What Is A Seminary?

Collegium SapientiaeThe question arose on a discussion board  as to how a theological seminary relates to C. S. Lewis’ distinction between “education” and “vocational training.” The premise of the question was that one had to choose between the two, relative to a university I would side with Lewis, but relative to a seminary I cannot.

The person who asked the question began with a long quotation from Lewis and referred to something I said somewhere about seminaries being university faculties (departments) in exile. 


In fairness, when I say that theological seminaries are university faculties in exile I’m not speaking prescriptively but historically or descriptively. This is what happened.

Prior to development of modern period theological seminaries (there used to be seminaries of various kinds hence the need to distinguish one type of seminary from another) didn’t exist as we know them. Theological training happened in Academies (e.g. Geneva) that were or became universities. This trend developed over centuries as cathedral schools became universities with specialized departments or faculties (namely Arts, Theology, Law, and Medicine).

As a consequence of the Enlightenment(s), theology faculties were gradually turned into religion departments and most of those were ultimately closed as “science” became narrowly defined in Modernist, materialist terms and even the generic study of religion as a social phenomenon became irrelevant. Given this, Darryl Hart has even argued that religion departments have no place in the modern university.

When we explain our vocation at my school we speak about educating our students in the art of theology but we also educate about 70% them to fulfill a specific ecclesiastical vocation: pastor. In this we are a bit like law and medical schools. There is a broader aspect to learning but there is also a vocational and more focused aspect to their studies. We’re not what used to be called a “vo-tech” school (e.g. those places that train people to fix computers or cars). In a vo-tech becoming a broadly learned person is not very important but knowing the latest computer code is.

We’re not a university but we do bear some historical relation to a university. We’re not a vo-tech school but we do train students to fulfill an ecclesiastical vocation. We also prepare a small number of students to fulfill other vocations (e.g. academic or other).

…is [your school] functioning as a theological seminary in an ideal world would? Do you think it’s wonderful or merely necessary that 70% of the students are there for, in essence, vocational training? Do you think that your institution would be more of an institution of learning if you were able to concentrate on research without having to teach students? And if I can take advantage of your attention, do you think that you or other professors, in Lewis’ language, treat the students as human or as candidates for humanity?

I’m not sure how to answer this question. If I say, “in an ideal world…” one could say, “Aha, I knew it, seminary education is flawed!” Nevertheless, things could always be better. I’m not entirely sure what is implied in such an “ideal world” scenario. I’m not a very good “ideal world” thinker inasmuch as it entails rolling back 250 years of history, in some respects, to a world that doesn’t exist. I can say which things I would change to improve our ability to educate students:

1. Students would come to us knowing the Reformed confessions. Most of our students, even those from confessional Reformed congregations, do not know their confessional standards. Our churches could begin addressing this problem as soon as the next Sabbath.

2. Students would come knowing the English language more fluently. Too Many students, even those from elite schools, don’t write or speak as well as they could. An increasing number of students can’t say what a noun or a participle is! This is highly problematic at the graduate level. Our secondary and undergraduate systems are failing us.

3. Students would come knowing at least one other language beyond English. Latin would be extremely useful. Our curriculum was designed c. 1929 with the assumption that students would come knowing Greek!

4. Students would come with a basic knowledge of world history and the history of philosophy and ideas.

5. Our students would come with sufficient financial support from their congregations so that they could concentrate on their studies.

6. Our faculty regards students as humans made in imago Dei. Surely all of us, in Christ, are being made more human as we are renewed in Christ’s image. If I understand the question our faculty regards our students in the light of our anthropology and soteriology. I guess that what Lewis is getting at (he would appreciate my ending the sentence with a preposition).

7. When I mentioned the university I wasn’t thinking of the modern research university. I’m impressed with Mark Schwehn’s book, Exiles From Eden about leaving the University of Chicago (for Valporaiso University) because he did not simply want to be a researcher but he wanted to teach and to form character in young people. In the older university system, teachers taught, they formed people. The Weberian notion that teaching is a burden to be shed in favor of pure research is not ideal for seminary education nor is it terribly useful for any school. I learn from my students as they learn from me. I research as a teach and teach as I research.

8. We understand that we serve the church primarily but we do so in the academy. So, a seminary necessarily straddles two worlds simultaneously. That’s our calling. We harvest the best work of the academy (as best we are able and to which we try to contribute) for the well being of the church(es). Another way to put this, if I understand the issue, is that we pray while we study and study while we pray. We don’t divorce the two. Piety should be learned and the learned should be pious.

9. I don’t accept the premise that what we do is “essentially” vocational training. We are engaged in teaching the humanities and training for a vocation. We must do both. We’re not “essentially” a vocational school even though most of our students are called (or being called) to pastoral ministry.

I still believe in learning and in learned ministers but we also believe that older pastors have some wisdom to give to younger pastors entering the ministry. The older Reformed model of education entailed learning both theory and practice. Thus, though I understand Lewis’ point I don’t think that his bifurcation aptly describes what we do or what we’re called to do.

[This post first appeared on the HB in 2008]

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    Could you elaborate on this statement you made in your 3/26/08 post entitled “What is a Seminary?”

    5. Our students would come with sufficient financial support from their congregations so that they could concentrate on their studies.

    In the ideal situation, do you think it best if a seminary student does not have to work either a full or part time job? Also, lets say that a church cannot support the seminary student fully. Would it be wrong for the student to solicit his friends and family for additional financial funding in order to not have to work during seminary? (Sort of like investing their money into this man in hopes of making him an asset to Christ’s church).


  2. Hi Bradley,

    Yes, indeed. It would be much better if students could focus completely on their studies. There is a great deal to be learned in three or four years. Today few students have this liberty but this is because they often come with no financial support from any congregation or denomination.

    No, I don’t think it’s wrong to solicit funds to support seminary education. It may also be necessary to work and extend seminary to four years. This is happening more frequently. You should investigate student aid and student loans. Call Mark MacVey at WSC 760 480 8474 to talk about the possibilities.

    There’s no reason why single congregations should have to bear alone the the cost of educating students. I don’t see why regional associations of churches (classis or presbytery or synod) should cooperate in funding seminary education. In turn, the student agrees to serve the denomination for a certain period of time.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    I am sure that some of your readers do not currently belong to a Confessionally Reformed Church. So I would like to offer them a service:

    Thinking about seminary but are need more preparation? Come join Merrimack Valley Orthodox Presbyterian Church in North Andover and Haverhill, MA (north of Boston). There are numerous job opportunities in this affluent area.

    If you are willing to make that commitment, I am ready to make the following commitments in return:

    1. I will teach you two years (seminary level) of Koine Greek and/or Classical Hebrew.
    2. I will mentor you in your study of the Westminster Confession of Faith along with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.
    3. I will mentor your study of the Directory for Public Worship and the Form of Government of the OPC.
    4. I will mentor you in your growing understanding of the English Bible.
    5. I, along with the Session of our church, will work with you on discerning whether or not you are called to pastoral ministry.
    6. I will pay for all the books you need to do the above.

    You can contact me at: davidabooth@comcast.net

    David A Booth, Pastor
    Merrimack Valley Presbyterian Church

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