The Bible consistently affirms education as a central responsibility of God’s people. In the Old Testament, the Jewish people were reminded that the education of their own children was an essential part of their responsibility as God’s covenant people. In Israel, a father was to teach his son diligently, and to point his son toward the only true wisdom — the wisdom established in the fear of God.
The New Testament also dignifies and elevates education to a matter of essential importance for the church. Great attention is given to the teaching office of the church — to those men who are called to the ministry of the Word. The apostle James reminds the church that those who teach the Word “will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).
In the apostle Paul’s two letters to Timothy, his young protégé in ministry, we find Paul instructing Timothy about the priority of the teaching office and of the preacher’s responsibility to be found “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Timothy is to practice and to immerse himself in the tasks and responsibilities of the ministry “so that all may see your progress” (1 Tim. 4:15).
Driven by the Bible’s emphasis on teaching the faith and by the responsibility to ground new believers in the truth and practices of the Christian life, the early church borrowed heavily from the Jewish experience in the synagogue and went on to develop catechetical models that were distinctively Christian — the earliest Christian schools.
During this era, senior teachers, following the example of Paul teaching Timothy, taught pastors of the church. Younger men would attach themselves to older men who would nurture them in the knowledge of the Bible and the tasks of ministry. This early model of theological education was congregational — located in the church itself.
In later centuries, pastors were taught by means of priestly orders and monastic communities. The rise of more institutionalized forms of theological education came with the emergence of the university. The development of the medieval university, organized with theology as the highest science, gave shape to the theological curriculum that is still recognizable in seminaries today.
The Reformation was a movement largely led by university-trained men like Martin Luther and John Calvin. Both held university degrees and were very much at home in the university environment. The Lutheran reformation was based in Luther’s own university in Wittenberg. Calvin’s influence was vastly expanded through the academy for preachers he established in Geneva.
The development of the theological seminary represents an American adaptation of the older British and European models. Even as the early American universities were established explicitly for the training of Christian ministers, secularization and specialization in the universities led to the development of schools specifically designed for the training of pastors.
By the time America entered the twentieth century, the theological seminary was where most young ministers received their theological educations. Sadly, many of these same seminaries also allowed theological liberalism to gain a foothold, demonstrating that a seminary — just as a college or university — can quickly compromise or even repudiate the truths upon which it was established.
All this points to the fact that a theological seminary, if it is to remain faithful, must be directly accountable to its churches. Lacking this accountability, the institution will inevitably drift toward heterodox teachings. A robust confessionalism is necessary, but the constant oversight of churches is of equal importance.
The role of theological seminaries remains crucial for the education and training of Christian ministers. At its best, the seminary is an intentional gathering of Christian scholars who are dedicated to the preparation of ministers, committed to biblical truth, gifted in modeling and teaching the tasks of ministry, and passionate about the Gospel.
No other educational institution exists to serve the needs of the churches in this way. In that sense, a theological seminary is as crucial to the training of ministers as the medical school is essential to the preparation of physicians.
Nevertheless, count me as one seminary president who believes that the local church is even more important to the education of the pastor. The local church should see theological education as its own responsibility before it partners with a theological seminary for concentrated studies. The seminary can provide a depth and breadth of formal studies — all needed by the minister — but it cannot replace the local church as the context where ministry is learned most directly.
In this day, we need to encourage more pastors to follow the example of the apostle Paul in mentoring Timothy as a young minister, preacher, and pastor. As a seminary president, I want to partner with pastors like that in order to raise up a generation of faithful pastors who will, as Paul instructed Timothy, “fulfill your ministry.”