Why Not Evangelical Seminaries?

To expand the title a bit, I’d say, “Why evangelical students of theology pursuing academic careers should not choose evangelical seminaries or grad schools for education past the M. Div. level.” As I write this, I’m applying to PhD and MTS programs in theology. None of them are at evangelical schools, and here I’m explaining why.

First, one has to consider the quality of education available at various schools. To do that, though, one has to have a concept of what education entails. If education were the accumulation of facts or the reading of books, then it would make little difference where or how one pursues it, provided there is a well-stocked library nearby. If, though, education is about forming a certain type of mental character, about refining one’s cerebral palate, about fostering intellectual virtue; then where, how, and predominately with whom matters a great deal.

In any given academic field, only a small minority drives the research and sets the agenda. The rest of the academic community diffuses their thinking and follows their bushwhacked trails. Assuming that one’s goal is someday to join that group of perceptive and influential scholars, it makes sense to study with someone already participating in that group. Naturally, this reduces the choices considerably. For most concentrations in theology, I suspect that this decision to study with influential scholars reduces the ideal choices to less than ten schools. Most likely, none of them are evangelical. Though my religious commitments lie with evangelicals, I recognize that, compared to their mainline and secular counterparts, much of their scholarship is sloppy, dated, derivative, or eccentric.

Furthermore, the nature of education at many evangelical schools works against ideological diversity in the student population. For higher academic work, diversity is not an ethical cause; it is a necessity. Scholarship is a collaborative enterprise that requires a chorus of voices, even if not every voice carries the same weight. It is through exposure to the breadth of Christian (and even other religious) traditions and to the depth of historic Christianity that one’s own faith and thinking are expanded. This chorus of sometimes uncomfortable diversity challenges, provokes, and inspires; a room full of Baptists bores with its flat monotone.

Although I deeply appreciate my own Reformed, evangelical tradition, much of my best thinking has been excited by Augustine, Thomas, Barth, Gunton, and Milbank. By contrast, many evangelical grad students seem not to want to be challenged. Rather, they would prefer studying somewhere where the ideas they already hold will be applauded and deemed clever, where they can remain safely ignorant of broader theological trends, contemporary questions, and the prejudices of their professors. They crave confirmation, not education. On the faculty side, many evangelical graduate schools are bipolar: they either shun other Christian traditions fearfully or fawn obsequiously over the latest theological fad. Neither attitude is useful to the graduate student.

Beyond what may appear to some as academic idealism, there are several practical considerations that make evangelical schools a poor choice. Higher education is, unless the student is independently wealthy, partly vocational training. Each student needs to ask what his or her job prospects will be upon graduation. Most PhD graduates intend to teach on the college or graduate level. Theology PhDs, at least the males, have the additional option of pastoring,  since most churches are unaware of how poorly equipped most PhD’s are to pastor.

That aside, what prospects does the average PhD from an evangelical seminary have? Seminary degrees are widely believed to be inferior to university degrees. Since most evangelical theology degrees are awarded through seminaries, you’re already at a disadvantage in the job market. Woe to the graduate who thinks his degree-awarding institution will hire him. Except for a few fringe institutions like Bob Jones University, most schools have policies limiting the number of faculty drawn from their own graduates. Besides, most evangelical schools would gladly drop their own grads if an Ivy League or Oxford grad applied to the position. Before applying to an evangelical school, ask for their placement statistics, particularly how many students have secured employment at graduation and how many are in tenure track positions 5 years from graduation. If they won’t tell you, they’re hiding something.

Evangelical grad schools present problems along the way, as well. Only a handful of programs provide funding without exacting egregious slave labor in return. Thus, grad students at evangelical schools often have to work while studying, all the while piling up debt. The amount of tuition is irrelevant; the real issue is how long your degree will take and how much debt you will accumulate along the way. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates conducted less than a decade ago, the median school debt for religion PhD grads at Duke University was $0. Notre Dame? $0. Yale? $0. Good schools know how to take care of their students.

Of course, this piece is the result of my own search for a program, so it reflects my goals and priorities. Not everything that goes into my decision making process can be directly translated into someone else’s. Likewise, I recognize that I have generalized; there are some very strong programs at select evangelical institutions, and they meet some people’s needs. I hope, though, that this will stimulate some prospective grad students to explore their opportunities and consider their priorities.

Published in: on November 10, 2010 at 7:22 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Charlie,

    this is a very interesting, well-reasoned blog. What schools are you applying to? Have you been accepted to any, yet?

  2. +1
    It would be interesting to hear now, a couple years later, where you ended up, and how you think your plan is working out.

    • Well, I spent two years in grad school at Villanova University and am starting at Princeton Theological Seminary in the Fall. So far, I am quite happy with my choices.

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