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Seminaries: Swelling the Cranium
11 October 2014
Frank Viola and George Barna — slaughter a LOT of sacred cows! Here are the articles in case you missed them:
Bible college or seminary, he or she is viewed as being a “para”-minister. A pseudo Christian worker. Such a person cannot preach, teach, baptize, or administer the Lord’s Supper since he or she has not been formally trained to do such things ... right?
The idea that a Christian worker must attend Bible college or seminary to be legitimate is deeply ingrained — so much so that when people feel a “call” of God on their lives, they are conditioned to begin hunting for a Bible college or seminary to attend.
Such thinking fits poorly with the early Christian mind-set. Bible colleges, seminaries, and even Sunday schools were utterly absent from the early church. All are human innovations that came hundreds of years after the apostles’ deaths.
How, then, were Christian workers trained in the first century if they did not go to a religious school? Unlike today’s ministerial training, first-century training was hands-on, rather than academic. It was a matter of apprenticeship, rather than of intellectual learning. It was aimed primarily at the spirit, rather than at the frontal lobe [brain].
In the first century, those called to the Lord’s work were trained in two ways: (1) They learned the essential lessons of Christian ministry by living a shared life with a group of Christians. In other words, they were trained by experiencing body life as nonleaders. (2) They learned the Lord’s work under the tutelage of an older, seasoned worker....
In stark contrast, contemporary ministerial training can be described by the religious talk of Job’s miserable comforters: rational, objective, and abstract. Very little is practical, experiential, or spiritual.... Justin Martyr (100-165), one of the most influential Christian teachers of the second century, “dressed in the garb of a philosopher.” Justin believed that philosophy was God’s revelation to the Greeks. He claimed that Socrates, Plato, and others had the same standing for the Gentiles as Moses had for the Jews....
After AD 200, Alexandria became the intellectual capital of the Christian world as it had been for the Greeks. A special school was formed there in AD 180. This school was the equivalent of a theological college.
In Alexandria, the institutional study of Christian doctrine began. Origen (185-254), one of the school’s early and most influential teachers, was deeply influenced by pagan philosophy. He was a colleague of Plotinus, the father of Neoplatonism, and drew much from his teaching. According to Neoplatonic thought, an individual must ascend through different stages of purification in order to attain to oneness with God. Origen was the first to organize key theological concepts into a systematic theology....
By 1200, a number of cathedral schools had evolved into universities. The University of Bologna in Italy was the first university to appear. The University of Paris came in a close second, followed by Oxford.
The University of Paris became the philosophical and theological center of the world at that time. (It would later become the seed of the Protestant seminary.) Higher education was the domain of the clergy. And the scholar was viewed as the guardian of ancient wisdom.
The present-day university grew from the bishops’ responsibility to provide clerical training. Theology was regarded as the “Queen of Sciences” in the university. From the mid-twelfth century to the end of the fourteenth century, seventy-one universities were established in Europe.
Contemporary theology cut its teeth on the abstractions of Greek philosophy. University academics adopted an Aristotelian model of thinking that centered on rational knowledge and logic. The dominating drive in scholastic theology was the assimilation and communication of knowledge. (For this reason, the Western mind has always been fond of creedal formulations, doctrinal statements, and other bloodless abstractions.)
One of the most influential professors in the shaping of contemporary theology was Peter Abelard (1079-1142). Abelard is partly responsible for giving us “modern” theology. His teaching set the table and prepared the menu for scholastic philosophers like Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).
Distinguished by Abelard, the school of Paris emerged as the model for all universities to follow. Abelard applied Aristotelian logic to revealed truth ... he also gave the word theology the meaning it has today. (Before him, this word was only used to describe pagan beliefs.)
Taking his cue from Aristotle, Abelard mastered the pagan philosophical art of dialectic — the logical disputation of truth. He applied this art to the Scriptures. Christian theological education never recovered from Abelard’s influence.... Aristotle, Abelard, and Aquinas all believed that reason was the gateway to divine truth. So from its beginnings, Western university education involved the fusion of pagan and Christian elements.
Martin Luther had it right when he said, “What else are the universities than places for training youth in Greek glory.” Although Luther was a university man himself, his critique was aimed at the practice of teaching Aristotelian logic at the university level.
One of the greatest theologians of this century, Karl Barth, reacted against the idea that theological education should be relegated to an elite class of professional orators. He wrote, “Theology is not a private reserve of theologians. It is not a private affair of professors.... Nor is it a private affair of pastors.... Theology is a matter for the church.... The term ‘laity’ is one of the worst in the vocabulary of religion and ought to be banished from Christian conversation.”
