Theological Education: To Elect or not To Elect? Such is at least one question.

I realize I’m a dinosaur in all sorts of ways, and my paleophilia runs all the way from a preference for epics over novels (though some novels are undeniably good) to a sense that the Enlightenment wrecked some really good medieval philosophy that we’ve only begun to re-ignite in the last century-and-change of Continental philosophy.  On the Internet, of course, one becomes a terrible lizard at a much faster rate than one does in literary circles, and here I got to be a dinosaur without having to work nearly as hard at it.  I prefer Linux machines to Mac toys.  I prefer web-authoring interfaces that let me modify my own html and css and other code.  And I can’t stand Facebook when there are viable alternatives available.

How the Conversation Happened
That last one came into play recently as a really good discussion of seminary education broke out among three of us who were in seminary together about ten years ago.  (One of our professors chimed in as well.)  As often happens when good conversations erupt on FB (it don’t happen often), I was sorry that only the relative handful of people who are on my homies list (I refuse to use FB’s term for Internet contacts) would ever see it, so with the permission of those involved, I brought the conversation over here.

The whole thing started when Wes Jamison, an old and a good friend of mine from the Milligan days, one with whom I fight online as a cat and a dog might fight online, noted that an ethicist was going to be present at an adult-education event and that anybody who didn’t read his book in seminary should ask for a refund.  Now I’ve read my share of books on ethics, and probably a couple other people’s shares as well (I’m that way with mashed potatoes at most family gatherings, too), but I’d never heard of the ethicist, and I had to ask Wes for a brief introduction.

Not long after that, another good friend from the late Clinton era, Rich Voelz, chimed in and noted that he’d never heard of the ethicist either, but his follow-up was more interesting than mine: he wished that our seminary, Emmanuel School of Religion (now Emmanuel Christian Seminary), had required an ethics course for M.Div students.  Wes took that opportunity to start listing all of the classes that he wished were required for M.Div students, courses in preaching and worship-planning and such that were occasionally-offered and sparsely-taken electives at Emmanuel when we were students.  At that point I made the bad joke that in Wes Jamison’s ideal seminary, there would be NO ELECTIVES FOR YOU!  (I’ve never actually seen the Soup-Nazi episode of Seinfeld, but enough people repeat the riff that it occurred to me easily.)

Wes quickly asserted that, structured properly, a curriculum heavy in required pastoral courses would not have to be too bulky to leave room for electives.  His proposal for a core theological education takes its shape from his own experience in lay pastor training:

I think part of my frustration comes from having worked with two regional committees on education for licensed/commissioned lay pastors. In designing a program for folks without access to seminary, it was imperative that we figure out what were the essential tools to put in their hands. We decided in both settings that basic introductions to the Bible, Church History, denominational history/polity, Theology, Ethics, Pastoral Care (another course requirement lacking at ESR), Christian Education, Worship, Preaching, Leadership, and World Reigions, plus more in depth survey courses on First Testament and Second Testament were the absolutely essential tools necessary to equip someone to serve as a pastor. At three hours were course, this whole list would only equal 36 credit hours. An M.Div. is 90 credit hours (at least at ESR), thus leaving 54 open hours for electives. How is that a massive list?

Before I move on from the narratio, I should note that while Wes is far more liberal than I am on questions of federal politics and far more conservative than I am on questions of church politics (most notably our divergent understandings of apostolic succession), he’s a dear brother and someone who will receive the respect due to one’s intellectual friends.  (Sorry–I’m gearing up for end-of-semester project presentations at Emmanuel College, and I’ve got my teacher hat on.)

No Answers but Some Questions for our Readers

I set out at first to articulate a strong systematic response to Wes’s post, but the end of the semester is kicking the systematic responses right out of me.   So in lieu of an essay, I have some questions for our readers:

  1. Given recent speculations about the shaky future of Protestant congregations, both evangelical and mainline, should seminaries gear their required core curricula towards traditional, located ordination, or do Phil Clayton’s thoughts on the future of seminary ring truer?
  2. Wes’s suggestion involved one semester of general Bible survey plus one or two (I got lost in the arithmetic) courses on Old Testament and New Testament.  (Sorry, Wes.  I can’t call ’em what you call ’em.  Just doesn’t ring.)  Are two or three semesters enough to prepare one for a life of interpreting these texts?
  3. Would a seminarian’s semesters be better spent digging into really high-level intellectual questions, with the guidance of top-notch academic thinkers?  Or would a seminarian’s semesters be better spent musing on the practical workings of parish ministry with experienced and intellectual practitioners?  I know some of you have already stopped reading to post “Seminary should do both” in the comments, but for the rest of you: what sorts of deliberative/dialectical processes should govern the big-picture priorities of a seminary education?  Or, to put it another way, should the seminary’s big-picture telos be first and foremost the training of a professional class of clergymen, first and foremost the formation of intellects to practice that crazy little thing called theology, or first and foremost something else?
  4. To what extent should Biblical languages figure into the required core requirements, and to what extent should Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic and Latin (yes, those are all Biblical languages in their own ways) remain on the menu of electives?
  5. Thinking of electives more generally, to what extent should seminary-degree requirements bulk up a core of courses that every M.Div will have taken upon graduation, and to what extent should seminaries allow students to take over the strategy end of things and gear course selection towards the efforts that the student imagines ahead?
  6. Which areas of theological study, practical and speculative and historical and whatever else, should a seminary insist upon while a student is in residence, and which areas could a seminary reasonably entrust to the graduates and to their own non-formal study?
  7. In what ways and to what extent do these questions translate into the education that Christian liberal arts colleges (like the ones where the three CHP hosts teach) structure their undergraduate degree requirements?

So those are the questions that I’d like some help from our readers to answer.  Dig in, and do try to remain constructive and dialectical rather than eristic and otherwise trollish.

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