Why Seminary Should Be Less Practical

Every now and then I hear objections to the seminary model of theological education. Usually in one way or another they posit that seminary education is not practical enough. It is portrayed as detached from the real-life ministry and focused on the academic knowledge and theoretical subjects that are not immediately transferable to the pastoral ministry.

I would like to register on this blog my humble votum separatum. In my opinion the theological education should become less practical

How we construct the curriculum of theological studies obviously reflects our ideas about the role of a pastor. I read recently a very instructive essay by Gary Scott Smith comparing curricular focus of American Methodist and Presbyterian seminaries in 1890-1920.1 Author argues that in 1890-1920 in American  seminaries the number of practical courses such as psychology, sociology, ethics or missions was increasing. At the same time Greek and Hebrew became electives in many of them.2 Despite this trend, the Princeton Theological Seminary of PCUSA continued to stress the primacy of classical theological disciplines such as exegesis, systematic theology and church history. It was not so in the Methodist Garrett Theological Seminary. As Smith says: “[b]y 1921 Garrett’s graduation requirements included twelve hours in exegetical theology, six hours in historical theology, six hours in systematic theology and forty hours in practical theology”.3 Two very different approaches to theological education were born out of two different views of pastor’s role. While the Methodist vision emphasised practical skills, revivalistic passion and social work, the Presbyterian vision of the pastor was more of a defender of truth, scholarly Christian and exegete of Scripture. 

So what model should we adopt? As a Reformed Christian I see the pastor as one of many shepherds-overseers of the church (elders) who was given a distinct task of teaching and preaching (1 Tim 5:17). I would like to propose, therefore, to view the pastor as a public theologian. I do not mean by this that a pastor should necessarily be an academic theologian or publish in the journals. But I do believe that pastors should be able to think theologically. They are on the very front line of the theological education in the church. They provide the catechetical instruction for children of believers, they teach introductory classes for converts and they explain the Scriptures from the pulpit every week. Fulfilment of this role requires a considerable measure of theological reflection. 

Furthermore, pastors are usually first to receive difficult questions about the faith and life. Skeptics and parishioners alike will ask them why God allows so much suffering in the world, whether an eternal condemnation of those who did not even hear the gospel is just, or why are there so many conflicting interpretations of the Bible and how do we know that we are not getting it wrong. Answering questions like that is a profoundly theological task. 

The theological thinking is also necessary to navigate thorny debates about the liturgy and practice of the church. We fall too often into the traps of pragmatism (doing things because they work) or traditionalism (doing things because we always did so). While pastors should not be the only ones who think theologically about the life and ministry of the church, if they will not think theologically than we can hardly expect it from other members of the church. 

The critics of the seminary system are certainly right that practical ministry skills cannot be mastered in a classroom. But the formal education is a very good context to foster theological thinking. An immersion into the triad of exegetical, systematic and historical theology is indispensable for the fulfilment of the role of the public theologian. While reading and writing papers alone will not make one a good pastor, it will certainly help one to develop a capability of rigorous thinking about theological problems. 

Having recently completed MDiv, I am rather disappointed with how much theology I was able to read in last four years. This is in now way intended as a criticism of the seminary I am about to graduate from. On the contrary, I would heartily recommend it to anyone interested in pursuing the pastoral ministry. It maintains mandatory Greek and Hebrew classes throughout all four years of studies and it offers a very solid instruction in all four theological disciplines (exegetical, systematic, historical and practical). But I often wonder if seminaries in general are not trying to teach too many different things. On the top of exegesis, Bible background and overviews, systematic theology, preaching and church history seminary students have to take ethics, pastoral care, liturgics, missions, philosophy, apologetics etc. Every subject comes with its own reading list and assignments so that at the end of the day it becomes virtually impossible to read deeply and broadly. One can easily graduate from seminary without reading much of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin or Bavinck. 

This is why I am tempted to think that theological education should be less practical. Maybe it would serve better the purpose of developing public theologians to limit the curriculum of three or four years of seminary to the few core subjects and require more substantial readings. I imagine that practical knowledge and skills could be conveyed during the extensive ecclesiastical practicum following the seminary. 

But perhaps in this way we would eventually extend an already long seminary education into three or four years of instruction in theology plus equally long instruction in practical theology, ethics and apologetics. I do not claim to have a good answer to the question how theological education should ultimately look like. In any case I believe that we should resist the trend to prioritise things that are directly applicable to the daily tasks of the pastor over developing the broader theological framework. 

  1. Gary Scott Smith, Presbyterian and Methodist Education, in:  D. G. Hart and R. Albert Mohler Jr. ed., Theological Education in the Evangelical Tradition (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, 1996), 79-102. 
  2. Gary Scott Smith, Presbyterian and Methodist Education, 80.
  3. Gary Scott Smith, Presbyterian and Methodist Education, 96.

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