Concerning the seminary, we might say that Peter Abelard laid the egg and Thomas Aquinas hatched it. Aquinas had the greatest influence on contemporary theological training. In 1879, his work was endorsed by a papal bull as an authentic expression of doctrine to be studied by all students of theology.
Aquinas’s main thesis was that God is known through human reason. He “preferred the intellect to the heart as the organ for arriving at truth.” Thus the more highly trained people’s reason and intellect, the better they will know God. Aquinas borrowed this idea from Aristotle. And that is the underlying assumption of many — if not most — contemporary seminaries.
The teaching of the New Testament is that God is Spirit, and as such, He is known by revelation (spiritual insight) to one’s human spirit. Reason and intellect can cause us to know about God. And they help us to communicate what we know. But they fall short in giving us spiritual revelation. The intellect is not the gateway for knowing the Lord deeply. Neither are the emotions.
In the words of A. W. Tozer: “Divine truth is of the nature of spirit and for that reason can be received only by spiritual revelation.... God’s thoughts belong to the world of spirit, man’s to the world of intellect, and while spirit can embrace intellect, the human intellect can never comprehend spirit.... Man by reason cannot know God; he can only know about God.... Man’s reason is a fine instrument and useful within its field. It was not given as an organ by which to know God.”
In short, extensive Bible knowledge, a high-powered intellect, and razor-sharp reasoning skills do not automatically produce spiritual men and women who know Jesus Christ profoundly and who can impart a life-giving revelation of Him to others. (This, by the way, is the basis of spiritual ministry.) As Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) once put it, “It is the heart which perceives God, and not the reason.”
Today, Protestants and Catholics alike draw upon Aquinas’s work, using his outline for their theological studies. Aquinas’s crowning work, Summa Theologica (The Sum of All Theology), is the model used in virtually all theological classes today — whether Protestant or Catholic....
Without a doubt, Aquinas is the father of contemporary theology. His influence spread to the Protestant seminaries through the Protestant scholastics. The tragedy is that Aquinas relied so completely on Aristotle’s method of logic chopping when he expounded on holy writ [the Bible].... Aquinas also quotes from another pagan philosopher profusely throughout his Summa Theologica. Regardless of how much we wish to deny it, contemporary theology is a blending of Christian thought and pagan philosophy.... Reformation, many Protestant pastors who converted from Roman Catholicism had no experience in preaching. They lacked both training and education.
As the Reformation progressed, however, provisions were made for uneducated pastors to attend schools and universities. Protestant ministers were not trained in oratory. They were instead trained in exegesis and biblical theology. It was assumed that if they knew theology, they could preach. (This assumption accounted for the long sermons in the sixteenth century, which often lasted two or three hours!)
This type of theological training produced a “new profession” — the theologically trained pastor. Educated pastors now wielded tremendous influence, holding doctor’s degrees in theology or other academic titles that gave them prestige. By the mid-sixteenth century, most Protestant ministers were university trained in some way.
So from its inception, Protestantism promoted a well-educated clergy, which became the backbone of the movement. Throughout Protestant lands, the clergy were the best educated citizens. And they used their education to wield their authority.
While Protestant ministers were sharpening their theological savvy, about one-fourth of the Catholic clergy had no university training. The Catholic church reacted to this at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). In order for the church to fight the new Protestant Reformation, it had to better educate its clergy. The solution? The founding of the very first seminaries.
The Catholics wanted the learning and devotion of their priests to match that of the Protestant pastors. Therefore, the Council of Trent required that all cathedral and greater churches “maintain, to educate religiously, and to train in ecclesiastical discipline, a certain number of youths of their city and diocese.” So we may credit the founding of the seminary to the Catholics in the late sixteenth century.
The origin of the first Protestant seminary is clouded in obscurity. But the best evidence indicates that the Protestants copied the Catholic model and established their first seminary in America. It was established in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1807.
Christian education in the United States was just as Aristotelian and highly systematized as it was in Europe. By 1860, there were sixty Protestant seminaries on American soil. This fast-paced growth was largely the result of the influx of converts produced during the Second Great Awakening (1800-1835) and the perceived need to train ministers to care for them.
Before Andover Seminary was founded, the Protestants had Yale (1701) and Harvard (1636) to train their clergy. Ordination was granted upon completing a formal examination by graduation. But in time, these universities rejected orthodox Christian beliefs. (Harvard, for example, adopted Unitarianism.) The Protestants no longer trusted an undergraduate education at Yale and Harvard, so they established their own seminaries to do the job themselves. Bible college is essentially a nineteenth-century North American evangelical invention. A Bible college is a cross between a Bible institute (training center) and a Christian liberal arts school. Its students concentrate in religious studies and are trained for Christian service. The founders of the first Bible colleges were influenced by London pastors H. G. Guinness (1835-1910) and Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892).
