Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Mentors #7: Dan R. Stiver

stiver It’s been awhile since I last added to this series on Theological Mentors.  As usual, Danny cannot be held responsible for my theological errors–since that’s doubtless due to my being a poor student. 

Dan R. Stiver currently occupies the Cook-Derrick Chair of Theology at Logsdon School of Theology, Hardin-Simmons University, in Abilene, TX.  Logsdon and HSU are related to the Baptist General Convention of Texas and is a partner institution with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  When I knew Danny, he was Professor of Christian Philosophy at my alma mater, The (old) Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY (before the fundamentalist takeover of the early ’90s).

Dan is a product of Midwestern American upbringing (Springfield, MO) and of the old “moderate” or non-fundamentalist stream of Southern Baptist life.  He was educated at William Jewell College in Missouri, an institution with both Southern Baptist and American Baptist ties. He then earned his Master of Divinity at Midwestern BTS in Kansas City, MO.  He earned his Ph.D. in theology at SBTS where he was the last doctoral student of the late Southern Baptist giant, Dale Moody.  He has held pastorates in Missouri and Indiana.  A theologian with a philosophical bent (not all that common for the Baptist tradition), Danny taught Christian philosophy at SBTS for 14 years, from 1984 to 1998. (I arrived in his classroom in 1986–he’d had enough teaching experience to be confident and still enough passion and experimentation to excite students who were often  unsure why they, as student ministers, had to study anything philosophical! In the last year of college, I had discovered Karl Barth and so came to seminary with a decidedly anti-philosophical bent!)

I was worred that theologies which rely over much on philosophy, whether the Platonic metaphysics that influenced the Church Fathers (didn’t know there were Church Mothers then), the Aristotelian thought behind Thomism, liberal process theology, Kantianism, etc. were always diluting the gospel and distorting it–either in conservative or liberal or some other direction.  I found that Danny was far from naive about these problems, but that he believed that all theology must interact with various philosophical currents (ancient, contemporary)–even if they are wary of substituting a philosophical “foundation.” or starting place for the Church’s One foundation, Jesus Christ the Lord. Theology is interacts with philosophy as part of its missionary nature.

It was Dan’s genius to mentor students who took VERY DIFFERENT approaches to theology and were attracted to different philosophical currents: From evangelical rationalists who were disciples of Carl Henry, to process theologians (either in the form of the evolutionary theology proposed by Dan’s own teacher, British Baptist Eric Charles Rust, or in the more dominant Whitehead-Hartshorne school), to Marxist-inclined liberation theologians, to “post-structualist” Deconstructionists.  After freeing myself from an inordinate fear of philosophy (while remaining alert for the subversion of the gospel by alien thought forms), I found that my own philosophical interests were quite  eclectic: My deep  respect for Martin Luther King, Jr. led me to read the Boston Personalists and my fascination with Dorothy Day led to the very different Catholic Personalists, especially Jacques Maritain. My attraction to liberation theology kept me critically engaged with Marx (and heterodox Marxists like Gramsci, Bloch, and Enrique Dussel) and my interest in Jewish thought led to Buber and Heschel.  Dan encouraged all of this and more.

It took awhile, then, to grap Danny’s own philosophical interests, except to think he’d read everything and everyone twice over! (He hadn’t, but it sure felt that way!) Dan has strong interests in philosophy of language, especially religious language and has been a major dialogue partner in the modern/post-modern divide, without being wholly in the “camp” of either the Deconstructionists and Post-Structuralists (Foucault, Levinas, Lyotard, etc.) or that of the “Anglo-American” post-modernists (influenced by J.L. Austin and the later Wittgenstein). His first book, The Philosophy of Religious Language: Sign, Symbol, and Story (1996) mapped the lay of the land and staked out some of his own ground.  It is clear that the Catholics Hans Kueng and David Tracy, as well as the Reformed Juergan Moltmann and the Baptist Langdon Gilkey, as well as Dan’s own teacher, Dale Moody, were large influences. 

