A Dead Duck? The Future of Confessional Theological Education

A board member from Claremont School of Theology was recently quoted as claiming that, “The confessional seminary is a dead duck.”  The quote was reported in an article written by Mark Tooley for The American Spectator on the recent and controversial announcement by Claremont that they intend to begin participating in an effort to train Jewish and Muslim clerics.  The statement from the unnamed board member should cause anyone with knowledge of current theological education in the United States to raise a quizzical eyebrow.  A dead duck?  A quick glance at the current enrollment stats of theological schools will reveal that this statement is, at best, an embarrassing display of ignorance and, at worst, a ridiculous refusal to pay attention to the actual evidence.
The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) publishes enrollment figures in their Annual Data Tables.  The following information is taken from Table 2.15 of the 2009-10 document.  Numbers in parentheses following the names of each school are the total headcount of the institution as reported by ATS. 
The largest seminary in the United States is Fuller Theological Seminary (4,038).  While Fuller maintains a statement of faith that is distinctly Christian and confessional, it has gained a reputation for moving away from its evangelical roots.  The second and third largest schools are, respectively, Southwestern (2,591) and Southern (2,585) Baptist Theological Seminaries.  Both of these institutions would be considered some of the most stringently confessional, conservative, and evangelical seminaries in United States, if not the world.  Indeed, in 2005, Southern reported the need for more class hours due to high levels of increased enrollment.  The fourth and fifth largest schools are Dallas (1974) and Gordon-Conwell (1892) Theological Seminaries, both well-known for evangelical and confessional stances.  Rounding out the top eight are New Orleans Baptist (1665) Southeastern Baptist (1643) and Asbury Theological Seminary (1571).  All of the top eight seminaries can be considered confessional and together represent an enrollment of almost 18,000 students.
These numbers should be kept firmly in mind when considering the statement by the Claremont board member that confessional theological education is a dead duck.  ATS reported an enrollment of 353 students at Claremont in the fall of 2009.  Claremont has less than 9% of the enrollment of Fuller, the largest seminary, and less than a quarter of the enrollment of Asbury, which is at the bottom of the top-eight list. 
The numbers clearly show that confessional seminaries dominate the theological education market.  It would seem that this outspoken Claremont board member, if he has looked at the data, has forgotten to open his eyes.  If he is not familiar with these numbers, it means that he has oversight responsibility for an institution in a field of which he has absolutely inferior knowledge.  Claremont should be embarrassed by such an uninformed and ridiculous statement coming from one of its representatives.  The confessional seminaries are hardly dead ducks.  In reality, they have more students than the more theologically liberal institutions.  Most, if not all, of the schools in the top-eight list have numerous extension sites in order to meet the rising demand for confessional and evangelical theological education.  Indeed, one is led to wonder if Claremont is reaching out to other religions precisely because they are having a hard time attracting Christians to study there.  When the data is considered, despite the silly claims of this board member, confessional theological education is alive, well, and growing.

Will There Be Time in Eternity?

I’ve met Christians, both lay and clergy alike, who have claimed that time will cease to exist once we enter eternity at the second coming of Christ.  Indeed, I held such a view myself for many years.  I imagine that we are largely influenced by some of our hymnody.  For example, one well-known tune speaks of the day the day when “time shall be no more.”  I also suspect that we are influenced by dualistic platonic philosophy that has seeped into popular culture pitting this world of time, space, and matter against the next world of purely spiritual existence.  Whatever the reasons, though, we would do well to turn to the scriptures for our answer to questions like this.
When we do turn to the scriptures, the concept of time seems present in the first clause of the first verse of the first book of the Bible: “In the beginning.”  The notion of beginning is incomprehensible apart from the concept of time.  As we proceed through the opening chapter of scripture, we find that time is present repeatedly.  There is evening and morning that mark the days of the first week.  Indeed, five of these evening and morning cycles pass before human beings are created on the sixth day, and an untold number of these daily cycles pass before sin and corruption ever enter the picture in Genesis 3.  It would seem clear that time and linearity are part of God’s pristine creation upon which he pronounced his approval of “very good.”  If time is part of God’s original and good creation made for human beings to inhabit, I see no reason why we should suspect that time will ever be done away with.  We must conclude, regardless of one’s interpretive approach to Genesis 1-2, that time is said to precede humanity and, by chronological necessity, human sin. Time is not a sinful and wicked perversion of God’ creation; it is, rather, a part of God’s original creation that is presently in need of redemption.
Moving from original creation to the vision of new creation in Revelation 21-22, we find evidence that time is brought forward into the new earth.  After the return of Christ and the consummation of his kingdom, it is said, in Revelation 22:2, that the tree of life produces fruit twelve times a year (or monthly), a truly astounding vision for those who’ve made a life in agriculture.  This text would seem to clearly indicate that linearity has been given a place in new creation as well.  Time is not to be cast off; it is to be renewed.
Let me be clear.  I’m not proposing that our experience of time in the new earth will be exactly as it is in the present.  Like all creation, time is eagerly expecting its freedom from bondage to decay into the glory of the liberty of the sons of God.  Like all creation, there will be both continuity and discontinuity between our present experience of time and our future experience of time in the new creation.  Whatever that turns out to be like, scripture seems clear that things will forever be moving forward in a measurable linearity.  We can conclude then that through and through the biblical vision of the original pristine creation, the present fallen creation, and the future and eternal new creation is marked by the presence of time.
NB: I must give credit where credit is due.  The first person to introduce this notion of eternal time to my thinking was my friend John S.  So, thanks to him for pushing me to take account of the biblical material rather than be misshaped by popular music and bad philosophy.