In response to the revivalism of D. L. Moody, the Bible college movement blossomed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first two Bible colleges were the Missionary Training Institute (Nyack College, New York) in 1882 and Moody Bible Institute (Chicago) in 1886. Their focus was to train ordinary laypeople to become “full-time” Christian workers.
What led to the founding of the Bible college? From the mid-nineteenth century, little attention had been given to traditional Christian values as an integral part of higher education. Liberal theology had begun to dominate state universities across America. In the face of these elements, the demand for missionaries, parachurch leaders, and ministers provoked the creation of the Bible college to equip “the called” with a Bible education. Today, there are over four hundred Bible schools and colleges in the United States and Canada....
Herein lies the root and stem of contemporary Christian education. It is built on the Platonic idea that knowledge is the equivalent of moral character. Therein lies the great flaw.
Plato and Aristotle (both disciples of Socrates) are the fathers of contemporary Christian education. To use a biblical metaphor, present-day Christian education, whether it be seminarian or Bible college, is serving food from the wrong tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil rather than the tree of life.
Contemporary theological learning is essentially cerebral. It can be called “liquid pedagogy.” We pry open people’s heads, pour in a cup or two of information, and close them up again. They have the information, so we mistakenly conclude the job is complete.
Contemporary theological teaching is data-transfer education. It moves from notebook to notebook. In the process, our theology rarely gets below the neck. If a student accurately parrots the ideas of his professor, he is awarded a degree. And that means a lot in a day when many Christians obsess over (and sometimes deify) theological degrees in their analysis of who is qualified to minister.
Theological knowledge, however, does not prepare a person for ministry. This does not mean that the knowledge of the world, church history, theology, philosophy, and the Scriptures is without value. Such knowledge can be very useful. But it is not central. Theological competence and a high-voltage intellect alone do not qualify a person to serve in God’s house.
The fallacy is that men and women who have matriculated from seminary or Bible college are instantly viewed as “qualified.” Those who have not are viewed as “unqualified.” By this standard, many of the Lord’s choicest vessels would have failed the test. Faith Communities Today study released by Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, seminary graduates and clergymen who had advanced degrees scored lower in both their ability to deal with conflict and in demonstrating a “clear sense of purpose” than did the nonseminary graduates.
The survey showed that clergy with no ministerial education or formal certificate program scored the highest on tests that revealed how well one deals with conflict and stress. Bible college graduates scored slightly lower. Seminary graduates scored the lowest!
The major finding of the study was that “congregations with leaders who have a seminary education are, as a group, far more likely to report that in their congregations they perceive less clarity of purpose, more and different kinds of conflict, less person-to-person communication, less confidence in the future and more threat from changes in worship.”
All of this indicates that a person who matriculates from the theory-laden seminary or Bible college has been given little to no hands-on experience in the crucible of body life. By body life, we are not referring to the common experience of being in an institutional church setting. We are referring to the rough-and-tumble, messy, raw, highly-taxing experience of the body of Christ where Christians live as a close-knit community and struggle to make corporate decisions together under Christ’s headship without a stated leader over them. In this regard, the seminary is spiritually stultifying on some pretty basic levels.
But perhaps the most damaging problem of the seminary and Bible college is that they perpetuate the humanly devised system in which the clergy live, breathe, and have their being. That system — along with every other outmoded human tradition addressed in this book — is protected, kept alive, and spread through our ministerial schools.
Instead of offering the cure to the ills of the church, our theological schools worsen them by assuming (and even defending) all of the unscriptural practices that produce them.
The words of one pastor sum up the problem nicely:
I came through the whole system with the best education that evangelicalism had to offer — yet I really didn’t receive the training that I needed ... seven years of higher education in top-rated evangelical schools didn’t prepare me to (1) do ministry and (2) be a leader.
I began to analyze why I could preach a great sermon and people afterwards would shake my hand and say, “Great sermon, Pastor.” But these were the very people who were struggling with self-esteem, beating their spouses, struggling as workaholics, succumbing to their addictions. Their lives weren’t changing.
I had to ask myself why this great knowledge I was presenting didn’t move from their heads to their hearts and their lives. And I began to realize that the breakdown in the church was actually based on what we learned in seminary. We were taught that if you just give people information, that’s enough!
This article is 56th a series of articles on this Web site related to Modern Christianity and the Church which also includes (scroll to see the entire list):
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