Sundoulos - Summer 2012

Talbot: A Retro-Prospective

by Dr. Dennis Dirks

Seminaries serve in some measure as precursors, antecedents, of ministries in the church. What happens in the school of theology doesn’t stay in the school of theology. To be certain, prevailing movements in the culture also give shape to church activities. Still, seminaries have long been expected to provide certain continuity for the faith and its expressions in ministry, to serve as trusted sources for relating eternal truth to a changing world. But it is not always so.

An enduring thread of suspicion about theological education runs through evangelicalism and has for centuries. Part of the uneasiness is its formal academic setting. Preparing leaders for the Christian community in locales that value careful thought and scholarship is not perceived to mix well with realities of ministry. It’s like oil and water. The degrees of separation from the context of ministry are too great, turning out leaders who are over-intellectualized. The predictable outcome is eggheads who can’t minister their way out of paper bags.

Theological institutions, nonetheless, are remarkably durable. Indeed, total enrollment in evangelical schools has increased during the past decade while numbers of students attending their counterpart institutions in mainline denominations and the Roman Catholic church have experienced sustained decline. Talbot School of Theology celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Its student enrollment trajectory has been upward for most of its six decades of existence, with some leveling the past two years.

Yet what does growth signify more than likelihood of endurance? Of greater lasting consequence are answers to the question: what meaningfully measures the effectiveness of a school of theology? By what metric or calculus is a school’s influence to be gauged? Is it the number of students enrolled or the size of its faculty? Do student evaluations of faculty or the number of books faculty publish serve as appropriate barometers? Does the frequency of references to the school in media or the number of heads that quickly snap around when the school’s name is heard serve as fitting indicators?

The answer to these questions is: perhaps. But of greater import are the nature of a school of theology and its content and process of educating for Christian vocation.1

What Is A School of Theology? 

Schools that prepare leaders to assume places in God’s mission on earth have become rather complex. A school of theology is degree programs with prescribed curricula, classes organized in fall and spring semesters, and in winter and summer intensives. It is students, faculty, support staff, and their families; facilities – classrooms, seminar rooms, libraries with well-developed collections and resources; spaces for quiet conversations or meditation. A seminary is scholarships; assessment of student learning and the quality of the educational process and its services; spiritual formation; community; faculty research, publications, seminars, and conferences; budgets, financial plans to assure the learning endeavor continues. It is a place where lifelong relationships are forged.

The dimensions stated above, however, are intrinsically limited. They describe mere tangibles, elements that can be classified, quantified, or measured. They fail to identify the essence of a theological school, those qualities difficult to discern by simple observation.

The term “seminary” derives from the concept of seedbed, a place where seeds are germinated and grown, where plants are cultivated and then transplanted. Dictionaries refer to seminaries as places of propagation from which there is dissemination to other settings, a helpful though somewhat dated concept. More often, plants (students) come to the garden (seminary) for nutrition and further growth, while propagating (making and growing disciples) in other locations (churches, etc.).

Theological schools have likewise been portrayed as earthen vessels, drawing from Paul’s description of repositories of faith in frail human containers, subject to decay (2 Cor. 4:7).2 A vessel is not a finely crafted sculpture; it is a jar of clay. Fragile and easily broken, it is an ordinary utensil, weak. In many ways, a school of theology is like that.

Perhaps the observations of one leader in theological education approaches a portion of the essential nature of a school of theology: “Seminaries exist to tutor and toughen piety into capacity for disciplined service...[They] need to do the job they were invented to do – tutor pious persons, help faith seek understanding, introduce yet one more generation to the deep traditions of the faith, and educate future leaders in the skills necessary to serve the faith and lead the faithful.”3

Fundamentally, a school of theology is a place where theology matters, where the Word of God matters. It is where care is given to impart the depths of knowledge and understanding of Yahweh, his Word, and his redeeming work through the centuries. It is where likeness to Christ is cultivated, and where skills and practices of ministries are nurtured. Hence, a seminary exists to serve the church. The degree to which that purpose is accomplished is a measure of a theological school’s effectiveness.

Theological Education: A Critique

In the early church, informal preparation of disciples gave way to more ordered forms of preparation such as catechetical classes and schools, then monasteries. Religious communities such as these were gradually followed by schools and universities that became primary venues for ministerial training. Increasingly, attention was given to scholarship, and university models came to dominate.

Theological schools in their present configuration are not without detractors. Formal models of instruction have the advantage of systematizing theological knowledge, but with the tragic consequence of fragmentation of said knowledge. Discrete, organized bodies of knowledge facilitate learning, but with few integrating threads to develop a coherent framework for ministry.

