Whither evangelical theological education?
If you were an American evangelical Christian growing up in the second half of the 20th century, looking to get some quality seminary education, there were always three top options available: Fuller Theological Seminary in Los Angeles, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston.
That pretty well covered the west, east, and middle of America with three top-notch conservative evangelical institutions. Yes, there were others, but these three were routinely regarded as the cream of the crop. Simply consider some of the profs that taught at these institutions over the years:
Fuller (founded in 1947): Gleason Archer, George Eldon Ladd, Harold Ockenga, Carl F. H. Henry, Harold Lindsell, Edward John Carnell, John Goldingay, Lewis B. Smedes, David Allen Hubbard, J. Edwin Orr, Joel Green, and Richard Mouw.
Trinity (founded in 1963): John Woodbridge, Norman Geisler, D. A. Carson, Gleason Archer, Kenneth Kantzer, Walter Kaiser, Wayne Grudem, William Lane Craig, John Warwick Montgomery, Clark Pinnock, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Bruce Ware.
Gordon-Conwell (founded in 1969): Roger Nicole, Harold Ockenga, R. C. Sproul, Meredith G. Kline, Haddon Robinson, Richard Lovelace, Gordon Fee, John Jefferson Davis, David Wells, Gregory Beale, Douglas Stuart, and Walter Kaiser.
If you are at all aware of evangelical scholarship and academic excellence, these would all be very common names. And if you included the alumni from these schools, you really would have a quite substantial who’s who of evangelical leaders, professors, missionaries, academics and pastors.
As an American growing up during this time, I was well aware of all these names – at least once I became a Christian in 1971. I read many of their books and I heard some of them speak. I ended up attending Trinity College (1975-1977), which shared a campus with TEDS, and I often snuck across the road and sat in on seminary classes there. And I attended GCTS from 1985-1987.
But not all is well with contemporary theological education. Many institutions in America – as is the case here in Australia – are in decline, losing student numbers and being forced to downsize. I have taught at four Bible colleges here, and some are now closed or have merged with others.
As to the American seminaries, three recent articles deal with the big three that I just mentioned. And my article is a result of a social media post I just saw from a friend who is an American professor: Robert Gagnon. He had shared a new article from Christianity Today about one of these schools. It was about how a financially beleaguered GCTS is now moving from the suburbs into the city. It begins:
After years of declining enrollments, budget deficits, and deep faculty and staff cuts, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has decided to sell its 102-acre main campus in Hamilton, Massachusetts. President Scott Sunquist told CT that if the bold move is successful, the seminary will be “on better financial ground than it has been in 30 years.”
The Hamilton campus—a hilltop property just outside the metro area that was previously owned by Carmelite Catholic monks—has an assessed tax value of about $54 million. Gordon-Conwell is set to begin discussions about amending its zoning with the Hamilton city council on Tuesday. If the town agrees to put the property into a commercial overlay district, the value could significantly increase.
The money from the sale of the property will go to Gordon-Conwell’s endowment. That will allow the seminary to lease classroom and office space in Boston, hire back a few faculty for positions that have been left unfilled, and remain solvent without dramatically increasing enrollment. “We plan on growing,” Sunquist said. “But we won’t have to grow much if we can stay steady.”
Gordon-Conwell’s enrollment has declined from 1,230 full-time equivalent students in 2012 to 633 in 2021, according to data from the Association of Theological Schools. Tax records show that from 2016 to 2019, the school ended each year with an annual deficit between $600,000 and $2.4 million.
The challenges are not unique to Gordon-Conwell. Many seminaries are facing declining enrollments with the declining birthrates and increased secularization in the US. There are about 4 million fewer people in Gen Z than in the millennial generation, and 44 percent of those born after 1996 do not identify with a religious tradition. Only about a quarter of those under 26 attend a religious service once a week or more. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2022/may/gordon-conwell-sell-campus-financial-enrollment-struggle.html
And last month the magazine covered a similar story about Trinity:
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) has cut nearly $1 million in spending, hoping to head off financial disaster as the seminary’s enrollment numbers decline. President Nicholas Perrin told faculty and staff on Thursday that the suburban Chicago seminary has to make some “pretty fundamental changes in how we go about our business plan and mission.”
