Training for Ministry in a Textual Community
What is the purpose of a seminary?
Because of financial pressures and the shifting mores of higher education, those training for ministry today have become less tolerant of lengthy degree programs and loosely connected coursework. A prevailing question among potential students continues to be, “Is a seminary education worth the cost?”
In this scenario, the coherence of a seminary’s vision for theological education and the integrated nature of their course of study is a paramount concern.
In light of this pressing and perennial need, I examine here a recently published proposal about the nature of theological education and reflect on the enduring concerns it surfaces for those teaching and training for ministry today.
Pursuing the Coherence of a Theological Curriculum
John Sailhamer (1946—2017) is known for his careful scholarship on the Hebrew Bible and his focus on the compositional strategies found in the text of Scripture. Perhaps less well-known is his vision for theological education. In the Spring and Summer of 1993, Sailhamer prepared for a possible role of provost at Dallas Theological Seminary by articulating a detailed proposal for theological education and its possible implementation in a seminary curriculum.
In “The Nature, Purpose, and Tasks of a Theological Seminary,” Sailhamer articulates a series of core commitments to be pursued when training students for ministry that is worth considering. Though he ended up not taking this position, his address represents what he saw as an ideal arrangement of a school’s faculty, curriculum, and institutional priorities.1
From Sailhamer’s perspective, “present seminary programs at best often lack a cohesive center and are otherwise often incoherent or, in some cases, irrational.” His purpose is to “provide a theoretical and reflective basis for designing a coherent and cohesive curriculum (both explicit and implicit).”
This abstract and theoretical discussion is necessary for Christians because the purpose of theological education is rooted in revealed truth. Ensuring that each aspect of ministry training is explicitly or implicitly grounded in the Scriptures and undertaken for the sake of the churches is an urgent and necessary endeavor. For Sailhamer, this practical and theoretical requirement warrants an extended reflection on the nature, purpose, and tasks of a theological seminary.
In a confessional institution, one must think carefully about the relationship of the seminary to the Christian churches and also to the Christian Scriptures. Accordingly, the purpose of a seminary is “to glorify the living Word of God who is known in the written Word of God” and it does this “specifically by preparing ministers of the Word.” Having established this all-important theological and hermeneutical foundation, Sailhamer then discusses the relationship between the seminary and the academy. Carefully distinguishing and relating the church and the academy enables the seminary to maintain its distinctive role in relation to both domains.
Because of its non-negotiable theological commitments and curricular focus, the seminary or divinity school offers something that other academic institutions are not able to provide. “As a matter of fact,” Sailhamer explains, “a proper study of the Bible as an object within the [academy] can only be appreciated and carried out within the context of a text-community such as a theological seminary.”
Having established the necessity of both the academy and the church, Sailhamer next discusses the academic tasks that are necessary for a seminary to function properly. These include achieving and maintaining accreditation, producing scholarly publications, and contributing to academic disciplines with an integrated faculty structure.
Envisioning the Seminary as a Textual Community
Perhaps one of the most distinctive aspects of Sailhamer’s address is his identification of the seminary as a textual community. The seminary’s purposes and spheres of ministry are established by its core identity as a text-community and the nature of the biblical text that produces and guides it. In his address, Sailhamer characterizes a “textual community” as one that “conceptualizes its own existence in terms of authoritative texts.”2 Here he also draws upon Kevin Vanhoozer’s definition of a textual community as a “community united by, indeed constituted by, a foundational text—the Christian Scriptures.”3
Sailhamer develops this notion by arguing that “the role of the Scriptures as texts in the seminary community is more than a means of conceptualizing its Christian identity, it is, as well, constitutive of the seminary community itself.” He reflects further, “As a biblical text-community, the seminary is a domain that has embedded within it yet another domain, that is, the world of the biblical text” meaning that “both the seminary and the world of the biblical text share the same set of rules and values.” Recognizing the biblical canon as an authoritative text will shape the makeup of the faculty, the student body, and the curriculum. Both the seminary’s vision and its activities will be guided by its commitment to being a biblical text-community.
As the text-community of a seminary is of first importance to Sailhamer’s vision, the execution of such a vision requires a dynamic reading of the biblical text “in its ongoing context . . . the seminary community.” This version of communal reading puts a “clear emphasis on the importance of the seminary itself as a text-community and the responsibility of the seminary to itself.” For students and faculty alike, this recognition of the seminary as a text-community creates the atmosphere of communal submission to the authoritative biblical text. The formative features of this text-community affect not only a student’s future ministry but also shapes his or her present ministry within the seminary context.
This vision means that the current seminary context should enable and encourage ministry that is centered on the Scriptures and that nourishes the faith of believing readers within this intellectual environment. Sailhamer contends that viewing the seminary as a text-community is essential because the “reservoir from which a life of ministry draws is filled and nourished by the prayerful study of God’s Word.”
