To grasp the magnitude of gradual, steady change, glance back over a quarter century.
One of the brightest spots on the evangelical scene is seminary education. The old adage is true: As goes the seminary today, so goes the church tomorrow. And today seminary education is going exceedingly well for evangelicalism.
Because growth has been so steady and spread over several decades, few realize the dramatic shift that has taken place in the theological direction of seminary education. I began my own advanced study for the ministry when I graduated from college in the 1930s. I sought an accredited school committed to a consistent biblical theology, with a scholarly faculty, a large library, and a disciplined intellectual atmosphere. I couldn’t find any. The nonevangelical schools had great libraries, strong scholarly faculties, and impressive reputations as accredited centers of learning. The evangelical schools had no libraries to speak of, unknown faculty (J. Gresham Machen, the last evangelical scholar, had just died), and no tradition of high scholarship. So I chose two schools: the first, a rather typical fundamentalist school so new the ink was barely dry on its articles of incorporation; and the second, a liberal school with a solid reputation for academic excellence. By tapping into the two extremes, I hoped to gain the best of both worlds. As it turned out, I could have done worse.
Even by 1956 the situation had changed only a little. At that time the 10 largest accredited seminaries (in order of student body size) were:
4. Union (N.Y.)
9. New Orleans
We can estimate the changes taking place by examining that list now, 25 years later. The only schools still listed among the top 10 in 1981 (the year of the most recent statistics) were the 3 Southern Baptist schools, the very conservative Missouri Lutheran Concordia, and Princeton.
And in the last generation, a whole new group of fundamentalist and evangelical seminaries have sprung into being. Many of them have grown to formidable size with respectable libraries and large faculties of impressive scholarship.
In 1981, according to the most recent Factbook on Theological Education, the top 10 schools in order of student enrollment were:
4. New Orleans
6. San Francisco
7. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
9. Concordia (St. Louis)
Replacing the more liberally oriented schools from the 1956 list were Fuller, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Asbury (all committed to a conservative evangelical theology), Southeastern of the Southern Baptist Convention, and San Francisco (with over half of its students part-time and only 17 percent enrolled in the professional M.Div. program).
This is but the tip of the iceberg. Just below the top 10 for 1981 are the conservative evangelical schools Talbot and Gordon-Conwell, not to mention other large schools in the same tradition, such as Concordia (Fort Wayne). Bethel (St. Paul), Ashland, Regent, and Nazarene—all with enrollments over 400.
In the last five years, the standard professional accrediting association for theological schools (ATS) has added 14 new seminaries to its roster: Oral Roberts, Covenant, Saint Anthony, Alliance, Cincinnati Christian, Columbia Graduate School, Liberty Baptist, Melodyland, Regent, Trinity Episcopal, Assembly of God Graduate School, Canadian Theological Seminary, Mount Saint Mary, and Scott College. Of these, 2 are Roman Catholic and at least 10 are committed to conservative evangelicalism. Moreover, two of the larger and better-known evangelical schools, Dallas and Westminster, are not even members of the theological accrediting association, but have regional accreditation. There are also other big conservative schools with no accreditation at all.
Of course, large numbers of evangelical students enroll at schools whose faculty members are not committed exclusively to conservative evangelicalism. Roger Martin of Harvard Divinity School reports that approximately one-sixth of the Student body there would reckon itself as conservative evangelical. An even larger share of the student body would be evangelical at Princeton, Seabury-Western, and many other schools.
L. Russ Bush, theology professor at Southwestern, estimates that as high as 90 percent of the students in his classes are committed to the inerrancy of Scripture, though some might prefer not to use the word.
Total enrollment in all ATS member schools reached 50,559 for 1981–82, the latest year for which figures are available. This represents a 54 percent increase over the last decade—up from 32,816. However, this dramatic increase seriously misrepresents the number of seminary students seeking ordination and newly entering the service of the churches. As the ATSFactbook notes: “The degree exhibiting the least growth is the M.Div., the basic ordination degree.” The figures for this degree increased slightly from 21,000 to 26,000 during the decade, but now include only half of all seminary students. Of these 26,000 students preparing for ordination to the ministry, about 5,000 are women, far fewer of whom actually seek ordination to the pastoral ministry (perhaps to the discredit of the churches). The number of men now enrolled for the basic degree leading to ordination has decreased every year since 1977 and now stands at 829 fewer than five years ago.
This fact is specially important to evangelicals for two reasons: (1) in most schools, the more theologically and ethically conservative seminary students actually enter the ministry of the church and seek ordination to the ministry; and (2) the extraordinary growth of the conservative evangelical seminaries in recent years and the large number of very conservative schools seeking membership in the accrediting society during the same period have kept the M.Div. figure from declining more drastically.
The effect of this surge of evangelicalism in seminary education is already apparent in the church at large. Clergy under 30 years of age are decidedly more orthodox and likely to be historically evangelical in their social and ethical convictions than those over 30. This is all the more significant since this age group of the general populace is decidedly least orthodox and tends to be most liberal.
Recent polls show this trend on issue after issue. For example, 83 percent of the clergy under 30 indicate that they have had a deep religious experience that affected their lives; only 80 percent of those 30–50 have ever had such an experience, and even fewer of those over 50. Nearly 9 out of 10 clergy under 30 years of age say that their only hope for heaven is through personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but a significantly higher percentage of older clergy tend to opt for the view that heaven is a divine reward for those who earn it by their good life. Over three-quarters of those under 30 test their religious faith by the teaching of the Bible; but only slightly more than half of those over 50 do so. Of those under 30, 8 out of 10 accept the Bible as the Word of God without any mistakes in all that it says. But of those over 30, less than 7 out of 10 do so. Seven out of 10 clergy under 30 believe that the human race began with a special creation of Adam and Eve; only a little over half of those above 30 accept the biblical account of Creation as true to fact.
Younger clergy, too, reflect a deeper concern over human poverty and commitment to doing something about the plight of the poor. In fact, nearly twice as many of those under 30 express such a concern, compared with those over 50. Likewise reflecting a conservative evangelical viewpoint, 95 percent of all clergy under 30 are vigorously opposed to free abortions. Twice as many are likely to reject easy divorce as those over 30; and they are more likely to approve remarriage after divorce only in cases of adultery or permanent desertion.
On the practice of premarital sex, extramarital sex, and homosexuality, younger clergy are more influenced by the looser views of the general public, except that clergy of all ages who consider themselves conservative or evangelical in theology are unanimous in flatly rejecting all three and opting for a strictly traditional view that sex is to be restricted to a one man-one woman relationship. Finally, clergy under 30 are more opposed than their elders to the use of alcohol as a beverage and are more likely to rule out the ordination of women to the ministry.
What does all this tell us about the direction of theological education? Many things:
1. The churches are growing more conservative in theology and more committed to traditional biblical and ethical values.
2. The churches are also returning to a biblical concern (characteristic of historic evangelicalism) for people—their needs, their hurts, and especially their poverty.
3. Seminaries that expect to place their graduates must prepare the kind of ministers who can serve effectively as leaders in this kind of church.
4. Seminaries strongly committed to a consistent evangelical theology, lifestyle, and ethic are growing; and there is every indication that they will continue to grow for the forseeable future.
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