Formative Years: The Seminary Experience

by Ellen T. Charry

Ellen T. Charry is Margaret W. Harmon Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 19-26, 1997, pp. 1068-1073. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Life at “Mainline Seminary” is a choreographed battleground with affinity groups hunkered down in the trenches. There is no doubt that students are shaped by seminaries. The real question is: Toward what end?


Being There: Culture and Formation in Two Theological Schools.

By Jackson W. Carroll. Barbara C. Wheeler; Daniel 0. Aleshire and Penny Long Marler. Oxford University Press, 336 pp., $35.00

The students come excited and a bit anxious and are soon confronted with challenges to what they believe. The eagerness turns to perplexity, anger, sometimes loneliness and self-doubt, and eventually to a fresh understanding of ministry, worship, theology, faith and the church.

Theological education has been heavily scrutinized over the past 15 years, as evidenced by a growing body of literature. Some observers are concerned that seminaries are too much oriented toward professional training. Others complain that the curriculum is too trendy. Others worry that the quality of students is deteriorating. Analysts point out that the student population has shifted, as middle-aged students and second- or third-career students sign up for courses. There has been a massive influx of women into church leadership. Many seminaries seek to attract more women and racial minority students and to expose students to world cultures.

Rather than discuss such concerns or compile and analyze statistics, the authors of Being There watched and listened to and talked to the people being formed at seminaries and to the people doing the forming. Being There is an extensive empirical study in the sociology of education with theological education as a case in point.

Theological schools, whether of conservative or liberal stripe, intentionally press students into the mold of the ethos that is created by the faculty and administration. Theological education is an intense emotional experience; in some cases it is an intellectual pressure-cooker. The hope is that students emerge from the experience having absorbed a more mature and sophisticated understanding of Christianity and the church. At a time when theological educators fear being dictated to by financial considerations, the faculties in this study emerge as fully in control of education.

Three-fourths of Being There consists of descriptive accounts—with much verbatim reporting—of life in two Protestant seminaries. One is an evangelical seminary with a strong Reformed identity—called here simply "Evangelical Theological Seminary"; the other is a liberal, politically correct main line seminary—identified as "Mainline Theological Seminary." They were chosen to represent two major Protestant camps in the Association of Theological Schools.

The descriptive accounts cover classes, community life, dorm life, worship life, field placements, faculty meetings, community traumas and even, in the case of Evangelical Theological Seminary, students’ romantic lives. Four researchers spent three years visiting the two schools and participating in their life. The evangelical school was studied by researchers from the mainline, the mainline school by scholars from the evangelical world.

The culture of each school is conveyed through reports on the student assessments of teachers, the preferred styles of clothing, the marital hopes of women students, and the mannerisms and personality traits that endear or distance members of the communities from one another. This attention to detail, meant to convey the everyday realities of the schools, sometimes gives a soap-operaish feel to the narrative. We learn about Ann and Albert, who have alienated themselves from family and friends by their abrupt decision to get married, and we are prompted to worry about whether they will make it to the wedding. We also overhear faculty members as they bicker over whether a certain comment—made several years earlier by a candidate for a faculty position—was implicitly racist. This sort of vignette definitely gives the reader a taste of "being there."

The larger theme, however, is the students’ response to the faculty’s agenda. Mastering the faculty’s language, learning how to debate within the school’s ideological limits, negotiating the foibles and passions of teachers and other students, figuring out how to be accepted in this community and then how to relate to the folks back home—this struggle can be debilitating as well as exhilarating. The faculties of both institutions believe passionately in the rightness of their respective causes.

At ETS the students come formed by the evangelical youth culture. They know the songs, the lingo and the hot issues of evangelicalism. They come to ETS to get a good education. They are willing to work hard, pray hard and argue hard. They debate the ordination of women and the appropriateness of using technology in evangelism. They negotiate the conflict between the "truly Reformed"— those who articulate a highly cognitive and rationalistic version of Reformed theology—and the more heart-oriented evangelicals, especially the charismatics and Pentecostals. The professors want to put a more sophisticated intellectual and theological floor under popular evangelicalism. By and large, the students are amenable to this. They revere their teachers, even those with whom they disagree. Along with correct interpretation of scripture and a heavily cognitive faith, they learn appropriate evangelical manners.