   It was also clear that Dan was attracted to narrative theology (an interest I shared), but more from the perspective of Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) than to Hans Frei or Hans Gadamer.  I had stumbled onto Ricoeur myself both because of my strong attraction to narrative theology (Ricoeur helps one weave together narrative and liberationist strains in a way that I think Frei does not) and my commitment to pacifism–Ricoeur himself was a Christian pacifist–although still drafted into the French army in WWII. (Ricoeur was quickly captured and spent the war in a German concentration camp, teaching philosophy!)  But Ricoeur’s work is so large and so wide-ranging that I never knew what I  thought of the project as a whole. Dan was a tremendous help with his second book, Theology After Ricoeur: New Directions in Hermeneutical Theology (2001).

Dan eventually came to be part of my doctoral dissertation committee and, although mine was a work on theological ethics, he kept me seeing how my project fit into larger conversations in philosophical theology.  I THINK it was Danny who  once told me that there was a large difference between Christian philosophers who were trained first as theologians and those who, however theologically well informed, only had philosophy degrees. (Surprisingly, the latter are often more conservative than the former, as a survey of the Society of Christian Philosophy will show!) That’s been Dan’s main influence: introducing me to conversations and dialogue partners rather than teaching me HIS views on everything.

In fact, I still don’t know Dan”s views on a great number of things. I’d love to see him write his own systematic theology! I don’t know if he shares my Christian commitment to pacifism, although I do know that he is deeply committed to Christian peacemaking and  human rights and is a member of the Baptist  Peace Fellowship of North America. (We have to get Danny to one of our summer conferences, peace camps, sometime.)  I know little about his politics except that he is a registered Democrat and, like all true Baptists, a STRONG advocate for church-state separation and for religious liberty for EVERYONE. 

If I am a provocateur, Dan is more of a mediator. He likes to get people of very diverse opinions engaged in real dialogue and see if new insights emerge.  There is something DEEPLY, profoundly Christian about that and I hope I learn more of it from my friend and teacher.

August 9, 2009 Posted by | Baptists, mentors, peacemaking, philosophy, theological education, theology | 2 Comments

Law & Theology Degrees

In our complex world where religion, philosophy, law, and public policy all often overlap, there is a need for ministerss with legal training and lawyers with training in religious studies or theology.  For instance, my friend, J. Brent Walker, the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, is both a lawyer and a minister. (I met Brent when we were both M.Div. students at the once great Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, pre-fundamentalist takeover.  Brent managed to earn both a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Florida (Gainesville) without having his brains turned to mush–something almost incomprehensible to a Florida State University (Tallahassee) alumnus like me. 🙂 Then he earned his law degree (J.D.) at Stetson University School of Law before earning his M.Div. at SBTS. )

So, at least here in the U.S., some institutions have begun to offer joint religion/law or theology/law degrees.  Here are a few of the better ones for those interested.  I have not ranked them in any particular order.

Wake Forest University has two programs involving joint degrees from the WFU Law School and WFU Divinity School.  One is a joint J.D./M.A. (Religious Studies) degree and the other is a joint J.D./M.Div. degree.

Emory University Law School has three joint degrees in its “Law and Religion” Program, all involving the juris doctor law degree.  Two of these joint degrees, the J.D./M.T.S. (Master of Theological Studies), and the J.D./M.Div. (Master of Divinity–the basic seminary degree for ordination in most denominations in the U.S., equivalent to the B.D. in Commonwealth nations), are run jointly with the Law School and Emory’s Candler School of Theology.  The third joint degree, the J.D./Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy in Religion) is conducted jointly with Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion in its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Duke University Law School offers a J.D./M.A. joint degree in numerous studies, including religion, through the Graduate School.  It also offers the J.D./Ph.D. in either philosophy or political science.

The University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law offers a joint J.D./Ph.D. program in Religion and Social Ethics that is VERY strong.

If anyone knows of other joint law and theology programs, please let me know.

Update:  From the comments:

Vanderbilt University Law School also offers both joint J.D/M.Div and J.D./M.T.S. degrees in conjunction with Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

A Master of Divinity and Law degree is jointly offered by Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law (named after the famed Supreme Court justice Louis B. Brandeis).

