The standard for ministry training used to involve a liberal education at the undergraduate level, followed by a three-year ministry degree (in those days it was called a Bachelor of Divinity), followed by an apprenticeship under a seasoned pastor. Liberal education was obtained in the universities. Ministry preparation was provided by seminaries, some of which were affiliated with universities. Pastoral apprenticeship was formally structured in some denominations, but left to chance in others.
Just over a hundred years ago, under the influence of the Bible conference movement, many American churches began to gravitate toward a new kind of preparation. The new training was provided by Bible institutes, which were brought into being in the shadow of the Bible conference movement. These institutes did not originally see themselves as centers for pastoral training. Instead, they thought of themselves as places to equip Christian workers, while Christian leaders would attend university and seminary. They offered three years of study that focused upon understanding the English Bible, leading souls to Christ, and functioning as informed church members.
In time, however, the appeal for a shortcut to ministry overwhelmed the desire for thoroughly prepared pastors. Besides, most of the universities and seminaries were being taken over by liberal theology. Although a few seminaries continued to produce conservative ministers, by the 1920s the Bible institutes had become the default choice for training most fundamentalists.
This was a situation that had the potential to doom conservatives permanently to an inferior ministry. Fundamentalists, however, did not permit the deficiency to continue. Older men knew what good training was supposed to look like. They kept this vision alive for the next generation—men who had only minimal training themselves, but who determined to build new institutions. Their efforts extended in two directions. First, they began to recover undergraduate education, founding colleges or transforming Bible institutes into four-year baccalaureate institutions. Second, they began to erect new seminaries such as Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary (1948) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (1956).
As conservatives rebuilt their educational network, however, it differed in an important way from the older system. Instead of starting baccalaureate institutions for the study of the liberal arts, they often founded Bible colleges. The strength of this innovation was that it gave many young people the opportunity to gain formal biblical training. The weakness was that the colleges now duplicated, at a lower level, part of the curriculum that had once been exclusive to the seminaries. Graduates of Bible colleges found themselves taking many of the same courses in seminary that they had already taken in college.
Even today, Bible colleges and seminaries duplicate a certain amount of the same curriculum, though at different levels. This duplication has led some colleges and seminaries to wonder whether they should not abbreviate one course of study or the other, or perhaps find a way to combine the two. Of course, such short-cuts in preparation are as popular as they have always been. What they overlook, however, is the importance of the instruction that has been lost with the shift from liberal education to biblical education at the undergraduate level.
Of course, the shift has also brought gains, especially for those ministers who would never be able to pursue seminary training. The Bible college curriculum should not be abandoned. Nevertheless, the purpose of Bible colleges is to prepare Christian workers, while the purpose of seminaries is to equip Christian leaders. Consequently, Bible college students who intend to go to seminary would be wise to structure their college education with an emphasis upon the liberal arts.
First, they should emphasize languages. Needless to say, a mastery of English is essential (and too often neglected by some Bible colleges). A student who wishes to enter seminary should be able to write English with clarity and precision. Study of at least one foreign language is also crucial. The benefits of studying a second language are too numerous to list here, but one of the obvious ones is that the original text of Scripture was written in languages that are foreign to most Bible college students. Seminaries used to assume that a matriculating student had already mastered Greek. Even today, beginning seminary students will have a distinct advantage if they enroll already knowing at least one biblical language.
Second, future seminarians should emphasize the discipline of rigorous thinking. They should be able to tell a good argument from a bad one. They should master the liberal art of logic, both deductive and inductive. A pastor cannot guard his flock from bad ideas if he does not recognize them. A seminary student should be able to recognize the ways in which the truth can be distorted through fallacious argument. Logic is an indispensible tool for the minister of God, and it is a tool that is best acquired before entering seminary.
Third, college students preparing for seminary should pay particular attention to those disciplines that help them to structure their communications. Real skill is involved in composing and presenting ideas clearly so that readers and listeners can follow them easily. This skill is known as rhetoric, and it is one of the essential tools of thought. Rhetoric is important for the presentation of ideas in both written and oral form. It is a skill that all ministers need, and they should really acquire it before they get to seminary.
Finally, seminarians should also have a clear idea of the development of thought from early Greece to the present day. They should know the ideas that have shaped and continue to shape contemporary culture. They should have some notion of what a Christian response looks like. Their knowledge should be broad enough that can help people in various disciplines to apply biblical principles to their work. All of the foregoing requires a robust core of general education for future seminarians.
Biblical and theological study is never wasted at the undergraduate level. Seminary students who have a better grasp of biblical truth will be more likely to excel in seminary. This learning, however, should never be offered at the expense of a truly liberal education, i.e., an education that equips the future minister to think well. Nor should it be allowed to truncate the necessary core of general education that makes for a well-rounded person.
Bible colleges are a good thing. We would be immeasurably poorer without them. Everyone who aspires to work effectively for Christ as a church member should consider pursuing Bible college education. But a Bible college that can combine a strong biblical and theological base with a good liberal education is an exceptional gem. That is the very kind of preparation that will do the most for future seminary students and future ministers.
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.
John Barnard (1681-1770)
1. Truly, my soul doth wait on God,
Salvation comes from him alone.
2. My rock, my safety, high abode,
He is, I shall not be o’erthrown.
3. How long, against a man, will ye
Plot mischief? as a bowing wall,
Or a loose fence, you all shall be;
And into sudden ruin fall.
4. Their great consult is to suppress
My dignity with lying arts;
If e’er their mouth is forced to bless,
Yet cursing rages in their hearts.
5. My soul wait thou on God alone;
From him my hopes have steadfast proved.
6. My rock and safety, him I own;
My high tower, I shall not be moved.
7. In God my safety is secure,.
My future glory and renown,
The rock in whom my strength is sure,
My refuge is in God alone.
8. Ye people, in his power and grace,
At all times your fixed trust repose;
Pour out your hearts before his face:
God is our refuge from our foes.
9. The vulgar are but vain, we know,
And great men are deceit and lies;
If both you in the balance throw,
Lighter than vanity they rise.
10. Trust not in methods of deceit
Or violence; be not so vain;
If by just means your wealth grows great,
Set not your heart on such low gain.
11. Once spoken hath the God of might,
Twice have I heard this word aloud;
That boundless power by sovereign right,
Doth appertain alone to God.
12. Not only power but wondrous grace
Also, O Lord, belongs to thee;
Therefore, to all the human race,
Thou renderest, as their works shall be.