Today, Churchmouse Campanologist begins a new series on seminary curriculum.  Over the past few years, many laypeople wonder why they do not receive sound biblical and confessional teaching when they attend church services.  They often ask, ‘What are they teaching in seminary these days?’ or ‘Aren’t they teaching that in seminary anymore?’  It is these questions I hope to answer by examining a variety of Protestant seminary curricula.

We begin with the course catalogue of Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS), an Episcopal institution.  VTS began as Virginia Seminary in 1823.  Bishop William Meade, the third Bishop of Virginia, and Francis Scott Key, whose poem ‘The Defence of Fort McHenry’ provided the lyrics for the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, founded the seminary.  In 1878, Virginia Seminary founded The Bishop Payne Divinity School for black students. The two institutions merged in 1953 to become VTS.

Each seminary in this series will undoubtedly offer marvellous courses, however, what the series will attempt to do is to give you an overall impression for the type of theology taught in line with confessions of faith and the Bible.  This means that I will be focussing on trendiness and shortcomings rather than the good points.

Overall impression of VTS: nothing about the 39 Articles of Religion, very little on the Book of Common Prayer, nothing about the inerrancy of the Bible or the sovereignty of God, nothing on heresy, weak systematic theology, a big focus on liberation and community-based theology, a large concentration on poetry and poets as theological references.  Examples follow below with my own commentary. Pages cited are those from the VTS catalogue PDF file.  You may wish to consult the faculty page as you read through them.

Verdict: Disappointing, but not surprising.

Women candidates for ordination: Yes.

Pietism / Healthism Index: Smoking allowed only in dorm rooms or outdoors.


Honorary Degree Recipient (p. 57): Among those listed for 2009-2010 is none other than Emergent Church kingpin, Brian McLaren. 

New Testament Studies (pp. 58-61): Thorough, one course per NT book.  Supplementary courses focus on the Parables and on the challenges St Paul faced in his ministry. 

Old Testament Studies (pp. 62-65): Hmm.  Very much an allegorical approach, especially:

OTS 501 – Old Testament Interpretation (p. 62) is done ‘in our context’.  What — a modern-day context?  How accurate will that be?

OTS 605 – Exodus and Liberation Theology (p. 62) wherein students discover how the Book of Exodus is the cornerstone for this movement.  Liberation theology relies on a group of people saying, ‘Hey there, I’m oppressed, therefore I deserve special treatment just by dint of my condition in life, and God will save me but not you.’  Note that, in reality, only the very few who retained faith in and obeyed the Lord actually reached the Promised Land.  God didn’t save every one of the Chosen then, and He will not save every member from every special-interest group today just because of their condition in life.  Interestingly, the course description adds, ‘Students may elect to take only the first quarter of the course.’  Why is that?  Is this actually a Liberation Theology course?

OTS 612 – Moses Goes to the Movies (p. 62).  Hmm. We didn’t even have this in high school. Why not examine the Book of Exodus in light of the Pentateuch instead?

OTS 658 – Bad Girls in the Bible (p. 64) does not focus on the sins that these women committed. We have only seen it as sin, because that is how we have ‘traditionally perceived’ it. So, get real and ‘reevaluate their stories by studying their literary function in the narrative’.  Then go, get legless and fornicate, because, really, it’s okay.

Language Study (pp.65-66): Thorough, covering Hebrew and Greek, from beginners’ courses through to advanced.

Historical Studies (pp. 67-70): Thorough, with courses on the history and development of the Episcopal Church in the United States.  However:

CHT 626 – The Christian Century: An Examination of the Ideas of American Christians from 1880-1920 (p. 69) does not even mention the heresy of Modernism or that major denominations, such as the Catholics (Pius X), Orthodox Presbyterians (John Gresham Machen) and Lutherans (Charles Porterfield Krauth) had denounced and fought against it.  The course description simply says, ‘not all agreed that such an adaptation was a good thing’.  So, with those 11 words couched in a lengthy paragraph, we can conclude that VTS thinks Modernism — a heresy — was laudable. 

Ministerial Studies (pp. 70-73): Emergent Church alert!  Most of the courses here are based on psychology and postmodernism instead of developing a ministry in line with that of St Paul and the Apostles (i.e. straight preaching, hard sayings, Church purity).

CED 513 – Christian Formation and the Emerging Church (pp. 70-71) will include meeting the great man himself, Brian McLaren.  Students will also have the opportunity to hear Phyllis Tickle speak. Talk about giving licence to heresy.  Dangerous ground, this.

CED 565 – Youth Ministry (p. 72) is likely to disappoint lay parents reading the course description which includes ‘vibrant ministries with young people that are theologically and culturally appropriate’.  Christian video games, perhaps?  Anything but the Bible and leadership.

CED 573 – The Graceful Challenge of Children in the Church (p. 72).  They meant ‘gracious’ not ‘graceful’.  A somewhat careless mistake.

Field Education (pp. 73-74): Extensive.

Pastoral Theology (pp. 74): Two courses on conducting one’s life as a priest and performing significant offices for congregants.

Theology and Practice of Ministry (pp.74-78): Covers the practical and grim realities priests face once they are ordained as well as the problems their congregations experience.  However, please note:

– TPM 628 – The Seven Deadly Sins (p. 76) does not mention ways of encouraging congregants to repent of serious sin.  As one would expect, ‘”contemporary sins” of racism, sexism, and classism‘ are bolted on, which probably receive more emphasis than the Seven Deadlies.  This is why you only hear in church about ‘contemporary sins’, not sins that could deprive you of the Kingdom of Heaven.

