November 2009


An important concern for many when considering a seminary is the theological perspective of that seminary.  You might guess from the name Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University that our seminary stands somehow in the tradition of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.  But what exactly does that mean as far as you are concerned?

One key aspect of the Wesleyan tradition is the belief that God in His graciousness gives everyone an opportunity to choose Him, while also allowing anyone to reject Him.  As a result, we have a robust understanding of God’s love and believe God prefers to romance and woo the world to himself rather than force it to conform to His will–at least for now.  What this approach means in practice is that, while we are clear about what we think, we are comfortable for you to disagree and to work out your own understanding in connection with your own tradition.  Whether you are very conservative or very liberal, whether you are Calvinist, Lutheran, or Catholic, you are welcome here as long as you are willing to play nice.

Another key aspect of the Wesleyan tradition is an emphasis on heart formation and life transformation as the first order of business.  Far more of what we are lies beneath the surface of our conscious minds than the mere ideas to which we assent.  We believe Jesus to have said something similar when he taught that “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (Mark 7:21, NRSV).  We are thus very interested in who you are, in what you are becoming, in how you walk with God.  The primary order of business in a Christian’s life is Christ-likeness: heart first, head second.

Nevertheless, we affirm the importance of what we believe, and we have strong Christian beliefs.  We confess with the Christians of the ages the faith that God created the world and made humanity in His image.  We affirm that God is one even while eternally existing as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We affirm that the eternal Son took on full humanity through the Virgin Mary and that he rose bodily from the grave.  We affirm that God in His wisdom has chosen to reconcile the world to himself through Christ alone and that Christ will one day come again to set the world right.  We derive these beliefs from our reading of the Scriptures alongside the Church of the ages, and we stand under the authority of that reading.

Alongside these core, common Christian beliefs is much room for diversity of opinion.  Our sponsoring denomination, The Wesleyan Church, allows for a wide spectrum of positions on many issues as we all seek the Spirit’s empowerment to a life fully devoted to the love of God and our neighbor.  We have within our fellowship those who practice believer’s baptism, infant baptism, and those who prefer not to partake in outward ritual at all.  We have those who believe God wants to make the world better and better through the Church and those who believe things will get worse and worse until a time of Great Tribulation.  We have those who believe communion is purely symbolic and those who would like to think the elements somehow embody the real presence of Christ.  We strongly affirm the full empowerment of women for ministry and leadership, but we respect those in our midst who disagree.

In the end, we like to think of ourselves in terms of an old motto: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  John Wesley put it this way, “If your heart is as my heart, then put your hand in mine.”  Together, in whatever we do, let’s “do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

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I write this week’s Dean entry from New Orleans at the annual Society of Biblical Literature convention.  It roams to a different place each year, but it is a place where the best research scholars in the world share their research, where students try out their wings and interview for teaching jobs, where professors stock up on books at 50% off, and where you have great fellowship with a small handful of people who are actually interested in the same little piece of the knowledge pie as you are.

This year I’ve also met with some rumors about the new seminary.  Most of these can be dismissed out of hand.  “IWU is just out to make as much money as they can,” says one.  Absurd!  “… and they’re ‘dumbing down’ seminary education to do it.”  Again, we believe in what we’re doing as a matter of principle and as a matter of where we think the future lies, NOT because we are trying to take some easy way. 

We believe we are righting the priorities of ministerial education.  You may disagree with our philosophy of ministerial education.  Let’s discuss the pros and cons.  Maybe WesSem@IWU could host a conference on the future of ministerial education, and those who disagree can present along side us.  But it comes down to differences in educational philosophy, not to greed or anti-intellectualism.   

1. We believe the vast majority of pastors in America will never don the doors of the traditional seminary. 
It’s easy to forget that there are over 20,000 different American denominations who do not have their own seminary.  Most of these pastors will never go to a traditional seminary.  They will not move somewhere for three years.  They will not move somewhere for even one year.  And I wonder–and this is a hypothesis that needs tested–if most of the churches that are growing right now in America are this sort of church for whom seminary has never been a priority. 

To get to them, you will have to use online education and satellite campuses.  It speaks of one week intensive courses.  What are the drawbacks?  Some will say you cannot have community online or spiritual formation online.  I believe this is incorrect.  Is it easier to have community onsite or spiritual formation onsite?  It probably is–although I venture to say it often doesn’t actually happen anyway at many seminaries.  With the mixture of intensives and online we’re doing, our students knew each other before they met online.  Is it as easy?  Probably not.  But it can be done well if it is a priority, and it is for us.

