[This is part three of a series of reflections from the recent Southern Baptist Convention, held in Phoenix, Arizona on June 11-14] It is not uncommon (and this is to our great detriment, I think) to hear among certain sects of evangelicalism a disdain for the enterprise of seminary education. Over the years I have heard several of these objections. For some, seminaries represent what is derisively described as “man-made” theology, as opposed to a supposed “God-made” theology that comes from only studying the Bible without any outside resource. For others, seminaries corrupt young men called to ministry by filling them with copious amounts of knowledge that only serves to enhance their pride. Still others think that seminaries present a very real danger in the form of liberal theology. Finally, there are some who point to men such as Charles Spurgeon, who did not attend seminary but were successful pastors, as proof that seminary is not important or necessary. There are certainly other objections, to be sure, but these are the main ones I have heard and continue to hear regularly.
If these arguments are valid, then we, as the Southern Baptist Convention, ought to be seriously rethinking our commitment to theological education as evidenced in our six seminaries and our financial support of them. At the Convention this year, we heard and read reports from the presidents of these six institutions, and invariably we heard what can only be described as fantastic news: enrollment is up (record-setting in some cases!), more men are being equipped for the work of ministry in a variety of roles, women are being trained for both ministry and missions, and more missionaries are being trained and prepared for service (whether as church planters stateside or internationally). The state of our seminaries, then, is very strong.
Now, had these reports come out a mere 30 years ago, we might have pause for concern. There was a time when all of our seminaries had wandered leftward in terms of their theological standards and teachings (some, sadly, worse than others, but all to some degree). Thanks to the faithfulness of those who prayed and worked for what is now known as the “Conservative Resurgence” in the SBC, every single one of our seminaries has been reclaimed for Scriptural fidelity. What is being taught is well within the bounds of orthodoxy and the young men and women who are coming out of these institutions do so with tremendous tools that will assist them in the work to which they have been called.
So, what about those arguments? I recognize that each question could field a full, “weekly thought”-length response, but I’ll attempt to answer them as succinctly as I can in the space I have left. As for “man-made” theology, I find this to be a ridiculous statement on its face, provided that there is an affirmation of the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture at the schools (and that is the case at every one of our seminaries). As for the pride issue, it is true that knowledge for knowledge’s sake can and often does lead to pride, but knowledge in the hands of one who is humble and dedicated to the Lord’s work is like a tool in the hand of a master craftsman. Besides, if this argument were true, then the professors would be the most prideful of all – a charge I can emphatically declare to be untrue. The concern over liberal theology is legitimate, as history shows us, but it is not absolute or permanent (again, as history shows us). Are there liberal seminaries? Yes – and they are in decline. Are there conservative seminaries? Yes – and as ours demonstrate, they are growing, to the glory of God! Finally, there are certainly men who have been used mightily by God who did not possess a seminary education, but for every Spurgeon you cite, I can show you a plethora of those who are his opposite: Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, and Brian McLaren, to name a few. I will grant you this: if you are as spiritually gifted and brilliant as Spurgeon and possess the largest private library in your nation (as he did) along with the ability to self-educate, then by all means – bypass seminary. For the rest of us, seminary is a very useful time of training which results is great blessings for the seminarian and the flock. Thankfully, we are blessed with great seminaries as Southern Baptists. Just something to think about…