Trinity International University (TIU)—which includes an undergraduate school with two campuses, a graduate school, and a law school, in addition to the influential evangelical seminary—is concluding the first part of a three-phase process of “creating efficiencies.” The first phase is focused on the seminary. It includes “reshaping the personnel” so that TEDS can carry out its mission “in a revenue-effective way,” Perrin said in a recording obtained by CT.
TEDS, never a big school, has long had an outsized influence on evangelicalism. The seminary made a name for itself in the defense of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and served as the birthplace for Sojourners magazine. It was the institutional home for theologians D. A. Carson, Wayne Grudem, Clark H. Pinnock, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Bruce Ware, and has produced scholars such as Scot McKnight, Douglas Moo, Mark Noll, and David F. Wells. What happens at the Deerfield, Illinois, school reverberates in evangelical institutions across the country.
Last week, the seminary eliminated at least seven faculty positions. A spokesman for the school declined to give exact numbers. Multiple professors, speaking on the condition that they not be named in this article because they are not authorized to speak for TEDS, said two faculty members have taken early retirement, three have accepted positions at other schools, and two have been terminated. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2022/april/teds-financial-trouble-crisis-perrin-faculty-cuts.html
And a few years ago Fuller was about to move as well, but that did not eventuate:
Citing restrictions on selling its current Pasadena property and unexpectedly high construction costs, Fuller Theological Seminary officials announced it won’t be moving to Pomona, California, in 2021 as planned. Fuller president Mark Labberton said Southern California’s high construction costs—higher than the school’s conservative estimates—and “differences with the City of Pasadena” over the sale of the land led the board on October 24 to vote unanimously to stay at its 13-acre Pasadena location.
“Our board just decided … that though our plans were so full of promise and hope and our welcome in Pomona had been so great, that the better and wiser decision for the long-term wellbeing of Fuller is to stay here in Pasadena,” Labberton said in a statement posted last week on the Fuller website.
In May 2018, the Fuller board had unanimously voted to leave its main campus, which had been home since its founding more than 70 years ago, and move about 30 miles east to Pomona. The decision to leave Pasadena followed downsizing efforts the year before, when Fuller closed three of its eight satellite campuses and cut degree options at two more.
Leaders hoped a relocation to Pomona would alleviate financial pressures. The high cost of living in Pasadena had created hardships for many Fuller students and faculty and limited the school’s ability to reach potential students, according to its website.
But Pasadena Now reported that the plan was halted when Fuller could not sell some of its buildings for prices previously expected because of a development deal the school made with the City of Pasadena over 10 years ago. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/october/fuller-seminary-pasadena-campus-cancel-move-pomona.html
Whither theological education?
There you have it: the three premier evangelical seminaries in America are all struggling. Revenue is down because student numbers are down. As I say, things in Australia are similar. So what is the future of biblical education, whether at a graduate or undergraduate level?
Good question. It will not disappear, but it may well be changing. Denominational schools still exist, as in Ridley College in Melbourne for Anglicans, or Whitley College for Baptists, also in Melbourne. But some churches are now trying to offer their own theological education, although on a smaller and less academic level.
Online learning of course is big now, and may continue to grow at the expense of campus-based education. Why all this is happening however was mentioned in the above article on GCTS. The West is becoming more and more secular, so interest in theological education is declining.
The importance of truth in the West is fading fast, and emphasis on feeling and experiences tends to dominate. And the churches themselves may be getting increasingly dumbed down, theologically speaking. Theology and sanctified minds are not high up on the lists of most Christians today.
Of course the centre of gravity for global Christianity is shifting, with Asia, Latin America and Africa now the places where church growth is taking place. So theological education there will still be needed. But the fate of seminaries and the like in the West remains to be seen.
It seems that evangelical publishing houses are still going strong, with many thousands of theological works published every year. So interest in theology and evangelical academic titles remains. Whether the evangelical classroom will keep on going however is a moot point. Time will tell.
But I did well to be a student back then when all this was still in its prime.
For further reading
Upon completing this article I did a very quick search for more on these matters. While I am sure there is more up-to-date stuff out there, two articles – both a decade old – raise some good points for further consideration: