And Now for the Rest of the Story

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.


Why Pastors Need a Seminary Education

How Not to Train Pastors (three parts)

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  1. Scott, whether you/we like it or not. It is the future. I could express even deeper concerns about twitter!

    • Not for Reformed ministers, not as long as I have anything to say about it.

      We cannot have ill-taught, lightly educated, ministers in our churches. The ministry is too important.

      If the evangelicals want to wreck their churches (again), that’s up to them but we shouldn’t do it.

  2. Alright, I agree with most of what you say about the benefits of face-to-face seminary training. Let’s make sure it remains available for those who want it, can afford it, and are able to move themselves (and quite possibly their wives and children) to a city for at least three years of graduate schoool and possibly seven or eight years if they don’t already have a college degree.

    But that’s not everybody.

    What should be done when a man goes to an online seminary? Should general assemblies instruct presbyteries not to receive men who have done online theological education under certain former Westminster professors who now teach at seminaries that offer online education?

    I live in a world outside Fort Leonard Wood where the Army is using and expecting its junior enlisted soldiers, NCOs, and officers to get distance education in many ways. Some things simply cannot be done without a drill sergeant yelling in a recruit’s face — the Army knows that, and outside Camp Pendelton, you know full well that the Marine Corps does too.

    But when it comes to academic and not hands-on training, for many years now, enlisted soldiers have been using the GI Bill to get their online bachelors degrees through places like the University of Phoenix and the officers have been getting online masters degrees through comparable schools. There just isn’t much difference in the quality of the product — except that for a lot of soldiers, they wouldn’t be getting their degree at all if it weren’t for online options. And there is simply no possible way to do many types of continuing education in a military environment without at least some online instruction, because it’s not desireable or even possible to drag hundreds of people thousands of miles away from their duty stations or a combat environment to take a one-year class.

    Is it perhaps possible to combine online and traditional classroom education in some way, perhaps coupled with serious hands-on pastoral internships? If not, are the presbyteries, classes and associations of the churches prepared to not just discourage online education but actually forbid the ordination of men who have obtained online degrees?

    It seems there’s no way to stop online education short of barring acceptance of online degrees, and I don’t see that happening.

    • Darrell,

      What if someone doesn’t have the ability or time to go to medical school? Can he/she still be a heart surgeon? If not, aren’t you guilty of quenching his/her calling to save lives? C’mon we can’t let logistics get in the way of saving lives can we? How cruel is that?

      • Actually, I think we agree. Some things cannot be taught online (at least not yet). Remember — even the Army knows distance learning won’t work for some things.

        To take your example, all 50 states and the American Medical Association and the accrediting agencies have agreed that certain things are necessary for medical education, and do not allow people to practice medicine if they haven’t gotten the requisite qualifications.

        What is going to happen when a 50-year-old URC elder who has served for yeaars on the diaconate and consistory, and who because he has five kids chose to obtain a degree from an online seminary, presents himself for licensure and ordination exams? Will his consistory say “no?” Probably not. Will his classis say “no?” Some will and some won’t, at least at first.

        If the first two or three online seminary graduates do well in the URC pastorate there will be more, and I don’t see any way to stop it under URC polity unless every one of the URC classes agrees in advance to forbid distance learning — and I just don’t see that happening.

        • Our church order won’t really allow it. I think there’s a fairly strong consensus on this. It won’t happen in our classis, not if I can help it.

          if God has called a man to ministry (and we deal with tough cases all the time) there will be a way to get a proper preparation.

          Not every can go to med school, even some who should go, who would make terrific surgeons. I’m willing to endure that loss in order to make sure that standards remain where they must.

          Really, the dark ages are just around the corner. We could lose the knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic in a flash if we don’t hold to standards.

    • Darrell,

      As a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a former Captain in the Marine Corps, I want to affirm that there are a lot of reasons why the military would embrace on-line education for part of the training that is provided to our military. But there are also types of education that online education is ill suited for. This is why the National War College will never be replaced with on-line education. Never. Training pastors is like that too. There simply is no adequate substitute for the face to face interaction not only with the highly skilled professors but also with one’s fellow students.

      Let me give a direct answer to your question: Yes, churches should refuse to call and Presbyteries should refuse to ordain men whose sole theological education is from an on-line seminary.


      • Dr. Booth, let me first off thank you for your service in the military. As you know, it is because of people wearing the uniform that we have the freedom to discuss these things at all. We simply cannot thank people like you enough for what you were willing to do so the rest of us can sit around and have the freedoms we too often take for granted.

        We are in full concurrence that some things simply cannot be done online and other things cannot be done as well online, at least with the current state of technology. That may change — I could never have imagined the developments in modern communications technology when I first began working in the news media 26 years ago, so I don’t want to say anything is impossible — but there are some aspects of learning that I just don’t think are likely to be possible online anytime in the foreseeable future.

        For whatever it’s worth, the military is debating some of these same issues re. the relative value of online and traditional classroom education. In addition to all kinds of online efforts, Fort Leonard Wood hosts a joint senior leaders course each year and invites the media to cover the keynote address; I’ve always enjoyed attending those classes and if I had time, which unfortunately I usually don’t, I’ve been told I’m welcome to sit in on pretty much anything that is not classified. I’ve also had numerous interviews with Congressman Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, on the need for preserving and improving professional military education at the senior levels, as well as for the junior officers and mid-level NCOs. We’re also close enough to Fort Leavenworth that we see a fair amount of what goes on with education at highest command ranks, because our general officers and colonels are going back and forth, either giving or receiving education up there on a fairly frequent basis.

        In my own circles I’m viewed as somewhat of an old-fashioned curmudgeon for believing seminary training is valuable. The question I have — and I don’t yet have an answer — is whether online seminaries are going to make the current situation worse or whether they will help by bringing at least some level of theological education, though not the best, to people who otherwise would be getting little or nothing beyond the level of a Bible college.

        I do think online seminary education only going to become more and more prominent, and I do not share Dr. Clark’s optimism that the URC church order will be interpreted to prohibit distance learning. Sooner or later there’s going to be a well-respected Dutch Reformed elder who, for whatever reason, simply cannot go to Mid-America or Westminster for classes, and will end up getting a distance-education online degree from a conservative Reformed seminary, and if that elder has solid academic training, solid doctrinal beliefs, and is well-respected in the churches, it will be very difficult for his consistory and his classis to say “no.”

  3. Dr. Clark, thank you for being balance on this issue. As for on-line seminary education being “the future” … it is only the future for a Church that doesn’t love the word of God.

    Please forgive me for the following rant on your blog:

    1. A huge part of the growth of on-line seminary education comes from confusing getting a credential with getting an education. This is true throughout our society but the damage that such a mindset has for the Church is particularly devastating. The problem comes from how many men think that they already should be serving as ordained pastors – and the only thing holding them back is that they lack the appropriate academic credential. May Christ protect His Church from the “leadership” of such men!