Criticisms that seminaries fill heads, not hearts are not uncommon. Theological schools are where the head grows and the heart shrinks. They are shaped by intellectual approaches to studying the Word of God that are detrimental and sometimes hostile to the faith. Other appraisals conclude that seminaries have no business dabbling in issues of the heart.

Passions for the lost are submerged or even drowned, some say, in an academically charged environment. Seminaries are accused of fostering “seedbeds of heresy.”4 Others judge that the cohesiveness of the curriculum has eroded with increased specialization. Accessibility is yet another concern. A school’s distance from home and ministry, added to steep tuition and other costs that occasion increased student debt, make them improbable investments for ministry and lifelong discipleship.

Talbot seeks to address these and other criticisms by conceiving of its task as educational discipleship. Its stated mission is “the development of disciples of Jesus Christ whose thought processes, character, and lifestyles reflect those of our Lord, and who are dedicated to disciple making throughout the world.” This whole-person, whole-life perspective is in part an attempt to re-integrate bodies of theological knowledge, to reconnect halls of ivy with realities of ministry and service in the marketplace. One leader concludes about his own experience that “...seminary education makes a difference in the quality of pastoral ministry, and...was the most powerful educational experience of my life.”5 It is replication of such an instrumental process in the lives of many for which Talbot contends.

Talbot Then and Now: An Overview

Talbot is one of 261 theological schools that have membership with the Association of Theological Schools, the primary theological accreditation agency in North America. Among ATS-related schools, evangelical institutions now account for 61% of the total enrollment, 46,617 students in all. Mainline Protestant seminaries tally 21,647 students (29%) while enrollment in Roman Catholic schools totals 7,634 students (10%).

Talbot is one of the largest and one of the more complex of these accredited schools. Its complexity can be attributed in part to its scope that includes both graduate and undergraduate degree programs, and to its being situated within Biola University’s multifaceted organizational structure.

Students. Talbot provides instruction for more than 1,200 graduate students in its seminary programs, and for over 4,200 undergraduate students who study Bible, theology, and Christian ministries. In 1992, Talbot’s enrollment totaled 485 graduate seminary students and 1,921 undergraduates. Today, students at each educational level tend toward greater seriousness and passion about their faith, and show increased intensity of desire to grow deeply in Christ, than in recent memory. At the same time, limited biblical and theological knowledge frequently comes with the package.

Diversity characterizes Talbot students, remarkably so among the graduate student population. Students of color now represent 59% of Talbot’s total post-baccalaureate enrollment. In 1992 it was 47%. International students now comprise 13%, while in 1992 it was 9%. Female student enrollment, though reaching a high of 27%, now is 22% of the total, about the same as in 1992.

Faculty. The effectiveness of a school of theology in accomplishing its God-directed mission is directly proportionate to the efficacy of its faculty. In this, Talbot is most favorably advantaged with gifted and capable men and women. In 1992, 23 full-time faculty taught in Talbot’s graduate seminary programs and seven in undergraduate instruction, for a total of 30. Today, 72 full-time faculty serve Talbot/ Biola students, 50 graduate seminary faculty and 22 undergraduate.

Faculty excel in each area of responsibility. In what traditionally has been the principal measure of a theological school, classroom instruction, students unfailingly rate faculty among the top 10-20% in higher education in this country. Careful scrutiny by faculty colleagues similarly rank Talbot instructors at superior levels. These ratings are consistent with what entering graduate students identify as the most important reason they selected Talbot, and what graduating students identify as the most important influence during their theological education: Talbot’s faculty.

Classroom preparation and teaching, mentoring, and spiritual counseling encompass the largest dimension of daily faculty engagement, the heart of the work of a theological school. Yet faculty similarly are expected to contribute to various scholarly activities such as research and writing for books, journal articles, and presentations in academic conferences. Prolific is a fitting adjective. Talbot’s faculty often contribute the largest number of papers and participate in the greatest number of leadership responsibilities at national professional conferences. Concomitantly, active service to the church, the broader evangelical community, and the University are required, and faculty are abundantly engaged.

Programs of study. Perhaps the most observable changes in curricula in the last several decades have been in kind more than number. Concentrations within degree programs have been added and modified, most conspicuously to meet student demands and shifting needs in the evangelical community.

In 1992, Talbot offered six foundational master’s degree programs in ministerial leadership (Master of Divinity, Master of Arts [in various ministry areas]). Now five programs are offered. One foundational master’s degree program for general theological study (M.A.) and an advanced degree oriented toward theological research (Th.M.) were proffered in 1992 and now. Doctoral degree programs now number three (Ph.D., Ed.D., and D.Min.), two in 1992. The number of concentrations for all degree programs totaled 33 in 1992, 37 now.

Talbot’s undergraduate programs comprise 30 semester units of biblical and theological subjects required for the more than 4,200 baccalaureate students, and majors in Biblical and Theological Studies and Christian Ministries. Talbot’s Biblical and Theological Studies division teaches the largest number of credit hours (semester credits taken by students) in Biola University, something unheard of among “credible” Christian universities.

