From Whence We Have Come
On February 23, 2017, Comptroller Leon Miles and I received on behalf of the Institute of Lutheran Theology (ILT) the Certificate of Accreditation from the Association of Biblical Higher Education (ABHE). We did the process quickly, having been granted formal applicant status in 2016, candidacy in 2017 and now initial accreditation in 2018. ABHE has been wonderful to work with. They have been good friends and helping neighbors for a young institution like ILT, coaching us to up our game in every facet of institutional life, and giving appropriate feedback along the way.
Accreditation by the ABHE means that ILT is recognized as an accredited institution by both the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the United States Department of Education. Furthermore, since CHEA recognizes all graduate programming ABHE accredits all the way through the Ph.D., CHEA will recognize all ILT graduate programming as well through the Ph.D.
It has been quite a journey for the fledgling institution that began life as a "House of Studies." The Preamble of the "Proposal of the Lutheran Theological House of Studies Task Force" that I authored and delivered to the 2006 WordAlone Convention in Golden Valley, MN, sought to respond to the directive of the 2005 Convention to "appoint a task force to develop a plan and proposal to establish a 'Lutheran Theological House of Studies' using the gifts of theological teachers employing the scriptural hermeneutic of the Lutheran Reformation. " I led the Task Force consisting initially of WordAlone President Jaynan Clark, WordAlone Board Chair John Beem, WordAlone Executive Director Mark Chavez, WordAlone staff member Rev. Randy Freund, and WordAlone Treasurer Irv Aal.
The Task Force Proposal actually specified much of what has become the Institute of Lutheran Theology. It spoke of the need for the school to have "critical distance" from the seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) if it was going to be able to offer a prophetic voice within the ELCA context. It specified that the theological house of studies must have full curricular autonomy, and that it must be institutionally independent and academically accredited. Having just acquired initial institutional accreditation, it is interesting to quote the Proposal on the question of accreditation. So much of what ILT has done was clearly specified in the 2006 document. Here is what I wrote then:
"Probably the most important question as to the nature of any educational institution is whether or not it should be accredited. Our task force has concluded that the challenges are so great in the present ELCA educational context that only an institution having strong academic qualifications can address them. It is our sense that we are faced with a “confessional crisis” within North American Lutheranism, and that we owe it to our Savior, and to our Lutheran tradition, to offer an attractive vehicle by which to train future pastors and perpetuate the Lutheran confessional tradition. Accreditation does three things: 1) It provides an external motivation to build academic excellence; 2) It provides increased opportunities for students; 3) It symbolizes to all that taking the Confessions seriously does not mitigate taking academics seriously.While there are certain discontinuities between the vision cast above and what actually developed -- for instance, we never did pursue ATS accreditation because of their strictures years ago against delivering the majority of a curriculum through video-conferencing -- much remains as true now as twelve years ago, especially these three assertions:
Firstly, the very nature of external accreditation demands that our house of studies will have an adequate research library and fully qualified faculty. While we might have good intentions in building excellence into a non-accredited house of studies, the natural discontinuities of temporal life make it difficult to achieve academic excellence in the long-term without institutionalizing external accreditation demands. Accreditation implements externally our internal demand for excellence and keeps us honest long-term when hiring faculty and acquiring educational resources.
Secondly, being accredited allows greater student flexibility and opportunity. Students can transfer in and out of accredited programs. Each is treated fairly in accordance with objective standards developed and monitored by the accrediting agency (ATS). In addition, accreditation grants greater flexibility for people studying at different schools and seminaries. In accredited programs there can be certain assumptions about standard courses that are not found in non-accredited curricula. Preparation for becoming a pastor is more “seamless” when there is a general program of preparation clearly defined, whose various parts can, to some degree, be gotten in different places. Moreover, an accredited house of studies allows students to prepare not only to fill pastoral pulpits, but also be educated to be teachers in the church. We wish to nurture an academic competency in teaching and relating Lutheran confessional theology within the marketplace of ideas. It is our hope to offer advanced academic opportunities for highly motivated students. We hope not only to train pastors for the future, but also to train teachers of those pastors. While we could possibly train pastors short-term on a non-accredited basis, we cannot educate teachers of pastors.
