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What is Seminary and Do I Need It?

What is seminary?

Good question ! By definition seminaries are “institutions that prepare students to be priests, ministers, or rabbis”. Seminaries years ago and seminaries today operate much differently. A Protestant seminary in centuries past was considered in theological circles to be a prestigious institution with very high academic standards. Today, education in almost all areas of academia incorporate technology throughout it’s programs. More recently, online caopabilities have become a dominant influence in seminary education. Liberty University, the highest enrolled private Christian college in the country is one of the top ten best online seminary programs according to College Facts with nearly 14,000 students enrolled in 2017. In the last ten years seminary educators have realized that working families no longer have the ability to relocate to a college campus while mom and/or dad gets their degree and in turn have opted to join the online education community.

What do I learn at a seminary? 

Seminaries offer graduate programs that aim to provide a student a rounded ministerial education that includes exclusive courses for a student’s chosen concentration. The most popular degree program at a Protestant seminary is the MDiv. or Masters of Divinity. Credit requirements for the completion of the MDiv. can range anywhere from 75 credit hours to 90+ credit hours (typically with a thesis) depending upon the demand of a student’s concentrated area (major). For instance and MDiv. with a concentration in Bible without a required thesis is a much shorter program than a concentration in Biblical counseling with a thesis. Each program has it’s own “track” or course path that determines the number of credits a student must obtain to satisfy the requirements of the program. The best way to find out what MDiv. concentrations are available out there is to search MDiv. programs for different institutions and see what they offer.

What is the difference between a degree with a thesis and without a thesis? 

Often (but not always) a degree program offers what is called a “thesis track”, meaning a thesis is required at the end of the program that reflects a student’s understanding of a topic within their chosen field. You may hear the term “defend your thesis”, this means you will present your completed research thesis to the head of your department who will in turn, along with a panel, ask questions, analyze and provide a rebuttal to what you have presented. For students, this is where the rubber meets the road. A good panel will make sure the student has in-depth knowledge of the topic by looking for holes, incomplete thoughts and incorrect information. A student must know their topic inside and out and be ready for any questions that arise.

A program may not include (or may make optional) a thesis track. In this case the student only needs to satisfy the credit requirements for the program to graduate. The advantage of a thesis track? First, a degree program with a thesis track looks good on a resume and is beneficial to make public when applying for a position. Second, a thesis  helps a student enter a PhD/research program later on. The process of filing an application to enter a PhD program is daunting enough without fulfilling an additional requirement. If you plan on moving into a research degree program, and it’s available, I highly recommend a thesis track.

Are all seminary programs alike? 

Sadly, no. Like secular institutions, seminaries have reputations as well. In the beginning I mentioned that seminary today is not like seminary years ago. Because of the emergence of online capabilities, pop-up (or diploma mill) colleges can be run out of an office building. Often these “colleges” provide a simple format with low-level requirements, a limited amount of teachers who provide no challenge to the students knowledge or intellect. It’s a pay-receive degree exchange that wastes a student’s time and money. Spotting diploma mill colleges is pretty easy:

  1. Does the college have a campus? If not, that’s usually a red flag.
  2. What is the college rated? There are plenty of reputable rating websites such as US New & World Report that provide extensive reviews on colleges. If the college is not ranked, that is another red flag. Additional note, watch out for fake rating sites where colleges pay services to rank them high. If it looks fake, it probably is.
  3. Seek student reviews. The best reviews are from students that attended the school. If it has a bad reputation, the word spreads quickly on the internet.

Another aspect of a seminary program to consider is the school’s denomination affiliation. If you want to attend a Southern Baptist seminary, you would look into colleges such as Southeastern in North Carolina, New Orleans Theological, Southeastern Baptist along with others that are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. If you are of Calvinist or Lutheran theology, Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi is one of many available to those who desire to serve under Reformed Theology . Pay close attention to what theological beliefs a seminary holds to. They may believe in the Trinity, salvation through Jesus Christ and the rapture but their interpretation of scripture may differ from your own convictions.

Do churches or ministry organizations care what seminary I attended?

Yes and no. If attending seminary, the best thing you can do is to find a good, reputable school that is affiliated with your denomination (even non-denominational). You can always ask your pastor for recommendations as well.

Finally, and sadly it must be mentioned, but some churches favor graduates of certain colleges. This is preferential on the part of the hiring committee or the pastor and mirrors the same politics found in law firms (Are you a Harvard or a Yale man?). Unfortunately I have witnessed many interviewees go through extensive hiring processes on their own dime, only to lose the position to another person due to the school’s name on their degree. My advice to anyone applying for a church ministry position would be to first look at a church’s staff page on their website. Their you can determine if the staff has migrated together like nomads or if they are diverse. Though this does not apply to every church, avoid applying to organizations who feel a pledge to Skull and Bones is more important than serving the living Christ.

So, do I need seminary to be in ministry? 

