In Defense of Seminaries: Theology Matters!

The conversation seems to come up twice a year.In the spring, around graduation time, and then again in the fall as enrollment happens, a glut of conversations questioning the value of seminary education.And almost universally, the conclusion (at least in the public debate) seems to be that it is time to do away with traditional seminary education.

"We need new models!" "It's too expensive!" "We can't be tied to brick & mortar institutions!" And on goes the list of battle cries. To be clear: there are some very good, intelligent criticisms leveled against traditional seminary education.As the saying goes, some of my best friends are opposed to seminary education. However, I strongly believe not only that traditional seminary education can be a good thing, but that the church of the twenty-first century needs traditional seminary education.

First, many of the arguments against seminary education are fueled by the current milieu of anti-expert rhetoric. We want politicians who are not professional politicians. We are told to distrust "mainstream news" sources (usually expressed as a distrust of professional news outlets and commentators). We walk into the doctors office with our own diagnosis made from our own research. And into this mix comes seminary education - a system that asks people to devote three to five years to study, to become in some sense professionals or experts.

I don't want to spend too much space on this point, but simply put, we need experts. Not everyone who talks about the economy is an economist. I would not be a person who should make fundamental decisions about the economy. Sure, I have my opinions, based on my reading about our economy and my experiences. But you would be gravely mistaken to think that because of those opinions I have an insightful understanding of how an economy the size of the US economy works, let alone the global economy. Not everyone who talks about the body and health is a surgeon. My chiropractor has done wonderful things for my spine, and often helps me to feel much better. But when I go for a vasectomy, I want a professional, an expert!

And not everyone who talks about God is a theologian. Yes, I know, we've been told that since "theology just means words about God" everyone who talks about God is a theologian. But it is a logical fallacy. In the same way that my personal opinions about the economy (having my personal economic theories, if you will) do not make me an economist, our personal thoughts about God (having a personal theology) does not make us all theologians.

Theology, Christian theology, is a comprehensive system that shapes our understanding who God is, the reality of the world, and who we are in relation to that God and one another. Rooted in the Gospel, the theologian is informed by the great teachers of the church and (in our tradition) creeds and confessional documents.

Ok, ok. You could argue that anyone could do those things, without a formal theological education. And you'd be right (If you tell anyone I said you're right, I'll call you a liar). I certainly know some brilliant theologians who have not had formal theological education. They have, however, put themselves through a theological education. And - much more importantly - I would say that they are the exception to the rule. Most people who put themselves out there as "self-educated" theologians quite simply aren't. And - here's the point - it is dangerous to take them at their word.

Theology matters! In May of this year, thousands of individuals gave up on their lives, ready for the end of the world because that is what "theologian" Harold Camping said was going to happen. Many of us laughed at Camping, but the reality is thousands of lives were ruined because of bad theology. In April 1993, 76 people died in Waco, Texas, and even more lives were ruined because of the teaching of "theologian" Vernon Howell. Maybe these examples are extreme, but the point to an important truth: theology matters, and has the potential have serious effects on the lives we lead. There is also the family who will never return to a Christian community, because of the "theologian" who taught them that their daughter was sick because of the sins of their family. Or the countless individuals in our congregations, confused by popular "theologians" about death and resurrection.

When Harold Camping and NT Wright, or Oprah and Douglas John Hall, or Joel Osteen and Kathryn Tanner are considered to be equal authorities, something has gone wrong. If theology matters, then it also matters who we look to as theologians.

A seminary education provides the opportunity to immerse oneself in the roots of our theological tree. To study and read Scripture, to sit at the feet of the great teachers of the church, and to engage in theological exploration with other learners. One can, in the midst of life, do this on one's own; but traditional seminary education gives the opportunity to do nothing but this for three years. In addition, in a traditional seminary environment there are trusted guides who have been acknowledged as theological authorities, who provide direction and structure to theological inquiry.

Seminary education matters, because theology matters.

Next thoughts: Seminary education as formation. But until then, what say you? Is everyone a theologian? Does seminary education matter?