John Frame stirred the pot about how a seminary should train church leaders in “The Academic Captivity of Theology,” John Frame’s Selected Shorter Writings: Volume Two (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2015), 59–76. He follows up with a new essay: “What Seminaries Can Do Without,” in John Frame’s Selected Shorter Writings: Volume Three (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2016), 145–56. He provocatively elaborates on seven items he thinks seminaries can do without:
- as much Hebrew and Greek
- term papers
- academic degrees
- doctored faculty
- the culture of assessment
- accreditation itself
Here’s what he says about academic research papers (pp. 147–49):
It is generally assumed that seminary students will be required to write a number of academic research papers in partial fulfillment of their degree requirements. When I was a student at Westminster Theological Seminary (1961–64), almost every course required at least one paper. Cornelius Van Til’s courses were the most demanding. He taught two apologetics courses to first-year students, and each of those courses required two academic research papers. [Note 4: When a student asked him how long each paper should be, he replied, “Oh, longer than anything you’ve ever written before.” The student consensus was that you could not hope for an “A” unless your paper was thirty-five pages or more.] So in the apologetics program alone, we wrote four term papers that first year. Other courses also required term papers in that year and following years, so that we probably wrote as many as fifteen for the whole curriculum.
I have the impression that fewer term papers are required today at Westminster and at other seminaries, such as Reformed Theological Seminary where I teach today. I have tended to require fewer papers than my own teachers did, but students still complain that there are too many. Evidently it is hard for academics to give up this practice. When I arrived at RTS, I determined to teach my first-year systematic theology course without any paper requirement at all. But a few years ago I got the word that the seminary was introducing a greater emphasis on the study of Islam, somewhat under pressure from our accreditation organizations. Part of that pressure was a requirement on me to ask the students in my first-year theology course not only to put up with two hours of lectures by me on Islam, but also to write a term paper on the subject. The term paper was necessary as what the accreditors called an artifact. That is, the students would have to write a paper to prove to the accreditors that we had actually taught them something about Islam.
As I have mentioned in other essays, the accreditation process tends to influence seminaries to assign more and more standard assessment devices, such as term papers, whereby the academic model is reinforced.
So my first suggestion in this article is that seminaries move in the opposite direction: having fewer term papers rather than more, so that the academic model can be weakened, not strengthened.
When seminary students scurry through the stacks of the library looking up sources to footnote in papers, they certainly make the seminary appear more respectable in the traditional academic way. But the real question is: does this activity do any good for the ministry of the church?
The Christian ministry requires knowledge, skills, and character, as Scripture describes in passages such as 1 Timothy 3:1–7. How does the writing of term papers contribute to these qualifications? I would not claim that it contributes nothing. Certainly the experience of writing a term paper can lead a student to some useful bits of knowledge and insight. And the sheer pursuit of a deadline can help the student to develop discipline.
But the main purpose of term papers is to prepare students for academic careers, not ministerial ones. Term papers prepare students to write publishable research projects, which will add to their value as university or college professors. This kind of research is the dwelling place of academics, but it is only an occasional stop for ministers. Preaching pastors must, of course, research the texts on which they preach, together with historical backgrounds and illustrations. But that need not be done in the style of formal research, and many church workers without regular preaching assignments have no need to do this sort of research at all. So of all the pastors whom I have known well in my more than seventy years in the church, I cannot remember one who, after he graduated from seminary, even wrote an academic research paper, unless, of course, he entered a postseminary degree program.
I do think it is good for a seminarian to have one or two experiences of researching and writing a paper. Seminary graduates need to understand how academic knowledge today is developed among professional scholars—if only so that they will be less in awe of the claims of the academic establishment. And I think it is good for students to learn how to research information in less formal ways, to facilitate their communication in sermons, counseling, and evangelism. But I do not think that every student needs to write a term paper—or two!—in every seminary course.
Drop paper assignments, then, and replace them with training in other skills—such as evangelism—that have a legitimate purpose in ministry.
I typically require one academic research paper for the exegesis and theology courses I teach graduate students. What I require is relatively short—usually only 3,500–5,000 words.
I shared Frame’s opinion with a few of my classes this past semester and asked them if they would prefer I give students the option writing either an academic research paper or, say, two sermons. A few were sympathetic with Frame, but most disagreed because they value how they benefit by researching and writing a paper. It trains them to think deeply, develop a personal position on controversial topics (e.g., divorce and remarriage), engage arguments fairly, and communicate concisely and clearly.
Frame hasn’t convinced me to stop assigning academic research papers, but I’ll keep thinking about it. I appreciate his desire for seminaries to equip church leaders as effectively as possible.