This theological vision for seminary education repurposes the core activities of the seminary curriculum as the guidance of the Scriptures shapes the life of the community. The seminary that is also a textual community is necessarily a worshipping community that engages its current culture in accordance with the script of the biblical text.
The disposition required for this vision is a high view of Scripture’s authority and a commitment to reading it with trained eyes and softened hearts. Accordingly, the seminary is a fitting place for an academic study of the Scriptures, not simply because of its status as an academic community but also because of its status as a confessional text-community.
As this kind of textual community, the seminary is a qualitatively different academic setting than a secular university that does not include training for ministry. In this intellectual and theological setting, interpreters study the meaning of biblical texts in light of core commitments to the authority and divinely inspired origin of these Scriptures. In this regard, Sailhamer argues that the seminary uniquely meets the “necessity of a sympathetic text-context for a proper exegesis of the Bible.” For Sailhamer, the hermeneutical concept of a text-in-context and of a text’s effective history complement this basic understanding of the theological educational institution.4
Because the seminary is situated within the larger domain of the Christian church (unlike the university), it is able to function as “a text-community shaped by the Bible within a context of an effective history that lies unbroken from the time of its composition.” In other words, the seminary, like the church, is a “living key to the Bible’s meaning.”
As such, the seminary is equipped in a unique way to apply the Scriptures to the needs of the church. The seminary is a community of faith that maintains the intellectual and spiritual resources that are necessary for a proper understanding of the Bible. Sailhamer’s contention at this point is that the seminary is thus “an instance of the Bible in context.” Because the seminary is also embedded in the broader domain of the church, it also becomes a socially effective reality or “an instance of the Bible in culture.”
Serving as a realization of the Bible both in context and in culture allows the seminary to be “a test case for understanding texts in situations.” In this way, the seminary becomes primarily a community of faith that wrestles with both the meaning and the meaningfulness of biblical texts. The element that connects the modern biblical reader to the textual intention of the ancient biblical author is the medium of the text and the affinity of faith.
Maintaining the focus and stability of the textual community will also allow a seminary to adapt to changing circumstances and address whatever new challenges may arise. As Sailhamer reflects, “Viewing the seminary as a textual community can also assist in the task of projecting goals and ideals for the seminary into the future. Simply put, whatever the future may hold, the central task of the seminary always remains the same—the interpretation of Scripture.”
For theological educators who are seeking to uphold a strong theology of the Scriptures and also prepare students for ministry in dialogue with the highest level of academic rigor, Sailhamer’s understanding of the nature, purpose, and tasks of a seminary remains encouraging and instructive.
Encouraging because it represents a compelling vision of the organic integration of careful study of Scripture and faithful ministry among the churches.
Instructive because the task of envisioning and articulating a coherent seminary curriculum is still an ever-present responsibility of those involved in the academic study of the Bible in every generation.
For the full text of Sailhamer’s address and an account of this transitional time at DTS, see The Seminary as a Textual Community: Exploring John Sailhamer’s Vision for Theological Education, ed. Ched Spellman and Jason K. Lee (Fontes, 2021), pp. 3–50. All quotations from Sailhamer are drawn from this source. While unpublished, the address is a completed work that was intended for public delivery. This document therefore stands as an important historical artifact from a transitional time in the history of DTS and also as a developed blueprint for the teaching philosophy that Sailhamer worked out across his career as an educator.
On the use of this concept from a different angle in the study of literacy and manuscript cultures in the ancient and medieval eras, see Jane Heath, “‘Textual Communities’: Brian Stock’s Concept and Recent Scholarship on Antiquity” in Scriptural Interpretation at the Interface between Education and Religion, ed. Florian Wilk (Brill, 2018), pp. 5–35. Heath broadly characterizes a textual community as “a community whose life, thought, sense of identity and relations with outsiders are organized around an authoritative text” (5).
For this quotation, see Seminary as a Textual Community, p. 10n25. Cf. Vanhoozer’s discussion of the relationship between the biblical canon and the covenant community in The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (WJK, 2005), pp. 133–50.
On the notion of effective history, Sailhamer interacts with Hans-Georg Gadamer’s work in Wahrheit und Methode (Mohr-Siebeck, 1975) and also draws upon the critique of Gadamer by E.D. Hirsch in Validity in Interpretation (Yale University Press, 1967). For example, see Seminary as a Textual Community, 5–6; Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Zondervan, 1995), 93–96, 168–169, 218–220; and Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation (IVP, 2009), 68–98.
This reflection also appears in Didaktikos: Journal of Theological Education. 5.4 (April 2022): 36–38.