A Great Debt: SBC Seminaries & the Cooperative Program

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By: Bruce Ashford

Those of us who are faculty members and students at Southern Baptist seminaries owe a great debt to the Cooperative Program (CP) and the churches who fund it. I was reminded of this fact while perusing a report published by the Auburn Theological Seminary, in which Barb Wheeler unfolds the results of a study done on how seminary students make their way through their studies. Although the population surveyed extends well beyond the Southern Baptist Convention, many of the results are illuminating for our context. I will highlight three:

  1. It takes a church to raise a seminarian. More than half of the seminarians were involved in their youth group, with about a quarter participating in youth camps. Getting started early does make a difference. Many of the interviews became committed to a ministerial vocation early in life through specific emphases on a calling to ministry during their youth.
  2. It takes a family to raise a seminarian. Church involvement at a young age was an important element in many of the survey respondents. This typically meant that their families were involved in the local church. Also, 80% of the respondents indicate they were actively encouraged to attend seminary and move toward a religious vocation by their families.
  3. It takes a seminary to attract a seminarian. The leading considerations for students choosing seminaries were the quality and doctrinal emphasis of the school. It is important for a school to be clear about who they are and the values they uphold. It is also important for theological schools to have a vibrant academic environment.

What does this mean to Southern Baptists? In relation to “it takes a church to raise a seminarian,” it means that if we are going to continue to thrive as a denomination we need to encourage the young people in our church to consider ministerial vocations such as pastor, missionary, or counselor. Although not every person will be called to this sort of churchly vocation, many persons will be, and we should continue to put forth the call to these churchly vocations.

In relation to “it takes a family to raise a seminarian,” it means that our churches must foster families, which raise their children in the admonition and nurture of the Lord. If Christian parents will take seriously their charge to “make disciples” of their own children, those children will be more prepared when the Lord calls them to a churchly vocation. The families of our seminarians should also encourage them in a good task. Seminary can be a hard journey and a word of encouragement along the way can be like rain in the desert.

In relation to “it takes a seminary to attract a seminarian,” Southern Baptists should be thankful that each of our seminaries offers a curriculum that is shaped by the Word of the Lord. It also means that we should be thankful for the healthy competition among the SBC seminaries (and non-SBC seminaries), as competition pushes each of the seminaries to provide the best education possible. Finally, it means that our churches need to stay engaged with the seminaries to ensure that the seminaries remain faithful to God’s Word and effective in equipping students for ministry. At Southeastern, our stated mission is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping students to serve the Church and fulfill the Great Commission. We are thankful beyond words for SBC churches and pledge to keep their trust if they send us their students.

One last point arising from Wheeler’s study is the importance of keeping seminary costs low. She reports that about two thirds of seminary students are carrying education debt by the time they graduate from seminary. Thankfully, a recent survey of graduates at Southeastern shows that only 10% of our seminary graduates incurred any educational debt while in seminary. This is only possible through the continuing support of theological education by Southern Baptists through the Cooperative Program.

Because of the Cooperative Program we at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary are able to send out men and women to fulfill the Great Commission. They are going because you are giving.

They Are Going Because You Are Giving from Southeastern Seminary on Vimeo.


Building God-Centered Universities: A Call for Transdisciplinarity in Christian Higher Education

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[Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on May 13, 2013.]

Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in a consultation on “Transdisciplinary Scholarship” sponsored by the Paideia Centre for Public Theology in Ontario, Canada. The meeting lasted for two days and was populated by thirteen scholars or public figures including Craig Bartholomew, R. R. Reno, Hunter Baker, Claudia Beversluis, C. Stephen Evans, Derek Halvorson, Michael Healy, Eric Johnson, Todd Ream, Robert Sloan, W. Jay Wood, Edward Zinke, and your scribe.

The notion of transdisciplinarity is fetching and, in my opinion, significant for the renewal of Christian higher education. Our discussion of transdisciplinarity began with a co-presentation by Bartholomew and Johnson, in which they assessed the state of affairs in Christian higher education. Their presentation was divided into three parts, which I shall try to distill in the next several paragraphs of this post.

First, Bartholomew and Johnson asked “Where are we?” In response, they noted that Christian scholars are still living in the shadow of the so-called death of Modernity, a complex ideological movement that handicaps Christian scholarship in myriad ways. This ideology “can be characterized by a reliance on autonomous reason and the scientific method for knowledge (often synonymous with positivism), skepticism regarding tradition and biblical revelation, the proliferation and growing specialization of knowledge, a commitment to individualism and human rights, and a strong belief in cultural progress.” Although many of the positive aspects of the modern agenda spring from the West’s Christian roots, the negative aspects arose because the Christian worldview was abandoned. Western scholars ultimately displaced a Christian framework for knowledge by embracing a naturalist metaphysic and epistemology, and a secular system of public and scientific discourse. As a result higher education came to have no center, and experienced disciplinary fragmentation.

