The future of theological education is, like all forms of higher education, in a great deal of flux.
When you couple 1) the dynamics of post-Christian culture, 2) low church attendance for the last year due to pandemics and 3) growing skepticism about the role of institutions in American life, you have a perfect recipe for theological education to question its future.
This is not a new problem, nor is it likely to be a short term-one. But it is also not a time without new opportunities.
The time is at hand for Baptist theological education not lose to heart, but to take some lessons from their history about what it might look like to have a new vision for theological education.
The future for theological education for Baptists, if there is to be one, must be at once both ecumenical and faithful to its roots.
The question of Baptist origins is one fraught with difficulties, because unlike Lutherans – pointing to Luther – or the Reformed traditions – pointing to Calvin – Baptists have no such singular figure to point to.
Stemming from an amalgamation of Anabaptist sensibilities, Puritan attention to church reform, Separatist ecclesiology and Anglican appreciation for confessions, Baptists came from multiple theological legacies coalescing into one.
And so, over the next three centuries, Baptists globally began to take shape, drawn together over their convictions concerning baptism, independent polity and missions.
But on the ground, Baptists continued to learn from Methodists, Churches of Christ, Presbyterians and Catholics. Their work overlapped with Mennonites, Pentecostals and evangelicals.
The roots of Baptist history – as a people formed out of this strange mixture of sources – were repeated in their consistent overlap, exchange and partnership with others.
It is in this way that Baptist theological education is at its best when it is both true to its own history – digging out the riches from within – and partnering, learning and exchanging with other Christians
In 2020, Abilene Christian University began the Baptist Studies Center through the Graduate School of Theology, to offer Baptist students a chance not only to have a world-class theological education, but also to do so in the company of other Christians.
For those attuned to the history of the Reformation movement, the introduction of a Baptist theologian and ethicist into a Church of Christ university was a callback to the earliest days, when co-founder of the Restoration movement Alexander Campbell called his newspaper “The Christian Baptist.”
But for Baptists, it represents a recovery of an older ethos – that Baptists are indebted to many others in their origins and missions, and it is when we partner with others that we are at our best.
Baptist students learn their heritage, polity and practice as they minister and intern in Baptist churches, but they learn alongside other Christians seeking to be faithful to the Scriptures and to Christ.
Baptist students have the chance to learn from world-class scholars in theology, philosophy, early Christian history and biblical studies, while connecting with their own tradition as well.
But one of the other benefits, unexpectedly, has been that the program has drawn interest from across the Baptist world – from American Baptists, Missionary Baptists, independent Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
In the same way that Baptists are given the chance to partner with fellow Christians from other traditions, they likewise get the chance to learn from other Baptists who frequently divide from one another.
It is a great gift for seminarians to learn what it means to be the body of Christ, as they enter into the work that Jesus prayed for the church in John 17, that believers would be one.
The future for Baptist theological education is one that embraces this mandate to seek unity with other believers, and to give and exchange those gifts we have, so that together we might live into the common work and worship in the kingdom of God.
For it is only in embodying that kind of unity that ministers are able to model for a divided world the way that creation was meant to be.