• Matt O'Reilly

A Dead Duck? The Future of Confessional Theological Education

A board member from Claremont School of Theology was recently quoted as claiming that, “The confessional seminary is a dead duck.”  The quote was reported in an article written by Mark Tooley for The American Spectator on the recent and controversial announcement by Claremont that they intend to begin participating in an effort to train Jewish and Muslim clerics.  The statement from the unnamed board member should cause anyone with knowledge of current theological education in the United States to raise a quizzical eyebrow.  A dead duck?  A quick glance at the current enrollment stats of theological schools will reveal that this statement is, at best, an embarrassing display of ignorance and, at worst, a ridiculous refusal to pay attention to the actual evidence.

The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) publishes enrollment figures in their Annual Data Tables.  The following information is taken from Table 2.15 of the 2009-10 document.  Numbers in parentheses following the names of each school are the total headcount of the institution as reported by ATS. 

The largest seminary in the United States is Fuller Theological Seminary (4,038).  While Fuller maintains a statement of faith that is distinctly Christian and confessional, it has gained a reputation for moving away from its evangelical roots.  The second and third largest schools are, respectively, Southwestern (2,591) and Southern (2,585) Baptist Theological Seminaries.  Both of these institutions would be considered some of the most stringently confessional, conservative, and evangelical seminaries in United States, if not the world.  Indeed, in 2005, Southern reported the need for more class hours due to high levels of increased enrollment.  The fourth and fifth largest schools are Dallas (1974) and Gordon-Conwell (1892) Theological Seminaries, both well-known for evangelical and confessional stances.  Rounding out the top eight are New Orleans Baptist (1665) Southeastern Baptist (1643) and Asbury Theological Seminary (1571).  All of the top eight seminaries can be considered confessional and together represent an enrollment of almost 18,000 students.

These numbers should be kept firmly in mind when considering the statement by the Claremont board member that confessional theological education is a dead duck.  ATS reported an enrollment of 353 students at Claremont in the fall of 2009.  Claremont has less than 9% of the enrollment of Fuller, the largest seminary, and less than a quarter of the enrollment of Asbury, which is at the bottom of the top-eight list. 

The numbers clearly show that confessional seminaries dominate the theological education market.  It would seem that this outspoken Claremont board member, if he has looked at the data, has forgotten to open his eyes.  If he is not familiar with these numbers, it means that he has oversight responsibility for an institution in a field of which he has absolutely inferior knowledge.  Claremont should be embarrassed by such an uninformed and ridiculous statement coming from one of its representatives.  The confessional seminaries are hardly dead ducks.  In reality, they have more students than the more theologically liberal institutions.  Most, if not all, of the schools in the top-eight list have numerous extension sites in order to meet the rising demand for confessional and evangelical theological education.  Indeed, one is led to wonder if Claremont is reaching out to other religions precisely because they are having a hard time attracting Christians to study there.  When the data is considered, despite the silly claims of this board member, confessional theological education is alive, well, and growing.

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