Meeting in Pittsburgh, the Board of Commissioners of the Association of Theological Schools voted to grant candidate status to Central Seminary on June 17. Central Seminary has been an associate member of ATS for about two years, seeking to expand the base of accreditation that it already holds. Candidacy is the step that a seminary must complete before achieving accredited member status. Central Seminary must complete this final step within the next three years.
Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis has been involved with some form of accreditation for about a decade. Before that time the school was completely unaccredited. When the board first authorized the accreditation process, the administration had to choose from four possible accreditors. Each had its advantages and disadvantages.
The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association offers standard, regional accreditation. For most schools, regional accreditation is the gold standard. In the case of specialized institutions, however, specialized accreditation is preferable. Seminaries are among those specialized institutions. In fact, an official of the HLC-NCA encouraged Central Seminary to seek a more specialized form of accreditation, stating that the HLC did not really understand seminaries.
The Association for Biblical Higher Education is the old American Association of Bible Colleges. This organization is the traditional accreditor for undergraduate biblical education. About a decade ago the scope of the organization was expanded to include seminaries and the name was changed. At the time, the concern of Central Seminary was that the ABHE might not adequately appreciate the distinction between undergraduate biblical education and seminary studies. In other words, the seminary was afraid that it would not be held to sufficiently rigorous examination.
The Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools offered two advantages that appealed to Central Seminary. One was (and is) a strong doctrinal basis, fully compatible with the seminary’s historic position. The other was what TRACS calls a “developmental philosophy.” This philosophy means that TRACS specializes in helping schools that have little experience with the accreditation process. That was certainly Central Seminary—the school had no strategic plan, no assessment plan, and few written policies and procedures. The decision to go with TRACS was based largely on that organization’s willingness to help Central Seminary learn to perform these operations.
That left the Association of Theological Schools. What regional accreditation is to colleges and universities, ATS is to seminaries—the gold standard. When Central Seminary was first seeking accreditation, ATS was hardly given a thought. There were two reasons. First, the Central Seminary administration had heard that ATS was highly prescriptive and hard to work with. Second, ATS was historically dominated by non-conservative institutions. While the base had shifted over time to a plurality and perhaps majority of evangelical schools, there was no precedent for a fundamentalist institution seeking accreditation with ATS. With questions about whether a separatist school would be welcomed, Central Seminary simply chose to pursue accreditation with TRACS.
What changed? First, over these ten years the seminary has created the superstructure that it lacked. It has become effective at planning, assessment, and adjustment. It has survived a couple of crises under a couple of administrations. It is a stronger institution today than ever before. Thanks to TRACS, it is better prepared to face the accreditation process with ATS than it could have been ten years ago.
Second, there has been an alarming drop in standards on the part of some non-ATS accredited seminaries. Some of these seminaries have cut a year or more out of their required course work for a M.Div. degree. Others are awarding seminary credit for undergraduate hours. To a large extent, accreditors are allowing these accommodations because they do not understand the relationship between undergraduate biblical schooling and seminary education. ATS clearly does understand this relationship and is maintaining appropriate standards.
Third, Central Seminary knows that the quality of seminary education is going to be reflected in the quality of ministry in churches and on mission fields. This matters to the faculty at Central Seminary, because every one of our professors has real-world experience in the pastorate, on the mission field, or both. We know what kind of preparation good ministry takes because we have been there and done that. The desire to hold ourselves and our students to a high standard stems, not from some snobbish yearning for an academic ivory tower, but from a head-on, personal confrontation with the challenges of ministry. We know what we have to get our students ready to face, and we are not willing to sell them false assurances backed up by inadequate training.
Fourth, we have discovered that a fundamentalist institution with its fully separatist theology is perfectly welcome in the Association of Theological Schools. The purpose of ATS is not to critique our theology, but to ensure two things: first, that we have a clear mission that comports with seminary education, and second, that our methods will accomplish that purpose. What is our mission? Simply this: to assist local churches in equipping spiritual leaders for Christ-exalting, biblical ministry. Our means to that end is a traditional M.Div. program, building sound ministry practice upon a theological structure resting upon a biblical foundation, including mastery of the biblical languages.
Among theological institutions, the Association of Theological Schools is the gold standard for accreditation. We value and will maintain our accreditation with TRACS for doctrinal accountability. We are also pleased to have achieved candidate status with ATS for educational accountability. We believe that this attainment better equips us to serve both the church and the gospel.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research 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.
‘Twas Not to Make Jehovah’s Love
John Kent (1766–1843)
‘Twas not to make Jehovah’s love
Towards the sinner flame,
That Jesus, from His throne above,
A suffering man became.
‘Twas not the death which He endured,
Nor all the pangs He bore,
That God’s eternal love procured,
For God was love before.
He loved the world of His elect
With love surpassing thought;
Nor will His mercy e’er neglect
The souls so dearly bought.
The warm affections of His breast
Towards His chosen burn;
And in His love He’ll ever rest,
Nor from His oath return.
Still to confirm His oath of old,
See in the heavens His bow;
No fierce rebukes, but love untold
Awaits His children now.