse toward parachurch organizations.   He adds, “This in turn boded ill for Evangelicalism’s long-term future, because although the ‘para’ groups were immensely successful at religious mobilization, they weren’t as effective at sustaining commitment across a life span or across generations.”

A partial exception to this parachurch pattern is the Presbyterian Church in America, which has had some notable success creating churchly synergy with, for example, Reformed University Ministries sending students to Covenant Seminary, and Covenant Seminary sending graduates back into RUM and other denominational agencies like Mission to North America.   But such thoughtful denominational infrastructure building has been more the exception than the rule in the NAPARC context, and we need soberly to consider how much creativity, time, and financial resources currently go into parachurch organizations, especially as such efforts are unlikely to have either decisive long-term impact or institutional staying power.  Again Douthat writes, “For that kind of staying power you needed a confessional tradition, a church, an institution capable of outlasting its charismatic founders.”  He’s right, and the fact that he is Roman Catholic doesn’t make it any less true.

This, in turn, leads us naturally to the issue of seminaries.  I’ve said it before, but it is at least interesting that, for all the blather about a high ecclesiology in conservative Reformed circles, the prevailing model of conservative Reformed theological education is a parachurch one.   By contrast, the presence of strong denominational seminaries is one of the reasons why Southern Baptist influence is what it is, while conservative Reformed seminaries tend to be small, tuition-driven, and struggling.

But the problems of seminary education extend well beyond the limitations inherent in the parachurch model.  Awhile back I posted a brief article on another site dealing with the prospects of seminary education (“Whither the Seminary Model?”).  In it I argued that the seminary model (which, lest we forget, is barely two centuries old) is in something of a crisis and that there are a number of persistent problems.  The first is that it has been an important contributor to the formal “professionalization” of the clergy, except that the gospel ministry is not a “profession” like law or medicine, and recent economic trends have simply reinforced that difference as ministerial compensation falls further and further behind (as Douthat and others have noted).

Second, there is the economic expense inherent in the model, as candidates for the ministry are expected to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree (with the debt that often entails) before undertaking three or four years of seminary (and incurring further debt).  And all this as preparation for a job that doesn’t pay all that much on average.

Third, there is the problem of educational quality.  This is an uncomfortable matter but it needs to be recognized.  Simply put, while excellent students still decide to go to seminary, the average seminary student now is not as academically strong as before, and seminaries have responded by lowering the bar.  And I’m not just talking about the sort of students who go to seminary for personal therapy reasons (this seems to be more of a problem at seminaries that service the liberal Protestant denominations).  Some seminaries have adapted to the new situation with open-admissions policies, distance-education options, and lowered grading standards—the net result of which is that seminary education is often less demanding than undergraduate work at quality liberal arts colleges.  I used to commiserate with a teaching colleague on this point.  With teaching experience on both the seminary and college levels, the two of us realized that we could challenge our college-level students academically in ways that simply did not work  with our seminary students.

Finally, there is the problem of redundancy.  Students from good undergraduate programs in Bible and Religion often find that a significant amount of their seminary work is  a rehash.  Though this is a topic for another post, I’m now pretty much convinced that we can do a qualitatively better and much more efficient job of preparing ministers with four years of well-thought-out undergraduate education plus an additional year of study and an internship.  Of course, making this work will require churches moving from a transcript-based model of ministerial education to a competency-based model, and it’s anybody’s guess as to whether or when that will happen.

Interestingly, the legal profession, which has long used a similar model of professional education, is now looking seriously at significant changes to the way attorneys are trained.  Given that it is a lot easier to pass an ordination examination in many conservative Presbyterian denominations than to pass the bar, it only makes sense to look at this issue of ministerial training carefully.

Just to be clear, I don’t think that the seminary model will disappear.  Nor should it.  It works wonderfully well for some students, and I remember my own seminary days in Philadelphia with gratitude.  But there need to be other appropriate academic options for ministerial training as well.

In short, the broader picture is at least disquieting, and something needs to be done.  In addition to problems of efficiency and effectiveness noted above, we now have a situation in which some seminaries are contributing to the theological Balkanization of the Reformed churches as they try to carve out ideological market niches, and that in turn undercuts the unity of the church.

To bring this post to a merciful conclusion, if we in the conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches want to have more influence we need to think carefully and urgently about both denominational consolidation and building denominational infrastructure for the long haul.  To be sure, there are factors that will make this difficult.  Reformed denominations are social as well as doctrinal entities, with their own webs of personal ties, inertia, and institutional interests.  As a former moderator of a NAPARC denomination, I’m quite aware that this is difficult to overcome.

In addition, there is the too common Reformed penchant for theological hairsplitting that has all kinds of fissiparous ecclesiological implications.  Having been baptized in the PCUSA and successively a member of the RPCES, the PCA (by virtue of Joining and Receiving), the CRC, and the ARPC I understand all this.  This is the world that I inhabit.  But something needs to change.