    2. Most Christians, including most Reformed Christians, seriously underestimate the intensive academic preparation that is necessary to serve as an effective and faithful pastor in the modern world. Given the high percentage of men who enter seminary without undergraduate training in languages, history, and philosophy (I was an engineer), along with the lack of basic competence in English Bible and Reformed Theology, we would naturally move to requiring 4 years of seminary apart from the additional financial burden that such a move would impose. An alternative would be to require students to at least demonstrate that they have memorized the Shorter Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism prior to matriculating and not allowing remedial courses in English Bible to count toward graduation. Here is the reality: Most non-denominational seminaries are fixated with growing head count and are unwilling to discourage students from enrolling at such more rigorous programs.

    3. The primary model of training pastors in the U.S. is based on a free market program that is akin to how men and women end up attending business school or law school. (1) Individuals decide that they would like to go to seminary. (2) Students apply to the seminary of their choice. (3) The ability of an individual student to attend seminary is primarily determined by the ability of that student or student’s family to pay for school. (4) Students graduate from seminary with the hope that one denomination or another will recognize his call into pastoral ministry. Shouldn’t Reformed churches challenge this entire model? Shouldn’t the normal pattern be that the local Church recognizes the man’s gifts and potential for fruitful ministry and therefore encourages and supports him in getting the best possible training to be equipped for this calling (including having a decisive say in where he is trained)?

    4. We may feel sorry for those who unwisely choose to pursue seminary education through the Internet. Nevertheless, for the sake of Christ’s Church, we should JUST SAY NO. The alternative to refusing ordain such men is the continually dumbing down of the expectations for pastoral ministry. When I first started looking into seminary more than twenty years ago, I discovered two interesting phenomenon: (1) Every pastor recommended where he went to seminary; and (2) No one ever admitted that their training was inadequate. Asking how much Greek and Hebrew a seminary student should take was like administering an x-ray of the pastor’s own educational background. Those who couldn’t read Greek or Hebrew at all would say “just learn the tools”. Those who said “a year and a half of each” had a year and a half of each. Not one individual ever said “I only had a year of Hebrew but you really need three years (The National Institute for the Humanities used to recommend three years of language study to reach basic reading competence in a foreign language). Bottom line, if we ordain men with online seminary educations we will simply be lowering the bar for ministerial competence.

    I apologize for ranting on your blog. But given our modern therapeutic culture you can take comfort in the fact that I now feel a little better.


  4. I agree with you that face to face really is best Dr. Clark. I am not sure I agree with you however, on the matter of God opening up a way for a man to go to seminary if he is called to be a minister. This is a legitimate problem that some are trying to solve by online training, but perhaps the online solution is due to the evangelical trend for “religious superstars?” (I’ve got Hart’s Deconstructing Evangelicalism in mind with that one.)

    If we honestly believe and want our pastors in our denominations to be strong, educated, and powerful men of God, then why not entrust those very strong, educated, and powerful men of God currently in office to do the training? I’m thinking back to the early church, before the creation of the institutionalized education system in the Cathedrals and Monasteries.

    We already disciple and train ruling elders and deacons this very way, so why not teaching elders as well? Is it Biblical to necessitate teaching elders to go to a formal academy? Why is 3-4 years the magical number in training? What if some men needed, and could get, 5-6 years of hands on internship training through one on one work with a teaching elder?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing seminaries. I loved my education at WSC. Just trying to think outside the box on this one.

    • Eddie,

      Why should we have lower academic standards for ministers than for surgeons? Every surgeon’s patient will die but ministers are administering the gospel of God! The work they do is eternal — how much more important is it to get that right? That’s a rhetorical question.

      I understand the problem. We deal with it constantly here. The answer, however, is not to lower standards. The cost is too great.

      • Dr. Clark,

        Please don’t think I’m saying we should lower the standards, I’m not! Rather keep the standards as high as they are, let them remain. Should we rethink the method in which we train men to meet those standards though?

        • Eddie,

          If someone proposed to train surgeons by distance would you think that they were also proposing to lower the standards? Why is training pastors any less challenging? Can a surgeon learn to make an incision by watching someone on a screen or does there need to be an experienced surgeon there guiding him through the steps? “An incision needs to be “this deep” but not “too far.” A med school prof can’t teach that by distance.

          Aren’t you assuming that media is neutral? Media isn’t neutral. Teaching, preparing pastors by distance isn’t just a method, it’s a revolution in the nature of the ministry.

          • Dr. Clark,

            I fear you are misreading me. I’ve always agreed with you that face to face is best!

            I was actually wondering about seminary as an institution versus direct discipleship by a Pastor. Thus my wondering about why we teach Ruling elders and Deacons one way, but Teaching elders another. If Pastors are to be Pastor-Scholars, and are held to very rigorous standards, and are gifted in the area of preaching and teaching, why are they incapable of raising up the next generation of Pastors in their own local church?

            That’s why I referred to the early church. Have we really streamlined the process through institutionalization? Is one of the drawbacks of the Academy/Seminary that those who may be gifted to be pastors and scholars can not afford to pursue such a route?

            I understand that you’re arguing that WSC in particular models the discipleship method through how teachers interact with their students. There may even be an argument made that Seminary Profs are professional “disciplers” for ministry oriented individuals. Does that make it necessary though?

            • I suppose it goes to one’s view of office. We are more deliberate and academic in our preparation of TE’s (pastors) because they hold the prophetic office of announcing God’s Word. They are expected to be able to read Scripture in the original, to know the history of doctrine and of the church, to know biblical scholarship, to know systematics and practica in a way that we do not expect ruling elders to know them.

              This is because the ruling office is a distinct office which requires less academic training and more churchly experience. The same is true of deacons. Now, if we could get our ruling elders a year of seminary (as happens) it would be a great boon to the churches but if that doesn’t happen the church will be able to provide the necessary training. The church as church cannot take over the training of ministers. The church as church is neither equipped nor called to teach the academic disciplines necessary for ministry.

              Ministerial training has been done in an academic setting for more than a 1000 years. In earlier periods of Am. history on the frontier we were forced to train ministers in the church, without the academy and that’s why Princeton Seminary was built. The model of pastors training pastors didn’t work. Arguably undergraduate education was better in the 18th and 19th centuries than it is today. If it didn’t work then, how much less prepared are students today! Indeed one of our greatest tasks is to make up for the relatively poor undergraduate and primary education our students have received.

              Few pastors are prepared to teach systematics, practica, biblical studies, and church history. None of our faculty is prepared to do that and we do this stuff full-time. No one can do this AND take care of a congregation full time. It’s a confusion of vocations for a pastor to try to replicate the work of an entire seminary faculty or even one of one department. The pastor’s job is to care for his congregation, to study the Word, to be alert, to keep up a bit, but all in view of caring for his congregation and fulfilling his vocation to the wider church.

              The best formula is to train students in a seminary like WSC, in conjunction with local congregations, under the oversight of presbyteries and classes. We can always do it better. We would like to hear more from Presbyteries (though we are following up with them about our graduates) but this is the best model.

  5. It must have taken a strong will not to address the myriad problems in the example case alone. Let me get this straight: An untrained, unordained pastor simultaneously with his wife receives a Master of Arts in Ministry instead of Divinity, and then she joins him as a “pastor” of their church while he gets promoted. All that, and you’re only upset by the fact that they got their degrees online? When mainstream Christianity’s concept of the roles of church leadership have collapsed so completely that churches not only welcome unprepared men to their pulpits but women as well, then it’s no surprise that they would be so willing to experiment with ministerial training.

