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.

7 thoughts on “A Dead Duck? The Future of Confessional Theological Education

  1. i would add one thing that corporate thinking might add to this discussion. If I go into a starbucks or mcdonalds anywhere in the world, with the exception of language, i will have basically the same experience. I can attend 10 UM Churches with 25miles (or anywhere in the world) and have 10 differing experiences (including style, theology, focus, and liturgy)

    United and schism do not apply


  2. So here's the scenario for the schism: We create the CMC – The Confessing Methodist Church. We will have at least 2 seminaries – Asbury and Wesley Biblical. I hope Beeson would be on the approved list, as well. All clergy would sign a confessional statement that would include, but not be limited to: The Articles of Faith, Wesley's Standard Sermons, Notes on Old and New Testament and the Nicene Creed. It would have to be tweeked, but that's the idea. I think some sort of cathechism would be in order as well.


  3. Larry, you may very well be onto something there. I'm reading a book on the Reformation right now called “The Unquenchable Flame” by Michael Reeves. He says of Luther, “he became increasingly clear that, if Rome held the pope to be an authority above Scripture, she could never be refomred by God's word. The pope's word would always trump God's” (45). I thought of the UMC as I read this. Experience and personal preference are the new pope. That is, preference reigns authoritatively over scripture in the minds of many in our denomination. As long as we have conflicting authorities, as long as one group sees scripture as authoritative while another does not, their will be no reformation of the denomination. The question then will not be whether there is schism, but when.



  4. I heartily agree. Several months ago I wrote a letter to the Board member of Claremont who originally published the famous “dead duck” comment and expressed many of the same thoughts your blog did. Thank you so much for this blog entry.

    Timothy C. Tennent, PhD
    Asbury Theological Seminary


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