– TPM 635 – Church Planting (p. 76) teaches that by letting old, perfectly good church buildings go to waste, you move on, go elsewhere and reach new, relevant congregations.  A dog whistle for ‘younger, more attractive and diverse people instead of the old, faithful crusties who are only going to die, anyway’.

– TPM 663 – Advanced Pastoral Leadership (p. 78) will teach seminarians how to become community organisers!  I bet the instructor says, ‘Jesus was the first community organiser.  Go and do likewise.’  Also dangerous is this phrase: practice strategies for changing organizational culture’.  Rick Warren and Purpose-Driven Church alert? 

Church Music (pp. 78-80): Extensive.  But note:

– MUS 605 – Selected Topics in Church Music (p. 79) lauds ‘the current hymn explosion’.  Yes, and as I was taught, we should strive for ‘quality not quantity’. Also, our Episcopalian brethren at VTS are looking to the ELCA for musical inspiration.  

– MUS 606 – Eucharistic Liturgical Planning (p. 79) instructs students on designing a liturgy that is ‘both faithful to the tradition of the Prayer Book and creative’, which explains why you can’t get a straightforward, traditional service anymore.

Homiletics (pp. 80-82): Extensive.  However:

– HOM 605 – Preacher as Artist (p. 80) teaches students how to expand their repertoire by using ‘other art forms’ — cue liturgical dance.  Another reason why you can’t get a straighforward service anymore.  ‘But, Churchmouse, everyone loves these new and relevant services.’  Oh, yes, sorry, I forgot.

– HOM 606 – Performing and Preaching Paul’s Letter to the Phillipians (p. 81) is similar to HOM 605.  Were those letters performed?  I don’t recall reading Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible saying that.  I have never read of Presbyterians and the Reformed churches saying that.  I’ve never heard of ‘performing’ St Paul’s letters before.  If anyone has information on this, please let me know.

– HOM 611 – Preaching Social Justice (p. 81) confirms suspicions that preaching on sin and what the Gospel actually says is so outré!  See TPM 628 – The Seven Deadly Sins above.  I’m rapidly losing the will to live.

Liturgics (pp. 82-83): Not a sausage about the Book of Common Prayer in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nothing at all about the 1928 Prayer Book in the United States. These courses cover only the 1979 Prayer Book.  Frightful.

Christian Ethics (pp.83-84) covers no historic writing, e.g. the Didache, or Scripture for handling moral dilemmas such as certain modern medical advances or the termination of life. 

– ETH 620 – Other Anglican Thought (p. 83) explores ethical teaching and principles from sources ‘other than the “Anglican Divines”‘.  Why?  Sources include such Anglican luminaries such as William Stringfellow, Kwok Pui-Lan, Gene Rogers and Carter Heyward.  Who are they? Well, it turns out that Carter Heyward was one of the first women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.  She is the Howard Chandler Robbins Professor Emerita at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Does that elevate her to Anglican Divine level?

– ETH 627 – Introduction to Anglican Thought (p. 84) comes after Other Anglican Thought?  Why?  Why doesn’t it include Anglicans from Cranmer’s time through the 19th century, e.g. John Charles Ryle?  Why would Wesley be included in both ETH 620 and ETH 627 when he went on to become an Arminian?  Something is wrong here.

Contemporary Society (pp. 84-85): a variety of postmodern courses with the usual gnostic language such as ‘God’s island home’ (what — Earth?), ‘vision a future ministry’, ‘helping process’, ‘immersions’ (not about Baptism) and more. Students will also have the opportunity to become involved with community activists (CTS 629 – Christian Social Ministry: Immersion in Urban Ministry). Execrable.

Global Christianity – Mission and World Religions (pp. 85-88): A history and examination of other world faiths. Includes actual mission work overseas in some courses, so good in that respect. However, it relies on 21st century thinkers such as Rowan Williams for answers (GCM 553 – The Finality of Christ) and, in doing so, may compromise the inspirational and awesome (classical sense) power of the Great Commission.

Religion and Culture (pp. 88-91): particularly galling as it posits artists as theologians, not the inspiration of the Holy Trinity on artists and their work. This section sickened me as I read each course description, including, but hardly limited to:

– RCL 519 – Anglican Spirituality in Modern Poetry (p. 88) teaches students to pray 20th century poetry.  Wonderful.  More time wasted that could have been spent on the Bible, the 39 Articles and the Doctors of the Church.

– RCL 525 – The Artist as Theologian (p. 88) justifies itself on a Dorothy Sayers quote about artists communicating in their own way truths which are identical to those of theologians.  Hmm.  Very pomo.

Theological Studies (pp. 91-94): delves into the mystical and New Age types of prayer, spiritual direction and reconciliation.  Note that there is only one course here on Systematic Theology (and a partial one at that — STH 510 – The Work of Jesus Christ and His Community), which in the Reformed tradition, covers several courses. as well as the following pet topics:

– STH 610 – Feminist Theology (p. 92) combines European and Hispanic women’s studies with Christology.  An incomprehensible combination.  The mind boggleth.

– STH 611 – The Hope of the Poor (p. 92) teaches more about liberation theology worldwide.  It’s a good thing, remember.

– STH 615 – Remembering the Needy (p. 92) has more of STH 611 – The Hope of the Poor.  More time wasted that could have been spent on Systematics!

VTS courses met my low expectations.  It’s sad that none of this comes as a surprise.  However, the fact that these courses exist goes some way in explaining why our churches are emptying.

More on another seminary soon.  Believe me, there’s worse to come.