The 23 students in the first graduating class of the Protestant Saint Petersburg Theological Academy clearly have their work cut out for them. Seventy-four years of communism have left Russian Christians in a deep hole from which to climb. The country still lacks religious freedom and educated Protestant ministers, and it does not help that Russia’s Parliament and president were recently shooting at each other in Moscow.
The school was established in 1990 to give Russian evangelicals the intellectual credibility “to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Orthodox,” says Arthur DeKruyter, pastor of Christ Church in Oak Brook, Illinois, and cofounder of the academy with Russian pastor Sergei Nikolaev.
The school is an accredited institution on a par with Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Wenham, Massachusetts, or Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, says DeKruyter. Its course offerings include apologetics, missions and evangelism, comparative theologies, and modern cults.
Nikolaev, the academy’s president, says, “There was a very visible lack of educated ministers; so the main purpose was to give education for professionals—pastors, evangelists, church educators—to do missionary work.”
Evangelicals want to make an impact on Russian Christian life, and, De-Kruyter says, “you can’t do that when you are being looked at as novices and not academically oriented.”
DeKruyter received personnel and accreditation help from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, where he serves on the board of directors. Students are drawn from throughout Russia, where they also return after graduation to work as pastors, Christian educators, and church planters.
Richard Muller taught one of the first classes at the academy in November 1990. “There was a two-week intensive course where I spent 30 hours lecturing—30 hours each on two different courses. It was heavy duty.”
Muller, who usually teaches at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, made two trips to the Saint Petersburg campus, where he has taught systematic theology, church history, and patristic theology.
He characterizes his Russian students as more eager than their American counterparts to grapple with theological issues. “I found [the Russian students] very much like the early church, because as we would go through history and come up on doctrinal points, a lot of what went on in the early church was paralleled by their own wrestlings with texts. They were very intent on the fact that different texts pointed in different directions, and they were seeking resolution of these issues.”
Though professors from Fuller and other schools make up the faculty at the academy, future professors will be drawn from earlier graduates, including four 1993 graduates who are continuing their studies at Fuller.
The students will be more than just religious leaders, says Nikolaev. He wants to see them “change the philosophy of communism to the philosophy of the Bible; and instead of scientific atheism, give people the opportunity to see theology of the human life.”
Nikolaev says the school’s current enrollment of 70 students can increase to 200 students when a new six-story building is completed in central Saint Petersburg. The academy is negotiating with contractors for construction of the building, which they hope to have completed in two years.
Bridges to the Orthodox
The academy, unlike many evangelical operations in Russia, boasts a friendly relationship with the Orthodox Church. DeKruyter notes that Fuller professors have lectured at an Orthodox school, and an Orthodox professor teaches history of the Russian church and liturgy in the Saint Petersburg academy.
“The Russian Protestants have a willingness to learn from the Orthodox on certain issues,” says Muller, “but they don’t want to learn their theology from the Orthodox. The theology had to come from somewhere else.”
Mikhail Morgulis, president of Wheaton, Illinois-based Christian Bridge, praises the cooperative relationship between Nikolaev’s school and friendly Orthodox leaders. “A mistake in the United States is to think that the Orthodox Church in Russia is one church,” says Morgulis. “There is a new generation of Orthodox priests that has a more evangelical position. They would like to work together with Protestants, but traditional leaders of the Orthodox Church [offer resistance].”
“Some of the Orthodox have wanted to know from us evangelicals: ‘How do you preach? How do you hold Bible study groups and prayer groups?’ “says DeKruyter. “Some of these priests are anxious to know from us what we’re doing. Because they do believe in the Bible and they want to know, ‘How do you study this with your people?’ that’s a great opportunity for us.”
By John Zipperer.
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