  6. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for commenting on this. Given that I am currently in an online degree program (RTS-MAR), I have some disagreements. I’d like to offer a few thoughts/questions regarding what you’ve said, hopefully in the interests of promoting helpful dialogue on this question.

    (1) Ministry doesn’t happen at a distance, but I don’t think that many DE advocates are arguing such a point. Speaking at least of RTS-V, I am quite sure that is not the case. Quite to the contrary, I am required to have a mentor (in my case an elder in the church) to meet with regularly to discuss what I am studying, talk about ministry, and so on. There is a strong emphasis on face-to-face training/interaction outside of the distance classes. I don’t see how what you have said nullifies a model in which one takes classes by distance AND is mentored by a leader in the church. Rather than saying that “ministry happens at a distance,” this approach says that ministry happens in your local context, so have someone in your local context to mentor you as you work through your courses. What is it about this approach that you don’t think works?

    (2) I’m not sure that the heart-surgery and similar examples really work for two reasons. First, no one is suggesting that one should just hole up in a study with a computer and some books and then come out a pastor after graduation. Thus my previous point was that there should be a mentoring component within the local church. What is it that one can’t learn with online education and a mentor that one can on campus? Surely the whole structure of going under care, licensure, ordination, and so on is designed to prevent someone who learned a bunch of academic things and didn’t have any mentoring, etc from becoming a pastor. Secondly, you’ve simply stated that the two are equivalent. I just don’t see them being the same and have yet to see any argument really establishing the connection. I wouldn’t trust a heart surgeon who had sat in a classroom for years, talking with professors, but had never actually been in the operating room. Likewise, I wouldn’t trust a man who had learned academically (whether in a classroom or online), but who had never been in the context of the church (rather than the academy) and learned hands-on about ministry.

    (3) Shouldn’t the main context for training pastors be the church? I’m not questioning the legitimacy of seminaries. But it seems to me that you’re arguing the on-campus seminary should trump the local church. To me, it seems that the two should be joined (and I’m sure you encourage that at WSC). I think that can be done badly at a campus. It can be done badly online. But it can be done well at either in my opinion.

    (4) Comparing DE with illiterate ministers in the 2nd Great Awakening to me doesn’t follow. You claim that DE can’t produce real learning, but I haven’t seen arguments to support it. I doubt statistics will ever really show one way or the other whether one learns better online or on campus. However, from personal experience, I can say that I am learning far more online than I did on campus. I spent a year taking classes full-time at RTS on campus. Now I work full-time as a teacher, I take one class at a time, and I am mentored by men at the church (so it’s not slow nor shallow, as for each class I’m able to read far past the required amount). I believe I am learning far more in this context than I did on campus. To me, this seems very person-dependent…and very much related to personal motivation level and desire for ministry in the church.

    (5) I have the same profs that students at RTS campuses have (though I have some from multiple campuses, rather than just one). Plus, the profs themselves answer questions and grade my papers and tests, rather than a TA, as was done when I was on campus.

    (6) Your point about libraries is the one that does seem to hold some weight. However, there are ways of dealing with that. Through our campus, we do actually have considerable access to libraries (there’s a librarian for the Virtual Campus who can acquire for us almost anything we need). Plus, depending on where you live, you can go in to other libraries (UCCS, Denver Seminary, etc., in my location). You may not be able to check out books, but you can go through and look at them, and then acquire them by other means.

    Sorry for the long comment. Don’t feel compelled to respond to every point, but I would appreciate your thoughts on my basic questions. If the matter is as dire as you are suggesting, I should quit RTS-V right now and make a financially crushing move across country somewhere with my wife. So I offer these questions and comments in order to hopefully move this discussion along as I continue to think about my calling.

    • JoelS., I know Dr. Clark can’t respond to all your points, but I do hope he responds to at least two of them that I haven’t seen answered yet (at least not in this thread).

      1. Joel raises a serious issue when he points out the role of the TAs in seminary. Using TAs in an undergraduate context at a large university with a hundred or more students in each of a professor’s classes may be unavoidable, but it simply should not be happening in seminary or in any other graduate program that claims to be providing mentoring as well as credentialing (and I like Dr. Booth’s distinction between the two).

      There is no excuse for a seminary to extol the values of traditional classroom face-to-face learning when, in practice, the professor has minimal direct contact with his students.

      I’m fairly sure Westminster doesn’t do things that way, or if it does, they’re done that way only in the large introductory classes. But for seminaries which **DO** use a TA system, is it not an improvement to have online learning where a seminarian can at least ask his professor a question via e-mail and expect an answer from the professor?

      2. Traditional seminary education truly **IS** a crushing financial obligation, especially for second-career married men with children. The historic Dutch Reformed answer was for the churches and classes to pay for most if not all of the costs of education. I know just how generous those offers can be: Prior to the CRC secession that formed the URCNA, I repeatedly turned down offers to pay for my seminary education if I would only join the Christian Reformed Church. Long after I left Calvin Seminary, I continued to get inquiries from URCNA churches and classes about whether I’d be willing to join the URCNA in return for finishing my seminary training. (My answer in both cases was no — confessional integrity means too much to me, and with my views on church government I do not belong in the URCNA or CRC ministry.)

      So the end result was I paid huge amounts of money I did not have, going into serious debts that took a decade to pay off, for an undergraduate degree in theology from Calvin College and about half of an M.Div. from Calvin Seminary, knowing the whole time that none of that was required by my denomination and all I needed was a Bible college degree. I attended seminary not because it was required but because it was what I wanted to do. Most of my colleagues and friends outside the Dutch Reformed world were scratching their heads and saying, “Why would Darrell possibly want to attend a liberal left-wing seminary when he could be getting much better education from reading the Puritans and working with local pastors in the churches?”

      Just what, realistically and not theoretically speaking, is being done by seminary professors today who are convinced of the value of traditional classroom education to encourage presbyteries and classes to raise the massive amounts of money that are needed to send students to seminary? Is there any realistic way that not only the URCNA but also the PCA and OPC can establish a practice of qualified seminary students having most if not all of their seminary education paid by the churches they will serve? The CRC once did that and I respect them for it. If people are convinced of the need for traditional classroom education, they need to have a concrete plan in place to make that possible.

      • Thanks for you thoughts. I think your first point is really what I was trying to get at. The second is, of course, vitally important. I can barely afford taking one class at a time now, much less going full time (while working full time). Some seminaries (RTS, at least) do offer serious tuition reduction IF the church is willing to be involved (1/3 paid by the church, 1/3 discounted, so the student pays 1/3). I’ve never had that opportunity, and I knew few guys at seminary who did.

  7. Here’s a quote from the piece at CT that is hard to deny: “Congregations retain valuable ministry workers as they learn more.”

    The fact a man can still contribute to his local church by preaching and teaching is an enormous benefit to the body of Christ.

    • Physicians do continuing education online all the time. Fine. No question but it is not possible to teach men, in their primary ministerial training, to be shepherds of God’s flock via distance.

