Reflections on Seminary Education

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Today was Luther Colloquy at the Gettysburg campus of United Lutheran Seminary, and it was wonderful to see so many former and current students, as well as community members, come together to hear the lectures, and join in a festive worship service.  The lectures were all very good and interesting, and in the service, the sermon was fabulous–as were the hymns.

We started the morning with a an interesting and provocative lecture by Dr. Tim Wengert, a very well-known, brilliant scholar of the Reformation, particularly Melanchthon.  We got started a little late, so there wasn’t much time for questions and responses after the lecture, and as I had something that I really wanted to say, but didn’t have time to say it, I’d like to go ahead and say it here just so I have a public chance to offer my two cents. [And, as always, this is my interpretation of his talk–others might interpret what he said differently.]

So, first I want to commend one part of the presentation, which was a call for better preaching, particularly including good rhetorical skills and good speaking. I am absolutely in full agreement with the need for a good, strong preaching in our congregations; and particularly the need to preach the gospel instead of using the pulpit as a means for telling funny stories or advancing one’s personal agenda. I’m all for relevant preaching that relates the gospel to contemporary life in the world now, but as Wengert said, preaching is a life and death battle, and it is absolutely critical to keep the good news of Jesus Christ always front and center.

It was where he got into the seminary curriculum, and his assumptions about what seminary students are studying today that I’d like to offer a more pointed response.

I thought it was interesting that shortly after Dr. Wengert observed that he had been invited to Hong Kong and other countries in the region to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, he called to mind with nostalgia his own seminary curriculum from 1970. He emphasized all the Bible courses that he took, as well as church history and theology, all to bring home his point that we need to go back into our history and be more rooted in the tradition.  Now, don’t know his exact curriculum, but if it is anything like other seminary curricula from that era, which I do know, I imagine that the vast majority of authors he was reading were white European men, and that engagement with the rest of the world, particularly the Global South (let alone diverse perspectives in the US) was rare.  See the contrast?  On one hand, Wengert was celebrating the flourishing of Lutheranism in all corners of the world, while on the other, he was lamenting the lack of engagement with the [white European] Lutheran tradition.

While I definitely believe in tending to the roots of our Lutheran Christian tradition, I would never advocate doing so at the expense of the branches and the leaves. So before we insist that we need to go back to the way things used to be (you know how that goes….) I think we need to celebrate all the ways in which our current seminary curricula are much more diverse, much more global, and much more attuned to a wide variety of theological voices, many of whom were marginalized and suppressed in prior decades.

Yes to Greek and Hebrew–but yes also to Spanish and Swahili.  Yes to the Psalms and the Prophets–but yes also to the Qur’an and the Lotus Sutra.  Yes to Luther, Tillich, and Augustine–but yes also to Cone, Gutierrez, and Johnson.

Today in seminary it’s not either/or, it’s both/and; and it should be.

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