Monday, February 04, 2008

The Deeper Debate about Westminster Theological Seminary

There is a debate raging on-line about the direction of Westminster Theological Seminary. Some are worried that those who favor the more liberal direction of Biblical Theology and lean toward Shepherd and the Federal Vision are concerned that their voices may be silenced. They have started a Save Our Seminary website with all the details. Others like Rev. Lane Keister are concerned that the conservative voices are being silenced in favor of the Biblical Theology department and their innovations. Basically they are concerned for the exact opposite reasons as the Save Our Seminary group. This could be a new front in the war about Federal Vision-like theology, but it is really a strange battleground, one that has me thinking about seminaries in general.

Westminster Theological Seminary is an independent seminary. It serves many denominations, but it is not under any of them. Yes, it has a long-standing tradition and yes it does have a lot of control in the OPC, but it is not under any one denomination. This is not uncommon as most seminaries today operate as independent non-profit organizations including for self-disclosure’s sake the one from which I graduated. There is a long standing debate, especially in my own denomination, about whether or not it is appropriate for an organization that is outside of the church be allowed to train ministers to serve inside the church. And if the Bible gives the job of training men to the church, can the church then give it to these outside groups? We can argue some other time about whether or not seminaries are the way to go or whether or not the apprenticeship model is better. The question before us today is whether any of these people complaining about the direction of Westminster Theological Seminary have a right to complain or should they have expected change and drift from an independent organization?

I do believe that independent seminaries will change and cannot be expected to stay faithful to creeds or even their own original vision statements because they are organizations not under any real authority. It is not a church. One can do a lot of things to pretend a seminary is a church in and of itself. Some have chapels and other worship like activities, but that does not make it the church. It is true that most seminaries would consider their authority to be the church, but in reality it is the Board of Directors. And a Board of Directors is a lot of things, but it is not a church court. It is also shabby for oversight. Most directors do not live in the same area as the actual seminary and may not make every meeting. It may be that the Directors are cobbled together to try and spread the influence of the seminary around to other spots rather than to limit the seminary, to check the seminary, and to oversee the seminary. The President might have some sort of oversight, but the faculty usually has free reign over minds that have come not to oversee, but to be taught and learn. In a local congregation a minister preaches and teaches his congregation that hopefully has an attitude of coming to learn, but he is also preaching and teaching to elders who have oversight or at least a standing to bring complaints before an appropriate body.

Historically Westminster Theological Seminary has already seen trouble with this line between church and institution. It occurred with Rev. Norman Shepherd’s problems there back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Shepherd was investigated by the seminary several times, but the church not so much. Then Shepherd was fired from WTS for not adhering to the Westminster Standards, but he remained a minister in good standing in the OPC. That was about to change when he transferred to the Christian Reformed Church. But the point here is that a man was suspected of teaching heretical doctrine in his class and the discipline stayed within the bounds of the seminary and did not go directly to the church courts. Years later because the workings of a Board of Trustees is not the same as the workings of a church court, the teacher is removed. Now he is in the unenviable position of being fired for unorthodox statements, but is considered orthodox by his denomination. It is just one example of many that could be referenced of trouble that comes from independent seminaries.

There are other reasons that independent seminaries will drift away from their standards other than the complete lack of oversight and authority. Namely the fact that seminaries are academic institutions by nature, and the fact that they are businesses that make more money the broader they become.

This controversy about the direction of Westminster Theological Seminary is an interesting one. However, it is only a symptom of a greater problem. Maybe this new uprising at WTS will lead to a bigger discussion.


DGH said...

There is another website about WTS. You can read about it here:

taco said...

How do you view the situation 4 years later?