      We who teach are not mere transmitters of information. What we do in the classroom, in the lunch room, in the study, and in the hall way is not mere theory to be tested and applied in the church. We worship with our students, we pray with them, we take them to the hospital. We cannot do that by distance ed. We cannot teach a man to preach from 150 miles away much less 1500 miles away. It cannot be done. It should not be done.

      We are teaching ministry in EVERY CLASS. It’s not just something we do in “this class” or “that course.” It’s what we do all the time. We only have our students for 3-4 years. If we only have them online then we don’t really have them for that much time at all. We have an hour here or there on a screen or over a voice connection.

      And people doubt me when I say that the American religion is fundamentally gnostic.

    • Michael,

      How is it a an enormous benefit to the church to have men preaching who cannot yet competently exegete the Bible in the original languages within the framework of sound Historical and Systematic Theology?


      • No, Dr. Booth, it’s not good.

        But can we honestly deny that what you’re describing, namely, pastors who cannot fluently read and use Greek and Hebrew, is already the case throughout most of the Reformed world? Even the **CONSERVATIVE** Reformed world?

        I know a few — very few — Reformed pastors who have levels of competence in Greek and Hebrew that are similar to what was standard a hundred years ago. That’s a good thing and I commend them for their efforts; I am guessing from what I have read of your comments that you are among the few men who has done that hard work needed to develop not just minimal competence in using a dictionary but rather fluency in Greek and Hebrew.

        I remember being shocked when I read J. Gresham Machen’s account of becoming REACQUAINTED WITH THE ENGLISH BIBLE while, during a hasty evacuation of his position during World War I, his original-language Bibles were lost and he had to go back to using the English Bible for his devotions. For Machen, reading the Bible in the original languages was his ordinary practice.

        My initial assumption was that this happened just because Machen was a seminary professor at an Ivy League school when he decided to serve in World War I as a YMCA Secretary (Machen’s work in World War I with direct religious contact with the troops was more comparable to the role of a modern Army chaplain than to the modern role of MWR, USO or other support agencies). But then as I read more of the Puritans I realized that using the original languages on a regular basis was what they did all the time in their ministries to backwoods farmers in pioneer America or isolated rural churches in Scotland and England, or Dutch fishing villages on the North Sea.

        Maybe it would be desireable to go back to the levels of language training that were standard in the Reformed world of the 1700s or 1800s. But the simple fact is that would be a massive, massive change, and I just don’t see it happening in an environment where most Americans can’t competently read or write even a single modern foreign language, even if they have had several years of high school or college study of Spanish, German or French.

        • Todd,

          You should get to know more of our graduates! Really. I don’t claim that all of them are equally fluent in Greek and Hebrew but we follow up with our grads to see if and how they continue to use the languages. It’s a part of our accreditation process. We’ve actually changed the curriculum and instruction to improve the degree to which students continue to use Greek and Hebrew after graduation and it’s helped.

          One of the keys is for the seminary to take it seriously in the first place. If sems don’t do so the students get the implied message — it’s really not important. We also don’t encourage the students to think “Well, I have Bibleworks (or whatever) so it doesn’t matter.” We press them constantly to keep up. Our students can’t take ST601 (the first core ST course after the most introductory course) without completing Gk and Heb. The only helps allowed for the mid-term and final are their Heb and Gk Bibles. We expect them to read and to be able to use the languages. Some of our grads even preach from the original languages.

          That’s why we hire profs to teach Heb and Greek. Our OT/NT profs have trained to do this. They’ve written grammars to do this.

          The sad fact is that many seminaries have simply given up on the languages. We haven’t.

          The lowered expectation to the languages is a first step toward regressing to the the pre-Reformation situation. Distance ed for pastors is another.

          • Dr. Clark, I truly do appreciate your comment here. It sounds like Westminster has changed, and changed for the better.

            I know quite a number of Westminster graduates, but many of these men graduated a decade or more ago, sometimes 20 or 30 years ago, and a number of them were from Westminster in Philadelphia and not Westminster in California.

            The usual comment from most (certainly not all) of them has been that once they had been out of seminary for a few years, they rarely if ever used their Greek Bibles and almost never used their Hebrew Bibles except to check something with a concordance because they never learned the languages well enough to stay fluent. A number of them who were required to do the “year of penance” at Calvin Seminary to enter the CRC ministry were surprised by the emphasis placed at Calvin on use of the original languages. Several Westminster graduates told me that the one and only thing they liked about their time at Calvin Seminary is that they were told they need to improve their Greek and Hebrew, and they had to admit that the Calvin Seminary professors were correct to call attention to a deficiency in their pre-seminary training.

            I do not know what the rules are today, but back in the 1980s Calvin still required two years of Greek at the undergraduate level for admission to seminary, at the same time that WTS and almost every other seminary was admitting people with no prior training in the biblical languages. The result was that Calvin Seminary used undergraduate Greek at Calvin College as a “weed-out” course to get rid of people at the pre-seminary level who they believed would not be able to “make it” in seminary.

            Seminaries typically lower their standards with time, not raise them. If Westminster-West is raising its standards, that is a good thing. But I would hate to get to the point that undergraduate Greek is used as a weed-out course, the way it used to be done in the Christian Reformed Church.

            And just to be very clear here — I was a poor student myself in Greek and a worse student in Hebrew, so I am not trying to hold myself up as anything but a bad example. It would be easy to blame the fact that I was working full-time to pay for college and seminary, rarely sleeping more than a couple of hours per night, and routinely went to morning tests having not slept at all for two or three days, but the fact is that people are good at what they choose to put their effort into and I chose to focus on theology and church history classes, not Greek and Hebrew classes. The Westminster graduates I knew when I was studying at Calvin were telling me how much easier it would be for me if I had gone to Westminster Seminary since they placed less emphasis than Calvin Seminary on the original languages.

            • Darrell,

              I’m not speaking about WTS/P. I was never there and have not taught there. I was a student here at Westminster Seminary California from 1984-87 and I returned in ’97 to teach. I can say that our language standards have always been very high. When Mark Futato was here he wrote the Hebrew grammar that we used (and still use, I think). I learned my Greek in university and tested out of Greek here but I studied Hebrew here and it was very rigorous then and both Heb and Greek remain challenging here. We also teach Aramaic and I have taught Latin here for about 10 years.

              My impression from my time as Academic Dean –which involved meetings with other deans — and from dealing with transfer students is that the more broadly evangelical schools have mostly moved in a pragmatic direction.

              This is why I said what I said about the 2nd great awakening. This is what evangelicals really are. Pragmatists. The so-called 2nd GA was really the resurgence of Anabaptism in the new world and it swept across this country like a plague of locusts doing untold damage.

            • OK, Dr. Clark, fair point… you have firsthand knowledge of what you actually teach to students, and my knowledge is limited to what a relatively small number of graduates from both WTS-CA and WTS-P combined are doing (probably a few dozen pastors), often many years after they graduate.

              Your experience does not track with what I have seen, but since you see far more of your graduates than I do, it’s quite likely that you’ve got a better idea of the typical student and graduate. The last thing two Reformed people want to do is get into “sharing experiences”! 😉

              For whatever it’s worth, my comments about WTS and the languages were not intended to be critical of WTS, either WTS-CA or WTS-P.

              It’s obvious that regardless of what the results may be among graduates — and that is beyond any seminary’s long-term control — WTS compares very favorably to virtually all seminaries except the small Reformed seminaries in the Dutch Reformed world (i.e., the Protestant Reformed, Netherlands Reformed, Heritage Netherlands Reformed/Free Reformed, and Canadian Reformed) which place a huge emphasis on traditional education models for the pastorate and have both the ecclesiastical and financial ability to enforce their standards on their candidates for the ministry, rather than having to compete in the “free market” with the Fullers, TEDS, and Gordon-Conwells of the evangelical world.

              WTS (and even less so RTS) simply cannot ignore the way seminary training is being done elsewhere because you have to compete, either by offering a similar program or by explaining why your program is better because you have higher standards. You simply cannot have the sort of admission requirements than Calvin Seminary had when I was studying there, and that is not your fault. The question is what seminaries are going to do with the three to four years that a student is in their hallways, recognizing that the average adult student (and often 22-year-old recent college graduates as well) will be far less prepared for seminary training than their pre-sem predecessors of a few generations ago.

              In the world in which I live, seminary training is almost unheard of. Most — not just some, but most — of the local pastors around me have never been to any seminary at all, and probably the majority have never even gone to Bible college. Pretty much the only men around here who have formal masters-level seminary training are the retired Army chaplains who are now pastoring churches, and they have that level of training mostly because the Army requires it for commissioning as a chaplain. In many cases they had been ordained as pastors for years before they went to seminary, and would not have gone to seminary if it had not been a requirement.

              Most of our local pastors entered the ministry because they were godly laymen, often Baptist deacons or elders in independent fundamental churches, who were trained up by their pastors in church leadership roles as laypeople and then were given lots of additional books to study. What interests me is that some of them (typically the bivocational pastors who also work as teachers, school principals, or in some sort of professional field) have chosen to study at least Greek, often through self-study or online “distance education” through various fundamentalist or Southern Baptist schools. They’ve chosen to put the effort into Greek simply because they wanted to read their Bibles better, and I certainly respect their efforts.

        • Post Tenebras Lux

          As my friend Dave Gordon has noted, almost every profession requires more training today than it did in the nineteenth century. The odd exception to this rule is the vocation of being a Minister of the Word.

          Let’s not embrace the darkness as inevitable. We should lament the fact that so many pastors cannot competently work with the original languages or are ignorant of historical theology. After all, we are living with the consequences of that ignorance. Numerous contemporary problems in the church would scarcely exist except that enthusiastic but uninformed pastors are repeating errors that the Church has already thoroughly dealt with.

          The LORD, His people, and His word deserve the very best that we can offer. Why would His people settle for offering anything less?

  8. Hi Dr. Clark,

    Since I really can’t imagine the future of the Reformed community will parallel today’s Amish community, I must disagree.

    Until sometime between the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s, all computers were massive mainframes that required centralization in very real physical and geographic sense. Then personal computers came along. Then the “high-speed” internet came along.

    Sooner or later, communication technologies will advance/converge (or whatever verb one prefers to describe this phenomenon with) to a point where one’s sense of reality in being on a virtual campus/classroom versus a real campus/classroom will be zero, skoshi, zilch. From things I’ve seen online and in the lab as well as can easily contemplate, there is no question that the on-line classroom will become the standard form of education. It’s not even really so much of a question of how (it’s not like saying people are going to live on the moon where the how and the why are sort like dream on). The question is just when. When will the cost of hardware and software become available at a consumer level?

    It’s not here yet, though. Dream on CT (online). But when this stuff develops and gets adopted by the mainstream (two to four decades from now, I suspect), the difference will be like that which exists between guiding a camel over sand dunes versus driving a car along an interstate.

    • Wow Eric, that’s a very bold statement that a virtual campus will one day have absolutely no difference from a real classroom. Do you say this as a technology guru? I ask because many technology gurus I’ve read seem remarkably ignorant of sociological consequences of technology. I, for one, harbor suspicions that Nicholas Carr was on to something in his article in the Atlantic: that Google is making me stupid.

      • Darren, you bring up an important point. Changes in educational technology create major changes not only in how we learn but also what we learn.

        Let’s take an example most people have never experienced.

        Decades ago, I got introduced to calligraphy. For various reasons I became fairly good at it, to the point that I received a college contract to write the names on their diplomas and various certificates, and I also did wedding invitations and some other items. There’s no need for any of that now since any good laser printer can use a black letter (i.e., “Gothic” or “Old English”) font not only to put the names on a certificate but to print the entire certificate on parchment paper. Ironically, the last time I ever earned any money doing calligraphy was about a decade ago when somebody learned by accident what I used to do and asked me to inscribe the inside front cover of a book being awarded by the Association of the United States Army to a certain honoree — that simply couldn’t be done by putting the book through a printer, and although it could have been done with an adhesive label, the AUSA chapter liked the “old fashioned” look of calligraphy with its inherent human variations in the writing.

        Now why is this relevant?

        For my own interest, after I learned calligraphy well enough to produce a quality product, I started to copy books of the Bible and make small hand-held books of Scripture portions such as those which people once carried with them for personal use since a full copy of the Bible was too expensive in a pre-printing press era.

        There is no way to even begin to explain how much the process of laboriously hand-lettering a book of the Bible improves Bible memorization. If you know that even a single mistake will force you to throw away an entire page of expensive parchment paper, one on which you may have spent an hour or more of labor, you’ll want to get the text **PERFECT** with no mistakes. You will read it over numerous times before you start and as you copy the book so it is embedded in your brain and you are almost never going to make a mistake in copying. And even then, because slips of the pen do happen, you’ll end up re-doing at least a few pages.

        It’s somewhat similar to an older practice my mother remembers from the 1950s that new secretaries after being hired were sometimes asked to take their bosses Rolodex and recopy it in their own handwriting so they become familiar with every person their boss is likely to deal with. It’s actually a really good way to spend a couple of weeks at the beginning of a new job — but it presumes two things: first, that the new secretary is going to be working there for many, many years, and second, that the new secretary will be very accurate in recopying the information from a Rolodex and not introduce errors in the phone numbers, addresses, titles, and spelling of names.

        Developing technology has virtually eliminated hand-copying, not only of important documents but also of routine office paper. How many people have to use a dictionary when taking a history class to understand what it means that our founding fathers had to commission a “fair copy” — i.e., in not just legible but beautiful writing — of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and how many people under 30 wondered what a Rolodex is when they read my previous paragraph?

        I think it’s obvious that there’s been a massive loss in the ability of people to memorize things. I realize a major part of that is just modern American laziness and the movement of the educational system away from a fact-based learning system toward a concept-based learning system. But the changes in technology are also a huge factor — we simply don’t need to remember lots of facts or the precise wording of a text when we can use our internet-enabled phone to call up Google and get some fact that we’ve forgotten.

