I have wanted a seminary education since April of 2017. I can’t sing. I’m not athletic. I’m not an artist. I’m not a great leader or a wonderful organizer. I’m not a visionary or a poet. Even though I love people, I’m not a great counselor, and I’m a mediocre (at best) hostess. There are a lot of wonderful gifts that I don’t have, and I content myself with admiring them in other people. I do have one thing, though:
I can learn like nobody’s business.
Academic learning is the one thing God made me really good at, and it brings me tremendous joy. I was born to love books and seek knowledge. I’m a total nerd, and now that I belong to Jesus, I’m his nerd. I like to believe that he can use my nerdiness for His Kingdom, and it feels natural to seek a formal education toward that end.
The study of the Bible has thousands of years of human labor poured into it, and I would love to draw from that well of accumulated knowledge. I want to sit in a classroom under teachers who will push me into biblical languages, church history, early writings, and sound hermeneutics. I’ve been dreaming about going to seminary since the first day I realized it was an option. I’ve also been trying to find ways to make it happen. The dream part is a very pretty picture…in my head, at least. A lot of hardwood wainscoting would be involved. Huge libraries full of leather-covered books. Stern looking professors with grey hair and soft hearts. Lecture halls out of a period film (instead of the realistic one, pictured above). Oh, and I’d graduate summa, of course, because mama don’t make no B’s. It’s a nice thing to fantasize about.
The reality is a bit more complicated.
DISCLAIMER: The rest of this article is a rant. It’s a personal rant generated by my own personal and anecdotal frustrations trying to find and join a seminary program for biblical studies. The following is nothing more than a collection of my opinions. I’m sure I’ve gotten some of this wrong, but I think I’m right about most of it.
Tuition for seminary is INSANE. I completed a bachelor’s degree in history, paying for it as I went. I graduated in 2014 without debt. It takes some planning, but there are a lot of ways this can be done in the United States. Seminary, however, is another story. The schools I looked into and wanted to attend cost double (or more) what I paid for my undergraduate education. $15,000-$28,000 per year is pretty typical for a biblical studies degree. I paid less than $10k/year for my BA. I’m not asking for some kind of Ivy League credential here; I just want formal training in the Bible. Unfortunately, you can’t get it in this country unless you’re rich, willing to go into 6-figure debt, or lucky.
I applied to two different Baptist seminaries with online programs for a Masters in Biblical Studies. Both, in the end, were just financially out of our reach. I’m 45 years old. Even if I were willing to toe a doctrinal line I don’t believe in for the entire course of my education (which is stifling and counter-productive, but I’d do it), I’d be in astonishing debt for–literally–the rest of my life.
Which brings me to the next problem with seminary in America…
Good luck if you’re not a Baptist. I am growing increasingly aware that “Evangelical Christian” in America is synonymous with “Baptist.” Dispensational Calvinism is pretty much the only recognized flavor of Protestantism in this country as far as formal religious education goes. There are Catholic schools and Baptist schools, and that’s about it. There are Lutheran seminaries in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and you can find Lutheran Bible colleges in Canada. Hope you’re able to uproot and move north for 2-6 years, right? I suppose if I win the lottery I could learn German and study overseas?
In seriousness, you’ll likely find one or two seminaries for your tradition (whatever it is), but the schools probably won’t be anywhere near you, and they will almost certainly cost more than the largest and most accessible seminaries, which are Baptist. The point is that Baptists dominate American Protestantism. There are actually like 20 different kinds of Baptists, but they form a sort of unified bloc I don’t fully understand when it comes to seminaries and church organizations. Because of the Baptist denomination’s size, the best and most affordable schools are Baptist schools. What this means is that any American who goes to seminary will likely be studying under a doctrinal statement of complementarian, conservative Calvinism. If you want to explore anything other than that, you’d better be a Roman Catholic or have a rich uncle somewhere who loves you.
This shouldn’t be all there is.