There will always be a place for onsite seminary education, and we have that option too.  But we will not reach the vast majority of individuals who are actually pastoring right now in America unless we get off campus and teach in a few cemeteries (cf. John Wesley). 

2. Adults learn best when knowledge is self-generated and learned in the context of doing.
That means lecturing should be minimized.  It should be about what students need–what they need to know and be able to do–rather than about professors and their interests.  We require students to be at least 20 hours a week in a local church ministry so that the learning is real.  We design assignments to be done prior to coming to class so that class time is about unpacking, deepening, and correcting what they have already started to learn. 

Are there potential trade offs to requiring them to be in ministry?  Yes, sure.  If you are working 40 hours a week pastoring and trying to do seminary at the same time, it’s going to be tough.  We have wrestled this semester with trying to find the right balance of assignments recognizing that we are requiring them to be working in a local church as well.  If you ask our students from this past semester, you’ll hear that it was tough to do full time ministry and keep up.  But of course, I believe that learning something in the context of ministry is double your money.  You get more learning on less assignments.  

3. Ministers most need to know how to do the work of the ministry.
By this statement I do not at all mean to diminish the need for pastors to know the Bible, theology, and church history.  What I am saying is that they most need to know things like how to lead a worship service or how to counsel someone who is discouraged or how to lead a church board meeting.  “You mean you don’t believe knowing theology is important?”  Nonsense.  But you could have the entire Bible memorized and you will fail in ministry if you do not know how to lead, manage conflict, care for, etc. 

We are interested in theory!  But you can hobble through ministry without much knowledge of theory.  By contrast, you will certainly fail in ministry if you mess up practice.  All Christians need to know the Bible and theology to some level–but you cannot minister effectively unless you are good at the practice of ministry.  We believe the practice of ministry should be the priority.

4. Ministers most need to know how to utilize Bible, theology, and Church history in the context of ministry.
Again, ministers should be trained to read Romans from beginning to end and to know the flow of Church history from beginning to end and the relationships of theology systematically.  But in ministry, they most need to know how to bring Bible, theology, and Church history to bear on ministry situations.  And the traditional seminary approach is very bad at this sort of thing.  It has been fascinating to ask how to teach students to access theology or Church history in this way!  It has been fascinating because even our theology and Church history experts have struggled with how to teach someone how to do this–even though it is the thing that pastors most have to be able to do in ministry with theology and Church history!

I’ve concluded that this is a fundamental statement of the inadequacy of ministerial education as it has long been practiced.  We teach theology and Church history from front to end and then expect a person to be able to access it thereafter.  Most, I believe, end up just not using it at all.  Is it hard?  Yes.  Can faculty experts team teach courses together?  Tough prospect and it requires great care in hiring.  It can be done.

5. The classical disciplines are valid objects of study, and knowledge of Greek and Hebrew is a good thing.
Finally we have arrived at the least urgent priority of ministry and at the same time what typically takes up the most space in most seminary curricula.  But we do believe that studying Genesis from beginning to end or studying the Cappadocian Fathers or being able to read the Bible in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic is significant and a worthy object of study.  It’s just that these skills are the ones a minister needs the least in the day to day work of the ministry. 

Most seminary students use Greek and Hebrew zilcho, even after semesters of study.  Is it valuable?  Absolutely.  Your use of the Bible will always be dependent on Christian tradition if you cannot work with the original texts at all.  To use the Bible with depth you will need to know quite a bit about its original meaning. 

But the first order of business–and here we are really turning the tables upside down–is to know how common Christianity reads Scripture.  That’s how Christians really read the the Bible, how they should the most.  You can be an incredible, powerful minister of the gospel and never know exactly what the original meaning of these texts was (SBL, by the way, is a great place to point out that even the experts don’t agree on what so many biblical texts mean).  We value the depth understanding that only can come from serious understanding of the Bible in its original meaning. But this is a fairly new focus in Christian history, being neither the way the New Testament interprets the Old or the way most Christians throughout the ages have read the Bible. 

These are some of the differences in philosophy we have.  Are we about making money?  It would be nice but seminaries generally don’t make money, and we are frankly aiming to support ourselves.  Are we trying to dumb things down?  Absolutely not!  We are trying to get the priorities straight and give the students what we think they most need rather than what we professors most enjoy.  Disagree with our philosophy–time will tell.  But get the facts straight.