At mainline seminary students are older and come with more varied life experiences. They too come with much church experience. They approach the church primarily as a social-service provider. At MTS they encounter in the faculty a radical liberation/justice agenda—one that is propounded precisely in opposition to the liberal social agenda the students know and trust.

As portrayed in Being There, life at MTS is a choreographed battleground. Affinity groups are hunkered down in their trenches while teachers stress issues of "justice," "liberation," "racism" and "sexism." White men especially must "duck and cover" as they are pressed to take responsibility for racism and sexism—although ageism, disable-ism and the issue of homosexuality fight for a place in the discourse of marginalization.

Although both schools exemplify how educational institutions socialize their students, the situation at Mainline Theological School calls for special consideration because it seeks to transform mainline Protestantism in radical ways. At ETS, I would argue, the faculty is trying to ground students more deeply in the intellectual heritage of their own tradition and to think through the issues of the day in the terms of’ Reformed theology and piety. This is not to say that ETS is not the site of heavy debate. But those debates take place within parameters set by the Reformed tradition. At MTS, on the other hand, serious departures from traditional Christianity and academic study are assumed to be appropriate, even normative, and do not even need to be argued for.

The teaching style at MTS is confrontational, designed to evoke guilt and shame. It seems like the medieval penitential system in multicultural dress—except that at MTS sinners are offered no clear practice of penance that can lead to absolution and reincorporation into the community. Offenders are left to twist in the wind.

No wonder students get confused. One student asks, "Is it my responsibility to penetrate the black community and interact with my black brothers and sisters, or is it my responsibility to withdraw and let them work out their anger, or should I make myself available to be a scapegoat for their anger?" MTS offers no theological guidance for this dilemma. The effectiveness of the formation is evidenced by the fact that after three years some white male students are grateful to the institution for opening their eyes and leading them to the truth about racism and sexism in themselves and the church.

Rarely does anyone at MTS cross the race and gender barrier to offer comfort and support in the war between the sexes and the races. When the Community Committee at MTS selects Asian-American relations as the theme for an annual retreat, without input from Asian-Americans at the seminary, the transgression is treated with deadly seriousness. The bar of judgment comes down on whites (although we are not told the racial make-up of the committee): "MTS is under ‘white dominance.’ Whites ‘let’ the minorities have some power, but on their own terms," one student opines.

A strict policy on inclusive language is announced to students when they arrive at MTS. Being There records an event at which that new orthodoxy is challenged. A veteran faculty member is retiring and a farewell service at which he will preach is planned. He requests that a hymn he wrote—probably during the days of protest against the Vietnam war—be sung at the service. The problem is that the hymn includes the words "Lord," "Father" and "Almighty God"—now strictly taboo according to the language police. A great struggle ensues. In the end the hymn is included in the service, but students who object pin a protest message to their clothing. There is apparently no thought given to the notion that, in a Christian community, celebrating a faithful and dedicated professor might be more honorable than fighting yet another skirmish in the great gender war.

All in all, MTS comes off as a grim place. The thought of spending three years there, let alone a career, is daunting. The real issues of injustice are obscured by an ethos of hypersensitivity in which each group is encouraged to point out how insensitive the others are. The school seems to be drowning in a symphony of self-righteous complaining.

Exit interviews with MTS graduates suggest that the faculty is somewhat successful in inculcating the gospel of pluralism, inclusivity and diversity. One student remarks that he now has "a fuller understanding and appreciation of the gospel of Jesus Christ." Another summarized the gospel according to MTS in two points: "God does have a sense of humor, and it is possible to be good and dear friends with people whom you disagree with theologically."

Yet other students, especially white men, may be reinforced in the traditional views they brought with them. As one student put it, "at MTS being white, male and middle-class is taboo." Another said, "We white males feel absolutely marginalized. Stomped on, spit on, emasculated." Not only male students are put off by the approach. One female student who came from a "peace and justice" orientation found the divisions and bickering so debilitating that she took refuge in the congregations she pastors and stopped trying to find a place for herself at school. The school’s radical stance drove her to a more centrist position.