Second, they asked “What is the next phase in Western thought and practice?” Although evangelicals have tried to overcome de-centered education and disciplinary fragmentation by embarking on a project of “integration,” this project often is tainted by late modern presuppositions and therefore often is unable to offer a truly Christian account of the academic disciplines. For this reason, we must go beyond “integration.” We must recognize the ways in which late modernity has reified and isolated the disciplines from one another, and replace the later modern paradigm with a truly Christian one. In order to do so we leverage the Christian Scriptures and worldview toward the end of promoting a Christian “transdisciplinarity.”

Third, they asked “What is transdisciplinary scholarship? Transdisciplinary scholarship is scholarship which promotes the synthesis of human understanding for a distinctively Christian viewpoint. Against the late modern academic model, which results in ever-increasing specialization and the fragmentation of the disciplines, Bartholomew and Johnson argue that transdisciplinarity’s goal is “the transposition of each discipline into a higher, ever-increasingly unified order of knowledge and love, based on a Christian metaphysic.” Transdisciplinary scholarship relies upon certain metadisciplines (biblical studies, theology, Christian philosophy) to guide it in building an integrated body of knowledge, understanding, and practice. Instead of merely learning within isolated disciplines, therefore, we are able to bring the disciplines into conversation with one another, with each discipline being enriched, and with new transdisciplines being created.

Bartholomew and Johnson’s presentation was followed by several others. Robert Sloan spoke on “The State of the Nation” in regard to higher education. Eric Johnson presented “Transdisciplinary Scholarship as an Alternative Model.” Craig Bartholomew presented “Spiritual Formation, Intellectual Community, and Transdisciplinarity.” C. Stephen Evans presented “Philosophy and Transdisciplinarity.” Finally, yours truly wrapped up the consultation with a presentation which sought to point the way forward in light of the previous presentations.

The consultation was refreshing, in part because it was a small collaborative discussion rather than a sprawling and disconnected “conference,” but also because the concept of transdisciplinarity is a useful one for bringing unity to the field of Christian higher education in upcoming years. I agree with several of the presenters that the academy is experiencing an ever-increasing fragmentation, that this fragmentation keeps us from building an increasingly unified and God-centered body of knowledge, that it further handicaps the specialized disciplines themselves, and that it impoverishes human existence by separating out what ought to be held together.

I am not arguing that the universities and seminaries should discourage specialized knowledge, but that specialized fields of knowledge should remain in conversation with one another, and they should together be informed by certain metadisciplines (such as biblical studies, theology, and Christian philosophy) which are vital to their ultimate fruition. In other words, the Christian university should seek truly to be a uni-versity, a unified endeavor. The Christian university should center itself on biblical studies, Christian theology, and Christian philosophy, allowing the various scholarly disciplines to flourish within this truly Christian framework.

The obstacles to building a transdisciplinary Christian university are many, but not insurmountable. Presidents and Provosts must re-prioritize by hiring faculty members who will invest in the project, providing forums in which professors from various disciplines (e.g. arts, sciences) remain in close conversation with one another, and in which they together converse with biblical scholars, theologians, and Christian philosophers. Professors must re-prioritize, by investing time and energy in reading more broadly (in the meta-disciplines and in other disciplines) and engaging in their research projects communally. To re-prioritize in this manner poses a challenge, in light of the fact that many scholars are already stretched thin because of their teaching, advising, writing, and committee-attendance. However, the challenge is not insurmountable, and those persons and universities will be rewarded who meet the challenge in order to forge a genuinely transdisciplinary environment.

One final note: I hope the reader does not come away from this post with the impression that I think “all is bad” in Christian higher education. On the contrary, there is much about which to be optimistic. There are many Christian universities who have a vision to build a truly Christian university and who are realizing the fruits of their efforts. Union University, California Baptist University, and Houston Baptist University immediately come to mind, as do others. However, although everything is not bad, neither is everything good. Christian institutions of higher education have been adversely affected by our late modern and postmodern context, and find themselves struggling to build a truly unified and God-centered framework for knowledge. Toward that end, the concept of transdisciplinary scholarship seems a helpful one, and worthy of extended discussion and reflection.

Briefly Noted: Note to a College Freshman

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[Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on October 28, 2013.]

As we mentioned recently on BtT, I stumbled upon Henry Stob’s Theological Reflections while browsing the “used books” selection at a bookstore. Which, in case you wondered, is one of the reasons why I consider used bookstores one of the great delights of the modern world. (Thank you for having been about to wonder.)  One never knows what sorts of epistolary treasures might be found if one takes a few minutes to browse.

But to the point: Theological Reflections includes an essay which Stob entitled, “Note to a College Freshman” and which I think is worth noting briefly.[1] Stob, a former professor at Calvin College, encourages college freshmen to make the most of their college experience by transcending certain reductionist or otherwise misguided views of college education.

He begins by addressing the college freshmen. “You have come to college and you have taken a mind with you. . . . Mind is intellect, will, and feeling fused into one. Mind is what you are on the deeper level of your being. It is the spiritual measure and size of you, the conscious center and core of you.” (229) A freshman’s mind is more than the sum total of his thoughts. Further, Stob the college freshman is responsible and accountable for his mind. “The mind that is in you as you enter college is the product of many historical forces and influences. . . .This means that you have been an agent in the making of the mind you have. For its present set and temper you must, in consequence, accept the responsibility. And you must accept the same responsibility for its future form and texture.” (229)

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