How Not To Train Pastors

I see that someone is starting an(other?) online seminary. The whole business of online/distance seminary education is troubling. Because the confessional Reformed churches (i.e., NAPARC) are conservative and theologically oriented, we tend to attract ideologically committed folks. That’s okay but it means that we might have more than our fair share of ideologues and even a few crackpot groups (e.g., King James Only – “if it was good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me” and geocentrists – “Copernicus and Galileo couldn’t tell a galaxy from a candy bar”). Since, by intent and its very nature, online seminary education skirts the usual educational process, the usual faculty interview and appointment process, and of course, the regulatory process, it’s hard to see how the growing trend of online “education” will help us curb the tendency toward wackiness in the conservative Reformed world.

It’s also hard to see how an educational institution that relies entirely upon online libraries and tutors will produce a genuinely intelligent ministry. There are a lot of great books online (e.g., via Google books) but most online books are in the public domain which means that they weren’t published before 1923. Would you trust your health to a doctor or your legal well being to a lawyer who had only read medical or legal texts published before 1923? If you don’t mind not having access to polio treatments (1952), I guess that’s a choice but as a matter of public health it would be best if everyone didn’t see that physician.

There has been considerable discussion about this post over at The Puritanboard. The PB thread was started my my friend Jerrold Lewis. I haven’t read his blog post, so I’m only responding to the discussion on the PB.

I see there has been clucking about the the fact that Clark doesn’t seem to know that the cost of computers has come down.  I wrote the “necessity” essay about 10 years ago or so. Still, a laptop can run $1500 without much difficulty.

As to whether this is like the home school v. traditional school debate, that’s interesting because we home school. I recognize that primary education was done at home or at least privately for centuries. The modern idea that primary/secondary (seminary being post-secondary) education must be conducted in a factory is quite novel and has proven to be not entirely successful. There is a rather large difference between home schooling and distance ed: home schooling is still a face to face tutorial whereas distance ed is not. There is also a significant difference between the general education that occurs at the primary and secondary levels (trivium) and the more technical education that occurs at the post-secondary levels.

The proposal that we should go back to the 19th century American model of full-time ministers training candidates for ministry seems to ignore several facts. First, it’s been tried and abandoned. It was abandoned because it didn’t work very well. It was an ad hoc way of dealing with circumstances not a principled rejection of the University (which is where ministers were trained for centuries before the New World). Further, the Old Side was quite critical of the Log College and quite preferred that candidates for ministry receive a formal theological education.

There are massive practical problems with ad hoc theological/ministerial education. The fact of intellectual specialization has been in evidence since the 13th century – it’s not a wholly modern phenomenon. The speed of specialization has increased with the development of communication technology (printing, telephone, computers etc). The amount of information that must be learned and processed is considerably greater now than it was in the 19th century.

The movement away from the Log College to Princeton was a natural development that followed a pattern that is evident in the early medieval and high medieval periods. We had catechetical schools in the early church organized around a single teacher (still face to face education mind you!). Those schools became associated with cathedrals (sort of an ecclesiastical county seat). Those cathedral schools were larger but not specialized. One “prof” taught both the arts (trivium) and theology. The need for specialization helped create the universities in Oxford and Paris with distinct theology and arts faculties. There was already too much for one person to teach by the 12th century. That process has only continued.

Today, it is not possible for even the most brilliant minister to tend his flock, study for his sermon, and keep up at a professional level (let’s assume he has a PhD and is expert in a given field) with one field let alone four to seven departments, depending on how one divides things. It’s not even possible for a full-time scholar who doesn’t have the daily demands of telephone calls, pastoral calls, hospital visits, small groups studies, crises, sermons, catechism lessons, and planning and session/consistory meetings (as our full-time pastor does) to keep up with more than one field. I teach in three distinct fields and I despair of doing a good job in each. Two of them are closely related (church history and historical theology) but just keeping up with developments and literature in the one theological locus I teach (the doctrine of God, not to mention the other loci of theology) is overwhelming!

So, I take it that one would have to argue that it’s really not necessary to have specialists/experts teaching in each department (exegesis, systematics, history, and practica), that a general knowledge of these things is sufficient. In that case, one has embraced an apparently pious but anti-intellectual approach to training ministers. At the end of the day, that anti-intellectualism will show itself to be impious.

