The Future of Seminaries (Part 2)

Last week I wrote a little bit about the challenges facing higher education institutions, especially seminaries, and the future of such institutions as places. In this post I want to explore four things that I think are necessary ‘re-adjustments’ to our thinking, especially about seminaries, if they are to continue to be viable. Especially, these are a call for seminaries to stop modelling themselves on secular education institutions, because secular higher Ed continues to move to a model of Education that is driven by “delivering a product/service”, “students as consumers”, “professors as ‘education’ providers”, and “University as Business”. I don’t think this serves the genuine goals of education, and for seminaries I don’t believe it serves the church well.

Learning as a process of developing competent practitioners

If we stop thinking about education as primarily about transmission of content from knowledgeable sources (teachers) to empty buckets (students), how should we think about it? Our first re-adjustment is to think about the kind of people we want a school to produce. One aspect of that is to see the process of learning as about acquiring competence, not knowledge. This is a way of thinking backwards, and thinking about what that graduate should be able to ‘do’. For seminaries, the graduate is generally speaking going to be involved in various kinds of ministry, so we want them to be well-rounded competent people at ministry. Especially, I would say, we want them to be skilled handlers of Biblical texts – able to read and ‘exegete’ responsibly, well, to apply a sound hermeneutic, to deliver teaching and preaching to their communities and individuals, and so on. Some of that will involve acquiring a body of knowledge. But more of it will involve a process of:

  1. Seeing those skills practiced by experienced practitioners
  2. Experiencing those skills practiced on them by skilled practitioners
  3. Attempting those skills in various configurations themselves
  4. Gradually improving those skills through various forms of feedback
  5. Demonstrating their competence in those skills through performance.

Notice that assessment (5) is not a knowledge test, it’s demonstration of competency through actual practice. And most of that development of competency is through 3 and 4, actual practice. I use the term ‘competency’ because we are not after ‘mastery’, i.e. a high level of honed excellence from years of practice. We are after a level of ability that warrants trust in post-graduation independent, unsupervised practice.

This is true across most traditional areas of seminary study: New Testament study, OT, Church History, Pastoral Skills, Discipleship, Preaching, etc.. We want people who can do these things, not just people who ‘learnt’ a bunch of stuff way back when, passed an exam, and forgot half of it.

Learning as formation of persons in community

Related to my former point, seminaries ought to be institutions that shape not just a person’s ability to practice a set of skills, but furthermore shape the character of that person. This will emerge only if seminaries are actual communities. There must be shared relationality that goes beyond the ‘classroom’, and it must be genuine, not superficial or artificial.

My seminary talked a lot about community, and I experienced genuine community while there, but the community they talked about was not the one I experienced, and in many ways the community they talked about was undercut by the actions of the institution.

How does a community shape the character of persons? By holding and practising common values and shared disciplines. A community that values prayer and seeks to shape prayerful persons must practice regular, disciplined, corporate prayer. Not just make a note about it in their glossy brochure.

Sometimes in the push for distance and online education options there comes the push-back, “I have community, local church community”. There is a profound and right truth about this. But it also means that that individual is not being shaped by the same community as the seminary community. It might be a gain in other ways, but it is a loss in this way. This is an opportunity cost that must be counted, not simply ignored.

Learning as co-operation in research

You’ll notice that the first two points are about things done in community. In fact, all my four points are about community. Because the key issue of the 1/8th of a second problem is the key issue of 2 and 3 John, “I have many things to communicate… but I hope to see you face to face”. Transcending time, space, and embodiment is good, but being physically present is better. As embodied beings we prize, value, and derive greatest value from embodied fellowship.

In contemporary and traditional schools, real professors do research, and teaching is a distraction and a burden, best left to second rate researchers. Students don’t come up with new things, they just digest regurgitated breakfasts from mommy bird. This needs to go.

What if ‘teachers’ and ‘students’ were about learning. About studying together. If we really implemented point 1, that teachers were teaching students how to practice the craft of learning, then part of that would be investigating topics, studying things old and new, seeing old knowledge from new perspective. Some of this might look like traditional essay writing, but some of it would be even more co-operative. In this view the seminary is community of research, in which students have come to share and participate in the work of the more ‘permanent’ members of that learning community. They didn’t come to get some pre-fab processed material that everyone already knows is ‘correct’ and ‘safe’ and can be reheated at home.

Language Learning as a Language Community

Of course, language acquisition is a soap-box issue for me. But it has a place here too. Seminaries ought to be about studying the Scriptures, and in the original languages. They should be places where Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and other languages too, are taught. This content in particular cannot be delivered through lectures. Or, to put it another way, you can make lectures about languages, but no-one will learn this way.

