Southern Baptist dissident Ben Cole has been questioning the intellectual integrity of our Southern Baptist Seminaries. I would like to draw your attention to the substance of his arguments and offer a brief response.
Cole titled his June 21, 2007 article, “On intellectual inbreeding and Southern Baptist education…” He begins by stating, “Southern Baptists are perhaps inordinately fearful and thoroughly ignorant of Liberation theologies.” Then he describes his own encounters with Liberation theology under Baylor professor, Marc Ellis. He writes:
I will never forget the day Ellis assigned me to a small group with two students, one of whom was a Roman Catholic and the other a lesbian. In what seemed like the introduction to a joke – three students walk into a bar, etc. – we engaged one another in collegial conversation about the ethical and moral questions raised by Christian higher education. For once, on a Baptist university campus, I felt like the minority.
I think that was Ellis’ point: to force Christians to sense some degree of oppression, harassment, and ridicule that other religious and irreligious groups feel on the campus of a Christian university. You don’t get that in a seminary education, and it is understandable that a confessional institution would limit such free exchange of ideas.
Cole then infers that the Southern Baptist insensitivity to minority perspectives is due to “cultural isolation that inhibits meaningful dialogue with these groups.” This narrowing of experience leads to fear and a desire for culturally separate educational systems:
In fact, so concerned are Southern Baptists to limit exposure to these cultural influences that we are forced to consider the perennial efforts to remove our kids from public schools. Southern Baptists are so increasingly fearful of non-Southern Baptist college education that all of our seminaries have launched colleges to provide a confessional uniformity and indoctrination program to further avoid intellectual cross pollination. Once we keep them from a university setting by attending our Bible colleges, we enroll them in our Southern Baptist seminaries for more intellectual inbreeding. Those that keep their grades up are encouraged to apply for Southern Baptist doctoral degrees. Most of our professors are graduated and hired from Southern Baptist schools, primarily because they can’t get academic jobs outside of Southern Baptist contexts with their seminary doctorates.
He continues by criticizing several perceived weaknesses of Southern Baptist Seminary Education:
- The increase of non-academic courses of study. Cole questions the proliferation of seminary degrees in “silly” disciplines such as homemaking, sports evangelism and jazz music – along with a brief mention of the elitism of pursuing the D.Min degree.
- Seminary students are not equipped to understand secular cultures. Quote: “How Southern Baptist seminary administrators and educators expect to influence the culture without training their students to understand and even appreciate (gasp!) the cultural influences with which they will contend is beyond me.”
- The Seminary system divorces students from the life of the local church. Quote: “It seems to me that more harm than good is done to Southern Baptist churches by ministers who are trained in environments divorced from service to the churches.”
- Baptist leaders from a diverse educational experience have more to contribute. Quote: “Those pastors and professors who contribute most to Southern Baptist life are those who have explored more diverse philosophical and theological perspectives than their counterparts of limited interaction with the mainline academy.”
- Our Baptist Education system is little more than “intellectual inbreeding.” Quote: “We may have created a vortex of ministry unpreparedness and biblical illiteracy from which we cannot extract ourselves, unless drastic measures are taken — and taken fast.”
I will briefly answer these concerns from my own limited experience. I am a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a graduate of Boyce College, the undergraduate school of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – I am exactly the kind of learner Ben Cole finds wanting.
- I cannot answer for the specific courses of study Cole mentions. However, the D.Min and other professional degrees programs should not be dismissed as examples of ministerial elitism. These programs allow pastors to continue formal education while serving in the local church. Such study moves toward the ideal of the pastor as theologian.
- At Boyce College and Southern Seminary, I took several required classes that teach worldview and cultural engagement. All degrees at Boyce College have an emphasis on understanding worldviews. Many Seminary students must work in secular environments. A large number of students at Southern Seminary work at UPS side-by-side with students from the University of Louisville. These real world encounters are more helpful than Cole’s experience as an “academic minority.”
- I agree. The artificial relationship that many students have with the local church is unacceptable. Even those who serve or attend local churches often relate mainly to other seminary students. There are some ways to alleviate this problem, but it seems an unavoidable flaw of the seminary model.
- Men like Dr. Mohler are an exception to Cole’s point.
- I disagree. It is preferable to learn God’s Word firsthand and learn cultural context secondhand. Wayne Grudem seems to argue against Cole’s point in his 1972 letter to a young seminarian.
What do you think? Has your Seminary education seemed overly narrow?
What can Seminaries do to prepare future pastor-theologians to minister in a post-Christian world?
Is the Cooperative Program payroll the appropriate context for worldview diversity?
Posted By Tony Kummer