Can We Speak of the Righteousness of Christ?

In recent debates over the Reformation doctrine of Justification, the phrase “the righteousness of Christ” has come under heavy criticism.  The doctrine of Justification asserts that a person is justified, or declared righteous, before God only because the righteousness of Christ has been imputed or reckoned to that person through faith in Christ.  The controversy comes because the specific Greek phrase dikaiosunē Christou (the righteousness of Christ) does not appear in the New Testament.  Thus, the argument goes, it is inappropriate to say that the Bible speaks of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.  Any response to this challenge in favor of the traditional Reformational formula faces a dual task.  First, it must be shown that the language of righteousness is used with regard to Christ such that there is a righteousness that is uniquely his.  Second, it must be shown that the New Testament speaks of this unique Christ-righteousness as being shared with, or reckoned to, human beings.  

With regard to the first task, it may well be the case that the specific phrase “the righteousness of Christ” is not found in the scriptures.  It is also the case, though, that the scriptures speak of the justification of Christ.  First Timothy 3:16 says clearly that Christ was “justified in the Spirit.”  This action is referring to Christ’s resurrection where God overturned the verdict of the human courts and declared Jesus to be justified before the heavenly court.  One who is justified is righteous.  So, even though the precise phrase “the righteousness of Christ” is not in the New Testament, the scriptures certainly speak of the resurrection as constituting the verdict that Jesus is indeed uniquely righteous.     
With regard to the second task we turn to those passages of scripture which speak of the believer being united with Christ in his death and resurrection.  One such passage is Romans 6:5, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  The language of “union” here is the language of covenant.  With his death and resurrection, Christ inaugurated a new covenant, of which the benefits become ours when we are united to him through faith.  Thus, if we are guaranteed final resurrection by virtue of our union with Christ, because what is true of him is true of those who are united with him, then we are guaranteed the final declaration of justification by virtue of our union with Christ.  His resurrection guarantees our resurrection and our final justification.  Present justification by faith is an anticipation of that future and final justification.  This should not be thought of as two verdicts, by the way, but the one verdict of the future realized in the present through faith.  The point is that the unique righteousness that belongs only to Christ by virtue of his resurrection is shared with those who have faith-union with him such that they too can be said to be righteous or justified.  And what is the basis of this justification?  It is nothing other than the declaration of righteousness granted to Christ at his resurrection because of his obedience unto death which is then transferred to believers through union with him.  And what is the word used to describe this covenantal transfer of righteousness by virtue of faith-union with Christ?  It is nothing other than imputation. 
To summarize the argument, we can say that we are justified through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ because Christ’s resurrection constitutes the verdict of God that Christ is indeed justified, or righteous.  Through faith-union with Christ, his unique righteousness is granted to believers precisely because we share all that is his in union with him.  Our resurrection from the dead will be the ultimate realization of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us.  This is why Paul can write that Christ was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25).  Christ was justified in his resurrection.  Insomuch as we are joined to him, the verdict of righteous that is his in the resurrection is imputed to us through faith. 
All this is phrased with excellence in the final verse of Charles Wesley’s hymn “And Can it Be that I Should Gain.”  The emphases are mine, of course.
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him, is mine;
Alive in him, my living head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

The Folly of Feel-Good Worship

In light of the wave of seeker sensitive approaches to worship in recent years, this quote from Richard John Neuhaus seemed quite refreshing:
“The sign on the front of a Presbyterian church in Indianapolis reads: ‘Join Us For Worship. You Will Feel Better For It!’ It is far from obvious that worship will make one feel better. To be sure, in a very ultimate sense, surrendering oneself to God in thankful trust will make one be better.  But along the way to being better the Christian is sure to go through times of feeling worse. Repentance, after all, involves a painful loss of self, an abandonment of false securities, and the travail of new birth.  It is also true with respect to what happens on Sunday mornings: Woe to you when they say it feels so good” (Freedom for Ministry, 139).
Worship that caters to the selfish interest of avoiding discomfort is probably not worship of the God revealed in Christ crucified.  Christian worship should be an encounter with God wherein our unworthiness is laid bare.  Why would anyone expect to avoid discomfort in a religion the chief symbol of which is an instrument of ancient executions.  Inasmuch as true worship is part of following a crucified Lord, it will sometimes be deeply uncomfortable and perhaps even excruciating.  But, like the torturous death of our Lord, it will become our salvation and bring us ultimately to true comfort.