Assessment measures indicate that Talbot is doing well in curricular areas. But careful, ongoing evaluation, with changing realities of ministry and Christian witness needs plainly in mind, is required. Consistency in historic, biblical orthodoxy with clarity for this generation of students must have priority. Yet fragmentation rather than integration of knowledge, at all levels, continues to be true of Talbot’s curriculum, as it is in evangelical graduate and undergraduate education as a whole. We’re improving at this. Isolated islands of knowledge and insular silos of understanding gradually become fewer. Yet the task of integration is without end.

Facilities. When Talbot School of Theology began in 1952, it was accommodated in the facilities of Biola College, first in downtown Los Angeles, then in La Mirada. In 1961, Talbot’s first building, Myers Hall, was constructed. A second building, Calvary Chapel/Feinberg Hall, was completed in 1975. Both buildings combined were designed to accommodate around 300 seminary students and 20-25 faculty. As enrollment and faculty grew, physical space limitations became painfully clear.

This spring 2012, a third building was opened, an advanced facility with eight classrooms, offices for 29 faculty, five seminar/conference rooms, a prayer chapel, a large meeting/banquet room, rooftop garden, and a sunken outdoor plaza to encourage community, for a total of 30,000 sq. ft. But to fully accommodate Talbot’s growth over the past 20 years, another building of 60,000 sq. ft. will be needed.

Talbot in Biola University. At times, Talbot is described as “the pulpit for Biola University,” a designation with quite positive connotations. With the Board of Trustees and Biola’s administrative leaders, Talbot assists to assure that the University stays its theological course, that its biblical commitments since the days of its founding are guarded and sustained. In large measure this is realized through the 30 units of coursework proferred by Talbot’s Biblical and Theological Studies Division and required of each undergraduate student.

Assistance is given to Biola’s academic departments for the central task of evangelical higher education, integrating truth discovered in General Revelation with the Special Revelation. A biblical basis for this is Paul’s account that God through the Lord Jesus Christ is reconciling all knowledge to himself (Col.1:20). Further, Talbot faculty review each University faculty applicant, striving for congruence with Biola’s Articles of Faith and Theological Distinctives, and for appropriate fit with Biola’s mission.

Extensions and other programs. Requests for increased accessibility to Talbot School of Theology’s programs for preparing leaders for the church and other ministry needs has a long and recurring history. Talbot responded more than 30 years ago by establishing extension programs in the San Fernando Valley (Southern California), South Los Angeles, East Los Angeles, and Phoenix. Presently, off-campus programs provide graduate seminary study in Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine, in partnership with Kyiv Theological Seminary, offering a Master of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies; Manhattan, New York, in partnership with Chosen People Ministries, offering Master of Divinity in Messianic Jewish Studies; and Orange County (Southern California), offering nearly half of five master’s level degrees. Cooperative programs in other international locations are under consideration. A partnership with Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) provides theological education for staff members nationally and internationally.

With these factors in mind, a question must thoughtfully and judiciously be considered: are they indicative of the measures of effectiveness discussed above?

Peresistent Forces for Change

One mark of effectiveness is the degree to which commitments are tenaciously maintained, while steadfastly resisting and repelling coercion for unprofitable renovation. Ill-considered change, even those unrelated to theological convictions, can have the effect of eroding commitments. Pressures for makeover are unrelenting. Like the persistent drip of a leaking faucet, insatiable demands for the new and innovative push, prod, and pull. Not all bear promise for genuine, sustainable enhancement. Frequently they reflect little more than fads, products of entrepreneurial minds that, like other whims, have little long-term benefit to the purpose and goals of theological education.

Distinguishing forces that will prove productive from those that will not demands generous quantities of discernment. Perceiving change that clarifies eternal truth or that improves educational processes, while sustaining convictions held since the days of the early church, requires vigilance. Decisions that appear benign may instead move one small click to the left or right of a school’s purpose. Over time, departure from mission may follow with increasing levels of visibility.

One author recently challenged forces of change in the church, stating that “the future of the church is not found in things like that [things that are novel]; the future is in doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday.”7 There is more than a kernel of truth here, and I suggest it is applicable to theological schools as well. While some forms must change as ministry needs change, Talbot is obliged to weigh carefully the consequences of innovation. It is striking to note the degree to which constant innovation is frequently corrosive to organizational stability and mission. Typically, such deterioration occurs in small increments, in imperceptible nudges that accumulate over time.

