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Exploring the Move Toward “Modern” Theological Education

October 26, 2015

Some of Sioux Falls Seminary’s faculty and administration have both written and taught lessons related to the topic of theological education, its history, and its biblical foundations.  As we look at the history of theological education, especially in light of the Great Commission, we continue a series through which we will share some of these works.   This week, we share an adaptationof a piece that Dr. Larry Caldwell, Academic Vice President and Dean, and Enoch Wan, Director of Intercultural Studies at Western Seminary, published in 2012 entitled Riots in the City: Replacing Nineteenth-century Urban Training Models with Relevant “Urbanized” Training Models for the Twenty-first Century.  In the article, Caldwell briefly describes the development of the “modern” seminary and the assumptions that come with it.  Today, we are going to look at an adaptation of that article as part of our series on the history of theological education.

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The Move Toward “Modern” Theological Education

The nineteenth century was a pivotal century for the development of seminary curricula in North America.  While schools like Harvard and Yale were the foremost ministerial training institutions of the eighteenth century—and for the first half of the nineteenth century—they eventually became dominated by more generalized undergraduate programs coupled with an increasingly broad theological bent, both of which eventually eclipsed their original mandate to train ministers. Consequently, in the 1860s and onwards, there was a period of great expansion of new seminaries, both from existing denominations as well as from new denominations that were forming because of the great influx of European immigrants.  With a German heritage, the school that became Sioux Falls Seminary was one such new seminary.

Along with these new seminaries came new changes to their curricula.  Greatly influenced by the more “modern” European educational systems, North American seminaries in the second half of the nineteenth century saw change in three major areas: 1) a philosophical and arts-based teaching philosophy was replaced by scientific and scholarly study; 2) professors who were skilled at teaching across disciplines were replaced by professors who were narrow specialists within a specific discipline; and 3) the disciplines of Bible, theology, and church history became the “classical fields” of study with everything else left to the less glamorous practical theology department (Miller 2007, 43-62; Banks 1999,7).  As its name implies, Modernity, and the assumptions on which it was based, served as the foundation for this new curricula.  It also created certain expectations for what the curricula should do.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and well into the twentieth century, the minister was the most educated individual in the community, trained for a leadership role in society that was firmly grounded in both biblical and theological knowledge.  As George M. Marsden (1994, 37) notes, “the clergyman would be the best educated citizen and education would be a key to his authority.”  This educational superiority was reinforced by the end of the nineteenth century with the three-year Bachelor of Divinity degree (later Master of Divinity), which had by then become the standard professional degree. All seminary graduates were considered professional ministers.  Within the constructs of Modernity, those professional ministers were expected to be managers of denominational churches and to enact their scientific and scholarly training within a local church.

Those seminary students who were training for more specialized missionary or Christian education work were still expected to master the classical disciplines (Bible, theology, and church history) as did everyone else.  It was thought that leaders, both on the mission field as well as those involved in the educational ministry of the church, had to be well-grounded in these classical disciplines in order that they, too, might influence the communities in which they served.

Interestingly, though, the Bible college movement—begun in the early part of the twentieth century—was in part a reaction both to the professionalism of seminary training as well as to the lack of practical training. However, despite this reaction the Bible college movement likewise put heavy emphasis upon the classical disciplines, particularly Bible and theology.

As we will see in later posts, this movement toward the “modern” seminary brought benefits and many challenges.

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