        That’s okay if what we need is a baseball score from the 1998 Cardinals season, but it most emphatically is **NOT** okay if what we’ve lost is Bible or catechetical memorization. And yes, I’m as guilty as anyone else — my catechetical and Bible memorization, even though I continue to work on it (with the aid of computerized flashcards) is far worse than a 10-year-old Dutch kid would have had a hundred years ago.

        How we learn truly does affect **WHAT** we learn. Much of what we see with returning to pre-Reformation medieval concepts of soteriology in the FV movement would be inexplicable without understanding the role of classical Christian education in reacquainting modern people with medieval theology. Does that mean the trivium and quadrivium are bad things, or that learning Latin should be prohibited? Of course not — John Calvin in the Genevan Academy, the rest of the Reformers in their schools, and even the New England Puritans who build Harvard and Yale in the howling wilderness of early America used the same classical education system to educate their young preachers.

        But it does mean that when technology changes, we lose things as well as gain things.

        I frankly don’t know how to avoid distance learning becoming the norm in many fields. That will probably include much of what we now do as seminary education. The question in my mind is what we can do to preserve what is valuable about the current classroom environment as technology radically impacts the way we educate our young and not-so-young candidates for the ministry.

    • Eric,

      A more likely scenario is that we will create a two tier education system:

      (1) Distance learning will be for the masses and for teaching those skills that primarily involve a transfer of information rather than the ability to think and interact more effectively.

      (2) Face-to-face learning will be for the affluent and for those fields that we place the highest value on (i.e. using Dr. Clark’s example – for surgeons).

      I do not doubt the liklihood that seminary education could move primarily into the first category – I am merely arguing that it shouldn’t.


  9. Dr. Clark,

    While I understand your concern I believe that there is an aspect of distance education that you did not address in your article. If done correctly a distance education for one preparing for the gospel ministry can be quite effective if the session of the student’s local church is actively involved in said student’s progress including assigning ministerial opportunities to the student (teaching, etc).

    While I realize that this is not the norm among those who are attending seminary via distance this does not rule out the reality that it is a strong attraction for those who are pursuing a seminary degree from a distance.

    It can also be said that not all distance programs are the same or as effective as others. I do not think it is fair to paint too broadly on this subject. While many distance programs may be weak and ineffective there are some that are structured in such a way that make them equally effective as their on campus counterparts.

  10. Dr. Clark,

    I am auditing seminary classes online right now, and I can very easily see myself in the same position as Joel S (post from 23APR) at some point in the future. I don’t understand why future TEs can’t combine the academic-education of seminary (via DE or on-campus) with the practical mentorship and experience of working with/under/alongside the local session and Presbytery? After all, it is the local Presbytery that does the ordination of ministers, right? So why are we so worried about the portion of folks who get their degree in an ‘online-only’ vacuum… they will just be denied ordination, because we trust the local Presbyteries to ordain those who didn’t just “check the box” but are actually prepared for ministry… right? And for those who can complete all, or even a portion, of their seminary work online in the RTS-V model, and either have or gain the pastoral experience along the way… shouldn’t we thank God for the expanding possibilities of education? I don’t understand how DE is a horror to be avoided- it should be used carefully, of course! But I am thinking this might be a “something is better than nothing,” and am thinking also of folks even outside the USA (as I am now) who simply don’t have access to good seminary education any other way! Why can’t ruling-elder-experience combine with online-seminary-academics to prepare one for ordained ministry?


      • Dr. Clark,

        YES! I was waiting for that one. See how this is set up? The combination of online-academic work with personal-practical application answers all of your proposed problems. The medical student gets their academic schooling online… memorizing anatomy, different human organs and systems, etc. And then they go through their residency! All medical school graduates, although called Dr.’s upon graduation, must still go through licensure and residency in order to practice independently. Normal residencies are 4 years, heart surgery is 6 or 8, I can’t remember. So, in the same way, a student gets his Greek and Hebrew training, church history and systematic theology, all done in an online classroom (again, not hole-up-in-the-office, but the RTS-V model), and then some sort of practical experience and mentorship by the local session and Presbytery. So no, the local pastor isn’t responsible for re-mastering his Greek or Hebrew instead of focusing on his flock- and nor is the prof who has a doctorate in Greek and been in seminary for some time the 100% best choice for mentoring/teaching pastoral leadership and shepherding. To me, the combined approach is a best-of-both-worlds model, and the hasty “you wouldn’t trust a heart surgeon trained like that” doesn’t satisfy me.

  11. Eli,

    You have graciously offered your opinion about distance education. Yet your very involvement with distance education is an illustration of the problem: You are making the choice to train via distance education when you are not yet competent to know whether or not this is the right way to be trained. If Presbyteries or Classis start accepting candidates who have pursued seminary education via distance learning – we are giving the green light to men like you to pursue less than the best method of preparing for a lifetime of fruitful ministry.

    Christ’s Church deserves better and so do you.


    • David,

      First, I have yet to see anyone truly make a case that distance education is “less than the best method.” It’s been asserted repeatedly, but simply saying repeatedly, “would you trust a heart surgeon trained this way” doesn’t really make the point. As I indicated above, I don’t think the connection there has really been made. I don’t think anyone has addressed the points I raised.

      Secondly, presbyteries have accepted candidates trained through distance education. I know some men who are currently pastors who have only had the MAR through RTS and were ordained (in the PCA), and I know of others in the MAR program who have the support of their (PCA) presbytery to pursue licensure and ordination with an online MAR rather than an on-campus M.Div.

      Lastly, as I mentioned repeatedly above, I agree that a model in which a man just sits in front of a computer and submits assignments and then shows up and wants to pastor a church is a bad idea. But likewise it is a bad idea for a man to go to classes on campus every day and listen to lectures, talk to other students, and ask profs questions, and yet have no experience in the local church. Accordingly, if one does online education while serving in the local church (and not going into massive debt) under the mentorship of pastors, and also passes the SAME licensure and ordination requirements as all other candidates, I simply don’t see what it is that he hasn’t learned that those who went to a campus have learned. I say this as one who has done both. My undergrad is in theology and English. I spent a year on campus at RTS. And I am now finishing my degree online through RTS. So I’ve had the full gamut of options. And I feel pretty confident that I am learning the material more thoroughly, am growing more spiritually, and have more opportunities to use the material within the church in this way than I ever did when I was on campus.

      • Joel,

        Thank you. Perhaps a little background would help you know where I’m coming from.

        1. I made the strategicly unwise decision to be raised in a poor non-Christian family in a rent controlled apartment in New York. I am quite aware of how difficult it is to afford attending a brick and mortar seminary.

        2. From 1989-1991 I earned an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson while working multiple part time jobs. The academic standards back then were pathetic (I understand taht they have improved). Obviously, dumbing down seminary education does not require distance learning. It is happening all around us. Nevertheless, my experience of interacting with other students and face-to-face with the faculty has been very valuable to me. In many ways it has been more valuable to me than the content of the classroom lectures.

