I've had the opportunity to attend several secular universities, a Bible College, and a Seminary. Very different experiences. You can't paint any category of college with a broad brush, but there are some characteristics that differentiate the categories. These differences really don't make one better or worse - it really depends on what you're studying and what type of environment you prefer. These differences, though, come from the different purposes that each was originally created to address. Here is a (very) brief outline of the uniqueness of each type of institution with a bit of historical background.
Colleges and Universities
Traditionally, universities have consisted of several colleges that often share resources and are often guided by shared or affiliated administration. In the United States, things are a bit different in that many colleges aren't affiliated with a university and we often use the term 'college' to mean a smaller school. Colleges and universities have a long history of liberal arts education. ("Liberal Arts" just refers to the wide range of subject matter that one learns as an undergraduate - history, math, grammar/composition, fine arts, etc. It makes one "well rounded.")
Seminaries derive from the inherent necessity of the clergy to be able to read the Bible and Church Fathers (and by the Bible, I mean the Latin Vulgate). After the Reformation, education slowly became more systematized, and eventually what we think of as seminaries emerge. Seminaries today offer graduate-level degrees in biblical studies, theological studies, and ministry. Non-Roman Catholic Seminaries developed in the U.S. to meet the need for theological education of pastors, missionaries, and evangelists in the mostly non-Catholic nation. There was probably also some concern that the universities (esp. in the latter half of the 19th century) were becoming less orthodox (due at least partially to the higher criticism and other challenges to orthodoxy originating from Europe). The U.S. seminaries produced some great theologians in the 19th and early 20th century, but eventually the seminaries themselves were seen by many to be succumbing to unorthodox tendencies. A look at Princeton Theological Seminary really tells the story of this era. Princeton had produced men like Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield, but later became the center of controversy surrounding liberal theology ('liberal' in this case refers to a philosophical shift, specifically in interpreting the Bible not as inherent, but as any other ancient document). There were many "tentacles" of this philosophy that touched many doctrinal convictions, none of which is the point of this article. Some of the Princeton faculty wouldn't affiliate itself with this shift and so formed Westminster Theological Seminary. Similar shifts happened in most seminaries at the time and really changed the overall theology of the larger American denominations.
Independent schools that only train people for ministry had been around for a very, very long time. However, in the middle part of the 20th century, as men were coming back from World War II, Bible Colleges began appearing to train many of the men for ministry. Most Bible Colleges were relatively small and connected to independent and/or theologically conservative churches. Their main goal was to train students for ministry in an environment that was more practical than what they saw in many of the seminaries. By offering their programs to people with little or no previous college experience they were able to train someone in four or five years for a ministry position rather than the student get a four year degree and then go to seminary for three years. The emphasis on undergraduate theological education didn't really catch on in the main denominations, but, I think, has been fairly common in independent churches since then. What made the Bible College concept truly unique, though, was its heavy emphasis on training in the Biblical text. You would think that any academic program preparing someone for ministry would have many courses dealing with the actual text of the Bible - since that's the basis of Christian faith. That's often not the case, though. Actually, as someone that has looked over a lot of seminary and Christian college transcripts, let me say that it is rarely the case. Curriculum from many theological programs involve a couple of survey courses of the Old and New Testament, perhaps some Biblical Languages, some theology, and a lot of ministry-oriented courses. Bible Colleges, on the other hand, usually will have many courses in the Bible itself (traditionally ensuring that each 4-year graduate would have a "major" in Bible even if they were in a different program). That's a huge curriculum shift from most seminaries. I did most of my undergrad at a Bible College and I certainly got a lot of Bible training. I found it was a foundational necessity and I can't even comprehend where I'd be theologically if it wasn't for this emphasis on the text as well as hermeneutics. I was fortunate enough to go to one that was also great at teaching their liberal arts core as well. That's not always the case, though, and Bible Colleges today can run the gamut from regionally accredited institutions to "colleges" that meet in a church basement. Many are unaccredited and so I would have to caution students that were considering attending. However, some offer a full liberal arts education on top of a full Bible program and can be a great foundational option.
I don't have a crystal ball . . . well, actually I do have a crystal ball . . . it was a gift, but it doesn't really work. If it did, I'd love to look into the future of higher education in the U.S. Specifically, I'd be interested in the future of training pastors, missionaries, educators, and others in ministry. There are no large Bible Colleges and as smaller institutions they face many financial troubles. What compounds their woes is that their alumni usually are in independent churches that don't pay them a lot and so they, in turn, don't contribute back to their institution like the alumni from law schools or medical schools or even typical universities. All that being said, I don't see them going away. I see them splitting into three groups. One group will stay between the 500-1000 student range, be innovative in their approach to education, keep their focus on their Bible-heavy curriculum, and do a great job at training men and women for Christian ministry. The other group will go the route of offering free courses, but not for credit. Many universities have already provided a lot of their courses free of charge this way and for those people that want to contribute to training others but don't want to start an accredited school, this option will be much more attractive in the next 10 years than opening up another unaccredited school. I think these will also have to be innovative, will have to have good, useful content, and will also do a good job of training men and women for Christian ministry. The third group are basically the other schools that don't adapt to the situations around them and that don't have (or want) the technology required to operate in a technological world (I personally hate that technology is a requirement now, but that is reality). These institutions won't train anyone for ministry when they go under - which happens all too frequently. I think too the differences between seminaries and Bible colleges will blur even more than they already have. Many of the seminaries also have an undergraduate option now, although it is far from their main focus.
I'm actually very excited about the future of theological education and am looking forward to see exactly how it will play out - especially as quality education becomes available online to so many overseas and as free education becomes available (although not for credit) through more and more institutions.
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Mark Stevens is a former seminary student himself and currently researches and teaches in the area of theological studies.