One wonders, too, about the effect of this seminary experience on the congregations these students will serve. The polemical and divisive pedagogy of MTS is not easily transferable to local congregations. Unlike students in seminary or delegates to a denominational convention, members of local congregations have to live together over the long haul. They do not have the luxury of leaving town after the fights and caucuses are over. The authors of Being There work hard to remain neutral not only in their interactions with the subjects of the study but also in their assessment of the culture-forming authority of the institutions. At no point do they ask the normative question: Is this what ought to be happening in a theological school? Perhaps this would have betrayed their covenant with their informants.

Because theological schools are the training ground for church leaders they are de facto the intellectual centers of the church. The stakes are very high. The study of MTS, if it represents what is happening in comparable institutions, illustrates why the mainline Protestant denominations are experiencing such turmoil and fragmentation. Polarization and conflict are being intentionally injected into the churches through the seminaries.

The account of MTS raises for this writer a basic question: Is the gospel of Jesus Christ reducible to the gospel of political correctness? At MTS it seems to be taken as self-evident that it is. Little theological writing before James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation seems to be taken seriously. At the time of the research, Cone’s book was used to teach the first-year courses in both "Mission and Ministry" and "Introduction to the Old Testament."

One student makes explicit the faculty agenda: "I was so glad that I had no theological background per se until I got to MTS. Because it enabled me to embrace liberation theology to the point [that] I have embraced it. It became so apparent to me in the beginning of my relationship with theology that this could be the only way that all people despite sex, race, gender discrimination could be freed through Christ." But how could the student be so sure of this judgment, having been exposed to nothing else? All of Christian literature and doctrine has been refracted through the lens of multicultural politics.

It is this reductionism that is the most disturbing part of the portrait of MTS. The testimony of scripture appears to have no autonomous voice. The concerns and insights of Paul, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Wesley apparently no longer have anything to contribute to Christian understanding. The doctrinal foundations of the Christian faith—the Trinity, the incarnation and the atonement—become so many knickknacks gathering dust on the shelf, perhaps needing to be put out in a yard sale.

At an annual consciousness-raising event a feminist student declares that "since Jesus’ death on the cross was not necessary for salvation, God is a divine child abuser."’ This prompts a strong, polarized debate on the atonement in the campus journal, though one observer comments, "What started as a debate about the nature of the atonement moves to more typical MTS concerns about feminism, justice, liberation and praxis."

The philosophy behind the pedagogy at MTS seems to be that we learn to make peace by making war. Moments of cooperation and reconciliation stand out in bold relief, since they are hard won. There is little grace here, little forgiveness, little comfort or salvation. There are passing references in Being There to a more conservative strain in the faculty, but it is barely in evidence. The faculty appears incapable of criticizing its own ideology.

Ephesians teaches that in Christ the hostility between Jews and pagans, on which each group staked its identity, has been destroyed. It is not the combatants who present their grievances to one another and obtain whatever concessions from their opponents they can before suing for peace; it is God who has created a new meeting ground, and without asking the parties to the dispute which is most aggrieved. Those who realize that the situation they live in has been radically changed by God are forced to come to terms with the reality that they are no longer enemies but friends who together celebrate the reconciliation wrought for them by Christ. What their ethnic, racial and gender histories urge them to proclaim as ultimate has been subordinated to the unity of all people in Christ Jesus. Theological schools might be teaching students how to put on Christ, how to adjust to this new eschatological reality, this new creation, the reign of God that they neither create nor have the power to withhold from one another. I remain unpersuaded that MTS is using the best strategy to achieve this goal.

The two schools studied here both want to transform their constituencies: one cultivates a cognitive theological agenda, the other a political agenda. But these are not the only two options. A school might seek to shape the spiritual identity of the church by nurturing students’ knowledge of God through prayer, study and worship.

The authors of Being There have painted vivid pictures of theological education, taking us well beyond impressions, nostalgia and theory. There is no doubt that, positively or negatively, theological schools do form students. The question this book leaves readers with is: On what basis are they being formed and toward what end?