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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Evangelical Pastors and the Desire for Academic Respectability

Glen Scorgie is a Professor of Theology at Bethel Seminary in San Diego. He has lectured extensively in Asia including China. He has an interesting post entitled, "As Theology Totters in the West." He begins:

The People’s Republic of China has enthusiastically embraced Western science and technology, and modernity’s materialistic worldview. Pictured above is the imposing business faculty of China’s Renmin (the People’s) University. Here this leading Communist university trains a new generation of Chinese business leaders, offering MBA degrees in global economics along capitalist lines. What you won’t find at the university, however, is a faculty of Christian theology. China is still disdainful of religion, and a robust program in theology would only encourage it. But how different it is in the West, right? Well actually, not so much. Christian theology is in serious decline in the West, even in evangelical seminaries and other institutions of higher learning. Pretty soon it may be on life support here as well.

He says that Western schools have been heavily impacted by pragmatism. As in China now, people in the West are interested in education that will produce an income. He says:
at one time the term “divinity school” conveyed in an intentional way an institution’s commitment to specializing in the study and transmission of the legacy of special revelation. The closely cognate term “seminary” has a more professional and vocational focus—an institution for the training and formation of clergy. St. Mary’s College, where I studied at St. Andrews, has been known since 1411 as the divinity school within the larger university, and I am pretty sure it would be loathe to change its name to seminary, for the reason mentioned above. I suspect that at the seminary where I teach (and where we dropped the adjective “theological” a while ago) we now have a predominantly professional vision of our institutional mission, and in light of that it is debatable whether divinity is still as strong a collective focus. The name we have adopted and the way we operate would suggest that we really are what we call ourselves, a seminary—a professional school in which it is no longer justifiable to regard the study of divinity (the specially revealed things of God) as our primary focus.

He says that North American administrators are driven by the market and they have to provide what their constitutency want. He writes:
With new, ever shorter and more pragmatic curricula being considered, for marketing and recruitment reasons, by accredited seminaries throughout North America, it remains to be seen what the future of theology or divinity will be. The growing consensus among number-crunching administrators is that an introductory (and quasi-catechetical) survey of doctrine will remain important to the preparation of ministers, but beyond such a minimalist baseline anything deeper is strictly optional. Already theological libraries lie largely idle as seminary students are rarely expected to probe deeper than the contents of their survey course textbooks.

I find his analysis interesting. One phenomena that I watched develop in the 80's was the introduction of a new professional degree called a "Doctor of Ministry." The D.Min. degree could usually be completed in summer modules and the classes were mainly related to church management and administration. Little or no theology required. When I was teaching at International Baptist College in the 1980's, we began a D.Min. program. I was somewhat leery of the degree mainly because I perceived it as a "watering down" of what historically has been required for doctoral degrees. However, there was a big demand for the new degree and there were a number of potential students desiring to get a Dr. in front of their name and administrators willing to do what it takes to get more revenue. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with additional professional education for a minister, certainly education is always good. But it seems to me that ministers and especially fundamentalist evangelical ministers are very eager to call themselves "Dr." Many of them have honorary degrees; many of them have degrees from diploma mills; and the D.Min. would become a means to get a "real" doctorate without the academic rigor historically required for such a degree. I have often thought that this desire to be called "Dr." was due to an inferiority complex (i.e., intellectual inferiority).


  1. If you're the pastor of an Independent Baptist church, you don't have to have any kind of degree, right? If the church wants you, that's good enough? I'm sure they have to be convinced you are truly a "man of God", "called" to preach-actually that would be the main requirement,right?

    I've thought abou these things, although I don't know much about the subject. I have a cousin who was a street preacher and now is a pastor of a church. He only has a high school diploma, although I'm sure he's studied a lot on his own.

    But don't some denominations-like the Presbyterians-have actual educational requirements of their pastors?

    So I could see how the Ind. Bapt. guys would be aware of this and feel inferior.

  2. Lynn,

    You are right. Both independent and Southern Baptist churches have no definite requirement as to education for the Pastor. He (has to be a male)may have no education at all. Of course, it is up to the church since in Baptist doctrine each church is autonomous. Other denominations do have certain educational requirements.

  3. During my 40+ evangelical years I noticed that many (most?) believers couldn’t personally reconcile what they were taught as true. It was common to simply abdicate first-hand understanding by pointing to figureheads that were perceived as smart and educated --hence the value of the degree or any publications. The attitude seemed to be that “It doesn’t matter if I can’t make any sense out of this teaching; so and so believes it and she/he has a doctor’s degree and has written eight books.” When I deconverted I commonly heard, “But what about person X? You always respected him and he’s a believer.” Archie

  4. Ken,
    What do you make of Ann Rice de-conversion? She still believes in Christ not christian.

  5. Ken,

    Thanks for this post, and summarizing what sounds like an interesting book. Someday I may look up Glen... just 25 mi. down the road.

    I think he's onto valid points. It's been a slow process for a good two centuries now, but those holding to full orthodoxy and its fundamentalist/evangelical updates (dispensationalism, etc.) ARE being pushed to the academic sidelines. There are some from that camp who are concerned about this process, but I'd guess a majority, even among pastors, don't much care. Yes, they like Masters and Doctoral degrees, for both ego and practical reasons, but being a shrinking minority, unable to "compete" well with, or even really understand the bulk of academic theology is not a great concern. That is because of the strong suspicion within the tradition, of too much intellectual pursuit. They love biblical quotes from Paul on "wisdom of the world," truth being "spiritually discerned" and such. So there has always been a tension, though rarely spoken of outwardly that I noticed, between deeper and broader study on the one hand and faith that is often challenged by that on the other.

    And the more sophisticated the understanding of the Bible and Christian origins has become, the less room there is to be both intellectually deep/honest and yet hold to things like inerrancy, a divinely-guided selection of a biblical canon, young earth creationism, etc.

    That's why I puzzle over people like Stanley Grenz and Brian McLaren, who are (were, in Grentz's case) broadly educated enough to "know the score" and are far from naive literalists. McLaren is among those seeking to recast understanding of the Gospel to something much broader and full of compassion and practical service. But he seems to refuse to be clear (if he is himself) on the lack of historical basis for much of the Gospels, the role of human theological invention via Paul, the Gospel writers, and the first few generations of "fathers" that, by allegorizing, helped tear the epic of Israel from the Jews and impart it to Christians, in order to connect it back to the earliest "covenants" (or dispensations) of God with humanity.

  6. On one level I am tempted to agree that evangelicals do have some inferiority complex to struggle with. Evangelicals, at least in Europe, are not held in particularly high esteem. When compared to the Catholic Church its clergy are not seen as being very special or having much esteem. So it strikes me as unremarkable that they seek to gain a PhD or DMin to lend credibility to their role.