In Memoriam Dr. Dennis F. Kinlaw (#UMC)

Serious engagement with the Wesleyan tradition began for me during my college years with a book by Dr. Dennis F. Kinlaw. A Christian since childhood, I had long suspected there was more to the faith than the mere forgiveness that often characterized evangelicalism in the second half of the last century. The book was The Mind of Christ, and it was given to me at a missions conference in 2000 by Dr. Harold Spann, then Chancelor of Wesley Biblical Seminary. That book exposed me like never before to the deep truth for which I longed but had not yet understood. With it, Dr. Kinlaw taught me that forgiveness of sin is only the beginning of the Christian journey, not its end. I learned that forgiveness is an instrument and necessary means to the end of holiness. I learned that what the world really needed was to see women and men embody the holy love that is the character of God revealed in Christ and Spirit, and to do it consistently and comprehensively. And I learned that all of that is above all a work of grace. It is no understatement to say that this book set me to the course I am on today. Other important volumes have come along. This one will always have a prominent place among them.
From that point forward, I read everything by Dr. Kinlaw that I could get. I sought out his sermons online and listened to as many as I could find. Some repeatedly. Kinlaw had a way of communicating stunningly rich and deep theological truth in a clear and understandable way. His turns of phrase often gave me pause and prompted extended reflection on scripture, discipleship, and ministry. My first published book review was in the Wesleyan Theological Journal, and the book I chose to review was Let’s Start with Jesus. With this book, Dr. Kinlaw flexed his theological muscles to interpret scripture in light of the Church Fathers and give us a vision of the unparalleled beauty of the God who is triune. This book was altogether robust and practical in every way as an invitation to dwell in the beauty of God’s perfect love, and to have that love made perfect in us.
During my time as a student at Asbury Theological Seminary, I was privileged on one occasion – and long after his retirement – to have Dr. Kinlaw as a substitute lecturer. The course was Triune Theism taught by Dr. Al Coppedge, who is also a mentor to me and son-in-law to Dr. Kinlaw. Dr. Coppedge had to be away one day, and the class was a small one. So, we were instructed to meet at Dr. Kinlaw’s house that day instead of in our regular classroom. We were to read Let’s Start with Jesus beforehand so that we could discuss it with the man who penned it. That day will always stand as a highlight of my seminary education. I couldn’t be more grateful.
Word began to circulate yesterday that Dennis Kinlaw died, and the Wesleyan world now feels the weight of losing one to whom so many of us looked for leadership, instruction, and nurturing. He modeled a combination too rarely seen. He was a scholar thoroughly familiar with advanced issues in biblical criticism, but his sermons never sounded like lectures. He was both theologian and preacher. And he was one of the first to model the union of those two vocations for me. My own sense of calling and vocation has been indelibly stamped by his preaching, his scholarship, his witness. He was a man set apart by and for the love of Christ to preach scriptural holiness. And we are all the better for it. His death for us is a loss, though it is gain for him. He has joined the saints at rest in the presence of the One whose love abounded in his life. And he now waits in hope, with all the saints, for the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead. Thanks be to God.

Arminian Theology Videos (@FASociety, @OUPAcademic)

The Francis Asbury Society (FAS) has kindly made available a series of four videos introducing the life and theology of Jacob Arminius. The videos are the product of a partnership between FAS and Asbury University, and they feature Dr. Thomas McCall, of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Dr. Keith Stanglin, of the Austin Graduate School of Theology. The four videos include talks on (1) the Biography of Arminius, (2) God and Creation, (3) Providence and Predestination, and (4) Sin and Salvation. McCall and Stanglin are well-suited for this project, having recently coauthored Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, which looks to be a great new resource on the important Dutch theologian. Here’s a recommendation from Calvin Theological Seminary’s Richard Muller:

“Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall have provided a much needed introduction to the thought of this major theologian that is both scholarly and accessible. They set aside the prejudices and stereotypes that have often plagued the study of Arminius and provide a significant access to the main themes of his thought–a work to be studied by scholars in the field and valued by all students of the early modern roots of contemporary Protestant thought.”
I’m grateful for presently increasing interest in Arminius and the theology that carries his name. As regular readers of Incarnatio will know, I take the Arminian understanding of salvation to be an accurate expression of what we find in scripture. Many who criticize Arminius are stunningly unfamiliar with what he actually said, and many who call themselves Arminian misrepresent him and would be shocked to discover some of the things Arminius believed and taught. So, take a look at these videos. You can watch them below or click through to the FAS  Vimeo page. For a variety of other great resources, check out The Society of Evangelical Arminians.

Session 1: Biography of Arminius (Stanglin)

Session 2: God and Creation (McCall)

Session 3: Providence and Predestination (McCall)

Session 4: Sin and Salvation (Stanglin)

Catching a Fresh Vision of Faith

You no longer have to go to church to hear about faith. We are constantly surrounded with talk of faith and belief. From Hollywood to popular music; professional sports to political campaigns; the language of faith is everywhere. And in each context, it seems to take on a new meaning. The problem, though, is that a word that can mean anything usually ends up meaning nothing. More importantly, when that happens to a word that comes to us from the heart of the gospel, it is of the greatest importance for the church to reclaim her language by recapturing and defining her words. So, in light of the cultural watering-down of the language of faith, I’d like to offer four reflections on the nature of faith: what it is and what it isn’t.

Read the rest of this post offering four brief reflections on faith at Seedbed.
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Image: Janaka Dharmasena/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Should United Methodist Funds Be Limited to Official Schools?

