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Seminaries vs. Church Growth

Written by Gary North on July 23, 2016

So he departed thence, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he with the twelfth: and Elijah passed by him, and cast his mantle upon him. And he left the oxen, and ran after Elijah, and said, Let me, I pray thee, kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow thee. And he said unto him, Go back again: for what have I done to thee? And he returned back from him, and took a yoke of oxen, and slew them, and boiled their flesh with the instruments of the oxen, and gave unto the people, and they did eat. Then he arose, and went after Elijah, and ministered unto him (I Kings 19:19-21).

So, you want to become a minister. First, however, you need training. You think you should go to seminary. A word of warning: seminaries are staffed by people who learned to write term papers in their teens or early twenties, and who then decided to parlay that peculiar skill into lifetime employment. Seminaries are not staffed by successful ex-pastors; successful pastors remain in the ministry. Seminaries are staffed by baptized college professors who chose to specialize in a field so obscure that no college has a sufficient number of students to make hiring them come close to paying off.

A Makeshift Institution

The seminary was invented in the early nineteenth century by a small group of Presbyterians who correctly concluded that the colleges of America had gone sour theologically and could therefore no longer be entrusted with the task of training ministers. This was Princeton Theological Seminary. They began this project in 1811, just before the War of 1812. (Princeton Seminary was always separate from Princeton College.)

The seminary was a makeshift addition to American higher education because the established colleges, one by one and without exception, by the nineteenth century were becoming humanistic, i.e., Unitarian. They went Greek, in other words. I don’t mean Greek letter fraternities and sororities, a later development; I mean they went Greek. They became consistent with their classical presuppositions. They abandoned trinitarian theology as an unnecessary hypothesis. Then, in the years after the Civil War, they went Darwinist. They abandoned even the Unitarian god.

The scholars who taught theology were themselves graduates of colleges, and their methodology had been learned in college. The college curriculum of the West had always been tied to classical literature. Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Tacitus, always had a place in the classrooms at least as prominent as Moses and Jeremiah, a fact that can be seen in the debates over the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The pamphleteers adopted names like “Brutus” and “Publius,” not “Joshua” and “Lazarus.” From the invention of the university in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the dominant methodology had been a form of baptized Aristotelianism.

The seminaries did not make a clean break with Greece. The log college Presbyterians were evangelists, leaders in the second Great Awakening. Their successors were less enthusiastic about revivalism. They were more interested in scholarship. So were their many imitators. The seminary was set up to give men the courses that the colleges were no longer equipped to give: biblical languages (especially Hebrew), systematic theology, preaching skills, Bible exposition, and similar training. The problem was, these skills were highly specialized, and the professors who were equipped to impart them were even more highly specialized. Professors of Hebrew tended to know a dozen other ancient languages, and they preferred learning additional languages to teaching Hebrew to students whom they knew would never remember any of it three years after graduation (or three months). Thus, there was an inherent tendency to go in the direction of antiquarianism: knowledge for its own sake.

Similarly, professors of systematic theology tended in those days to be specialists in the technicalities of philosophy, meaning humanism, and they mixed their theological expositions with the arcane insights of dead pagan philosophers. A good example is Charles Hodges three-volume Systematic Theology, which sometimes seems to be as much a debate with Sir William Hamilton as an exposition of Scripture. This makes for intolerable reading. The book is still being assigned. (Can you think of any other contemporary academic discipline that relies on an 1873 textbook?)

Another problem of the seminary has been that it is regarded as a place only for previously certified scholars. Seminaries required young men to go through the gauntlet of college before enrolling. After all, one supposedly needs educated ministers, i.e., men trained and then officially certified by God’s enemies. The pastor of 1830 was supposed to be a liberally educated person, meaning a man skilled in Attic Greek, Latin, mathematics (especially geometry), and classical history, and then–and only then–an expert in systematic theology. Even here, the dominant theological framework was that of Protestant scholasticism: a system based on the six loci of seventeenth-century theology, the Protestant response to the Aristotelianism of the scholasticism of the Counter-Reformation. And so it is today: theology proper, anthropology, Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. A lot of “ologies,” but not much on evangelism. Not much on ethics, either. And what ever happened to creationism, biblical chronology, the covenant, and creeds?

(For the rest of my article, click the link.)

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