Last week, I began a discussion on the trend to combine college and seminary education into a shortened five- or six-year program. By the end of the 19th century, the M.Div. was a graduate degree built off a non-ministerial undergraduate degree so that it required three years of intensive theological education. During the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 20th century, many Bible colleges were founded to provide an orthodox alternative to the liberalized education of many of the seminaries. Pastors were afraid that if they sent their ministerial candidates to those denominational seminaries, they would imbibe heterodox views. So the alternative was the Bible college.
The Bible college generally offered a less technical program, offering courses in English Bible and practical theology. In time, conservatives started new seminaries to provide orthodox choices for their ministerial students. Seminaries added biblical languages and systematic theology to ministerial training. The Bible colleges remained and flourished. Some students who attended Bible college did not go on to seminary, thinking that the Bible college provided sufficient training for a life of ministry. I was such a student, although I took a one year Masters on top of my B.A., thinking that would give me an advantage. It did. But as I suggested last week, it was not enough training. I finally finished the traditional 96-hour M.Div. after a 10-year educational hiatus.
Times have changed. Today, there is increasing pressure to reduce the overall preparation time for ministerial students with undergraduate degrees in Bible or theology. I suggested three reasons some declare for the expedited degree programs. First, many argue that these shortened degrees save money. This is true, but is that a sufficient reason, in and of itself, to pursue such an approach to ministerial education? We live in a day of rising educational costs generally. Institutions provide a wide range of expensive technology and services for students. The costs are passed on to the students. Additionally, salaries rise with the times, buildings are expensive to build, and libraries are costly to stock and maintain. All these expenses are ultimately passed on to students. Institutions offset student costs through scholarships and they raise money from donors to defray expenses, but still tuition costs continue to rise.
I learned a long time ago that cheaper is not always better. As a young man, I began to buy tools so that I could do some of my own work, from changing the oil in my car to replacing a broken wall plug. But there are tools and then there are tools. I found that if I bought an inexpensive tool, it often under-performed and many times I needed to replace it with another (usually better quality) tool. Why not just buy the better tool to start with?Good tools are more expensive, but good tools last a lifetime. The cost of an education is similar. It costs money to hire qualified professors and buy good study materials to do the kind of training that aspiring ministers need. However, cost cannot be the only or even the most important factor in weighing the length of ministerial training.
A second justification for a reduced program would be to avoid class duplication between the B.A. and the M.Div. This certainly is a reasonable goal, if it were truly the case that M.Div. students merely repeat undergrad courses. But most every seminary class is more than just a rehashed undergrad course. One might take a New Testament or Old Testament survey course as an undergraduate, but there is really nothing comparable to it in a graduate program. Undergrad courses tend to be survey in nature, designed as introductory level studies, while graduate classes are designed to cover a smaller amount of material in greater depth. Additionally, the undergraduate curriculum includes a number of general education classes—History of Civilization, Science, Speech, etc. There simply are not enough credits in an undergraduate liberal arts program to dedicate solely to the study of the Word of God. Consider the task of training doctors. It is common for a would-be physician to major in pre-med in college, taking certain classes that lay a foundation for medical school. Does anyone suggest that the repetition a med student experiences is unnecessary duplication of study? Foundational principles have to be taught so that later instruction has something upon which to build. Who ever heard of an abbreviated course to specialize in neurology?
Finally, it has been suggested that the needs of the world justify a reduced preparation time. Students spend too much time in school and just need to get out and do ministry. We live in a lost and dying world to be sure, but sending immature workers into the work is rarely a good option. Students need time to grow intellectually, emotionally, and theologically. They need time to grow in their marriages and families. Seminary offers time for maturation. Some theological subjects are too heady for younger students without the necessary biblical foundations to handle them. When I enrolled in Bible school, I was just seventeen—I had a lot of maturing to do before I could handle heavy theological categories. My grades as an undergraduate were initially pretty mediocre. As I matured, my grades improved. I was making A’s by the time I was a senior. But frankly, if I had taken serious theological classes in my late teens, the material would likely have been wasted on me. I just was not ready for serious theological study. Additionally, when I entered full-time ministry, I was only twenty-two and newly married. I had a lot to learn, and some of those lessons came at the lamentable expense of the Lord’s sheep. One of the great benefits of the M.Div. is that the program is long enough to allow the future minister time to mature in his preaching and teaching. As he works in a church while in seminary, his gifts and calling are evaluated and strengthened in the classroom and in the church. He starts his family and begins to personally understand the biblical metaphors that speak of God as a Father who loves the believers who are His children. I know that I would have benefited from a couple more years to mature before I entered vocational ministry.
In these two essays, I have tried to make the case that the current trend to expedite ministry preparation, while perhaps well-motivated, seems like a bad idea. It does not serve the students well, as it shortchanges their preparation for ministry. It does serve the churches well either. Sending men out into ministry inadequately prepared or immature in character will often do more harm than good to the Lord’s people and His church. I wish I had earned my M.Div. before I entered ministry. I am glad that, in the providence of God, I finally did.
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.
Beset With Snares on Every Hand
Philip Doddridge (1702–1751)
Beset with snares on every hand,
In life’s uncertain path I stand;
Savior divine, diffuse Thy light,
To guide my doubtful footsteps right.
Engage this roving, treacherous heart
To fix on Mary’s better part,
To scorn the trifles of a day,
For joys that none can take away.
Then let the wildest storms arise;
Let tempests mingle earth and skies;
No fatal shipwreck shall I fear,
But all my treasures with me bear.
If Thou, my Jesus, still be nigh,
Cheerful I live, and joyful die;
Secure, when mortal comforts flee,
To find ten thousand worlds in Thee.