Languages aren’t even like other skills. I used to think this, but language as a phenomenon is too complex to reduce to a set of skills that need to be practiced until automated. We tried that, in the 60s and 70s with drills, audiolingual stuff, and it was better than some older pedagogies, but it’s still not up to scratch. Language is communication, and it needs ongoing communication to improve one’s ability.

The internet is amazing. In the last 4 years I’ve done 140 hours of online language classes, all with people thousands of miles away! Who would have thought this was possible. When I started learning Latin only 11 years ago, they mailed text book materials to me, and I mailed hand written assignments back. Crazy!

You can learn a language online, but you can acquire it better in person. And you acquire it better in a community of speakers. I also used to think language was just about an individual acquiring knowledge + skill, but it can never be that because language is about communication, and for that you need community. At least 2, but more is better. Small is okay, because it needs to involve all parties.

I think the tide is shifting in this area, I hope it will grab more people. Comprehensible Input, active proficiency, communicative strategies, etc., etc.. All these go best when there’s no 1/8th of a second dividing us. When language isn’t a ‘subject’, it’s the air we breathe.

Last thoughts

I haven’t said everything, I could probably think of more, but I’ve touched on four elements of the seminary as embodied, learning, community that I think need to be realised, grasped, adopted, incorporated, and set as the vision for the coming age. Seminaries that continue to adopt secular university models may not die immediately, but they will die. The small ones at first as the big ones consolidate and grow, but even then. And it’s not even simply these changing realities that ought to force seminaries to change. It ought to be a realisation that some of the current, not just future, practices of seminaries are in conflict with what they ought to be. It’s not merely education theory, it’s theological thinking about seminaries, that needs to drive some of this.


Enough from me, over to you.

The Future of Seminaries (Part 1)

Today I want to talk a little bit about educational models, ‘distance ed’, the 1/8th second barrier, etc., etc..

One of the mainstays of tertiary education for a good two hundred years has been the model of a single professor presenting information via a lecture to a group of students, for 1-3 hours at a time. It hasn’t always been the only component, nor the only model, but it is common, widespread, and dominant.

In the not-so-distant past, physical attendance at lectures was a requisite for obtaining this content. Recording, even into the age of the cassette tape, was not an option. So physical proximity was required. But now we live in an age where all that content can be captured – at first audio, but now also video, and copied freely.

For those who think of education merely as the transmission of content, this opens all doors. Well, not all, but a lot. For example, the wonderful site hosts high quality materials, including audio lecture series, from top-class evangelical scholars, which are free to download and use. The artist formerly known as Logos, aka FaithLife, is in the process of producing “Mobile Ed”, video content for all sorts of seminary-type courses. Many other institutes and programs have invested or investigated expanding their ‘reach’ through distributing this kind of material digitally.

It’s wonderful. It’s also deeply problematic.

We (those who have read any studies in pedagogy) know that lectures are pedagogically woeful. Information retention is very low. It is one of the worst ways for students to learn. Students are better off doing almost any other activity to obtain that content rather than passively listening to it.

Digitising it and seeing it freely distributed solves one problem (access), but it does nothing to improve it. I think institutions that want to enter the digital age by doing primarily this are self-deluded about pedagogy and learning and might as well close up shop. Especially, the problem of the expert alongside the problem of the free will render this model unworkable.

By the problem of the expert I mean that in the past when such distribution models weren’t available, then each physical ‘place’ needed to have an expert – a NT person, an OT person, so on, an expert to teach that content. But when physical space and time is not the issue, then one person can deliver that content not just to hundreds, but to hundreds of thousands of students through recorded content.

The problem of the free is that copying on the internet costs almost nothing, and depending on the funding side of the recording of content, there will always be other providers offering cheaper, and even free, content. To charge for lecture content can only be done if there is something ‘extra’, something premium, or something bundled, to make it so. Even still, the combination of these two factors means that simply selling the distribution of electronic forms of recorded lectures will not survive as a ‘business’ model for educational institutions.

Kevin Kelly in his New Rules for the New Economy talks about the change from ‘places’ to ‘spaces’, because the internet basically makes everywhere 1/8th of a second distant. He writes:

   And for many things in life, that is too far away.

