Reinventing Theologcial Education

When in a conversation with a good friend (who also happens to be an attorney) I commented that I felt that seminaries (theological higher education) are more similar to law schools and medical schools than other kinds of schools. He replied that the original four professions in higher education were clergy, lawyers, doctors, and teachers. While I don’t have a citation for that (there’s more data for the four occupations in ancient China) that “feels” right. The medieval university came into existence in order to train (Roman Catholic) priests, and law and philosophy were secondary pursuits. Later, during the enlightenment, we see the rise of the liberal arts university as we know and experience it in North America. First and foremost, it was professional training.[*]

Certainly, the history of the Historically Black College/University gives credence to this. Many of the HBCU’s opened to give degrees in Divinity (clergy) and Education (teachers), and soon afterwards opened law schools (lawyers) and medical schools (doctors). Also, the history of the seminary is that as the enlightenment brought about the rise of the university, the study of theology (and the training of clergy, because the academic study of theology was linked to the practice and profession of the priesthood) increasingly segregated and separated from the university. The counter-reformation gives birth to the official creation of the seminary as the vessel for training priests, but the enlightenment planted the seeds.

The larger point here is that seminaries really are more like professional schools, in that they train people for a profession rather than liberal arts schools that teach general knowledge. When you examine the curriculum of the average seminary degree, you find that it resembles what you might see in the study of the liberal arts, however. Consider the “average” Master of Divinity degree, usually 90 hour broken down as follows:

  • 18 hours of Greek, Hebrew, and Interpretation (tools for study)
  • 18 hours of Bible, including surveys of the Old and New Testaments (subject matter)
  • 18 hours of Theology, both Historical and Systematic (subject matter)
  • 24 hours of Ministry Practice (professional study)
  • 12 hours of electives (specialization)

Somewhere in those 90 hours, there’s usually a 3-hour internship wherein the student gains academic credit for “practicing” the profession. Sadly, as a “professional” degree, only 25% of it is dedicated to professional study.

Contrast this with the “average” law school (law schools have a generally common core but wildly vary after the first year and especially in the third year), which breaks down as:

  • 30 hours of core concepts like contracts, torts, property, criminal law, and civil procedure. Usually includes an integrative class and/or a writing class (tools and professional study)
  • 30 hours of specialization courses involving in-depth study of areas of particular interest (knowledge and professional study)
  • Clinical courses involving actual work in projects of interest (professional study).

Note that the study of the practice of the profession is integrated throughout the curriculum. What might it mean for our churches if the schools that trained our pastors actually trained them well for the profession they are entering? What might it mean if the emphasis was not the knowledge, but the character and formation of the individual? Here’s a call for those of use in theological education to consider the best way to serve God through training.


[*] I understand the concept of the priesthood of all believers, and the legitimate resistance to create a special class of believers who have the education to do ministry. That discussion, while relevant, is a bit out of the scope of this particular blog.

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