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A Plea for a Three-Year Master of Divinity, Part One

In the Nick of Time

Jeff Straub

It has become a bit trendy in recent days to pare down the M.Div. degree to something much less than the traditional 96 hours. Some schools now offer an expedited program that will give the student both the B.A. and the M.Div. in as little as five years. There are a number of factors that are driving this kind of a program change. These are listed in no particular order here, and individual schools might rank them differently, but what follows are some of the common justifications I hear.

First, there are the obvious financial benefits of a shortened program. If a man can earn the B.A. and the M.Div. in only five years of study, it should save him a considerable amount of money from tuition and related expenses. This is real money: $15,000 or more depending on the yearly cost of a program. This reduced expense can diminish a student’s potential school debt. As registrar, I have met potential students wanting to pursue the M.Div. with staggering undergraduate debt, as high as $60,000. Add the price of a seminary education to this and you could be talking about a liability in excess of $80,000. Such a burden would prohibit most men from pursuing vocational ministry, since church salaries seldom cover that kind of indebtedness.

Second, an abbreviated degree can avoid duplication of coursework between the programs. M.Div. students often take similar courses to those they took in Bible college. Why take the same course twice, in some cases even reading the very same books?

Third, shortening the programs can expedite entrance into ministry. Some argue that it takes too long for men to prepare for vocational ministry. A man may spend five or six years pursuing his M.Div. During their post-baccalaureate years, men will marry and start a family. New demands on life and finances slow down the pace of education. He may not enter ministry until his late twenties or even his early thirties. Souls are dying and students want to go out to preach.

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On the surface, these reasons sound like legitimate justifications for an expedited program of ministerial training. Of course, the student that comes to seminary with a non-Bible degree would still need the standard 96-hour program, but the Bible major ought to be able to shorten his training considerably. Personally, when I attended Bible school 43 years ago, I did a four-year B.A. (in Bible) and then a 32-hour Masters, also in Bible—the equivalent of the increasingly popular five-year B.A./M.Div. program of today. If it was good enough for me then, why am I objecting to it now? This is a fair question. My first response is to explain my journey—including why I chose to go back to school to complete the 96-hour M.Div. Next week, I will offer some push back against the shortened degree itself.

I finished my initial five-year training in 1980 and then served in ministry for ten years on the strength of my early education. As I settled into vocational ministry, it became clear to me that the education I had, as good as it may have been, was simply not enough. I had taken three years of Greek and two years of Hebrew, but I did not have a course in hermeneutics or exegesis. I had a couple of semesters in Bible exposition, but these classes were mainly aimed at unpacking the English version of the Bible with the help of critical commentaries. I struggled to work in the original text for myself. Without a good knowledge of sentence diagramming or biblical genre, I produced sermons that (as I look back on them now) were woefully inadequate. I also had no class in church history! This is a really odd admission since I now teach that subject. I also had no classes in counseling. Biblical counseling was yet on the horizon when I was in school, but I received no significant training on how to help people with their spiritual needs. There was also no course in logic or spiritual formation, and only six hours of systematic theology. My abbreviated class in systematics simply could not give adequate attention to issues of dispensationalism and covenant theology, Calvinism and Arminianism, Baptist theology and polity, or the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. So after ten years of limited ministry due to my educational deficiencies, I returned to school to finish the M.Div.—all 96 hours of the program. At the time, we had three children, including one who was disabled, and I was rebuilding a struggling church.

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Going back to school was actually quite a blessing. As I pastored while studying, I found that the quality of my preaching began to improve, thanks to a class in hermeneutics. In my previous training, I knew enough not to spiritualize the text, but struggled to bring the biblical message encased in a particular genre to bear upon my congregation. Additional courses in theology also strengthened my pulpit work. I used to joke with my systematics professor that he and I preached a good sermon the previous Lord’s Day. With his content and my delivery, the sermon was well-received! His material was eminently preachable and I found myself using it, sometimes verbatim, in the pulpit. He had a clear way of delineating theological truth that made doctrine come alive and impacted both me and my congregation. As I studied theology in greater depth, I could better handle the difficult passages of the Bible. Further Greek studies made my work in the text more productive. I will be forever grateful to my New Testament professor for his oft-repeated question in 1 Corinthians, “Why does Paul say this here?” He taught us to trace the argument of the text through the book, not simply to look at the text atomistically. In another course, I was introduced to the values of nouthetic counseling. The Bible could actually be brought to bear on people’s life problems. There was hope after all. Then came church history, and suddenly God opened my eyes to the great host of forbearers and their stories. Eventually this would lead to more study and a new ministry.

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I am grateful that God made it possible for me to finish a traditional M.Div. degree. It was hard to return to school with a wife and three children in school, one of them in a wheelchair, while pastoring a church. But it was also very rewarding. Next week, I wish to follow up this essay by arguing that we actually do the church and our students a disservice by giving them an expedited degree.

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This essay is by Jeff Straub, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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Psalm 112
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892)

Blessed is the man that feareth,
And delighteth in the Lord!
Wealth, the wealth which truly cheereth,
God shall give him for reward;
And his children,
Shall be blest around his board.

He shall not be moved for ever,
Though with evil tidings tried;
Nought from God his faith shall sever,
Fixed his heart shall still abide;
For believers
Are secured on every side.

To the upright light arises,
Darkness soon gives place to day;
While the man who truth despises,
And refuses to obey,
In a moment,
Cursed of God, shall melt away.

Therefore let us praise Jehovah,
Sound His glorious name on high,
Sing His praises, and moreover
By our actions magnify
Our Redeemer,
Who by blood has brought us nigh.

About Guest Author

This guest article has been published because an editor has determined its contents to be supportive of the values of Religious Affections Ministries. Its publication does not imply full agreement between its author and RAM on other matters.

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