Baylor University offers a unique program through its J.M. Dawson Institute for Church-State Studies which I hesitated to include because they do not include a law degree, but the interdisciplinary degrees offered at both the M.A. and Ph.D. levels involve work with theologians, jurists and legal scholars, sociologists, historians, and political scientists.  It is truly unique.  (The Dawson Institute also  publishes the great Journal of Church and State which, long ago, published my first academic writing–an article on Bonhoeffer and Human Rights.  It has since published two  other of my articles and hasn’t seemed to suffer too much in circulation as a result. 🙂 ) Although named after the great Baptist J.M. Dawson, a very strict church-state separationist, the institute’s scholars include those of a more “accomadationist” outlook and publish and encourage debate between widely differing views of church-state relations (since it is an educational institution and not an advocacy group).  It includes the Center for Constitutional Studies and the Islam and Democracy Project and it works closely with Baylor’s Center for Jewish Studies (which used to be called the Center for Jewish and American  Studies).  (Yes, a Baptist university in deep Texas is the first explicitly Christian university in North America to have a Center for Jewish Studies–run by Jewish theologian Marc Ellis.  Ellis is not a Jewish Christian, but an orthodox Jew–but he is nevertheless controversial because in his strong push for Middle East peace he has been far more critical of the State of Israel than is common among Jewish theologians.  He has also said that some version of “Holocaust theology” have ended up justifying the occupation  and oppression of Jewish people.  Obviously, Baylor did not appoint Ellis in an attempt to stave off controversy!)

I have not listed them here, since I am mostly fascinated by the  intersection of religion/theology, law, and politics, but many law schools list other kinds of dual degrees, including dual degrees in law and business, law and social work, law and political science, law and public health, and law and medicine.  (The brains it would take to earn a joint J.D./M.D. degree floors me!)

May 28, 2009 Posted by | education, law, theological education, theology | 8 Comments

Paul M. Martin Named President of ABSW

paulmmartinRev. Dr. Paul M. Martin, has been named the next President of American Baptist Seminary of the West (Berkeley, CA) on 23 March 2009.  He has been Interim President since the retirement of Pres. Keith Russell in July 2008 and will be installed as ABSW’s first African-American president on 1 July 2009.  With this election, Dr. Martin becomes the first African-American president of a Baptist-related seminary other than a historically black seminary.  (OOPS.  Until reminded by Dan Schweissing (Haitian Ministries), American Baptist missionary who blogs at Doing Theology from the Caribbean,  I’d forgotton that Dr. James Evans, who teaches theology at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, was president there for about 10 years.)

Founded in 1871 as Berkeley Baptist Divinity School, American Baptist Seminary of the West is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, USA and is a member institution of the Graduate Theological Union(Berkeley), an ecumenical consortium of 9 theological  seminaries which offers post-graduate theological degrees (Th.D., and Ph.D.) through the University of California at Berkeley.  Dr. Martin pursued his undergraduate work at Pepperdine University, his Master of Divinity at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Divinity, a historic Black seminary attached to the historic Black Virginia Union University, an institution related to both American Baptists and National Baptists.  Dr. Martin earned his Ph.D. at The California Graduate School of Theology.

March 28, 2009 Posted by | Baptists, theological education | 3 Comments

Baptist College President Promoting On-Campus Racial Diversity

Because of the long, tortured, history of my tradition, the Baptists, with racism (Baptists have often been pioneers in racial justice and reconciliation globally, but in the Southern U.S., white Baptists have been mostly known for defending slavery and segregation), I am always delighted to publicize those efforts by Baptists to “get it right” on racial justice and reconciliation.  One current effort right here in the Commonwealth of Kentucky was noticed just this morning in the Louisville Courier-Journal, the newspaper with the highest circulation in the state.  William Crouch, President of Georgetown College outside of Lexington, KY, is working to increase racial diversity on campus among students and faculty, with a specific goal of increasing African-American enrollment from 6% to 17%.

