Postmodernism stands as a major challenge to evangelicals and the seminaries training their leaders. As cultural mores have shifted, and continue to shift, challenges in the larger culture affect seminaries and the ways they minister to their students.
In many ways, postmodernism has fostered a lack of basic scriptural knowledge (as both literature and a guide to life) by removing the possibility of a consistent hermeneutic. "A significant challenge for seminaries today, given the postmodern skepticism of authority and absolute truth, is a strong defense of the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture," says Lyn Perez, of Reformed Theological Seminary. "There is no other time in which this has been a more important issue."
By deconstructing the "canons" of modernity, without replacing them with anything, a new generation has grown into adulthood without knowledge of the foundations that built itwhether they be Shakespeare, C. S. Lewis, Bonhoeffer, or the Scriptures themselves. Without those foundations, glaring holes are left in our culture's understanding, especially when it comes to Scripture.
On a secular level, this means the average college graduate entering seminary can't watch a Shakespeare play (or read T. S. Elliott, Tennessee Williams, or even watch the more literate television shows, for that matter) and pick up on the major biblical, literary, or Western cultural allusions. However, it also means these cultural references no longer do the work of pre-evangelism they once did. Therefore the basic ideas of the gospelCreation, man's fall and need for redemption, and God's sacrificial provision for salvationare new to the growing legions of the unchurched.
This "cultural amnesia" has touched evangelical Christians as well. Without basic scriptural knowledge, typical seekers within or outside the church, and even young believers, go about their spiritual journey without cultural assumptions based on the Bible. Therefore, the postmodern journey to faith is largely self-defined. Cut off from the Scripture-infused Western tradition, postmodern seekers are far more captive to the dominant and pervasive culture surrounding them.
Evangelical seminaries are learning to address these issues in their curricula and with their students as they prepare individuals to minister in today's world. Postmodernism has created an intensely individualized understanding of Christian discipleship. In addition, the looser identification with a local church body on the part of many seminarians means that these students have less context for discipline or direction or commissioning. Seminaries must work to create communities of accountability and guidance that promote a broader view and practice of discipleship, while also ensuring that students receive teaching in hermeneutics, sound biblical and historical theology, and the classic biblical disciplines and languages.
Postmodernism poses significant challenges to seminaries. Preparing future Christian leaders to engage a culture with shifting values is certainly a difficult task. It is admirable that so many evangelical seminaries have risen to the challenge by adjusting curricula and programming to meet the needs of those who will minister to a culture whose foundations are constantly in flux.
Ronald Jack William is a retired writer and minister who now teaches occasionally at local seminaries and serves as a communications consultant to writers and organizations.