        3. In the early nineties I was hit by lightning which really messed up my short-term memory. After I seemed to have recovered, I did a fair amount of disance learning work to test my own ability to do academic level work. By the time that I was physically and financially able to return to seminary – I had already exceeded the 10 year limit on completing an M.Div. so I had to start over. I then completed an M.Div. at Gordon-Conwell (GCTS is a terrific school academically and not very good in terms of forming young pastors for ministry. I recommend that younger men who want to be pastors should go to WSC. GCTS is an excellent school for those who wish to go on to Ph.D. level work).

        So what? Well, since it took me 21 years from the time I entered seminary until the time I finished – I have looked at and thought about a lot of seminaries. As a graduate of the Naval Academy I have often lamented that if we trained our military officers the way we train our pastors we would lose all of our wars. The picture of contemporary seminary education is bleak. I mean really bleak as in Dark Ages bleak. I am convinced that Distance Education is another method of embracing that darkness.

        1. I have never spoken to a graduate of WSC or Gordon-Conwell who said they wished they had “attended” seminary by distance-learning. I have spoken to more than a dozen Distance Learning students. Every one of them has told me that they wish they had the financial resources to attend a school like WSC or Gordon-Conwell. Distance Education is not an improved model for delivering seminary education it is a cheaper model. This is why Dr. Clark’s refrain of “would you want your surgeon to be trained by distant education” is on the mark. In some areas we should choose cheaper over best and in other areas we should choose best over cheaper. Seminary training, like Medical School, is an area where we should choose best.

        2. Distance seminaries are clearly focusing on that portion of their potential market (and if you don’t think this is being done in business terms you are kidding yourself) that wants access to a seminary education but is either unable or unwilling to pick up and attend a brick and mortar school. This is part of a broader trend in american education which has made the mere fact that you hold a bachelor degree or a graduate degree meaningless. The sales pitch is clearly geared toward “You can get the credential you need easier than you ever could before.” When someone starts an on-line seminary that is attempting to be more academically rigorous than WSC – please get back to us.


        • Dr. Booth, you wrote this: “As a graduate of the Naval Academy I have often lamented that if we trained our military officers the way we train our pastors we would lose all of our wars. The picture of contemporary seminary education is bleak. I mean really bleak as in Dark Ages bleak. I am convinced that Distance Education is another method of embracing that darkness.”

          I am increasingly believing that we’re on the same page here about the best option for seminary training, but disagreeing on whether less-than-ideal models are acceptable. Some very similar debates are going on in modern military circles about the value and problems with online education, by the way.

          As you know, your Naval Academy training was free. Outside the military academies, ROTC training typically comes with large scholarships if the student wants to have the sorts of degrees the military needs, though ROTC students can choose other degrees if they want, but will pay for them on their own.

          If the churches believe brick-and-mortar seminary training is so important, are they willing to follow the older Dutch Reformed model of paying for most if not all of the seminary training at seminaries the churches have decided are good for training their seminarians?

          If not — and the answer is clearly “no” outside some very small denominations like the Protestant Reformed and Canadian Reformed, and even the CRC is rapidly losing its ability to pay for most of its seminarians’ costs to go to seminary — I think we need to ask whether the churches have any right to require what they won’t pay for.

          • The answer to the failure of churches to step up is not to fall back to a poor, default position but to instruct the church and insist that she and her students do things correctly.

            • OK, Dr. Clark — if I’m reading you correctly, you agree with me that the churches should be paying most if not all of the costs for students they consider to be qualified for seminary studies so they can afford to attend the seminaries that will best prepare them for their calling as pastors.

              That’s the old Christian Reformed position, and I can respect it.

              So what is Westminster doing, practically speaking, to explain to churches that it’s their responsibility to pay most if not all of the costs to send seminary students to a brick-and-mortar seminary? And if the seminary costs are going to be paid mostly by the churches, how is service in a particular denomination going to be enforced?

              I came very close on more than one occasion to being a recipient of that kind of financial generosity, and for several reasons turned it down, not just once but several times. Decades ago, I had conservative Christian Reformed ministers telling me repeatedly how much easier my life would be if I would just join the CRC and let the denomination pay my way through seminary. When I raised my objections about the drive toward women in office and other issues in the CRC (this was the late 1980s), I was told, to quote one of many such statements, “You need to join the CRC and help us fight this thing.” Other conservatives in the CRC pointed out that as somebody who came to the Reformed faith from the “outside” and was already working in an inner-city mission church, I had credibility that born-and-bred CRCers didn’t have when it came to outreach and mission work. At one point I came so close to joining the CRC that I was prepared to ask for my membership papers and actually complete the transfer — up until some professors at Calvin Seminary, who probably would be very unhappy for me to name them today, started making the same sort of offers. (In fairness to them, they knew I was conservative, but I think they thought I was a PCUSA- or UCC-type conservative and didn’t realize just how deep my opposition to liberalism really was, and how committed I was even at that time to confessional integrity and biblical inerrancy.) After talking to those professors who were trying to get me to join the CRC, I realized that if I joined the CRC and then left even years down the road, I would spend the rest of my life having to answer to people and to God why I had joined a denomination, took its money, and then left.

              There are practical consequences to paying for a seminary student’s tuition, and they need to include a requirement to serve a certain number of years in that denomination — and once people go down that road, there are issues of creating a legally enforceable contract and going to court against contract-breakers. Those are very problematic consequences.

              Another problem is that the old Christian Reformed system of funding ministerial training was paid for by a synodically-mandated quota system which levied huge fees upon each local church. I think we can both agree that is not going to happen anytime in the foreseeable future in the URCNA, whose founders were absolutely committed to the right of local churches to decide how best to spend God’s money.

              Doing this is not without precedents — it is still today the practice of some of the very conservative Dutch Reformed denominations. But it would certainly be a massive change from the current methods of ministerial preparation in nearly all Presbyterian denominations and many Dutch Reformed bodies today.

              So how do you suggest that “old paths” be restored?

              • Darrell,

                We’re just a school. Our development dept, including our president, who is a URCNA minister, do their best to encourage the churches to support the sem.

                This culture has been a long time in development and it will be a long time in changing it, if it ever changes.

                I had such an arrangement with the RCUS. I pledged to serve them after graduation, which I did — happily.

        • David,

          Thanks for your constructive thoughts. I’ll offer just a few in response:

          (1) As you said, it is not only distance education that can be “dumbing down” the quality of education. On campus at RTS, I had very challenging classes, and classes that were honestly ridiculously easy. On the whole, I would say my distance classes (I’ve had more on campus than distance classes) were just as hard or harder than the on-campus versions. I have no problem with arguing that we ought to make seminary education difficult in many ways. We ought to be stretched. But what I’m saying is that the case has not been made, in my opinion, that distance education is inherently lowering the quality. That’s repeatedly stated, but not proved. In my experience, I have learned more (overall) in my distance classes than I have on campus. I’m able to read extensively past the required reading, which I was not able to do on campus.

          (2) I agree that the interaction with other students can be quite valuable. I do miss that in some ways. But to be honest, I had far less of that than I expected at seminary. Part of it may have been that I was single at the time, and most seminary guys were married. We just had different schedules. But I don’t know that lowers the quality of the education. It may alter the experience. But I get to discuss my studies with friends here, with elders at church, and with others interested in theology here. So there are ways of replicating that aspect of the experience outside of campus. I also had very limited face-to-face interaction with professors. Obviously, that will depend on the size of the seminary in many ways. Sure, you could ask questions in class. But I’ve been able to ask direct questions to faculty online, and get a response very quickly. In fact, I’ve had more direct Q&A with faculty in this context than I did on campus.