Let’s put this in context:  Although living in Louisville, I tend to forget how “white” Kentucky is, the Commonwealth is 90% “white non-Hispanic” on the latest census report.  Most African-Americans in this former slave state live in just 3 counties, with the largest concentration here in Louisville (Jefferson County).  Unless one is on the campus of Berea College, which was founded by abolitionist Christians, one can literally travel miles throughout Eastern Kentucky (either North or South of Lexington) without meeting an African-American. (I almost wrote “a non-white” but recent immigrant labor patterns have been increasing Hispanic populations throughout the Commonwealth.)

Georgetown College, the first Baptist school of higher education west of the Allegheny Mountains was founded in 1798 by Rev. Elijah Craig, a white Baptist minister who is also generally credited with the invention of bourbon whiskey! (Since most Baptists in the U.S.A. have been, at least “officially,” teetotalers since the rise of the 19th C. Temperance Movement, there is no mention of Rev. Craig’s ties to bourbon on Georgetown College website. No alcohol is allowed on the college campus, even though the initial school endowment is built on Craig’s bourbon patents. For non-U.S. and non-Baptist readers, the ironies will increase. Bourbon County, Kentucky, named for the Bourbon French that first emigrated to that area of Kentucky in the 18th C., and the county where Craig invented bourbon, has been a “dry” county since before Prohibition.  That is, bourbon is manufactured and exported from Bourbon County, but it is illegal to consume any inside the county limits. Only transplanted outsiders like myself much remark on the ironies. Indigenous Kentuckians take this as “normal.” 🙂 ) Slave labor in tobacco production was another early source of revenue and endowment for this college, as with many another Southern college or university–regardless of state or religious ties.

GC has historic ties to the (white) Kentucky Baptist Convention and the (white) Southern Baptist Convention.  Because Georgetown College (which should never be confused with the Catholic-founded Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.) is a “moderate” school theologically, it has weakened ties with the SBC since the takeover in the 1980s and early ’90s of the SBC by far-right, highly politicized, fundamentalism.  Georgetown has formed ties with the moderate breakaway groups known as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and it’s statewide affiliation, the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship.  Many of the older leaders of the CBF are among those few white Baptists in the South (then Southern Baptists) who were at least moderately active in supporting the goals of the Civil Rights Movement during the ’50s and ’60s.  Georgetown President William Crouch comes out of that mileau–his father was one of the handful of white Baptist ministers fighting segregation during the ’60s.  But the KBF/CBF crowd is still largely white and most have great difficulty learning to travel in the circles of black Baptists.  Like most “white liberals,” they talk a better game than they place when it comes to racial justice.

But Crouch and Georgetown are trying to go beyond the usual cosmetic efforts.  As the Courier-Journal reports, Crouch has taken several courses in African-American culture in order to break down barriers and end miscommunications.  He has established formal relationships between Georgetown College and several historically black Baptist denominations. (We Baptists multiply by dividing–over theology, race, language, politics, gender matters, heck–sometimes we divide over what side of the church to put the organ on!) The education branches of those Black Baptist groups now have representation on Georgetown’s trustee board.  He is recruiting African-American faculty (although only has one “catch,” so far).  He is trying to lure historic African-American fraternities and sororities to establish chapters in the “Greek” culture at Georgetown College. (I’ve never understood the attraction of fraternities and sororities, myself, but I do recognize it.) And, most controversially, Crouch is trying to get Georgetown College to “adopt” the legacy of Bishop College near Dallas, TX.

Bishop College was a historic Black Baptist College that, like many historic black colleges and universities, has fallen on hard times since the end of segregation–unintentional victims of greater choices by African-Americans coupled with ever-rising educational costs. Bishop College went bankrupt in the 1980s, so Crouch is trying to get Georgetown to be host to reunions for Bishop faculty and alumni/ae, to hold the archives of the school and preserve its history, etc. In return, he hopes that Bishop alumni/ae will promote Georgetown to new generations of African-Americans with excellent academic records and potential.  He is increasing the financial aid offered to non-white students, though he has to combat rumors among white students and alumni/ae that he is lowering admissions standards for non-white students and that all incoming black students are on full scholarship–neither of which is true.