The Ivory Tower is real, and it’s firmly padlocked. Bible scholarship, which includes the study of Ancient languages, manuscript history, textual criticism, and a serious immersion in Scripture, is apparently a very small world. Despite the number of people I’ve met and spoken with who yearn for that level of learning and involvement (there is a teeming mass of us), there aren’t a lot of biblical PhD’s running around in the United States. There are so few that they all seem to know one another personally. I don’t need a PhD. I just want to learn what I need to know for teaching the Bible. My point is: the circle of biblical scholarship is very tight, very small, and very set apart from the Body of Christ as a whole…but this handful of human beings controls the access to what many of us are desperately crying out for.
One of the reasons men like N.T. Wright (UK), Tim Mackie (US), and Michael S. Heiser (US) are so beloved and well-known is that they are the only English-speaking bible scholars–legit PhD’s in biblical subjects–walking the earth today who seem passionate about bringing scholarly content to the average Christian in the pew. All three of these men have spent their careers trying to make the discoveries and inquiries of higher biblical learning available to the laity. Some of their academic papers are available to the public instead of locked behind academic journal access. Their books are published for general readers instead of relegated to textbook publishing at $100+ per title. You can access the work of Wright and Heiser. Mackie turns his into explainer videos online.
There are a few others who make themselves available, and there are a few who have been utterly chewed up by the seminary system. Peter Enns was a seminary professor, but now he writes books and has a podcast for the public. His work doesn’t seem to be aimed at teaching anymore, though. I can’t say that I blame him. Walter Brueggemann is still with us, I think, and he has published books and essays for the laity on several topics. But where are the rest of them? Why don’t we know their names? I don’t get it. Maybe “we” know their names and I’m just behind the curve. That’s a distinct possibility.
Dr. Heiser is working with a megachurch in Florida to create a seminary-like set of courses that will be affordable and accessible online. Dr. Mackie is doing something similar through the Bible Project. This is a step in the right direction, but it’s not going to be a viable alternative to seminary if you want to make your living in vocational ministry.
The State (big “s”) is all up in the seminary’s business. Like every other form of post-secondary education in the U.S., seminaries are generally funded, in part, by federal money. This means that seminaries are subject to Title IX laws and any other federal legislation that affects secular schools. In practice, this results in seminaries that can (and will) be forced to comply with laws that violate doctrinal positions. That’s the primary danger, but inflated tuition because of federal loans and bureaucracy clocks in as a close second. The state isn’t separated from the church in seminaries, and I’d guess that’s a huge part of the problem.
Another very real result of state interference in higher learning is the concept of accreditation and what that has evolved into for pastoral vocations (and vocational ministry of other kinds). The Master of Divinity degree, which can only be earned in a regionally-accredited school, has become a requirement for almost any pastor position in the United States, across Protestant denominations. If you didn’t go to a state-funded and accredited seminary, then you don’t have an MDiv. If you don’t have an MDiv, you’re not getting hired as a pastor in America. There are exceptions, but there’s a reason they’re called exceptions. Matt Chandler of the Village Church, for example, doesn’t have an MDiv, but he planted that church, himself.
I don’t know what the solution is, but this isn’t what the church should look like. This shouldn’t be the only path for pastoral vocations. It shouldn’t be the only path for teaching vocations. It shouldn’t be the only path, period.
I just want to learn the Bible, and I want to earn my competence by sitting under proper teachers. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I know that if I’m right–if this impulse I have to teach and combat biblical illiteracy is truly a Spirit-led vocation–then God will provide a way for me to serve. I will be equipped by some other path. Seminary is not the only way.
But it’s the most efficient one…and it should be more reasonably attainable.
Without seminary, the road to competence for teaching will be a much more circuitous and obstacle-laden route. I’m not a young woman at the beginning of her life. I have to get it right the first time, so I’m trying to be deliberate, careful, and circumspect about the whole thing.
If a seminary education in the Bible were accessible to people like me, I could be standing on a proper foundation for the work I feel compelled to do in about two years. With the system as it is, however, I don’t see a way to get there. The Lord will provide, but it seems to me that the obvious path ought to be easier to follow.