Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

30 Aug 2016

Scholars or Pastors?: On the Purpose of a Seminary

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Should the chief role of a seminary be the training of scholars or pastors? In recent years there has been much said about the Pastor-Scholar, a breed of theological prodigies capable of handling two full time jobs. While some may be able to maintain such balance, most have to determine the calling God has for them and pursue it with full attention. If so, what is the role of the seminary?

Some scholars skip the premier seminary degree (the Master of Divinity), choosing to take a MA and then the doctorate. DBTS has held that this is a shortcut, preventing the student from the full range of courses needed to prepare one for ministry. If the student responds, I don’t plan to go into ministry, I plan to be a scholar, then we need to continue the conversation. What is the purpose of a scholar?

Recently I came across an author who offhandedly commented that the role of the professor/scholar[1] is to be a servant to the church by primarily serving the pastors. Of course, this seems obvious on one level. Since many ministers are trained in seminaries, professors serve them in this educational capacity. The quote, however, suggested more. The whole purpose of scholarship—the work not primarily done in the classroom but in the office—is to be done in the service of pastors who serve on the front lines of ministry service. In other words, the scholar should continually ask himself, How does this benefit pastors and the church?[2]

If this is accurate—and I think it is—then skipping the MDiv in order to get to the doctorate quicker is not a wise plan. True, the student may get the diploma faster, but he may not be adequately equipped to do the task he is ultimately aiming to do. So, the scholar needs the MDIv, and if so, we are back to the original question, what is the chief role of the seminary?

I would argue that the seminary should be a place that develops the student’s intellectual skills with an aim towards pastoral ministry. While many pastors will not be scholars, they must be competent in the basic skills necessary for scholarship (reading critically, communicating cogently, etc.). On the other hand, scholars may never become pastors, but they must be aware of the needs of those for whom they ultimately serve.

A.T. Robertson, the chief Greek scholar of his day, delivered an address to Southern Seminary in 1890 titled, Preaching and Scholarship. In that address, he found the appropriate balance DBTS strives to replicate:[3]

The German idea is to make scholars first and preachers incidentally. But ours is to make preachers, and scholars only as a means to that end. We have small need in the pulpit for men that can talk learnedly and obscurely about the tendencies of thought and the trend of philosophy, but do not know how to preach Christ and him crucified. The most essential thing to-day is not to know what German scholars think of the Bible, but to be able to tell men what the Bible says about themselves. And if our system of theological training fails to make preachers, it falls short of the object for which it was established. But if it does meet the object of its creation, it calls for hearty sympathy and support. . . . But my plea is for scholarship that helps men to preach. For after all, the great need of the world is the preaching of the gospel, not saying off a sermon, but preaching that stirs sinful hearts to repentance and godliness.

In conclusion, if a seminary is predominantly interested in training scholars, it may be a sign that it has wandered from its foundational purpose—to aid the church by impacting future and current pastors.


[1] I am not suggesting here that all professors are scholars or that all scholars are professors. Most professors, however, strive to also be a scholar in their own field.

[2] One might conclude that this necessarily excludes esoteric scholarship—e.g., Aquinas’s distinction between essence and existence. I would argue, however, that even that topic has its value to the church. No pastor would preach this to his congregation (or at least, I hope not!), but the implications of such a distinction could influence one’s view of God and therefore impact a pastor’s overall ministry. Not every pastor will directly be involved in such discussions, but many will be influenced by trickle down from the broader conversation.

[3] I came across this quote as I was reading the tribute in Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament to A. T. Robinson.

3 Responses

  1. Good points and I think a fair view of the balance that needs to be maintained.

    I see your point about the value of esoteric scholarship but practically speaking do you think the MDiv is helpful to them or the Church?

    What about those pursuing pure scholarship whose value to the church is derivitive, just like the work of a Christian businessperson or teacher, etc. I am talking about scholars like Alvin Plantinga or Stanley Porter whose contributions to the Church are huge but whose work is not directly pastoral because it is directed specifically at the scholarly community. The work becomes useful once well educated pastors or teachers are able to communicate these ideas more broadly, but the works themselves are not likely to be directly useful to most believers. If a believer is interested in pursuing scholarly excellence in a purely academic field do you still suggest the MDiv?

  2. Tim Miller

    Great question. I was speaking here primarily of biblical scholars. Nevertheless, Plantinga provides a helpful example of one who might have valued from a more robust theological education. I have read Plantinga’s Trilogy with great appreciation, yet I think the core of his epistemology is misguided because he misunderstands Romans 1. He argues that the Sensus Divinitatis does not function in some people, causing them not to believe in God. I would argue that Paul’s point is that the Sensus Divinitatis does function for all people, but that in unbelievers the noetic effects of the fall lead to self-deception.

    In sum, I was speaking primarily of scholars who will deal more directly with the Bible. Nevertheless, since all truth is connected to theology, I think all scholars would benefit from a robust biblical base that the MDiv is designed to provide.

  3. Thanks, I appreciate that you were focused primarily on biblical scholarship. I think everybody would benefit from a more robust biblical base, as you suggest. The question really becomes one of cost and opportunity cost with regard to the related benefits it would have to the scholarship produced. If we take my other example, Dr. Porter, the point I was trying to make becomes more clear.

    I am not sure that the MDiv training would have provided much in the way of an advantage with regard to innovative linguistic research into the particular nuances of verbal aspect in Koine Greek. While certainly valuable, the pastoral and theological training of the MDiv would probably not have advanced Dr. Porter’s substantial contributions to biblical scholarship.

    I agree with your larger point, I am only saying that there are non-pastoral and non-theological types of Bible focused scholarship where perhaps the MDiv may not offer much to the scholar beyond the general benefits it would offer to any other person.

    In any case, thank you for the article, and I do agree with your broader point that biblical scholarship should be ultimately performed in service to the Church and that a great many scholars would benefit from the type of training the MDiv is designed to provide.