There have been missteps along the way, as any such ambitious effort must expect to encounter.  But Crouch is surely right that the 21st C. will be increasingly diverse and that education in a racially/ethnically and culturally diverse environment will better prepare people to live and work in this increasingly global community.  And, although I would want to caution Crouch not to undermine the efforts of historic black colleges and universities to survive and thrive amidst all their challenges, it sure is great to see at least one historically white Baptist insitution of higher education evolve past a history based on slavery, segregation, and racism.

Three cheers for President William Crouch and Georgetown College.

January 14, 2008 Posted by | Baptists, race, social history, theological education | 5 Comments

British or U.S. Ph.D. Programs in Biblical Studies?

A great discussion on the SBL site on whether to prefer U.S. or British Ph.D. programs.  As for me, I considered a British degree in Christian ethics, but money was a big issue. I did get to do 6 months at Regent’s Park College, Oxford University and loved it.

September 13, 2007 Posted by | labor, theological education | 3 Comments

Pastoral Identity

My “Preparing for Seminary” column (below) was focused on helping those who anticipate going to a theological seminary or divinity school and studying for ministry to be academically prepared for the experience.  I didn’t focus on other kinds of preparation, e.g., being a person  who has cultivated good habits of prayer and biblical study; having experience as a layperson in visiting the sick or shut-ins, or helping folks with problems; short-term volunteer missions projects; hard work outside the professional classes, especially farm work or or union labor; practice in sharing one’s faith with others in a natural way, etc.–It could be argued that such experiences are as important, if not more so, in preparing for success in ministry–if not in seminary–than the academic preparation I stressed.

But many of the comments on that post, especially the disagreements over the importance of the biblical languages, were more about what should or should not be in a seminary/divinity school curriculum rather than what would be good preparation for the seminary experience as most such programs now exist.  I think these disagreements about what should/should not be emphasized in seminary curricula in preparation for pastoral ministry are rooted in disagreements about what a pastor should be.  It seems to me that several rival models are currently in vogue–at least in the U.S. scene I know best.  (International readers could enlighten me as to the rival models in their contexts. I am always trying to get beyond the “U.S. blinders” I know I have–and currently my opportunities to travel abroad are quite limited.)