United Methodist Revitalization: What Will it Take?

In light of current decline in the United Methodist Church and the recent announcement by Claremont School of Theology that they intend to begin training leadership for non-Christian religions, I’ve been reflecting on what will be necessary for the United Methodist Church to once again become a Christ-centered and Spirit-empowered denomination of thriving vitality.  Here are three things:
  1. Gospel Clarity and Conviction – In 1 Cor 15:3, Paul refers to the gospel as that which is of “first importance.”  As far as Paul is concerned, the meaning of the substitionary death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ are absolutely essential to anything that can be called Christian.  To say that the gospel is of “first importance” is to say that, without it, we don’t have a church.  If the UMC is to be revitalized, then we must come to grips with the absolute centrality of the gospel.  It is the foundation upon which all of our ministry is built.  I dare say that Claremont’s decision to train leaders of non-Christian religions is a public denial of the gospel.  The church’s task is not to solve the world’s problems working along with other religions.  The church’s task is to preach the gospel to the nations as the means of grace through which the Holy Spirit of the only Living God has determined to regenerate the spiritually dead and bring them into his family, his church, and his kingdom.  The church’s task then is to teach these converts to obey everything Jesus commanded.  I hear some talk about the gospel in the UMC.  What I don’t hear is a clear and biblical articulation of the gospel.  If we abandon the gospel of grace for a so-called gospel of social transformation to fix the world’s problems, then we may very well find our denomination under the curse of Galatians 1:6-9.  No church can get the gospel wrong and be successful.  Without gospel clarity and the Spirit enabled conviction to declare the good news to the nations, we will not be revitalized.
  2. A Renewed Confidence in the Truthfulness and Authority of Scripture – Some parts of the UMC have thoroughly abandoned the authority of scripture in favor of their own preferences.  This is perhaps most apparent in our denomination’s debate over human sexuality and marriage.  In the Old Testament, when the people of God neglected the Word of God, they lost it.  God withdrew his Word and his presence and sent them into exile in a foreign land.  Ultimately, when they rejected the Incarnate Word of God, they were likewise judged by God and fell to the Roman Empire in 70 AD.  If we in the UMC do not recover our trust in the veracity of scripture and its authority, we should likewise fear that God will withdraw his life-giving Word from us as well.  I long to see United Methodist pulpits all over the nation and world aflame with a passion for God and his Word.  Without that, we have no hope for denominational vitality. 
  3. Clarity of Mission – One of the main problems in the UMC is the separation between the people in the pews and the denominational Boards and Agencies.  Many in these boards and agencies are basically running their own personal lobbying groups that do not necessarily reflect the mission, values, and discipline of the UMC.  When Annual Conferences send petitions to the General Conference that might interfere with the particular interests of the Boards and keep them in check, they dispatch full-time people to undermine the effort in order to maintain their personal preference regardless of how well it fits with the denominational mission.  In these challenging times, the UMC will have to trim down and be clear on what we are about.  All the extra pet projects of Board staffers will not be sustainable.  The Boards need to be evaluated on how well they are advancing the mission of the denomination, which is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  If we don’t trim off the excess and focus on the mission, we may not see a day of revitalization.
Much more could be said on the topic of United Methodist renewal.  These three items may seem overly simple to those who have logged hours studying the decline in our denomination.  They are, however, essential to what it means to be the church.  Where the gospel is faithfully preached, the Word of God is honored, and the disciple-making mission of the church is advanced, with the blessing of God the church will thrive.  I pray that God is kind to us that we may one day be faithful in these ways.

Methodist Related School to Train Muslim and Jewish Clerics

The Claremont School of Theology has announced plans to add training for Muslim and Jewish clerics to its curriculum this fall, as reported in a Los Angeles Times article entitled, “Claremont Seminary Reaches Beyond Christianity.”  This change in the school’s mission comes in an apparent attempt to be on the cutting edge of the future of religious training. 
The problem here is that Claremont has historic ties to the United Methodist Church (UMC), which means the UMC has provided them funding for a long time.  This is a problem because the United Methodist doctrinal standards affirm that there is one God who exists in three distinct persons and who is revealed in Jesus Christ, on account of whose merit alone, and through faith in him, sinful human beings can be given right standing before God.  Furthermore, the mission of the UMC “is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (Book of Discipline ¶ 120).  Our theology and mission is distinctly Christian.  This move by Claremont thus constitutes a direct falling away from the beliefs and mission of the United Methodist Church.
In response to Claremont’s new direction, the University Senate of the UMC, which oversees all matters relating to denominational approval for seminaries, has suspended denominational funding for Claremont while an investigation is conducted.  The article indicates that a report will be available later this month. 
If the University Senate were to reinstate funding for Claremont, it would be an outrage.  It may very well also be a breaking point in the United Methodist Church.  Such a move would demonstrate how far the denominational hierarchy is from the people in the pew.  You can rest assured that numerous voices would be calling for the 2012 General Conference to take decisive disciplinary action with regard to the Claremont School of Theology.