Andrew Fuller on Theological Education

I love teaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. I’ve wanted to serve on a faculty in an institution like this one since I was a senior in college. As a full-time professor, I love theological seminaries, divinity schools, and Christian Studies departments at colleges and universities. But as a Baptist, I’m quick to admit that formal theological education is not prerequisite to gospel ministry.

I’m regularly reminded that many of the finest pastor-theologians in my own tradition never received a seminary or even college education, including my all-time favorite Baptist, Andrew Fuller (1754-1815). In the excerpt that follows, Fuller addresses theological education. I find it interesting how similar his context was to contemporary Southern Baptist life:

As to academic education, the far greater part of our ministers have it not. [William] Carey was a shoemaker years after he engaged in the ministry and I was a farmer. I have sometimes, however, regretted my want of learning. On the other hand, brother [John] Sutcliff and brother [Samuel] Pearce have both been at Bristol [Academy]. We all live in love without any distinctions in those matters. We do no consider an Academy as any qualification for membership or preaching, any farther than as a person may there improve his talents. Those who go to ours [academies] must be members of a church and recommended by them as possessing gifts adapted to the ministry (Fuller letter to Mr. McLean, 20 April 1796, in Michael A. G. Haykin, The Armies of the Lamb: The Spirituality of Andrew Fuller, pp. 151-52).

I agree with Fuller. Though useful and even preferable, formal theological education is not necessary for one to be a pastor. What matters most is that God has called and gifted a man for ministry and that a church has recognized that calling and those gifts. As in Fuller’s day, it’s still the case that a potential seminarian must receive an endorsement from his or her local church before being accepted as a student. This endorsement includes a recognition and affirmation of the prospective individual’s call to and giftedness for the work of the ministry.

As someone who loves being a part of the culture of theological education, I’m thankful for seminaries (and colleges) that better equip men and women for ministry. But as a Baptist, I’m also thankful that God’s call is not limited to the educated alone. Andrew Fuller did not have the benefit of a college or seminary education, and he did just fine in his ministry. But since you’re not Andrew Fuller, you should consider applying to Southeastern Seminary. You can find out more information at our website.

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