We’re training MINISTERS of the gospel here. We have a spiritual and moral duty to see to it that our ministers have the best education possible. They have the highest calling and the toughest job on the planet. They must be highly trained because they will be pressed on every side (I know!) and pulled in every direction. They will be called to render unexpected judgments in hospital rooms. They must be able to draw on serious (and prayerful) training received at the hands of ministers with highly specialized training. Ministers call upon that training every day in a hundred ways. Now more than ever it is evident that we cannot allow the training of our ministers to slip one iota.

Appeals to the apostolic era are non-starters. Unless you can raise men from the dead, shake off serpents, or heal the lame, unless you were at the feet of the Savior for 3 years and unless you had a tongue of fire on your head, if you would be a minister, you should go to seminary.

To the claim (in another post) that we should be reading mostly 400 year old books (which, as a teacher of history it is my calling to read and teach history) I ask, is that what John Owen did? Did he actually spend most of his time reading 400 year old books or was he one of the most well-read and intelligent theologians of his time? Was he fluent in contemporary Protestant, Roman, Socinian, and Amyraldian, and rationalist theology in Europe? Yes. The point is that we ought to read Owen (and the rest of the British and European classical Reformed theologians) but we ought to do in our age what Owen did in his. Were Owen alive today I’m quite sure he would be thoroughly versed in all the aberrant ideologies and theologies of our day as he was in his own day. He certainly wouldn’t be telling us that we should be reading mostly or only 400 year old theology at the expense of a thorough knowledge of the latest scholarship.

Finally, my question is why doesn’t the analogy with lawyers and doctors work? What is there about the vocation to the ministry that demands LESS training than the vocation to the law or the vocation to medicine? Why should ministers have a less rigorous education (or none at all?)

Are anti-brick and mortar seminary proponents willing to trust your legal and medical well-being to home-grown doctors and lawyers and if not, why not? If we may have ministers who have been trained solely by other ministers then why not lawyers and physicians trained solely by other lawyers and physicians? Because no lawyer who actually knew anything about the law would dare attempt to train other lawyers in place of law school. No sane physician would attempt to replace med school. There’s no way that a single person or even a private co-op could replace the work done in med school.

A seminary is quite like medical and law school. It is an extended internship/apprenticeship, arts education, and technical education in one over the course of several years. This combination cannot be replicated away from school. The alternatives all sacrifice one or more elements.

So, which of the elements are we prepared to sacrifice as we educate our pastors? Knowledge of the Biblical languages? Knowledge of archeology? Knowledge of church history (please say “no!”), knowledge of systematic theology? Time with experienced pastor-scholars who help to shape future ministers in and out of the classroom?

The good news is that we don’t have to sacrifice any of these things.

Well, the discussion over at the PB is still going. Here some responses from that discussion and elsewhere. To Jerrold’s objection I answer (expanding on what wrote originally): In the interests of time, I would like to focus on one question of principle rather than the particulars of your proposal.

We’ve been round this pole more than a few times and I don’t expect to convince you, but I hope that you will at least appreciate how it seems to me that your approach is a subtle sort of anti-intellectualism.

I think there is a difference between real, professional scholarship and that of the amateur variety. Frankly, most pastors are amateur scholars. By this I don’t mean to be demeaning, but it’s a fact. We do train pastor-scholars and we do expect our students and graduates to be able to recognize and use real scholarship in their ministry, but we don’t train them to do what we do. I realize that this is something of which seminaries are frequently charged (that we reproduce ourselves rather than creating pastors). Folk can’t have it both ways. They can’t say, “you’re reproducing yourselves” and when we stop, they can’t say, “you’re not producing professional scholars.” Few folks with an MDiv (which used to be a BD a few yers ago) are prepared to do professional scholarship when they leave. It’s not possible in most cases and it’s not desirable in most cases. What we do intend to do is to produce ministers who are well-trained, who are thoughtful and intelligent, but who are ministers.

As Alistair Begg reminded us this week, a minister is God’s servant. He’s called to preach God’s Word. Nothing can get in the way of that. Scholarship has to facilitate that. Any genuinely educated person should be able to recognize their own limits. They can see what real scholarship looks like and they know that isn’t what they do.

