For those interested in how seminary education should be delivered need to read Paul R. House’s, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case Study of Costly Discipleship and Life Together (Crossway, 2015).
House uses Bonhoeffer’s seminary model as a way to evaluate the current shift of seminary education away from resident programs to online. While House recognizes the need and value of online seminary education in a few incidents, these are only for emergencies where a potential student is unable to attend a residential program.
House argues that the delivery system of seminary education should be driven by theology and not cash flow that some have suggested online programs promise. He writes, “Thus I believe that a biblical theology of pastoral formation makes face-to-face community-based seminary education a priority, not a preference. (I also believe that the same is true for a Christian liberal arts university, but that is a subject for another time.) Online education for degree credit (at per-credit fees) may be reserved for true emergency cases, but not be accepted as normative or used regularly for pastoral formation” (15).
Most seminary professors would applaud House’s call. However, it is not the professor who needs to be convinced but the potential student. One of my seminary students, who left today for his paid internship, stopped by yesterday and rehearsed all that he learned and experienced by being in a residential program. He recognized that while he could have taken his degree online, he realizes that his educational experience would not have been as full or as rewarding if he simply did his courses online. While this student had a family and steady job, he was unique in that he had the finances and medical occupation that was transferable to almost any geographical area. Many students do not have these same blessings. Contrary to House, online seminary education is a strong, viable (and biblical) alternative for many students. However, seminary faculty, administration and potential students need to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each delivery system.
While not everyone will agree with his premise or conclusions, House raises thought provoking questions that seminaries need to wrestle with as we train others for ministry in the local church.