Friday, February 01, 2013

Confessional and nondenominational seminaries

Should seminaries be confessional or nondenominational? By “confessional,” I mean seminaries like Westminster Theological Seminary, Dallas Theological Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Moore Theological College, Asbury, and Concordia. By “nondenominational,” I mean seminaries like Gordon-Conwell and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. 

Put another way, by “confessional,” I mean seminaries that adhere to a particular theological tradition, whereas nondenominational seminaries have faculty representing more than one theological tradition. Of course, where “confessional” seminaries draw the lines is, itself, variable. Some confessional seminaries require tighter packages than others.

I think it’s good to have a mix of both. Each has upsides and downsides.

A danger of nondenominational seminaries, if that’s all we had, is theological relativism. The view that, within a certain spectrum, different theological positions are equally valid.

A strength of confessional seminaries is the presentation of a clear-cut theological alternative. The edges haven’t been worn off by ecumenical compromise.

However, that advantage is offset by potential weaknesses. For one thing, confessional seminaries present their own tradition in the best possible light, while presenting theological alternatives in the worst possible light. If a student is seeing his theological tradition entirely through the sympathetic eyes of its proponents, while relying entirely on hostile sources for his knowledge of the alternatives, that can leave him totally unprepared when he moves out of the artificially controlled environment of the confessional seminary. He’s heard the weakest objections to his own position, and the weakest arguments for the opposing position.

On the one hand, he may find his position confronted with tougher objections that he was exposed to in school. On the other hand, he may be given better reasons for a theological alternative than he was exposed to in school. Suddenly he’s facing stronger arguments against his own position, as well as stronger arguments for the opposing position.

Another potential danger of confessional seminaries is that theological traditions can become so ingrown that adherents lose the capacity to assume the opposing viewpoint even for the sake of argument. You can end up with incommensurable paradigms, where rival adherents can’t even understand what the other side is saying. They are so conditioned by the hermeneutical lens of their particular tradition that they lack the critical detachment to remove that lens and try another lens. They don’t simply reject an alternative interpretation. They find it incomprehensible. They can’t put themselves in that mindset.

That’s ironic because, in order to defend your position, you need to project yourself into the opposing position and see it from the inside out. You’re doing a disservice to the very position you defend, if you can’t temporarily step outside that position to view it through the eyes of its opponents.

So confessional and nondenominational seminaries complement each other. If an amil and a premil share the same office, if an Arminian and a Calvinist share the same office, it’s harder to caricature each other’s positions. You get the best arguments and counterarguments straight from the horse’s mouth. You’re not uninformed or unprepared. That’s the benefit of nondenominational seminaries.

However, because humans are social creatures, diplomatic pressure to get along can result in a disinclination to present a vigorous challenge, or take each position to its logical extreme.


  1. Trinity (TEDS) is interesting because it is technically a confessional seminary of the Evangelical Free Church in America (EFCA). But, the EFCA itself is a broad denomination that recognizes the validity of both credo-baptism and paedo-baptism, Arminianism and Calvinism, and other "non-essentials." I was the member of an excellent EFCA church that was Calvinist and credo-baptist. As for Trinity, their core evangelical identity (which they do enforce) is joined with a latitude allowing mostly non-EFCA faculty...Presbyterians like Kevin Vanhoozer, for example.

  2. Ecclesiastical checks-and-balances.

  3. I went to two schools on opposite ends of the spectrum (Asbury and Union Presbyterian-VA). It has been no small benefit to have done so.