To answer this question I will cite Luke Skywalker’s dilemna in the original Star Wars. Growing up on the planet Tatooine and living with his uncle and aunt, Luke dreamed of going to the Imperial Academy (run by the evil empire). Sound strange? Well, as much as Luke hated the empire, the academy was all their was for training at the time. Please note, my words are not to compare seminary to the Imperial Academy but the principle of the situation resides in both. Those who are called to ministry will attend seminary because that is where you find structured training. But is it necessary? In good faith I cannot say that it is but I highly recommend it. In my own life I have benefited greatly from my education. In a future post I will speak about the ups and downs of online education but overall, it has assisted me well. Can you enter ministry without a seminary degree? You sure can. Anyone who begins a ministry and follows the guidlines to obtain 501(c)(3) non-profit status and start a ministry but to formally fly for the empire, you would need to go to the Imperial Academy. Most ministry organizations have a list of requirements and found on many of those lists is a an educational standard of possessing an undergraduate or MDiv. degree. Yes, Luke Skywalker skipped the Imperial Acaemy, joined the rebellion and became a Jedi but even he received training from Yoda. My feeling is, even if you are called to ministry and blessed with a gift of preaching, teaching, compassion and/or leadership, training is still required to obtain a good foundation of knowledge and experience.

Above all, pray over every decision you make, especially when facing the unknown. If God brings you to it, God will bring you through it, meaning He will place you where he needs you and provide the means for you to get there. Never jump ahead of him and never think you know more than he does, because you don’t. Simply praise him each day that he wants you to be a part of his plan in serving him and humanity.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.   Psalm 32:8

 

The Bible Explained: Versions vs. Translations

 

Often a question arises concerning “versions” of the Bible and why there are so many.

This question is quite common and deserves a clear answer. I’ll do my very best to explain it as clear as possible. To start, it’s important to properly define a few key words; version and translation. The terms are often used interchangeably but within the world of literacy, they are distinct from one another. Plainly speaking,  there are no “versions” of the Bible, just translations. Let me explain..

As a movie lover I prefer certain versions of movies that have been remade over the years. King Kong for example is a movie that has been recycled more than a few times. The original was produced in 1933 in black and white. Later in 1976 the story was told with more of a modern slant that had the giant ape climbing the World Trade Center instead of the Empire State Building. More recently in 2005 actor Jack Black led another remake more similar to the portrayal of the original 1933 version. I love the King Kong story but personally I prefer the 1976 version. All three “versions” tell the same story but not in the same way.

Similarly, the bible has many “translations” but all translations derive from the same source. Here’s an example to help you understand how translation works:

If I wrote a fiction book about a family living in the Ohio suburbs and during one scene a young girl explains, “On Sundays my sisters and I would go to the grocery store. We would buy milk, eggs and bread”.

Five hundred years from now in some underground cave, my book is discovered but it it is difficult to read as it contains words that are no longer used in society. For instance, if bread is no longer called bread and grocery stores are no longer called grocery stores, readers will have difficulty in understanding the concepts I write about . My book must be “translated” for the people to understand what I meant. Instead of the word grocery store, the future society uses the term “Nutrition Depot” and for bread they use the word “Wheatem”. Translators would have to write the following to communicate the proper meaning of my original statement:

“On Sundays my sisters and I would go to the Nutrition Depot. We would buy milk, eggs and Wheatem”.

The substitution of the words do not effect the actions but they help future readers understand the idea or concept through something they can relate to. In order to be successful, translators of my work must find the right words to correctly establish my thought.

No matter what bible translation one chooses, the root of all modern Bible translation begins with manuscripts written in Greek (mainly by scribes for the author) over 2,000 years ago. The writings or books we have today were composed  and then copied for other Christian churches to read. The copy they received would be copied again,  repeating the same process over and over, thus generating thousands and thousands of copies of the book that would be spread throughout all early Christian churches. But what about churches that do not speak Greek? How would leaders get the bible into their own native language? Translation !

Here’s the catch though, Greek does not translate into every language easily.  For example, as an English word has definition (s), the definition of a word in the Greek language depends not only on the word itself but it’s prefix, suffix and how it is being used in a sentence. Confused yet? Simply put, translators of the language must know their own language in addition to the Greek language in order to preserve the meaning or idea of text from one language to another. The challenge is to find the right word to properly represent what the original author wrote in Greek. Sound easy? It’s not and this is why bibles do not have just one person performing the translation. Often a team of scholars and translators work together to create a new translation for any language.

So what about English? How did Greek manuscripts get translated into our language?  Thank a man named John Wycliffe for translating the Bible into the English language between the years 1382-1395. Wycliffe’s team handwrote their translation in pieces which took close to one year for one single copy.  The work became easier when Gutenberg’s Printing Press produced The Bible with moveable-type a few hundred years later.

So, understanding all of this, what is the best translation to read? There is no answer to this question unless to say that as the reader, you determine what you are comfortable with. Scholars will argue some translations are more accurate than others but truthfully you decide what best fits your reading preference. Word-for-word translations such as the New American Standard Bible (NASB) favors closest to the original Greek but is not always the easiest to read. Looser translations such as the New Living Translation (NLT) draw from the idea of the Greek text but with easier comprehension. The New International Version (NIV) is very popular but rides the middle of the scale between accuracy and paraphrasing.  Most recently the English Standard Version (ESV) has grown in reputation for being both accurate and reader-friendly. Choosing a translation takes a bit of research but necessary if you are serious about your daily reading and study.

So in recap, different “versions” of the Bible do not exist. The Bible’s roots reside in translations of Greek manuscripts that were written many, many years ago and copied continuously through the evolution of language.

One last question, if manuscripts were copied over and over again, how do we know mistakes were not made and our modern translations are not flawed? That is a great question dealing with a topic called “textual criticism” and we’ll leave that for the next episode.