The Internet Seminary Unplugged
D. G. Hart
Computers and the Internet are changing the way we live. From going through the checkout line at the local supermarket to driving a car, we are surrounded by computers. Certainly, Orthodox Presbyterians have much to consider in their use of this new technology to advance the cause of Christ, as the July issue of New Horizons indicated.
Such considerations are especially important in the matter of ministerial training. The article on "The Internet Seminary" suggests that on-line theological education is the wave of the future, and that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church should consider how "to make the most of this opportunity." Yet no matter how seminaries decide to deliver theological education, the OPC needs to examine a number of the author's assumptions before wiring her prospective ministers tofor want of a better namethe Internet Theological Seminary (ITS).
The Internet Is More Expensive
One of the great appeals of providing education on the Internet is that it reduces costs. But the price of ITS is deceptive. Students will have to pay tuition. On that point all sides agree. But students will also have to pay for room and boarda point not obvious at first. Just because a student stays where he lives does not mean that he won't have to pay rent and utility and food bills.
On-line theological education begins to get pricey in the matter of equipment. Students at ITS will need a computer and Internet accessno ifs, ands, or buts. They have no way of receiving instruction without the Internet. Students at a residential seminary, however, may study without a computer (some still use typewriters), and they do not need to be on-line. Furthermore, since computer and communications technology change rapidly, students will also need to purchase upgrades for computer hardware and software. If they are part-time students, they will likely be in school for a period long enough to see Windows 95 come and go.
One last additional cost for students at ITS is for books. Sure, students at a residential seminary need to buy books. But they also have the resources of the library, with its reserve reading shelves, so that all assigned texts may not have to be bought. Students at ITS, in contrast, will have to rely on their own library, which will be far inferior to any seminary library.
And if Eric Sigward's five-year experience with placing Van Til's works on CD-ROM is any indication, ITS students should not hold their breath waiting for the works of Vos, Murray, Machen, Stonehouse, Young, Warfield, and Hodge, or the pages of the Presbyterian Guardian or the Princeton Theological Review, to be made similarly available. They won't even have access to all of the theological dictionaries and encyclopedias and Bible commentaries that are available in the reference section of a theological library. This means that students studying on-line will have to buy more books than a residential student in order to receive as good an education.
Theological Education on the Internet Is Not as Good
One doesn't have to be Neil Postman (the author of Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death) to see that on-line theological education is inferior to traditional classroom instruction. An easy way to make this point is to ask whether someone would rather hear a lecture by Richard B. Gaffin on Pauline theology or by Moisés Silva on Philippians in person or watch a videotape of that lecture. Unless one is a shut-in, the choice is obvious. Attending the lecture affords the opportunity to ask questions during and after the lecture, to talk to the professor afterwards, and to interact with others in the audience to understand the main points better. If a student has to resort to instruction through the various media now available, it should be for reasons that make face-to-face education impossible for him, not because he thinks it is as good as residential instruction.
Another reason for questioning the worth of ITS's curriculum is that it appears to be little more than a correspondence school with the added appeal of the latest computer technology. The author states that some universities are providing education through the Internet. What he does not add is that the best universities are not doing so. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton do not offer undergraduate degrees through the Internet for the simple reason that a good education takes four years of on-campus residence, interaction with faculty, use of the library, and participation in the life of the school. None of that can happen if students never leave their homes.
ITS education is also defective because it assumes that students will be "employed in ministry" while taking courses. To be sure, seminary students have often had to work to provide for themselves and their family. But typically this work requires physical, not mental and spiritual, strength, and ideally, as in the case of a security guard, it allows time for further study. In other words, how much time will students who are already serving in the church have for the demands of theological training, and will that time be adequate?
Is theological education of the sort required by the OPC really something that can be pursued on the side while ministering in a congregation? I suspect that most ministers in the OPC who know about the ordeals of both seminary and congregational life would answer with a resounding negative. What is more, does the OPC really want to encourage people to minister in churches before completing their theological training? Certainly, the OPC would have a different understanding of ministry and theological education if it began to permit men to minister who have not been to seminary.
What's the Rush?
The appeal and advantages that ITS appears to provide are not new. A century ago, other institutions providing theological and biblical training emerged in the United States that promised quick and convenient education for the masses. Those institutions were known as Bible schools. And even though they required residency, they promised the same possibility that the author sees in the Internet, namely, "to reach many with the gospel, to teach many in the Scriptures, and to equip many for ministry."
Leaders of Bible schools knew that their education was not the same as that provided by seminaries. Some Bible schools did not require a high school diploma, and students could receive the core of instruction in a year. But the biggest factor was that seminary education took too long. Here the academic mission of Bible schools reflected their theology. They believed that the Lord was going to return very soon, and thus that the church faced an emergency situation where workers were needed as soon as possible, no matter what their theological training, no matter how well they understood the Bible, and no matter if they weren't ordained.
But the OPC's understanding of the end times has always been different from that of the Bible school movement. While our standards teach that the Lord may return any day, the OPC has maintained that theological education cannot be acquired quickly and that corners should not be cut in pursuit of it. At the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary, J. Gresham Machen said, "We are not conducting a school for lay workers, useful though such a school would be, but a theological seminary," which "is an institution of higher learning whose standards should not be inferior to the highest academic standards that anywhere prevail."
The appeal of an Internet seminary is speed, quantity, and convenience. It supposedly can train more students, more quickly and easily than a residential seminary. And it may allow those in full-time jobs to receive a theological education as work and family demands permit. It may indeed be able to do all of these things. But its education will not be the same as that provided by a residential seminary.
A good theological education involves wisdom and maturity. And these virtues do not come quickly, in large quantities, sitting alone in front of a monitor. The kind of theological education that the OPC believes in is one that takes hard work and sustained interaction between professors and students. If the OPC sanctions theological education at ITS, she runs the risk of jettisoning her long-standing commitment to a learned ministry. As The Book of Church Order (FOG, 21.3) reads, "It is highly reproachful to religion and dangerous to the church to entrust the preaching of the gospel to weak and ignorant men." To be sure, ITS will not necessarily produce weak or ignorant graduates. But education through the Internet undermines the character of ministerial training by tempting us to think that theological education can be easily and conveniently acquired.
Dr. Hart, the librarian at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), is an elder at Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pa. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 1997.
"The Internet Seminary Unplugged" presents several important concerns related to seminary education via the Internet. However, much of its criticism of my New Horizons article is misdirected. "Unplugged" suggests that I assume Internet education is cheaper, better, and faster. I do not!
I do believe it offers a more flexible and affordable alternative for students who cannot leave their employment, families, or churches to relocate. I do believe it places a greater opportunity before the local and regional church to directly oversee and participate in training a student for ministry. I do believe it will require several more years to complete a degree than full-time, campus-based study.
Although "Unplugged" identifies some of the issues connected with Internet education, it mischaracterizes the claims and assumptions of Internet educators. If Internet educators made many of the claims which "Unplugged" portrays, I, too, would be skeptical.
The most important difference between the models of theological education described in "Unplugged" and my article is the role of the church. "Unplugged" is based on a model of theological education that mainly involves two partiesthe student and the professor. My article is based on a model that involves three partiesthe student, the professor, and the churchand sees theological training as an inherently practical undertaking designed to equip students for ministry.
By permitting a student to remain plugged into his home church under the supervision of his pastor and session, Internet and distance education programs avoid one of the major problems associated with temporary relocation: the unplugged seminarian who fails to become a functioning member of a local church and who escapes the direct supervision of his home session.
One of the challenges facing the church is the creative transformation of new technology for the cause of Christ.