   A kiss for instance. Or playing sports. Or getting to know flowers. Start-up companies selling futuristic multiplayer online games have discovered that the inherent delay in the speed of light circling the globe causes real-time experiences to fail. That noticeable gap makes no real difference in the transmission of a book order, or a weather signal, but enough of life thrives on subtle instantaneous responses that one-eighth of a second kills intimacy and spontaneity. Thus actual real-time face-to-face meetings will retain their irreplaceable value. Thus airline travel will increase as fast as online communication increases. Thus cities will endure as lag-free places where there are no one-eighth second delays. (

I have been thinking quite a bit about that 1/8th of a second. I think ‘the Elder’ in 2 and 3 John was thinking about the same kinds of issues, when he writes:


   I had many things to write to you, but I am not willing to write to you by means of ink and reed (3 Jn 13)

If seminaries, and other higher education institutions, want to survive they need to offer more than ‘content’ if ‘content simply means a body of knowledge transmitted from expert to learner’. This is outdated pedagogy and will soon be unviable business model.

Next week I will write about my thoughts on the way forward.

Rethinking Paul

First, let me welcome you to Theology Thursdays. Posts on Thursdays will generally deal with issues of Theology, and/or Biblical Studies.

Today I want to think a little bit about Paul. Here’s a caricature of a common interpretive strategy:

“Look, here’s Paul’s ministry methodology. It’s in the Bible, it must be right! This is an inspired and authoritative way to do ministry!”

There are a lot of takes that basically follow this approach. Today I’m suggesting it’s fatally flawed.

Paul is not Jesus, and even if he was this would be wrong. There are many aspects of Jesus’ ministry we do not try and reproduce because (a) we’re not Jesus, (b) our context is not Jesus’, (c) the Gospels give us little indication that many of Jesus’ methodologies are given for imitation. The same applies in Acts. Acts is not primarily written to be prescriptive for churches. There are very important lessons to learn from Acts, but methodology is rarely one of them.

Things are a little more tricky when it comes to Paul. Because he writes letters as an Apostle, designed to be authoritative, and their mode is generally didactic. The epistolary material is not descriptive in the way Acts is, nor does it occasion the same kind of reading Acts does. However, the fact that the letters are didactic does not mean everything in them is to be interpreted in the same way. Especially on this point – Paul’s strategies and methodologies of church planting and leadership.

I repeat, Paul is not Jesus. So when Paul says, “imitate me as I imitate Christ” that second clause is vital, and Paul knows it. We are not bound to imitate Paul in respect of things in which Paul does not imitate Christ. Paul, no doubt, was a sinful man. He is held up as a paradigmatic believer, but not a sinless one. We should not easily forget this. Paul rarely teaches or directs others to adopt his methodologies or strategies. However very often we hear, “Paul did X, Y, Z, therefore we should do the same.” I am suggesting that this is a lazy and misleading hermeneutic.

The Apostolic Age between Jesus’ ascension and the death of the last Apostle (I take it to be John) was not a Golden Age. Many things went wrong immediately. If you received a resume from Paul of Tarsus, Church Planter, you would be horrified. Almost every church he planted had significant doctrinal issues, as well as some having serious schisms, and flagrant immorality. Granted, this was generally not attributable to Paul’s teaching, but I believe it highlights something that Paul himself highlights – the weakness and frailty of these clay vessels through whom God is pleased to work. Paul is well aware of his own frailties and failings. For example, 2 Corinthians. As one gets to the end of Paul’s life, letters like Titus, and 1 and 2 Timothy reveal that Paul is struggling very much to see the future in bright terms. There has been significant damage in the Christian communities either founded by him or under his oversight. 1 Timothy as a letter entrusting oversight of Ephesus to Timothy highlights how, in a church where Paul spend considerable time and energy, still succession was an issue and still false teaching arose. Reading 2 Timothy straight afterwards, it appears that Timothy for unknown reasons has not stayed in Ephesus. Did Timothy abandon his work there? 2 Timothy is very concerned that Timothy should ‘keep the faith’; Paul exhibits his worry that Timothy, perhaps his closest disciple, will abandon both him and the gospel, like so many others. 2 Timothy in this light reads like the final letter of a man worried that everything he has worked for is in danger of coming to nought.

And yet it did not, did it? The church did not fail with Paul’s death. Why? Because it didn’t rest on Paul. Paul, like us, was a clay vessel containing a priceless treasure. That treasure was carried by other flawed, sinful human beings. In the end, I don’t believe Paul himself despaired. He knew that it was not in Timothy’s strength, or the Gentile churches’ own strength, or even his own strength, that God’s gospel would continue forth, but in the strength of God who had already carried a fallible and weak Paul so long, so far. And there is a lesson in that too.