Thirdly, accreditation symbolizes the consonance within our Lutheran tradition of confession and academic competence. Lutheran theology was born in the university. The “new theology” at Wittenberg was debated in academic halls and written about in scholarly tracts and books. It is a university-bred theology that sought to be captive to the Word alone. We live in a time in which the pastor often serves congregations with members more educated than she or he is. In an environment in which the very plausibility of the Christian worldview is up for grabs, we need educated pastors who know the intellectual terrain of the various disciplines, and who are able and willing to give an account of that which lies within them. Thus it is manifestly important that future pastors have good libraries, great professors, and an intellectually stimulating campus environment, precisely the characteristics of accredited programs."
- Accreditation provides an external motivation to build academic excellence.
- Accreditation offers increased opportunities for students.
- Accreditation symbolizes to all that taking the Confessions seriously does not mitigate taking academics seriously.
Data from Pew shows how quickly the decline in Christianity is happening and how profound the challenges are. Between 2007 and 2014 the Christian share of the [US] population fell from 78.4% to 70.6%. This is a precipitous drop that cannot, in my opinion, be stemmed simply by excellent Law/Gospel sermons being preached to dwindling numbers of folks in the pews. Pastors of the future are going to need wise heads as well as strong hearts, because they will need to deal with the reestablishment and the perpetuation of the Christian plausibility structure itself. Such pastor theologians will clearly require "good libraries, great professors, and an intellectually stimulating campus environment," exactly the characteristics we have designed into ILT.
To Where We Shall Go
The Institute of Lutheran Theology has a graduate school and a certificate school. Its graduate school faculty has seven members, its certificate school faculty has four, and there are well over a dozen adjunct faculty serving both schools. Within the graduate school, students are designated as follows:
- Open Studies
- Masters of Arts in Religion
- Masters of Divinity
- Masters of Sacred Theology
- Doctor of Ministry
I do not think so. In fact, I believe that what is needed in Lutheran circles is a Ph.D. that produces deeply-educated men and women who know well the theological tradition, the intellectual and cultural horizon, and how to relate the tradition to the horizon in ways that make legitimate truth-claims.
The ILT Faculty Senate passed on January 19, 2018, a Ph.D. program that defines program learning outcomes, admission requirements, program concentrations, language requirements, qualifying exams, a course of study, comprehensive examinations, and a process for making a thesis proposal and writing and defending a dissertation.
ILT's proposed Ph.D. will offer concentrations in Old Testament, New Testament, Philosophical Theology, Historical Theology, Systematic Theology, and Christian Ethics. The proposal calls for a minimum of 45 credits with 12 dedicated to the thesis proposal and writing, three to a methodology course, with the rest of the credits coming from 500 level courses, independent reading, writing and presenting an article at an academic conference, an article in a peer-reviewed journal, an article in an academic book, the translation of an academic book, or serving as a teaching assistant.
Students will normally take three qualifying exams, with one or more able to be waived if a student already has a STM from ILT. The qualifying exams will be tailored for each concentration, e.g, Biblical theology, historical and systematic theology, or philosophical theology and ethics. When the exams are satisfactorily concluded the student automatically becomes a candidate for the Ph.D.
The four comprehensive exams are all closed-book with a maximum of one week between them. Students must present a proposal for their exams to their department head. Only one of the four exams can be in the dissertation area. When the student passes the exams, they begin in earnest the dissertation phase of their program.
The video-conferencing technology ILT has used since its inception will work very well for bringing in external exam and thesis readers. Instead of the student defending his thesis in a public hall where only local scholars are available, he or she will defend on-line where some of the greatest scholars in the world can be called together.
There are challenges, of course. More physical books will be needed in our library, and more digitized on-line books and serials must be made available to students. But the requisite idea is present: We will develop from a school dedicated to achieving academic respectability to a school of real academic excellence, a school where the theological task is continually engaged, a school with the academic competence to think deeply and perhaps conclude, as I did in 2006, that the problem for theology today is our continuing penchant for Descartes' problem and the Kantian trajectory that ultimately issued from it.
As I said then, it is not that ontology recapitulates epistemology, but that epistemology recapitulates ontology. Our present moment requires that we abandon the prejudice to locate the being of God through a profound introspection of human experience and cognition. We must instead discern God where God might be found, in a Being whose be-ing is outside of human be-ing, in a Being whose be-ing is at issue primordially for it, in a Being whose be-ing called from eternity all being, in a Being whose be-ing is to be the eternal Savior of us all, a be-ing whose Spirit works faith and grace within those whom the Spirit pleases.