An Evangelical Looks at a Mainline Seminary

One of my favorite bloggers to read these days is Timothy Dalrymple.  He’s a social conservative and I, being a gay pastor am…not.  But even though we probably see things differently, his reasoning has always been solid and reminds me that social conservatives are real people and not simply caricatures.

He has an interesting column today about his experiences at Princeton Seminary.  He describes it as the one place where he felt he was an outsider.  This is what he says in summing up his experiences:

  1. While my Mainline Protestant friends are not going to appreciate this, I cannot help but suspect that the unhealthy part of the culture that permeated Princeton Theological Seminary is simply a part of the culture that permeates many Mainline Protestant bodies in general.  The faith and ministry that were modeled at PTS were too much about the aesthetics, the atmospherics, the experience, the rites and rhythms of church life, and not enough about plunging ever-more deeply into (to use the dreaded evangelical language) a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, by which I mean the day-to-day and moment-to-moment yielding-to and being-with Jesus.  Matters of form prevailed over matters of substance.  And when the theological inheritance of the Christian tradition is treated so casually, then so too are the moral teachings.  Our faith does not require us to believe this, we are told; our faith does not require us to do that.  Eventually it’s not clear what our faith really is anymore.  (To be clear, evangelicalism has its faults, but I hope I can speak with charity of a possible fault in Mainline Protestant circles too.)  So is it possible that Mainline Protestant seminaries are struggling, to the extent they are, simply because they belong to a culture that has slowly but steadily carved away the theological and moral commitments that teach us who God is and how he is best known and loved and served?  And since sex is one of the primary struggles for the young men and women who go to seminary, one of the most fundamental areas of life where we are asked to put aside our selfish desires and to remember our covenant with God, would a recommitment to teaching sexual integrity be a step in the right direction?
  2. I was recently asked to chart my spiritual life, and the three years I spent in seminary were represented as a steep downward arc.  Some seminarians will say the opposite, of course, but an alarming number of my friends saw their spiritual lives stall or digress or even disintegrate during their seminary years.  For me, the reason is clear: obedience.  (That was another word that often evoked bewilderment or eye-rolling amongst my fellow seminarians when I emphasized it as an important part of my faith life.)  I have always drawn closest to God when I have been obedient to him.  Why?  Because the act of submitting myself to God over and over again reminded me hundreds of time per day that God is — and the act of surrendering my will to him over and over again reminded me constantly that He is Lord — and the blessings and the companionship that came from having submitted and surrendered myself to him reminded me everyday that God is Good.  In my seminary years, I was far less obedient to what I understood as the will of God than I was in my high school or college years.  Is it possible that many seminarians see their faith suffer in their seminary years because simple, humble and thoroughgoing obedience is not sufficiently emphasized?  And how are just-minted graduates going to begin their church ministries when they have just spent 3 years disobeying and straying from God?
  3. Finally, if it’s indeed the case that there is an elevation of form over substance, and a jettisoning of some very important parts of the Christian tradition, then this will have consequences everywhere.  For instance, students (like myself) who had attended Bible churches or belonged to evangelical fellowships knew the Bible on the first day of the year-long survey course as well as the rest of the students knew the Bible on the final day of that course.  It often felt more important to have the right views on the hot-button issues like the ordination of gays than it was to truly understand central doctrines like the Trinity — much less to, well, love Jesus.

Now I didn’t go to Princeton, so I have no idea what it’s like there. However, I do know a number of folks who have gone to Princeton. So, I ask those mainline Protestants who went there: is Tim’s assessment correct? If not, why?



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