Bethel Seminary and the Future of Evangelical Theological Education
The recent events at Bethel Seminary are disconcerting at the least. The closing of Seminary Village was but the beginning of a long and seemingly endless series of baffling measures aimed at the survival of our beloved institution. Instead of resorting to partisan politics and ad hominem attacks either as a quest for revenge or a desire to blame someone, I want to briefly give my take on what is happening and provide some suggestions in relation to the direction I think evangelical theological education should be heading.
My perspective is a humble one since my vantage point is rather lowly: I’m a simple student not involved in educational leadership. Positively, as an alumnus, I have no other interest than a healthy Seminary that thrives and provides the education that just recently has been so beneficial for me in the past. I will try to be as succinct as possible making statements without providing lengthy analysis. Also, I speak as a prophet. I do so merely to justify my lack of knowledge of hard facts and numbers. What is left is my intuition. But this intuition has been issuing alarm signals long before the current crisis at Bethel erupted. This crisis is much larger and Bethel’s woes are merely symptomatic of the larger issue. This speaks to the unavoidable and large scale (and therefore dangerous) nature of the crisis, but also provides an opportunity to think with—or even better—ahead of the times toward a situation in which Bethel again will provide cutting-edge leadership in evangelical theological education.
1. The current crisis is not only about money. It is about what is happening in evangelical education—and what is more—in evangelicalism at large. The way to handle this is (a) first to deal with the finances and then (b) to respond adequately to the underlying problems. That means painful decisions now, but even more painful and confrontational transformation in the future. Evangelicalism, if it wants to remain relevant in the public sphere and the theological domain, will have to embark on the perilous journey of paradigmatic change.
2. The financial problem has to do with—as far as I can see and as far as I get information from the grapevine—(a) decreased giving to the Seminary as it is increasingly seen as a liberal institution that is not faithful to a supposedly biblical theology (whatever ‘biblical’ is supposed to mean in this context), (b) decreased admission of new students, (c) a change in what churches ask from their pastors and expect from seminaries. My suspicion is that these changes in giving, attendance, and need are merely the beginning symtoms of a much broader change in Evangelicalism at large. Protestant Europe, once modernist liberal theology got firmly rooted in the post Second World War era, has witnessed a rapid decline in church attendance during the 60s and 70s. So much so that most societies in Western Europe are now entirely secularized. Christianity maintains a nominal and ritual presence, but not much is left. Church buildings have been sold off by many denominations not so much because of financial problems. Rather they had to be sold because churches without members not only lack money, they so much as lack ‘churchhood.’
3. It is my fear that evangelicalism in the USA is on the brink of a similar change. The battle is here not between conservative vs liberal paradigms, both of which are modernist. Rather postmodernity, seen by many evangelicals as an evil force worse than the Enlightenment—and indeed much evangelical theology is utterly incompatible with a postmodern outlook and its deconstruction—, is finally having its irreversible effect. The old theological paradigms are called into question. Many are asking those questions today and many give knee-jerk responses to the right. Seminary education finds itself hurting from both sides (declined giving, declined admission) and is yet to absorb the real fall-out that awaits us in the near future (declined church attendance). The generation that is growing up today in the evangelical movement might well become the generation of those who grow beyond the church and then continue on to leave it. If true, this is not a failure of youth ministers, but a failure of the evangelical movement and evangelical theology to understand the times and seize the opportunity.
4. The natural and likely reponses will be (a) to make tough financial decisions and cuts where spending is largest and (b) to revert back to a modernist evangelicalism and retrenched denominationalism in order to find renewed access to funds. We know best that from which we come and will attempt to make it our hiding place. This will fail, because this hiding place is a theological construct that cannot stand the test of the times. It worked during the modern period, but is increasingly seen as an inadequate formulation of the biblical message for the new era. A new Christianity is rising, one that embraces many postmodern intuitions and emphases such as the primacy of community, praxis as speech act, the relative worth and truth of theological paradigms, the unattainability of objective truth and the undesirability of trying to obtain it, etc.
5. So changes are urgently needed, not just because of the financial woes, but because of that for which these financial woes are mere symptoms. It is with these winds of change in mind that it needs to be understood that this process is not a matter of making simple business decisions. Prayerful and wise leaders in education with a vision for the future and an understanding of the times are needed. If this does not happen, many evangelical educational institutions—Bethel included— will miss the boat. They will not only decline, but might cease to exist.
6. Part of these changes is an emphasis on the following aspects of theological education. (a) Evangelicalism needs to learn to see that its own theological paradigms are permeated with the idolatry of modernity, i.e. the autonomy of human reason. After all, the Bible is often only God’s Word, because we can logically ‘prove’ it. (b) The plurality embedded in the pietist ideas of theological education should receive full attention. It will provide Bethel with a historical impetus embedded in its own history to engage the postmodern era. (c) Theological education needs to be transformational. As such deconstruction of theological paradigms should not be avoided but actively encouraged. It ought to be followed by an assisted reconstruction that will produce mature leaders who will be able to minister in a variety of environments both conservative and more progressive. (d) Evangelical seminaries should—and can do so without danger—evidence an openness toward alternative theological paradigms and frameworks without surrendering their theological identity.
If there is a revolution underway such as I predict above then it is a blessing that it takes place in the postmodern era. Unlike the post-war period in Europe there is an alternative to leaving the church. Unlike modernist liberalism, postmodernity doesn’t imply the implausibility or the unbelievability of the Christian religion. Rather it opens avenues for multiple voices that are faithful to the call of Jesus and it can help us to be more authentic in expressing this call in our lives together and in dialogue with those who see things differently. Since the need for stringent measures is trust upon evangelical education by way of financial hardship, now is the time to act and seize the moment for change and transformation.