Real scholarship involves the reading of primary and secondary texts. It involves the critical appreciation of both. This is part of what separates professional scholars from amateurs. The latter only know what they read from the professionals and, to a larger degree, must rely on the judgment of professionals and they don’t always know how to do that well. They tend to know what the last book they read told them. They lack judgment. For example, I’m working on Olevianus’ Pauline Commentaries. Hardly anyone knows anything about them. Certainly pastors don’t and aren’t in a position to do. My students know what I tell them. Even if they could read Latin (a few of them can) they aren’t equipped to put into proper context what they’re reading. Most of our grads probably shouldn’t be slogging through a 16th century Latin text. It’s nice if they read our stuff and if that informs them a little about the way to read Paul or the way to preach (that’s one of the reasons I’m doing this work) but they ought to be with their people, in the hospital, in the nursing home, in homes, at coffee and most of all in the pulpit and doing the work of an evangelist.

I’m not saying that ministers are not meant to study, far from it. They are meant to study well and deeply. That’s what we train them to do. I am saying that they’re not meant to be full-time vocational scholars and the profs aren’t meant to be full-time vocational pastors (though our faculty are part-time pastors; we all preach, we all visit hospitals, we all serve our congregations; we all do counseling etc so we are not remote from the life of the church as some (not you) like to insinuate.

It seems to me that you’re saying that we really don’t need scholars (as I’ve defined them) to teach our students. You seem to be saying that it’s okay for well-read pastors teach other, younger, pastors. In my view, that is a form of anti-intellectualism, because though it professes to value learning, it only values it as a credential (“union card” to use Fred’s term) or insofar as it is immediately practical to the life of the church.

As to the nature of seminaries, I don’t have time to sketch the whole history of education, but I take issue with your characterization. A university education was the norm from the 12–13th centuries. Calvin’s lack of theological training was an anomaly and not entirely helpful. There may have been some benefits (some have argued) but arguably the Reformed after him and to clean up a bit because of his lack of training in some questions. There are things he didn’t anticipate. His humanism (which some have over-emphasized) did help him leave us with a sound hermeneutic which makes his commentaries still remarkably useful but you’ll notice that the Reformed did not quote him slavishly and even took issue with him not long after his death. Luther’s education was more typical.

To those who have complained about the time it takes, well, since the 13th century anyway, it’s always taken a certain number of years to earn a BA and then a BD or a Masters. These processes developed out of the practice and needs of the church before the Reformation and were revised but not fundamentally rejected by the Protestants. Were our primary education as strong as Calvin’s and our university training as strong as his (in classical education) we might be able to shorten things a bit, but even in the 16th century, when there was rather less to read, they still took their time.

One of Calvin’s great aims was to establish an Academy. He finally achieved it late in life. By the early 17th century, all the Reformed were university educated (with at least a BA, which in England matured to a Master of Arts) and many took a BD as well. Thus, the idea that a university educated ministry (a seminary faculty is, historically considered a university faculty in exile that has morphed in the 20th century into a tertium quid), is a product of the Enlightenment is something I don’t understand at all.

To these responses on the value of DE, I argue:

1. I do know about the online resources mentioned above, but those aren’t the things being proposed by the new seminary.

2. No one should think that a free chapter of a book here or there is a substitute for real learning. There is a chapter of CJPM available at the WTS/P bookstore site, but reading that is no substitute for reading the whole book.

3. Google can do a lot of things, but I don’t think that Google Books can violate copyright. That limits what they can present.

4. I use Libronix all the time. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m not aware that Libronix makes contemporary books available.

5. I notice in my students that they tend to read online resources less carefully than printed resources. They tend not to pay attention closely to online resources because they seem ephemeral. This is an inherent weakness in online resources. Yes, I’m aware of a new palm sized book reader. Great. Have you actually tried to use it? Talk to me when you’re wearing bifocals or reading glasses. I encourage students to print out there online assignments so that they can mark them up and read them actively. Reading is not just scanning words. See Mortimer Adler’s work on this.

6. I don’t foresee Amazon or other distributors giving away books anytime soon! They may be available online, but that is likely some time away.

7. Even if all contemporary books become available online and even if everything between now and 1923 becomes available and hard copy books are rendered obsolete it is still necessary for students and teaches to be face to face. I can no more teach a man to be a minister by distance than a medical school prof can teach a med student to be a GP or a law school prof can teach one to be a lawyer by distance. It’s not possible. There are too many intangibles that are not communicable by distance.

8. Technology is great but it gives us the illusion that we can transcend time and space, but it’s just an illusion. It’s not real. Even with computers, we’re still just creatures, we still have to live with limits.

9. One of those limits that we’re meant to learn some things in community, not in splendid isolation. Online community is not the same as actual face to face, personal communication.

A version of this post first appeared on the Heidelblog in 2007.

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