          (3) I agree with you that there are problems in seminary education. There are also problems in education in general. I was trained in the Classical model, but it seems that such education is rare these days (though the school I teach at is moving more and more to that, and there are others). Probably the lessening of seminary education is related to that. But I simply haven’t seen the argument that really shows that distance education *inherently* is part of that lowering of quality. In my experience, that has just not been the case.

          (4) I still haven’t seen the argument that really shows the connection between medical school and distance seminary education. If the point is that there ought to be hands-on ministry, distance education in conjunction with the local church can achieve that just as on-campus education in conjunction with the local church can. As I’ve said above, I wouldn’t trust a man who had sat in his study with a computer and books and had never been in the local church to be a pastor. Neither would I trust a man who had been to campus, asked many questions of professors, holed up in the library, and had never been actively involved in the ministry of the church to be a pastor. Yes, clearly, one needs personal interaction. But I don’t see how you can argue that getting that in the church under the leadership of pastors and elders is not acceptable.

          (5) Sure, seminaries pitch to certain markets. But to say that the RTS-V program is just saying “get a credential cheap and easy” shows a lack of understanding of what the program encompasses. It’s at least as hard as what I experienced on campus. And it’s not really cheap easier. Per credit hour it’s actually more expensive than on campus (the difference for me being I can work full-time this way and do a class at a time). Are there evangelical seminaries taking that approach? Yes, just as there are seminaries making it easy in the on-campus version. But I still haven’t seen a compelling argument that distance education inherently lowers the quality.

          (6) This, I think, is one of the more important points: There is a direct connection between how effective each method of education is and the motivation/ability of the student. If one is self-motivated, wants to learn, one can learn a lot and receive a great education by distance. Likewise on campus. If one wants to do the minimum, pass, slack off, one can definitely do that by distance. But it can be done just as easily on campus. And it is done on campus. Thus the effectiveness of distance education is affected very much by the student. I still haven’t seen proof that the education is inherently inferior.

  12. Dr. Clark,

    TE White and I are kicking around the idea of resurrecting the old apprenticeship model for training in ministry and combining it with the online seminary. Any thoughts? Since his church is actually a log building, we were thinking of calling it the Log College.


  13. Sorry to butt in when so much discussion is going on, but wanted to point a spell check out on the main post:

    “What sort of teachers/scholars want to teach (primarily) by distance? Would Charles Hodge or John Murray or *FANCIS* Turretin or John Calvin train pastors solely or even primarily by distance? No, they wouldn’t.”

    We know that Francis would greatly appreciate such a correction…..

  14. It’s easy for someone like Dr. Clark to make these ludicrous claims when [personal remarks deleted]. Let me ask you this Dr. Clark. How much does it cost for a man and his family to live in Escondido? Groceries, rent, gas, employment, etc. etc.? It sounds like it’s pretty easy for you to say sitting in your position.

    And yet, the only argument you seem to possess is “would you trust a heart surgeon who got his degree via distance learning?” C’mon man. Can you honestly provide some kind of convincing exegesis to support your claim that face-to-face learning at a para-church seminary institution is the only way to obtain a solid theological education? Because the biblical pattern seems pretty consistent to me. Candidates for ministry learn from their pastors within the context of the local church. There’s nothing even remotely similar to a para-church seminary institution in the NT. And yet you seem to think that the future of Reformed theology depends upon education within this environment. Are you really going to put so much faith in an institution which the Scripture doesn’t even recognize?

    I expect you to come out and publicly denounce Greenville Presbyterian Seminary as an institution contributing to the downfall of Reformed theology in the U.S. I expect you to address Joey Pipa and tell him that the students learning via distance are a bunch of illiterate idiots unfit for the gospel ministry.

    Your analysis lacks any kind of substantive evidence and is insulting to pastors who have labored for the purity of the gospel and yet who have received their degrees at a distance. Shame on you for your insulting language and outright attack on such godly institutions who use distance learning such as GPTS and others.

    • Joshua,

      This is a presumptuous post on at least two levels.

      1. You begin with abusive personal remarks and continue with ad hominem arguments. In a real school you would learn that a) this is poor form and b) that ad hom arguments are illogical and therefore of no force.

      2. Because you insinuated that I’m in this for the money let me tell you young man that I began working at age 14 washing dishes from 4pm -12m. When did you start working? Before that I threw papers (and collected) and before that I delivered magazines and before that I sold flower seeds and before that I worked around the house for free. I’ve pushed books in a library, I’ve driven a cab for UNL, I’ve made deliveries, I guess I’ve been fired from more jobs than you’ve held. I worked my way through college doing a variety of jobs. I entered the ministry at poverty level wages and remained there for 6 years. We were without income for 2 years after that and at very low wages for several years thereafter. Were it not for gracious relatives and friends w might have been on welfare. What I make now is none of your business (and anyone who has been raised properly or has a modicum of Christian decency about him would know better than even to raise such a subject in public) but I can say that if the seminary didn’t pay me a living wage I wouldn’t have time to straighten out the likes of you now would I?

      3. Your post is ignorant and presumptuous simultaneously about the cost of living and education in Escondido. Had you bothered to get the facts you wouldn’t have made yourself look so foolish. I’m sorry to have to hard on you like this but you’ve picked the tone of this discussion. As a matter of fact we just completed a survey of our students and as it turns our, 90% of our single students pay $600 per month or less in rent. Our married students pay a little more (including utilities). Our students find that cost of living here is lower in some ways and higher in others. Biking is possible 12 mos a year. That saves. Gas is a little more. Utilities are less because the weather is so pleasant so much of the year. A/C and even heat aren’t very necessary for +/1 11 mos a year.

      4. Are you suggesting that there shouldn’t be a confessional Reformed seminary in Southern California? Do you know how many confessional churches have been planted in this region as a result of the seminary? Do you know what the Reformed witness was before 1980 in Southern California? Do you realize how many different ethnic groups and how many different students we’ve prepared for service (800+) in dozens of nations, for many language groups?

      5. I’m not denouncing GPTS. I’m making an argument that DE is not an appropriate way to train ministers of the gospel.

      6. Would you trust your health to a physician trained by distance ed? Would you?

      7. I don’t have to provide you with exegesis. We’re not in the apostolic church. Had you bothered to read the links I provided you would have seen that I’ve already addressed this question. We can get rid of seminaries when you or others regain apostolic power. Until then we have to make do with the ordinary means.

  15. Joshua,

    You have crossed over the line from spirited debate to sinfully attacking an ordained Minister of the Word in Christ’s Church.

    Therefore, I am calling on you to repent by (1) seeking forgiveness from our Lord; (2) seeking forgiveness from Dr. Clark; and (3) resolving to change your behavior by reconsidering what you are saying before posting on blogs.

    I am praying for God’s grace in your life.

    In Christ,


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