Official United Methodist Schools of Theology that train more ministerial candidates will now receive more denominational funding than schools that train less. This is the result of a new formula, approved by the Directors of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM), for dispersing money from the Ministerial Education Fund (MEF). Rev. Sharon Rubey, an executive with the GBHEM’s Division of Ordained Ministry explains the rationale behind this change: “We want to reward the United Methodist seminaries that educate more United Methodist students for ministry in the church.”
My question is this: If the goal is to reward seminaries that train higher numbers of United Methodist students, then why limit the disbursement to official United Methodist Schools of Theology? I understand that the goal as stated is not actually to reward any seminary that trains more United Methodist students but to reward United Methodist seminaries.
My question intends to point to the inequity within the United Methodist educational system. The UMC has thirteen official seminaries; many other seminaries are approved for the training of UMC ministerial candidates, but since they are not official denominational schools, they get no denominational funding; this despite the fact that some of them train more United Methodist students than many of the official United Methodist schools.
Take my own alma mater, Asbury Theological Seminary, a school approved by the denomination for the education of ministers but not an official United Methodist School of Theology. It is my understanding that Asbury Seminary trains and graduates more United Methodist ministry candidates than any official United Methodist seminary, yet because they are only approved and not official, Asbury Seminary gets zero funding from the United Methodist Church despite the significant service rendered in providing clergy to the UMC. You heard that right. More clergy; zero cash; none; zilch, nada, nothing. In that light, it’s amazing how many United Methodist students still choose Asbury Seminary even though there is no denominational support for scholarships!

Another way to frame this issue would be to consider whether the money should go directly to the schools or follow the student. It has been pointed out to me that if UMC ministerial candidates got equal funding for the official or approved school of their choice, then that would certainly be more fair and equitable. Also, the schools that are in high demand would thrive while those institutions that are faltering in their task would become irrelevant. You would get to see which schools are really doing a good job and which ones are presently being propped up for other reasons. Shouldn’t there be equal funding opportunities for all UMC ministerial candidates?

So, if the UMC were really interested in rewarding schools that serve the denomination by training more clergy, would we not also reward those approved but not official seminaries that  train the most clergy? If the money followed the students, the whole system would seem much more equitable.

What do you think? Should there be a way of rewarding non-official but approved schools who serve the UMC by training more of its ministers? Is the distinction between official and approved seminaries even helpful? If a school is good enough to be approved, why shouldn’t they get funding? I’d like to hear what you think!

United Methodist Church Changes Course on Distance Learning Limits

In light of yesterday’s post on the benefits of online learning, I was glad to learn last night that the University Senate of the United Methodist Church had backed off its decision to limit online courses for the M.Div. to one-third of the program. Rev. Chris Roberts, a board member at United Theological Seminary, has more information. I’ll just point out that it appears all United Methodist schools of theology and Asbury Theological Seminary will be allowed to provide two-thirds of the M.Div. in the form of online classes. This is a good move on the part of the Senate. I believe that the decision to limit online learning would have led many potential students who may be unable to relocate their families to forego seminary studies leading ultimately to a less educated body of clergy. I’ll also say that I’m a bit surprised for the Senate to change its course, but it is a pleasant surprise. I’m glad they did not choose to stubbornly maintain unhelpful limits on distance learning.

Education Regression: Should United Methodists Limit Distance Learning?

Commentary has recently been showing up around the blogosphere on the decision of the University Senate of the United Methodist Church to limit the number of credits taken towards the M.Div. to one-third of the total degree curriculum (see here and here). Such a move could have a significant impact on some schools who have extensive online programs. For instance, Asbury Theological Seminary currently allows two-thirds of the M.Div. to be completed in an online format. Asbury also provides a substantial number of ministers to the United Methodist Church many of whom undertake a large part of their studies online. Questions as to the adequacy of online education have arisen before now; but with this move by the University Senate, they have arisen once again. During my own time as a student at Asbury, I split my degree program down the middle with approximately half of my courses being online and half on campus. I like to think of myself as having had the best of both worlds in this regard. Here are a few reflections based on my own half and half experience. Let me say first that my experience is limited to Asbury, and I can only speak to that program. Asbury has a high quality online course delivery system that is constantly being improved and is much better now than when I began my classes in 2005. I’m not familiar with other distance learning programs; so I can’t speak to those.
First, in online courses students receive much more detailed and extensive feedback on assignments. The comments on my papers and assignments were far more thorough in online classes than in traditional geophysical courses. I learned this both as a student and as a teaching assistant in two online courses. As a TA, I was expected to give a lot of substantial feedback that formed a great deal of the course instruction. In online courses, not only are corrective comments given for what needs improvement but positive comments are made on what is done well. Across the board, I tended to get much more feedback in online courses, which made them very beneficial.
Second, online courses tend to be more heavily weighted on substantive participation. Many classes divided students into small groups for discussing the assigned readings, and the discussions were expected to reflect substantive interaction with the texts and our classmates. If we did not do the reading, then we would have nothing to contribute to the discussion and our grade would suffer. In contrast, its quite easy to attend class on campus, sign the roll, skip the readings, and surf the web during the lecture. It should be quite plain that online courses create much more accountability for students to actually do the work.
Third, online courses typically provide for more interaction with the professor. I tend to be the kind of student who tries to get to know his teachers, but many do not. The traditional classroom gives provides a superficial feeling of connection or interaction simply by virtue of everyone being is the same room. The online format leads profs to do a bit more to make sure they are connecting with students. If they don’t, then the students are just sort of out there in cyberspace all alone.
The traditional classroom certainly has some strengths over the online classroom as well. I am not persuaded, though, that the traditional classroom is significantly stronger or that the online classroom is second rate. Major strengths of the online classroom are significantly increased interaction with the professor and with other students. I am disappointed that the University Senate has placed this limit on online courses. I believe it is a mistake that may ultimately lead to a less educated clergy, but an explanation of that claim will have to come in another post.

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.