Rotten to the Core: What Kills Seminaries?
One of the most disturbing, yet inspirational set work books I was assigned to read in seminary was Reforming Fundamentalism by George Marsden. The cryptic title obscures the content, but the apt subtitle explains that the book chronicles the rise and fall of Fuller Seminary. It unveiled for me an
awareness of the inner machinations of a seminary from birth to decline with Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California as a test case.
Fuller is arguably the most famous (notorious) American seminary. It looms large on the American theological landscape, their most famous alum being John Piper. (A friend of mine had lunch with Piper and asked if he should go to Fuller, and Piper warned against it, explaining that early Fuller, like Princeton before it, has gone the way of Judas and betrayed the Lord).
Fuller even enjoys the occasional homage from pop culture: the nerdy Christian cartoon character, Ned Flanders of The Simpsons graduated from Fuller. The detective in Spielberg’s Minority Report, set in 2054, admits to have been a (future?) alum.
And yet today Fuller is a blight on Evangelicalism, a pockmark scarring the face of Christ’s Bride. Once a stalwart of Fundamentalism and a bastion of inerrancy, Fuller is now a mere carcass of its former self. Its hallowed halls were a magnet for fervent Fundamentalist seminoids, but it has now decayed like a lump of uranium, contaminating the pews of churches all over America and the world.
Fuller, like Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and most other institutions which started off as healthy, vibrant purveyors of truth, is now rotten to the core.
They espouse liberalism, advocate ecumenism, and spawn graduates who hold no fidelity to the fundamental doctrines of inerrancy, sufficiency, and authority of the Bible, as evidenced in their wishy-washy positions on six-day Creation, the Virgin Birth, miracles, Mosaic authorship, women pastors, and in some cases even the bodily Resurrection of Christ.
Their syllabi are imbued with incipient Postmodernism and overt liberalism. The students are trained to butcher the Word of God, leaving them disillusioned and suspicious of its ‘anti-intellectual’ miraculous claims at best, or at worst foaming at the mouth antagonists of the precious doctrines of Evangelicalism.
Emerging as an academic, the student-turned-pastor now spends his life excusing the Bible’s far-fetched events and explaining away its super-naturalism. This corrodes his enthusiasm to study the Word, and relegates that significant part of his calling to the status of a mundane chore. His undermined confidence in the Bible’s sufficiency pushes him toward psychology as the panacea of his flock’s woes. And the impotency he is left with from the doubt in Scriptural inerrancy forces him to hawk his own advice as if it were God’s counsel, resulting in a powerless, unrewarding ministry.
And yet Fuller, like Princeton was a leading Evangelical seminary. How did this happen?
Reforming Fundamentalism shows how the Achilles’ heel of a seminary is the secular concept of tenure.
Tenure is a contractual job security a professor attains after a certain length of service a the seminary. What this does is it prevents him, or her, from getting fired even if their doctrinal convictions shift dramatically from those under which they were hired. Tenure is a death sentence for a seminary.
In other words, a seminary may appoint a professor of hermeneutics who advocates inerrancy, but ten years later that professor may have changed his mind, and may be teaching opposing views in his class, and yet the seminary has no recourse for dismissal. In this way, over time, a seminary begins to rot.
As with a fish, the rot starts at the head and trickles down into the faculty body. If the president and those with hiring power are not men of conviction, the faculty will slowly be infiltrated by theological wolves in academic gowns, and will tear apart the students’ confidence in the Bible until the whole school is a cesspool of worldly philosophy.
1) Subject the seminary to the oversight of a solid local church, and have in the constitution a stipulation that the president of the seminary must always be the pastor of the church. The elders of the church need to have veto power to prevent hiring liberals.
Grace Community Church’s elders oversee the appointment of the seminary leadership, and John MacArthur is both president of the Seminary, and pastor of the church. This anchors the doctrine of the seminary to the statement of faith of a church.
2) The professors should be required to sign the doctrinal statement each year in order to keep their position, and they should be expected to teach what they have signed is their belief.
President Al Mohler of Southern Seminary famously and courageously fired all professors who refused to teach the doctrine they had willingly signed off on. That move reversed the decay of that august institution which was slipping into the same pit of liberal quicksand that Fuller had. Mohler’s Herculean effort provided SBTS with a stay of execution, saving its spritual life, and prevented yet enough theological zombie from dominating the Southern Baptist educational landscape.
And of course, 3) no professor should ever be given unconditional tenure.
Ever since reading Marsden’s book in my first year of seminary, I have had a dream of being part of starting a seminary in South Africa. I pray that God would prevent that dream from ever materializing if there is a risk of it morphing into a Fulleresque disaster. But should the Lord grant us the chance, we would follow the example of the great seminaries in their commitment to guarding the truth, even from themselves.
A related article you may find interesting is: 14 Questions that help you Evaluate a Seminary.