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Living on the (Seminary) Boundaries

April 27th, 2007 by Jason · 2 Comments

I’ve been reading Living on the Boundaries for the past couple of days while substitute teaching. It looks at the intersection of three disparate worlds: “evangelical women, feminism and the theological academy” as the subtitle puts it. What struck me this morning though was their aside on seminaries where they suggest that evangelical seminary education is quite different in style and culture from a mainline seminary. That much would seem to follow from the differences between mainline and evangelical churches, but the next block is the interesting part:

“[Evangelical seminary] also pulls [students] away from the culture of popular evangelicalism…. Academic faculty are pushing for a more cognitive approach and … the students are attempting to maintain the practices and culture with which they entered seminary…. Evangelical theological training, therefore, can create a significant gulf, for both men and women, between those who have and those who have not attended seminary. (emphasis added)

During my time at an evangelical seminary I noticed this dynamic subconsciously, but couldn’t quite put it into words. My friends were increasingly other seminarians and I found myself feeling like at an outsider looking in at my church. The above quote crystalized it for me: I was experiencing cultural dissonance. While not many would deny Fuller’s evangelical credentials it pushes an emphasis on the importance of intellectual rigor in all things, encourages questions and messy answers which raise only more questions, challenges what the boundary lines for what should define evangelical (more theological and less socio-moral), and positions the “outsider” as important voices—all of which are foreign to some camps of evangelicalism. Even the format is different: in most evangelical sermons the point is to inspire, or perhaps instruct, and it is all tied up neatly at the end whereas Fuller classes would push discussion and questioning with only some resolution coming at the end of the term.

It’s taken half a year of being out of seminary to feel as though I am beginning to be able to find a way to live between both cultures again. And my point is a rather simple one: Seminarians, take heart, your experience is not wholly unique. Churches, allow your seminarians room to breathe, grow, and even welcome the challenges they bring to the table because they are likely providing a much-needed, though often unseen, addition to evangelical culture.

Tags: theology

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Josh // Jun 11, 2007 at 5:38 pm


    I’ve been out of seminary for over a year now and am fully aware of this difficulty. As I self-reflect on my situation, I am coming to understand that seminary was a great gift and a great hurdle for ministry. I have systemically gone through a process of stripping my everyday vocabulary of “seminary language”—a process which was very difficult, mostly because such language was used almost unconsciously. In my attempt to connect with culture I find that I must keep the more cognitive elements of myself in the background—always present and influential, but rarely on the forefront.

    Yet I have noticed an unexpected side-effect—-lonliness. Frankly, I miss the open expression of this language. I prefer to company of seminarians, and feel most at ease with people who quote Barth, Edwards, Dunn, Wright, and Aquinas as naturally as someone else might quote Jay Leno.

    I met a retired pastor a few months back. When speaking on this same issue, he led me into his library…significantly larger than my own library of 3,000 volumes. As we entered he said, “I would like you to meet my friends”. For 50 years, his only intellectually satisfying human company were books. He then said that he constantly reminded himself that his mission was to “make disciples, not seminarians”. His preaching was challenging, yet culturally relevant (in his day, at least).

  • 2 Jason // Jun 11, 2007 at 7:08 pm

    Josh, thanks for your thoughts.

    his mission was to “make disciples, not seminarians”. That is a great reminder and one to keep in mind when I’m in group situations.