Over the past twenty years Talbot has contended with pressures that would draw away from theological orthodoxy, that would minimize the richness of orthodoxy’s depth. Forceful arguments have been advanced for things like revisioning evangelical theology; reworking the doctrinal statement to be a “mere Christianity” document that welcomes all who hold to historic basics; contextualizing the faith by embracing practices that wear away the heart of the gospel; welcoming faculty and students from non-Protestant branches of Christianity; embracing open theism; accepting doctrinal novelties and practical innovations of the emerging church; and adopting the new perspectives on Paul. Challenges to evangelical orthopraxy that violate the nature of church, scriptural teaching on church leadership, and biblical principles of worship are unrelenting.

As loyalties to organized groups of churches diminish, a non- denominational school like Talbot holds appeal for many. Concurrently, waning denominational ties influence expectations for what is taught. David Wells, in The Courage to be Protestant, describes a related trend: increased doctrinal minimalism among evangelicals. This too exerts not-always-subtle pressure on the school and its curriculum. Both forces urge incessantly toward ever-expanding theological boundaries.

New Testament scholar Don Carson summarized the typical progression of evangelical organizations. Carson noted that the first generation fights for orthodoxy, the second assumes orthodoxy, while the third generation abandons orthodoxy. As another theological educator observes, “that, of course, gives you roughly seventy-five years before problems start to become evident...Theological institutions always become broader theologically, and the clock can never be turned back in a more orthodox direction.”8

Talbot was founded in 1952 in response to growing liberal trends in theological education and the church. It commenced with firm convictions about the nature of truth, particularly truth revealed in Scripture. So how is Talbot doing now, 15 years before its fateful 75th anniversary? Changes have been inevitable. But without doubt the foundational and most penetrating question must be this: to what degree have changes enhanced or impoverished institutional effectiveness? A theological school’s ongoing task is to absorb what can be learned from forces for change, to continue to sharpen its educational tools, and to seek ongoing advancement in the quality of the leader preparation process. All the while, theological commitments must refuse deviation.

Markers of Well-Being 

So how is Talbot doing? With more than 1,200 graduate students and responsibility for over 4,200 undergraduate students, Talbot is among the largest accredited theological schools in North America. By many such measures, Talbot is considered an effective school.

Perhaps the most revealing measures of effectiveness, however, are found among direct and indirect student appraisals. Undergraduate students in formal evaluations and unsolicited analyses are unvaryingly generous in praise for Talbot classes. Faculty are commended for depth of biblical insight and relevance to life. Talbot faculty frequently receive Professor of the Year awards from undergraduate University students.

Incoming graduate students routinely rate highest these reasons for enrolling in Talbot: Talbot’s theological perspective, academic reputation, and faculty. Students completing degree programs report these areas of personal growth as most influenced by their studies: trust in God, self-knowledge (in light of God’s Word), and ability to live one’s faith in life. The most important influences on students’ educational experiences are reported as faculty, spiritual formation, and biblical studies. The top three skills for which they report satisfaction with progress in relation to future ministry are ability to use and interpret Scripture, ability to think theologically, and ability to give spiritual guidance.

Conclusion

Ominous predictions were made 30 years ago when Talbot was brought fully into Biola University that the seminary would quickly be swallowed by the larger body, that it would lose its distinctiveness. It would be doomed to simply be one small part of a larger whole. The school’s theological edge would be pushed aside and it would become little more than another graduate program in religion.

Thirty years later Talbot is thriving. Now, 15 years before its 75th anniversary, Talbot remains solidly committed to its articles of faith, the school’s doctrinal statement to which it steadfastly declared allegiance at its founding and the reason for which it was begun. The school remains equally committed to preparation of leaders deeply devoted to the gospel, to the theological richness of God’s Word, adequately prepared for the realities of ministry and leadership in a rapidly changing world.

Soli Deo Gloria.
– Dennis H. Dirks

Notes

By Christian vocation I am referring to the variety of expressions of believers’ calling that include vocational ministry, educational endeavors (religious and non-religious settings), missions, etc.

Daniel O. Aleshire, Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008, x.

Daniel Aleshire, Executive Director, The Association of Theological Schools, “Perspective: On Levees and Theological Education,” Colloquy, November/December 2005, Volume 14, Number 2, p. 2.

D. G. Hart and R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Theological Education in the Evangelical Tradition, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996, p. 33.

Aleshire, 2008, p. 3.

Focused areas of study for specific ministries, other areas of leadership and service, or advanced study.

Stanley Hauwerwas, quoted in Anthony D. Baker, “Learning to Read the Gospel Again, Christianity Today, December 2011, p. 30.

Carl R. Trueman, “Knowing the Times: Recent Controversies in Context,” http://www.wts.edu/stayinformed/view.html?id=191, August 7, 2008.


Dr. Dennis Dirks is Dean of Talbot School of Theology and Professor Christian Education. He has been with Talbot for more than 27 years as a faculty member and administrator after serving on the staff of two churches.

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