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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Seminary Self-Importance and the Fiction of the “Master” of Divinity

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

Teaching as I am, once again, at the undergraduate level, and encouraging bright students to go on to graduate work, I have encountered through their frustration the Dirty Little Secret of most seminary education: It purports to be at the graduate level and it offers a graduate degree (typically the Master of Divinity), but it generally isn’t equivalent to a real master’s degree.

Historically, this reality was clear until a few decades ago. Back in simpler, humbler times, a prospective pastor would begin his postsecondary education with an undergraduate degree. The more enlightened denominations would specify that the degree ought to be in the humanities or social sciences, the fields more obviously relevant to discerning a culture, understanding human beings, teaching and preaching, and so on. Having the B.A. in hand, he (and, of course, it was mostly “he” back then) would attend seminary for two or three years. Since this course of study was his first in divinity, he would receive a second bachelor’s degree at the end: the B.D.

Ah, but when credential inflation started to strike hard, when one’s first degree from an American law school was a “Juris Doctor” instead of the honest LL.B. (Bachelor of Laws) as it was in Canada, and a two-year stint in business school earned one a “Master of Business Administration,” other people earning a second degree wanted to enjoy the (extremely limited) prestige of saying they had earned “a master’s.” So the seminaries duly waved a wand, changing nothing about the curriculum, and out came the Master of Divinity.

This decision put the seminaries at odds with the common parlance of the academic departments of universities. Almost everywhere except the law school, business school, and medical school (where one’s first degree in medicine also earned one a doctorate), the master’s degree required a bachelor’s degree—and usually an honours degree—in the field.

And we all know that, don’t we? If someone has a master’s degree in English, we expect that she has a B.A. in English. If someone has a master’s degree in engineering, we don’t expect him to say his undergraduate degree was in nursing or history.

In seminaries, however, one’s undergraduate degree can be in literally anything nowadays, from accounting to zoology. And while the loss of knowledge of humanities and social sciences has hurt the pastoral profession in countless ways (that’s a subject for another time), all would have been at least nominally well if the first degree in divinity was designated a bachelor’s degree: the B.D. Instead, we have a generation and more of Masters of Divinity who have no bachelor’s degrees in divinity. And the same goes for those holding any one of the plethora of other “master’s” degrees offered by seminaries that don’t in fact build on a bachelor’s degree in the field.

If you’ve ever wondered why university people look askance at the degrees offered by seminaries, you can start to understand….

Now, at Regent College, where I used to teach, we took this problem seriously and tried to make up for it in two ways. We required a lot of hours for each degree and we set a very steep learning curve. Our intention was to put our students through a program extensive and rigorous enough that by the time they were done, they really could hold their own with holders of master’s degrees in other fields. (I’m not sure we pulled it off for all of our students, but at least the best were accepted into first-tier doctoral programs around the world, so that gave us some assurance.)

Today, however, I’m deeply concerned (and, yes, that’s a euphemism) because a very fine senior student of ours here at Crandall University is being told that precisely none of her undergraduate courses in Biblical Studies will count toward her entering an M.Div. program at one of Canada’s more reputable seminaries. Why not? Because her courses are undergraduate, while theirs are graduate courses.

There is an impolite term for such nonsense that I cannot bring myself to type here. But it is indeed nonsense.

Let’s ignore the fact that the three of us professors in this little Religious Studies department in this little Maritime school have better credentials—in training and in publication—than any three professors at the school in question.

Let’s focus instead on the fact that the materials that a Crandall student studies are exactly the same as she would study at this seminary: same Bible content, same textbooks, same secondary sources, same overall curriculum. So what differences remain?

The seminary might bravely suggest that their grading standards are higher. I respectfully suggest that I doubt that very much. But even if they are, they could award our students full credit for what they have done and just put “P” for “pass” on their seminary transcript, letting the rest of the grades, earned there, tell the tale of the student’s success at that level.

I appreciate that my suggestion actually puts the seminaries in serious jeopardy in terms of both prestige and finances. If they really did acknowledge fully the work done at the undergraduate level of Canada’s Christian universities, graduates of such schools would easily qualify for more than half of the M.Div. curriculum, made up as so much of it is by…yes…introductory courses: in Bible, church history, theology, etc. Again, it’s perfectly right that the seminary curriculum is made up of such courses, since what they’re offering is a first degree in divinity. What isn’t right is holding back students who have already done exactly the same work and making them literally repeat it on the grounds that what the seminary offers is qualitatively different.

It isn’t.

And this nonsense should stop.

Now, if I have somehow seriously misunderstood the situation, I sincerely invite those who know better to e-mail me and I’ll acknowledge their rebuttals in a subsequent post:

But if I haven’t, then North American seminaries should reconsider their policies regarding advanced standing for holders of pertinent undergraduate degrees and admit the obvious duplication. Yes, that will mean less tuition revenue for them. But they might gain more students.

And more respect from those of us who see what’s going on and are fed up with it.

UPDATE: I have recently learned that a memorandum of understanding has been negotiated between our school and our denominational seminary, Acadia Divinity College, along these lines. I haven’t been part of those discussions, so I don’t have much knowledge of them, but it is encouraging news.


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