How Important is a Seminary Education? Part 1

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Bill and Mary have put off their estate planning for too long. If they were to die unexpectedly, they have some definite ideas about who should serve as guardians for their three children, how their assets should be disbursed, and how their estate could avoid probate hassles. Since neither Bill nor Mary is a legal expert, they have contacted Preston, a recent college graduate, to formulate an estate plan for them. Preston took a class in business law, and he is planning on entering law school after he pays off his school loans. Though Preston has never drafted a will before, Bill and Mary appreciate that he will do this service for a quarter of the cost that a trained lawyer would charge. They have known Preston for many years, and they know he will do his best. Would you agree with Bill and Mary’s decision to hire Preston?

Or consider another scenario. Your child has severely inflamed tonsils, a high fever, and a violent cough. Upon entering the local clinic, you and your child meet with an elderly woman who examines your child and declares that she needs to perform a tonsillectomy on him. You ask for her credentials, expecting to meet with your regular family doctor for the procedure, but she claims that your doctor has given her permission to operate. Even though she has no medical degree, she thinks that tonsillectomies are quite simple to do. She ought to know, she says, because she took anatomy in college and has watched a lot of training videos. Will you place your son under her knife?

Situations like these appear nonsensical to us because rarely would one seek legal or medical services knowing that the practitioners have not received proper training in graduate institutions. We expect lawyers to attend law school and to prove they know the material by passing the bar exam. We expect doctors to attend medical school and to pass the medical board exam.

So what should we expect of those who serve in pastoral ministry? Do pastors need training in graduate school (seminaries)? Should they pass a doctrinal exam of some sort? Assuming spiritual care of souls is at least as important as physical care of bodies or legal care of estates, is it not reasonable that spiritual shepherds gain the training necessary to perform their tasks with skill and wisdom?

Indeed it is. I hope to show that seminary education has great value not only because it is culturally and practically wise (as the comparison with medicine and law implies) but even more because it helps develop and hone the skills and the heart necessary for doing the work of the ministry.

Types of degrees

Seminaries offer several types of degrees today. The thirty-two hour Master of Arts (MA) degree aids Christian workers to be more effective servants in their local churches. This program often includes particular emphases such as counseling, general biblical studies, biblical languages, missions, Christian education and so on. The majority of seminaries have long considered the Master of Divinity degree (MDiv) to be their main ministerial training program. The MDiv seeks to prepare students to be effective ministry leaders, particularly in pastoral service. This program requires ninety-six hours of graduate course work.1 I will be focusing on this degree later in this article.

Many seminaries also offer post-graduate degrees, including the Master of Theology (ThM), Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and Doctor of Ministry (DMin). The ThM and PhD degrees require a great deal of research and writing with the goal of preparing students for ministerial education and writing. The ThM typically requires twenty-four hours of post-graduate work (i.e., 8-10 courses) and a one hundred page thesis while the PhD requires an additional twenty-four hours of course work (i.e., 8-10 courses), a two hundred and fifty page dissertation, successful completion of oral and written comprehensive exams and demonstration of foreign language proficiency in two languages. The DMin functions as a professional ministry degree, requiring thirty hours of postgraduate course work (usually 8-10 courses) and a practical ministry project that amounts to two hundred pages of written work.

The reader can see that seminary education is not for the faint of heart. One must have a sense of calling from God, or the stringent requirements will quickly dispatch the unmotivated, the lackadaisical or the intellectually challenged. This reality motivates churches like Eden Baptist to actively participate in aiding future Christian leaders as they prepare for ministry so that these men and women can successfully navigate the challenges that ninety-six hours of graduate work create.

This brings us back to our discussion of the value of seminary education, particularly of the MDiv degree which provides education in the skills and heart needed for effective ministry.

Skill development

Although seminary educators disagree regarding the amount of credit hours that should be devoted to various areas of the curriculum, all agree on the basic subjects that make up the pastoral student’s course of study.

He must first receive instruction in the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew, becoming proficient enough to translate these languages into English and to use commentaries and reference books that assume proficient knowledge in Greek and Hebrew. In most cases this means that students study grammatical, syntactical and exegetical principles related to both Hebrew and Greek. Alongside the study of languages, students’ knowledge of the two testaments grows by learning introductory matters such as canonicity, historical and cultural background, and the history of interpretation related to each of the testaments. Additionally, a study of the progress of theological truths revealed in the writings of the various authors of the biblical books enables the student to delve into the discipline of biblical theology.2

Second, the MDiv student needs to organize the biblical theology learned in the OT and NT departments into a coherent systematic theology. He must be able to articulate what the Bible teaches about itself, God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church, salvation, angels, end times, man and sin.

Third, the student must know how the church developed in its understanding of theology and in its practice of worship and instruction. This field of church history begins with the early church and spans the centuries all the way up to the present day. Students need to have a sense of place with regard to the providential work of God in the history of the church.

Finally, the practical theology department addresses how these academic categories affect church ministry.

(Part two will discuss the “heart training” seminaries should provide.)

Notes

1 Most graduate courses are 2 credit hours which amounts to 25 hours of class time. Of course, the requirements for each course vary depending on the professor, but the typical course requires around 1000 pages of reading and 10-20 pages of written work.

2 Biblical theology traces the particular theological themes that a particular writer like David or Matthew or John or Paul might emphasize in his writing. On the other hand, systematic theology seeks to organize the theological themes of the entire Bible. Thus, biblical theology unearths the chronological development and description of the themes a particular author of Scripture finds significant. Then the systematician tries to organize these themes into a logical sequence so that the entire message of the Bible can be understood.


Jonathan Pratt is Associate Pastor at Eden Baptist Church as well as Professor of NT and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Minneapolis). He holds the PhD from Dallas Theological Seminary. He lives with his wife and children in the Minneapolis area.

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