Why Study Theology at the University

Chuck FullerChuck Fuller, Theology

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Theological education has changed. When I started my first semester of seminary nearly twenty years ago, it remained a brick-and-mortar, residential experience. At the time, I served a church located 95 miles from the campus, which introduced all sorts of complexity and inconvenience. Yet, it was simply understood that suffering inconvenience was part of the effort to be equipped. Then came online and modular programs, reducing the inconveniences and increasing accessibility in ways that were previously unimaginable. Some bemoan the loss of the campus experience as a formative community, while others celebrate the benefits of blending formal education and field training that these new approaches afford.

This technological revolution has taken place so quickly and with such force that it has, in many ways, overshadowed another change in theological education—at least among Southern Baptists. In 1998, Boyce Bible School of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary became Boyce College, and began to offer a variety of bachelor’s degrees. This marked the entrance of Southern Baptist seminaries, which were previously focused almost entirely on graduate degrees, into the world of undergraduate education—something that had long been the purview of state-level Baptist colleges and universities. Soon, all Southern Baptist seminaries except Golden Gate began offering bachelor’s degrees. In turn, many state-level colleges and universities began to offer graduate degrees, some even building divinity schools. As a result, while technology increased accessibility, new degree offerings (and some might say competition) flattened the landscape and dramatically multiplied the options. For the most part, we should embrace these developments for the simple reason that we have more partners in equipping the saints for the work of ministry.

In light of these changes, I’m frequently confronted with the question of whether a student should seek formal training—at any degree level—through a seminary or through a university. Of course, I’m biased toward our programs at Anderson University. I’m compelled by our vision, convicted by the strength of our faculty, and convinced that our degrees are built in effective, strategic ways. But, one must consider a variety of factors, including current field placement (in a local church or other ministry), family/life situation, specific educational interests, and financial concerns. Nonetheless, the longer I teach, the more I see that training in a university setting offers distinct advantages. I’ll outline two.

Educational horizons

The power of the traditional seminary is found in its size and focus. That the student body and faculty can singularly concentrate on one thing—training ministers of the gospel—comprises a certain glory to behold. Yet, a school of theology set within a larger, more comprehensive university, has its own glory—that of the gospel enlightening every human endeavor. The convictionally Christian university demonstrates the Lordship of Christ over all creation in that the full array of academic disciplines are taught by those who are, at the same time, theologically grounded and experts in their fields. This provides an irreplaceable richness, a powerful cross-pollination that expands horizons and facilitates genuine theological integration. After all, theology cannot be lived in isolation, so it should not be studied that way, either. In the context of a university, theology takes its place as “queen of the sciences,” but with neither myopia nor tunnel vision. Instead, theology provides the center and grounds for all learning—the uni for the university.
Take, for example, a recent faculty forum at Anderson University concerning body/soul dualism. The panel consisted of a systematic theologian, a social scientist, and a biologist. The result was a fascinating foray into complexity, truth, and beauty—demonstrating the wonder of the Imago Dei. As a second example, each year I supervise an undergraduate senior research project or two. Inevitably, the thesis intersects with another academic field, and I quickly refer the student to a colleague, often with stunning outcomes. One student combined insights from human physiology, the arts, psychology, and theology to display the cognitive and volitional effects of sermon illustrations. Another student worked closely with a professor in psychology to consider the problem of narcissism among ministry leaders. Indeed, the faculty member who occupies the office next to mine is a behavioral scientist with a PhD in psychology, two seminary degrees (and a fine exegete, too!), and years of experience in local church counseling. Sometimes his office hours are consumed with inquiries from my students. This is wonderful.

Vocational Readiness

Studying theology in a university setting not only broadens educational horizons, but also facilitates readiness for vocational ministry. The gospel minister spends much of his time helping people see all of life according to the gospel, such that ministry requires a certain social agility and awareness of those who work in various professions. Ministerial students in a university, though, need not ponder long how they will apply Christian doctrine to business people, educators, physicians, therapists, artists, scientists, historians, poets, and mathematicians—because they practice it daily in the learning environment. This is especially true at the undergraduate level, where many core courses are taken alongside students from across the university population, and where some programs offer interdisciplinary classes that demand deeper discourse. In other words, theology students attending a university live among and study alongside the very kinds of people that they will one day serve in the church. In some ways, this is ministry formation at its very finest.

It seems we’re living in a golden age of theological education, especially in Southern Baptist life. We have six seminaries of historic influence. We have a corps of Baptist colleges and universities with growing, innovative programs. As options multiply, consider the advantages on all sides, because both the seminaries the universities have their unique strengths.