At Reformation 21, Carl Trueman enters a debate over the purpose of Protestant seminaries—specifically, whether they ought to make a point of actively sculpting the spiritual lives of their students or whether they should tend to the more mundane goals of imparting knowledge and certifying graduates. The immediate cause of his is a series of reflections on Princeton Theological Seminary by Jim Garretson, but this is a long-running debate.
For Catholics, seminaries are fundamentally about spiritual formation and discernment, and the role of priest for which young men study inextricably melds individual spiritual direction with coursework and preparation for service to the parish, community, and broader world. For Protestants, though, seminary need not be about ministry; at some of the more-established old line institutions in the U.S., for example, only a minority of students actually enter active ministry after graduating. Many more seek advanced degrees, as Trueman says in his second post, for “other reasons,” some relating to other aspects of church life and some with more secular intent, like the pursuit of an academic career.
With that in mind, he confesses:
I find the whole notion of ‘spiritual formation’ within seminaries to be somewhat problematic: seminaries impart knowledge and skills which are essential for ministry and which cannot be acquired with like ease in a practical mentoring situation; they also provide a context for developing important and useful friendships which will last a lifetime; but they cannot really engage in spiritual formation in any deep way. Certainly, the professor can and should strive to model Christian behaviour; but the real, deep, lasting spiritual formation for ministerial candidates takes place in a church context just as it does for every other Christian. The church is where the word is preached, the sacraments administered and discipling takes place.
To address the issue of character, seminaries need to work with local churches; and students need to understand the limits of a seminary education. It is work in the local church, where the word is preached, the Lord’s Supper administered and discipling implemented, that forms true Christian character. An MDiv, or equivalent, is just a technical accomplishment. Read the right books, learn the right things, and you can pass the test.
This drew a reply from Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin, of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:
I am sorry, I think I shall stick with the perspective of B.B. Warfield, or one of my favorite models, D.A. McGregor (1847–1890), professor of systematic theology at and then principal of Toronto Baptist College. A former student said of his teaching: “He not only thought out the […] doctrines upon which he lectured, but he felt their power, and falling tears often evinced his emotion while he spoke of some particular aspect of the truth. This made us all feel that we had before us not only a theological professor but also a Christian man whose life was swayed by the great principles about which he spoke […] He not only made us see the truth, but he made us feel its power and perceive its beauty.” Were not lectures like this a rich vehicle of spiritual formation?
It’s important to note that Trueman is not arguing that seminaries ought to be reduced to mere technical education, or the activity of theology reduced to a bloodless “religious studies” program. As he notes in his later reply to Haykin: “Ironically, I may be closer to Michael than he thinks: I do not think that seminaries need somebody doing ‘spiritual formation’ precisely because I think that seminary professors should all be doing it.” What the divide between the two comes down to, then, is whether this spiritual formation ought be separate and explicit from what goes on in the classroom, or more delivered more subtly and implicitly through the excellence and passion of teachers guiding students through theology. It’s a debate about the degree to which a seminary is a part of a church and, perhaps, about the very meaning of Christian education.