CT Online has a piece today touting the virtues of online seminary education. I expected there to be, somewhere in the story, someone to present the other side opposing online seminary education but I didn’t see it. Perhaps I missed it? In the interests of bringing balance (as Rush Limbaugh says, “I am balance in the media”) here is the other side:
First of all, as the WSC site says, ministry doesn’t happen at a distance. It happens face to face. You can baptize, counsel, or bury anyone from a distance. You cannot make a hospital call at a distance. It takes time, it takes personal involvement, and it takes personal sacrifice. It takes personal presence.
Second, seminary education cannot be done well by distance any more than medical school can be done well by distance. Can you learn theory by distance? Yes, to some extent. Can a teacher transmit data by distance? Yes, but can teachers teach and students learn, really learn by distance what they need to learn in seminary? No, I don’t think so. Just as one cannot learn surgery or diagnostics by distance so one cannot learn really learn the theory and practice of ministry by distance.
Does a distance-ed seminary have a commitment to providing an outstanding education? I know what they may say but what do they do? What sort of library have they accumulated? Oh wait, a DE school doesn’t have a library at least not that the student can use. One of the first things I teach my students to do is to use the reference room. Research sometimes means walking into a reference room and searching through volumes until you find what you need. That’s part of the learning process. It cannot be made ruthlessly efficient. A fair bit of learning is accidental. It happens while you’re doing other things. That’s one of the downsides of digital reference works. You might find something on what you’re looking for but you won’t find things you weren’t looking for and that’s too bad.
What sort of teachers/scholars want to teach (primarily) by distance? Would Charles Hodge or John Murray or Francis Turretin or John Calvin train pastors solely or even primarily by distance? No, they wouldn’t.
What sort of educational/learning community exists in a distance-ed setting? Yes, there is a sort of online community. I’m always happy to meet heidelbloggers when I travel and I’ve developed some real relationships online but what we do here isn’t seminary education. I’m not trying to train pastors here. I’m trying to provoke thought and reformation and perhaps do a little continuing education for those who’ve already been to sem but I’m not trying to replace sem.
This is not an anti-technology rant. After all, I’m typing this on a laptop for a blog to be read on a mobile phone! I’m not a Luddite but there are limits to what we can do by technology. We cannot form pastors at a distance. I do not one but two podcasts/broadcasts. I understand the power of the new media but it cannot replace personal, face-to-face instruction. The medium is the message the message of the web is that it’s great for casual conversations and entertainment and news but it’s not for laying down the basic educational stratum upon which a minister will continue to build for the rest of his life.
I know the evangelicals are all hot and sweaty about the potential for DE seminary training but listen these are the same folks who thought it was a good idea to send out illiterate preachers during and after the so-called “Second Great Awakening,” an episode which probably wrecked the American church beyond repair–short of a special act of providence. How did that work out? Not well at all.
With the rise of iseminary the Reformed community has an opportunity. We can go along with the iseminary torrent or we can be truly counter-cultural. The point isn’t to be old-fashioned but to be faithful; the point is actually to train pastors properly and not shallowly and quickly. We have an opportunity here, if we don’t lose it, to distinguish ourselves and our view of the church and ministry from that of broad evangelicalism. The question of how pastors should be prepared is about the nature of education but it is really about the nature of the church and her ministry. If Christ established a real, flesh and blood church, with real, flesh and blood pastors, those pastors need a real, face-to-face, flesh and blood education from real, flesh and blood profs and pastors.
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