In his historic 1980 debate with President Jimmy Carter, candidate Ronald Reagan asked the nation's people if they were better off "today" than they were four years previously when Carter was elected. In similar fashion, for the purposes of this article seminary representatives were asked if a seminary education is better today than it was a generation (40 years) ago.
Not surprisingly, responses varied greatly. Because of changes in technology and in the culture, the nature of seminary education has changed substantially in 40 years. Whether it is better today is a question that defies a simple yes or no answer, but all of those who responded would agree that it is different.
James Flanagan, president of Luther Rice Seminary, says, "I do not necessarily believe that clergy are better educated today than they were 40 years ago. I do believe society has changed, and that the kind of student entering a theological institution today has changed." But, he adds, "to say that the kinds of courses and curriculum that served the needs of those enrolling in theological institutions 40 years ago should necessarily be the same today is a prescription for obsolescence and irrelevance."
The words of Jerry Flora, professor of theology and spiritual formation at Ashland Theological Seminary, aptly summarize the changes that have taken place in seminary education: "When I was a seminary student 45 years ago, our curriculum was heavy in biblical studies, church history, theology, and homiletics. Today, teaching in that same seminary, I work in a curriculum that is lighter in all those areas in terms of required course-hours, but heavier in subjects such as pastoral care, church leadership, and personal counseling."
Says Flora, "If to be better educated theologically means that seminarians today can handle the details of theology more deftly, it might be doubted. But if the quality of educational preparation means touching the realities of pastoral life and work, then it could be argued that a seminary education is better today."
The effects of contemporary technology on theological education comprise something of a mixed bag. Ashland Seminary Professor of Theology Dale Stoffer points out that the computer "has opened up access to a wealth of information, documents, and sources that previously were very difficult to obtain. And the Internet has facilitated much easier communication in all aspects of seminary life." On the other hand, Stoffer says, "increasing reliance on the computer and technology has resulted in a kind of virtual community that lacks the dynamics of face-to-face contact that is necessary to connect with people at the level of the spirit and soul."
Pining for the past?
"Clergy are undoubtedly more poorly educated today than they were a generation ago," says R. Fowler White, dean of faculty and professor of New Testament at Knox Theological Seminary, "following the decline of educational standards and achievement throughout our society." He adds, "Too few clergy are readers of serious literature today. Fewer still speak or write with clarity or insight." White continues, "The explosion of knowledge, in the biblical and theological realms and in others, may have brought an exposure to a breadth of information that was impossible heretofore, but it has brought neither broader nor deeper knowledge and understanding of God's person, work, ways, or Word."
White adds that, along with the decline in educational standards and achievement, there has been a "paradigm shift in how 'effective ministry' is defined." He says, "Ministry effectiveness is now too often defined in terms of efficiency and quantity, the expense of quality."
Gary T. Meadors, dean and professor of Greek and New Testament at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary, generally agrees. He observes that "the answer to the question of whether clergy are better educated theologically today than they were 40 years ago" is suggested by the high number of churches he has to visit before he can "enjoy a well-crafted message that accurately reflects the text/genre of the Bible and astutely applies the results of exegesis to the current culture."