  • The pastor as counselor or “cure of souls.”  Most, maybe all, of these images have biblical precedents, but this model took on much of its current shape in the Middle Ages–with modification since the rise of modern psychology.  If this is our dominant image of a pastor, then we want ministerial preparation to emphasize the skills of pastoral counseling, of visiting the sick and shut-ins.  We want seminary curricula to have tough requirements in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and we want ministers to know when they are in over their heads and need to refer counselees to others–depending on our theologies those “others” could be anything from exorcists to psychiatrists.
  • The pastor as evangelist-in-chief.  Now, far too many churches want their pastors to do ALL the evangelism of the congregation/parish.  I am going to assume readers agree with me in rejecting that idea.  I am also going to assume, given “Paul’s” advice to “Timothy” (this is how the text portrays things and I am bypassing debates over authorship for the purposes of this post) that most people take for granted that “the work of an evangelist” is part of pastoral identity.  But in this model evangelism is, perhaps, THE major function of the pastor and leading/empowering the congregation to be better evangelists as well.  Churches with this model often quize potential ministers for statistics on how many lives they have “reached for Jesus.” (Since it is impossible to look into people and see how many have “really been converted,” they use other stats–numbers of baptisms, increased church attendance, numbers of new members added, etc.)   If this is the model we adopt, then we want pastors who have been trained to be effective evangelists and effective at leading congregations to be evangelistic.
  • The pastor as worship leader.  Depending on theological tradition, this model can focus on the pastor as priest/celebrant of the sacraments, or the pastor as “cheerleader” (for lack of a better term) in focusing the congregation’s praise.  But regardless of worship “style,” if this is the model, one obviously wants seminary education to focus on liturgical theology and on preparing the pastor to be a worship leader, to celebrate the sacraments/ordinances and to shape the congregation/parish as a worshipping community.
  • The pastor as C.E.O.  This model is usually adopted by mega-churches and applies to the “SENIOR” pastor of a large staff of ordained and unordained ministers, plus office and support staff.  As my college friend “Fish” remarked in an earlier comment, there are business aspects to any church. I have served on finance committees (never my favorite task and my wife, Kate, is so much better–which is why she is in charge of the family finances!!) and I have been involved in drafting (or, later, modifying) articles of incorporation for a congregation.  Though a church is a non-profit (or, rather, the profits aren’t the kinds of things that accountants or the Internal Revenue Service can measure), it does have to make ends meet.  Ministries need money and buildings need repair, staff must be paid, church school curricula have to be purchased (in most cases), etc.  So, one wants ministerial preparation that includes business or accounting courses, courses in management and leadership style, and such matters.  But, the “pastor as CEO” model, it seems to me, overemphasizes the similarities of a church to a business–divides the laity from the “professional” staff, and tends to concentrate far too much power into the hands of the Senior Pastor.  Power tends to be from the top downward and, at least in the Free Church ecclesiology to which my own Baptist loyalties are part, that is wrong. The laity ARE the church and the leadership are to be servant-leaders.  The business and professional aspects of the church’s identity are real, but do not require anything like the CEO model for the church.
  • The pastor as social change agent.  Few pastors are called to be prophets in the same way as the Hebrew prophets. The minister as prophet usually has to function from the margins of traditional ministry, even as did the biblical prophets function largely from the margins.  And there is a corporate prophetic ministry for the church as a whole, apart from an individual charism.  But this model sees the pastor leading the congregation in a socially prophetic role–in engaging social injustice and working to correct it.  If this is our model, then we want ministerial preparation to emphasize the skills of community organizing as well as public speaking, and even skills in negotiating with people in power. 
  • The pastor as community leader.  A variation of the above model sees the pastor not so much as a community organizer, but as a public intellectual.  This model happens especially in smaller communities where, no matter who the elected or corporate figures are, the religious leaders of the community wield informal-but-real power to influence public opinion.  Here the pastor is likely to serve on several local committees or even the Chamber of Commerce, or, perhaps, has a column in the editorial section of the local newspaper.  If this is our model, we want a ministeral education that emphasizes the ability to articulate core values to wide audiences and, especially if the congregation is of a religious minority (e.g., a Pentecostal church in a heavily Catholic area; a Christian church in a Muslim nation, etc.) the pastor must know how to be the visible presence and “first interface” of the church with the wider culture.  But even in contexts where the town/community has a large overlap with the church’s membership, the pastor as community leader is still articulating the faith of the congregation in a more “public” or even “pluralistic” way than in other models.
  • The pastor as scholar.  The Christian church did not grow from the Jewish temple, but from the synagogue–an institution which developed in the Diaspora, that is where Jews were NOT the majority.  In this context, where they were aliens in strange lands, the rabbi was the interpreter of Torah, helping them learn to be faithful and follow the Law in conditions for which the Law was not designed.  The rabbi had to be a scholar.  So, likewise, from the beginning, Christian pastors have had to be interpreters of Scripture–including, after it was written and collected, the writings we call the New Testament.  Since, prior to the eschaton, we are permanently in Exile, ALWAYS aliens in strange lands (and the minute a Christian congregation thinks it is part of a “Christian nation,” it has begun to lose its identity), a major function of the pastor must be in aiding the congregation to know and live out the Story.  If this is our model, then we want ministerial preparation to incorporate habits of study and skills of interpretation.  I am not saying that every pastor needs to be a brilliant biblical scholar who could be published, e.g., in The Journal of Biblical Literature, or a brilliant theologian who will write the next Church Dogmatics, brilliant philosophers, or even brilliant church historians.  I do note that most of the great theologians have spent time as pastors (or missionaries, hospital chaplains, etc.) and that pastors who work at any theological discipline and enable the congregation to be, in their own way, disciple-theologians are a great service to the Church universal.