We have three more Workshops in the Missional Church and Change and Transformation classes.  In Week 14 of the Missional Church class, students will turn in the final form of their Integration Paper on a pastoral problem.  I suspect this ongoing part of the class has been the major stresser of the course, but mostly because it is the first time and there was great fear of the unknown.  Week 16 will see the summative application assignment, where everyone will try to formulate a realistic, implementable missional strategy for their ministry situation.

Hang in there everyone!

It has been a great delight to watch several distinctive, possibly iconic types of assignment unfold as we’ve designed the MDIV curriculum at Wesley Seminary@IWU.  One is a particular kind of spiritual formation journaling that we are still fine tuning.  I’ll no doubt report here on it later.

Today I want to share with excitement how innovative what we’re doing is with theological and Church historical research. These disciplines are so consistently taught systematically–from beginning to end!  The idea seems to be that if you know the theologians, if you know the span of systematic theology, if you know the span of Christian history, then you will be able to access it at random to apply it when situations arise.

But how many MDIV students typically get so thoroughly acquainted with systematic theology and Church history to be able to perform such feats?  In fact, it has been quite a challenge for us to figure out how to teach someone to do what all pastors actually do with theology and Church history to the extent they use it at all.  How do you access these disciplines randomly, on the basis of pastoral need, rather than systematically?  How do you find relevant information when you do not know theology and Church history thoroughly?

For theology, we are building a sense of the “usual suspects.”  Not only can one of course approach theological issues from the standpoint of standard textbooks like Oden, McGrath, and Migliore, but we are developing a list of core theological resources to thumb through with each pastoral issue.  Here is the resource list as it has developed so far:

Augustine: The New Advent site is outstanding.  Check out the Enchiridion, for example, a nice overview of Augustine’s thought.  Also his Confessions.

Catholic Catechism: An outstanding sense of the common faith of Christendom, with of course some points you will quickly recognize as foreign to Protestants.  Here is a good table of contents.

Luther: Our new professor hire, John Drury, suggested a helpful way to approach Lutheran thought (even beyond Luther) is the Formula of Concord.  Here is a site where you can search all the contents.

Calvin: His Institutes on the Christian Religion are of course the best overview of Calvin’s theology, found here among other places.  By the way, this Reformed site has an incredible set of links to various historic confessions across the board.

Wesley: Northwest Nazarene University is the place for Wesley sources.  Here are 44 standard sermons and here are others of his works, including his Plain Account of Christian Perfection and Explanatory Notes on the New Testament.

Barth: I suspect you will have to use Google Books to look at Barth (e.g., here) since he hasn’t been dead long enough…

John Drury

This week we are featuring our newest faculty hire, to begin July 1 as the first full time theologian of the seminary, John Drury.  John is in the final year of his PhD in Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and has distinguished himself at every point along the way.  His theological mentors have long recognized him as fully capable to engage intellectually in the academy with the best–and we trust he will in the days to come. 

But his heart is with God’s people, and he is an ordained minister of the gospel who has put theory into practice in the local church while on his academic pilgrimage.  He was raised at the center of The Wesleyan Church (he probably knows too much!) and truly comes at truth with the approach of “faith seeking understanding.”  He is married to Amanda, who is also currently working on her PhD at Princeton in Youth Ministry.

We asked John to present a few words on his vision for what his role at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University might be:

“I am called to the theological formation of the church for the sake of its mission as God’s agent of transformation in the world. Therefore, I understand the vocation of theology as one of service: service to the world, through the church, and especially through its designated ministers. So it is with great joy that I have been invited to join a faculty committed to an integrated curriculum, where theological reflection is consistently placed in service to the concrete practices of the church. Such a vision for theological education fits my own vocation and passion. I look forward to coming alongside those who are ministering in the church in order to learn from them what God is doing in their midst and to help them sharpen their perception of the depth and diversity of God’s work among us. I am especially looking forward to the communal aspect of Wesley Seminary, both in terms of the faculty cooperation in the design and deployment of courses and in terms of the long-term mentoring within the spiritual formation cohorts. I believe that God has blessed and will continue to bless this new seminary, and I trust that God will use me and my particular gifts and calling to advance the mission and vision of Wesley Seminary.”