So reported Kirsten Sanders recently in an article published in Christianity Today called “Seminaries in Trouble.” Frank Yamada, President of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the major accreditor of graduate theological education in North America, has been telling everyone who will listen for some time now that most schools are not “stable to growing.” That is, most theological schools are in numerical decline. When you remove the numbers for distance education, the statistics for residential theological education look even worse. There are several reasons contributing to this decline, including economic, demographic, ecclesiastical, cultural, educational, and spiritual factors.
This was a topic at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in Denver, where I was invited by Dr. David Dockery to speak on a panel about the future of Christian higher education and theological education. Dr. Dockery is one of the most widely and highly respected people in Christian education today, having served as president at Union University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I am glad to count him as a friend.
During our discussion, he asked me an important question. “By any measure, we are seeing theological education become less of a requirement for ministry,” he said. “The rise of church-based institutes for the training of pastors and other church leaders, the rise of online education courses, and the reduction in ordination requirements for denominations that require ordination, as well as denominations that require no ordination or require no seminary training all, point to a shrinking opportunity for theological seminaries. With so many churches not requiring accredited theological education, what is the future of the Master of Divinity degree?”
I said four things in response. First, local church-based practical training for pastors and church leaders can be a very, very good thing, but it cannot provide what a seminary ought to. For instance, no local church could afford to employ an expert in the Old Testament, ancient Near Eastern studies, and biblical languages. But to prepare to read and explain the Old Testament well, future Christian ministry leaders need to study with someone with that expertise. I could illustrate this example in reference to every department of a solid seminary.
The more personal theological education is, the better.Second, online distance education cannot compete with what a student receives from a residential MDiv seminary education. Reformed Theological Seminary was one of the first accredited seminaries approved to do online and distance learning, but most of our students prefer in-person educational experiences. In my opinion, RTS does distance learning as well as it can be done—and our students regularly express their gratitude and enthusiasm—but we have kept our focus on residential theological education because we believe that the more personal theological education is, the better. Our students attest to this, as well.
Third, the statistics provided by ATS show that many institutions too quickly abandoned their emphasis on the MDiv degree and instead reduced its requirements to their own detriment and the detriment of their students. While this was happening almost everywhere, RTS maintained high standards and the full content of its MDiv curriculum, and the results show.
Fourth, the residential MDiv programs that survive in the future will have robust components of biblical, theological, historical, and pastoral theology. To make sense and make a difference, the MDiv degree must prepare students to (1) understand and explain the whole Bible well, (2) understand and explain the whole scope of Christian theology well, and (3) inform pastoral ministry with sound biblical theology. Where biblical languages, biblical studies, theology, and church history are reduced and even eliminated from MDiv curricula, two things happen. First, it hurts the student and the church, because the graduate is ill-prepared to rightly handle the Word of God. Second, it means the eventual death of that MDiv program, because people will figure out that it isn’t delivering what is needed. This is why the RTS MDiv is so highly valued in theological education today. We haven’t watered down what our students and the church need.
Amid all this generally bad news about theological education, I am happy to report that there is good news at RTS. The Lord has been incredibly gracious to us. RTS is growing while most other schools are shrinking. We now have the largest confessional Reformed faculty in the world, influencing hundreds of students each year as the seminary provides the church with a new generation of well-equipped ministers. Yes, these are challenging times for theological education. But because we believe in God’s providence, we also believe that challenging circumstances and discouraging situations are opportunities for us to trust in the goodness of God and the wisdom of his providence, and to walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).
Where do we go from here? What does the future hold for RTS?
By the help of God, we will continue to believe the truth and serve the church. We were built on these commitments. In our founding documents, written almost 60 years ago, we said that we wanted to serve all branches of evangelical Christianity, especially the Presbyterian and Reformed family, by preparing its leaders, with a priority on pastors, and including missionaries, educators, counselors, and others, through a program of theological education on the graduate level, based upon the authority of the inerrant Word of God, the 66 books of the Bible, and committed to the Reformed faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith. We have never stopped doing that, or wavered in doing that, and by God’s grace, we will continue to do that in all our days ahead.
Why do we do it? Why are we committed to offering this kind of theological education and pastoral preparation? We want to see the church supplied with ministers and leaders who know and believe the Bible, treasure God and trust in Christ, who are transformed by grace and truth, love people and live to serve, and have a passion for the Great Commission. We want our graduates to aspire to call people to Christ, and to help Christians live the Christian life better. We want to see a host of godly ministers who embody the Reformed faith in their devotion to God, their sound doctrine, their commitment to worship, their churchmanship, and their Christian practice.
What are some of my hopes and dreams for the future of RTS? There are two things in particular.
I want RTS to remain faithful. We live and minister in a day and age that is unfriendly to the commitments of confessional Christianity in the setting of higher education. RTS has stood firm in the storms of late modernity, and gospel-believing churches and institutions worldwide need us to continue standing firm. I want the students who attend to know that they will hear the truth taught right out of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. I want churches and our fellow evangelical universities and seminaries to know they can count on us to hold fast to our confession and stand on the Word of God.
Alongside this faithfulness, I want RTS to remain missionary in its orientation: “Standing Firm, but not Standing Still.” What I mean by this is that we aren’t aiming just to hang on. We want to deploy our resources for the Savior. We want to be outward and forward-looking. To “attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.” We do not simply want to affirm truth. We want to deploy the truth in ministry and mission. We want to be “true to the Bible, the Reformed faith and obedient to the Great Commission.” In other words, RTS is focused not only on biblical faithfulness and doctrinal adherence but also missionary boldness.
When the Lord returns, we want him to find us faithful, and with no buried treasure (Matt 25:21).
Illustrations by Rusty Hein