Editorial: The Erosion of Theology in Seminary Education
and why Doesn't anybody care? by Herb Drake

Copyright (c) 1998, Herb Drake.

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I suppose my testimony must be a very rare one. Perhaps it is because I was trained as an engineer long before I became a disciple of Jesus Christ. But I was never satisfied with the simple truth of the gospel: "Jesus died for my sins." It was not a matter of whether I believed that simple message. The dissatisfaction arose from a completely different place. For me, this simple truth is so powerful, so different from ordinary human experience, and so un-simple, that I had to know as much about it as possible. So I read the Bible. I learned "Christian speak." And I learned to "walk the talk." But I remained unsatisfied.

The study of theology came to my rescue. I studied the subject formally for five years, earned two degrees, and am still learning. But, the more theology I learn, there still lingers a dissatisfaction. "Why," I ask, "is there such an appalling ignorance of theology among Christians? Why doesn't anybody care?"

I have spent many years at a theolgocal seminary, both as a student and as a staff member. I have heard many professors teach and have had a chance to draw many of them into conversations. Many these professors are experts in their fields, have written some of the standard textbooks and commenaries, and write much of the materials used in the churches. I hold them in high respect and esteem. They have truly blessed me. Yet few of them have a clue about theology, and most of them could care less. Students are no better off. Seminaries graduate people with a masters degree in "divinity" and send them off to pastor churches with as few as five credit hours in Christian theology--and that a mere survey course. And the survey courses taught today tend to be a mere list of doctrinal formulas with little attempt to bring ownership or understanding--formulas that are quickly forgotten after the final exam has been taken. Professors can earn doctorates in biblical studies, church history, missiology, Christian education, and any number of other special fields with no formal study in Christian theology beyond the survey course they took when they earned their first seminary degree. When confronted with a biblical text, they can often analyze it a dozen different ways--its form, syntax and vocabulary, its sitz-em-leben, its history of exegesis, its redaction, its textural variants, and so on--but they never look at the passage in the context of overall Christian theology. They might present several alternative readings or meanings of a passage but lacking a theological framework they can never choose the alternative that is actually right. Indeed, they back away from even the thought that there might be a "right" interpretation, not wanting to risk a confrontation.

With this widespread ignorance among those who are charged with teaching the flock, how can one be surprised with the heresy that is so often presented in the pulpits of the churches? Sermons these days are evaluated for entertainment value. They must contain "illustrations" to drive home their "points." Far too often they tend to be pop psychology and behavioral science, how-to ideas from Psychology Today that have been made to sound "biblical" by throwing in an occasional verse from Paul. Or they are the types of message that preaches to the choir--why the "world" is so awful and why we "Christians" are so much better. And there is the occasional evangelistic sermon and altar call, designed to manipulate visitors into joining the "Christian club" that is they call "the church." This is not the way it should be. If there is a place for a "sermon" in a church service at all (a very arguable point in view of the few passages like 1 Cor. 14:26 that give us glimpses of the worship of the early church), that sermon should be a "teaching," not a "preaching." The word "preach" appears rarely in the New Testament, and is always a gospel presentation to outsiders. But the word "teach" appears hundreds of times and is intended to apply to insiders or proselytes.

Theology is Important

Just what is theology? There are many definitions. Here is my witness to the word: theology is understanding. One can memorize the entire Bible, and be able to recite any part of it at any time, but without understanding, one is just as theologically ignorant as one who has never picked up a Bible at all.

A good part of theology is integrating all those Bible books and verses into a uniform understanding--but that integration must be framed within the context of the worldview and life experiences of the culture of the people. And it is this contextural aspect that makes the work of theology one that can never be completed, because it must be constantly redone to fit each new culture that embraces Christ, whether we are speaking of cultural differences in terms of geographic location or whether we are speaking of the changes that take place in any one geographic setting over time.

It is only when one has integrated the biblical materials theologically that one can properly apply them. This is true in nearly every academic discipline presented to seminary students. For example, when I took these courses and then obtained a second masters degree in theological studies, I ended up having to discard great amounts of the material that I learned in my first seminary degree:

Mission should be incarnational, not successful. The student needs above all to be able to build a theology that presents Christianity in a new context. Instead, I learned such things as the "homogeneous unit principle," which is a segregational approach that is completely against the New Testament witness. Can one really be effective in missionary work without a good foundation in theology?
Pastoral Care
There was nothing in my classes in pastoral care that was materially different from a survey course in applied psychology at a secular university. Pastors taught in this way are unqualified to render a useful care ministry because of the failure of the professor to ground his teaching on a theological foundation. But they are also unqualified to be of any help psychologically because one survey course in applied psychology is only enough to make a pastor dangerous. When I took the course in seminary, I left my Bible at home. It did not exist as far as the professor was concerned. Can one really be effective in pastoral care without a good foundation in theolofy?
Christian ethics (sometimes "Biblical Ethics") is usually taught today as a way to apply the ethics of the Old or New Testament communities to modern problems by building a "bridge" between dissimilar cultures. Sometimes they are heirarchical, a heresy that is supposed to order biblical commands so that some are more important than others (Geisler), sometimes they are designed to extract "principles"--a kind of hidden canon inside the Bible that we are supposed to figure out (Maston). But the ethics of the New Testament community were centered in such passages as Mt. 18, where the Living Christ would guide the church through the Holy Spirit. This is grounded in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, a subject completely omitted from Christian ethics courses. Can one deal biblically with ethical issues without a good foundation in theology?

As I have reflected on this situation, I have come to the conclusion that seminaries should probably require a course in theology for every year of seminary study. Further, courses in mission, pastoral care, ethics, etc., should be taught only by professors with a well integrated understanding of Christian theology to enable their students to learn to think theologically and apply the material they are learning in a proper theological context.

If seminaries do not ground students adequately in theology, how can the pastors they graduate teach their flocks to think theologically? Theological reflection is an essential part of the Christian walk. Without an ability to critically analyze life situations in terms of one's citizenship in the kingdom of heaven and duty to co-labor with God, how can a church member recognize good witnessing opportunities and know how to take advantage of them? How can they explain their faith and give an answer to those who ask some of the tough questions in any way other than flinging a proof text and then walking away? How can they, indeed, become "resident aliens" of the kingdom of God, rather than people who simply have "religion" and who, hiding behind a mask of piety, wield it with a big stick?


When some of the great seminaries were founded, their designers put the word "theological seminary " in their name. I like to think that these founders thought that good theology was important. But modern seminaries should at least be honest with their students. For the sake of goodness and truth, take the word "theological" out of their name and call it a "School of Religion," or perhaps even "School of Christian Leadership" becaus leadership seems to be the key word in how they describe themselves. But, Considering Mt. 20:25ff, wouldn't it better to emphasize "followship"? After all, Christians have only one leader, and that is the lord himself.

It seems that most graduates of "theolgical seminaries" have not studied theology beyond a few survey courses, and that goes for most seminary professors as well. The emphasis is too often on "leadership." But are all seminary students called to be leaders? Where can one learn theology? In my case, I re-upped for a second degree in "Historial Theology" and took every theology elective offered. But most seminary graduates are let loose upon the world with no idea of how to apply biblical truth to new situations that they will encounter over their careers in ministry. That is a sad truth about a seminary education.