The difficulty for seminaries and for ministerial students, it seems to me, is that too many churches want pastors who are all of these things, in equal measure, all at once.  No one can do it all–which is an argument for plural ministry and empowered laity. 

September 12, 2007 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, labor, ministry, theological education | 7 Comments

Preparing for Seminary

From time to time I, as a seminary graduate, get asked what someone should do, especially in undergraduate studies at university, to prepare for a seminary education. It’s not easy to answer, but I thought I would put a few thoughts down here and invite feedback, especially from other seminary alumni. PLEASE REMEMBER THAT THIS IS ADVICE ON PREPARING FOR SEMINARY.  Disagreements over what belongs in a seminary curriculum is another discussion.

These are general guidelines.  Every student is different, every seminary or divinity school is different, and denominations have their own individual requirements for ordination, etc.  Investigate them thoroughly.

These pieces of advice apply most to:

  • Students who feel called into ministry and are seeking the standard ministerial degree, usually the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) in the U.S. context.
  • Students who plan on studying in a U.S. seminary or divinity school–things vary elsewhere and this advice may not apply.

With those provisos in mind, here is my advice, such as it is.

  • The best preparation for seminary/divinity school is a well-rounded education in the liberal arts.  As a great example of this, I give the undergraduate program at the St. John’s Colleges (Annapolis, MD and Santa Fe, NM).  This is a highly selective program and admission isn’t easy.  There are no majors or minors. All students take the same curriculum which is centered around the Great Books of the Western World.  There are 4 years of seminars, four years of language study (2 in Ancient Greek; 2 in modern French),  4 years of math, 3 years of laboratory science, and one year of music.  Seminar readings include great works of literature, theology, philosophy, political science, and history.  The approach is roughly chronological, beginning with the ancient Greeks in the freshman year and reaching the 21st C. by the senior year.  You can see the reading lists here.  There are no survey textbooks. One reads the authors of the Great Books themselves.  This program is so rigorous in general liberal arts education, that it would prepare someone well for any graduate school, from an engineering degree at M. I. T. to Harvard Law School, to Johns Hopkins Medical School, to almost any seminary or divinity school program.  I wish I had known of this program when I was applying to college. I am now trying to use their guidelines to continue reading through the Great Books.  For online video introductions to the program, see here.

Not everyone can get into the St. John’s Colleges and it is a very text-based and student directed program.  Some places have a similar emphasis on the Great Books in an Honors Program, though usually not as intense as with the St. John’s Colleges. If you attend  a college or university with majors and minors, what should you take?

First, you do not need an undergraduate degree in Bible, religion, etc. at a church-related college or university.  There may be good reasons to go to a church-related college or university, stressing a Christian worldview in education.  But there is nothing particularly helpful in majoring in Bible, theology or religion as an undergraduate.  You could find yourself taking many of the same courses at seminary. Also, if you should find that seminary is not for you, such an undergraduate degree is not very marketable.  At most, a course in world religions or comparative religions, would be helpful.

However, a strong familiarity with the contents of the Bible is very helpful.  Most seminaries or divinity schools expect you already to know the broad outlines of Scripture.  If you do not, begin reading the Bible through as many times as possible.  Familiarize yourself with the contents from Genesis to Revelation, but don’t worry greatly about deep interpretation.

  • English, or Classics.  A degree in English with an emphasis on literature will get you used to concentrating on the interpretation of texts and that is very helpful in seminary. Also, one will have plenty or opportunity to see the enormous impact of Christianity on Western literature and to make connections between faith and imagination.  A degree in Classics also gets one into interpreting texts, but also has you study ancient Greek and Latin.  If one can read ancient Greek, the koine Greek of the New Testament is usually fairly simple.  Latin is less helpful in a standard seminary curriculum, but it allows you to read many important theological classics in the original and you will recognize many phrases which have become technical terms in theology.  Christian theology emerged from the encounter of the biblical texts with Classic philosophy and a course in classics will help you make those connections easily.
  • History. A history major, especially with an emphasis on Western civilization (rather than U.S. history), will be of great help.  Historians also have to spend time interpreting texts.  Also, many Christians have been raised to study the biblical texts in a devotional manner also with seldom any historical context.  Training in historiography prepares you for the historical-critical study of Scripture.  “History is the laboratory of ideas,” said the great H. Richard Niebuhr.  To think historically is an enormous help to a theological student.
  • Philosophy.  Philosophy teaches one to think, to ask hard questions and not expect easy answers.  A major in philosophy will be very helpful as background to a theological education.
  • Other helpful majors include psychology, sociology, or languages.  But any major, biology, physics, geology, etc. is fine as long as placed in a context that includes broad exposure to the liberal arts.

What about Hebrew? Most seminary degrees require students to pass koine (New Testament) Greek and biblical Hebrew.  Some denominations require this for ordination.  Some degree programs allow you to skip this, but don’t take them if you plan on becoming a pastor.  Any pastor who cannot read the Bible in the original languages is in sad shape and needs to take remedial steps immediately–and, no, I do not care if she or he is a brilliant preacher, great pastoral counselor, visits the sick, is an excellent evangelist, is great at leading the church to tackle social problems creatively, etc.  One of my big educational convictions is that proficiency in NT Greek and Biblical Hebrew should be basic for all pastors.

But seminary courses in these languages, unfortunately, tend to be rather fast-paced.   Some students have trouble keeping up, especially in Hebrew since Hebrew is a different kind of language than they have likely studied before.  If your undergraduate college offers courses in Hebrew, take them. Audit them if you fear for your GPA. If your undergraduate college or university does not offer such a course, check with a nearby synagogue or Jewish cultural center.  They often offer remedial Hebrew courses–and these are often open to the public.  If there is nothing like this handy, but a nearby pastor or retired OT prof. will allow you to study with her or him, try that.

If you cannot prepare in this fashion, but you suspect you will have difficulties with Hebrew (or Greek for that matter), take a reduced load in seminary during the times you have those classes.  Get study partners and practice daily. Try to attend a Sabbath service at a synagogue to get a feel for the pronunciation of Hebrew.  But you may have done all you can to prepare.

If you know prior to seminary that you plan on doing graduate (Ph.D.) work, then you might want to take some courses in French or German, now, especially German.  But this is not necessary to prepare for the basic seminary (M.Div.) degree unless you are studying in a French or German speaking country!

It is also useful to have experience outside one’s own country, in a different culture.  If you have opportunities to study abroad or to go on mission trips, etc., take them.  Why? Because, maybe especially in the USA, one has a tendency to read the Bible through American eyes and to think “our way is the way its always been done back to Jesus and Paul.” Get exposed to other cultures.  If you cannot arrange to study abroad for a time, try hanging out with the international students at your college or university and learn all you can about their “life back home.” I was always disturbed in seminary by the numbers of students who “felt called to foreign missions” but knew little about ANY other culture and avoided contact with the international students! They were convinced they had much to teach others, but arrogantly assumed they had nothing to learn. I pray to God they were turned down by mission agencies or, failing that, changed their minds and learned humility!

Take some sciences. Learn the scientific method. Take a course in the history of science and/or the philosophy of science.  That should cure you of ridiculous pseudo-scientific warped theologies such as “creation science,” or “intelligent design.”  However, unfortunately, most universities teach history of science (if at all) in history departments and philosophy of science (if at all) in philosophy departments. It is, sadly, quite possible to earn magnificent science degrees at major universities without ever knowing the history or philosophy of the disciplines! Church-related colleges often have different problems–seeing science as “the enemy” and wanting to inoculate you against evolution, etc.  Neither way is helpful for ministry.

That’s all the advice I have.  I await feedback on whether or not it is helpful.  Remember that every student and every program is different.  These are very broad guidelines.

September 10, 2007 Posted by | labor, theological education | 26 Comments