Dr. Randy Roberts on Evangelical Theological Education

Dr. Randy Roberts is a Western Seminary alumnus (M.Div. and Th.M.), and has been a full-time member of Western’s team since 1987. Prior to his current role at Western, he served as Dean of Faculty, Academic Dean, and Provost. In May 2008, he became Western’s 12th president. In what follows, Dr. Roberts provides candid insights into the state of evangelical theological education in North America.

Transformed: Can you say a few words about the context in which you are operating—specifically, evangelical Christianity in North America?

Dr. Roberts: North American evangelicalism can be traced back to the Reformation, though there are also revivalistic and pietist traditions that feed into it. In addition, it has populist roots, and therefore a latent anti-intellectualism that can result in superficiality of conviction. This leaves us ill-prepared to deal with some of the complexities of apologetics and contemporary cultural engagement. Furthermore, North American evangelicalism has become increasingly fragmented and balkanized; it is hard to know who are its leaders. So we are lacking in at least three key areas: depth of theological knowledge; effectiveness in cultural engagement; and a balanced manifestation of Christ-likeness that depends upon a solid biblical foundation.  Plus, we’re not sure who can helpfully point the way forward.  All this is further complicated by our tendency to emulate uncritically cultural trends which can feed a secularized way of doing God’s work.

Transformed: How is Western Seminary seeking to address these deficiencies?

Dr. Roberts: Western is committed to a “renewal through reformation and revival” agenda. We are laboring to train leaders who can effect positive change by bringing a classic, robust evangelicalism to bear upon the contemporary scene.  Our special focus is on training men and women who are (or soon will be) in positions of disproportionate influence to help address the above deficiencies. We want to ground students in transcendent biblical values, while also giving them the skills needed to contextualize and re-contextualize those transcendent convictions as needed.

Transformed: How would you describe the typical Western student?

Dr. Roberts: On the whole, Western appeals to conservative evangelicals who are either occupying or aspiring to significant ministry roles, who aren’t looking for shortcuts in their formal preparation, and who resonate with the recent resurgence of the gospel-centered movement as the core theological commitment of that training.

Transformed: If you were to distill this gospel-centered movement to a few key tenets, what would they be?

Dr. Roberts: It’s Christ-centered, viewing biblical revelation as either anticipating or flowing from the good news of God’s glorious victory in Christ over the powers of sin and death. It elevates biblical theology to the level of systematic theology by paying equal attention to the unfolding development of that biblical revelation, not just its systematic collation. In addition, it recognizes the uniquely transforming power of the gospel when understood in its fullness, applying it to all of life (including our sanctification and ministry methodology).

Transformed: What is your sense of the state of this gospel-centered movement?

Dr. Roberts: It’s not as healthy as I would like it to be. I say this largely because some of its leaders don’t have reputations for being successful in modeling not just the convictions of gospel-centeredness but also the graces of gospel-centeredness. Although the movement is keenly (and rightly) aware of ongoing human imperfections, it can lose credibility if both our teaching and lives don’t also reflect the biblical promise and expectation of a transformed life that adorns that doctrine of God our Savior.  We are not always known for being humble, winsome people of conviction who avoid a contentious spirit while still contending for the faith. So modeling the spiritual maturity that can be expected this side of heaven seems to be in shorter supply than one might hope.

Transformed: What is the lineage of the commitment to biblical theology that is so significant within this movement?

Dr. Roberts: It largely comes from the Reformed community, so it often brings with it a commitment to covenant theology. Those of us who have been trained in dispensational theology are growing to appreciate this emphasis in some measure, however, without necessarily having to change our eschatology. As dispensationalists, we have been better at systematic theology than biblical theology, which focuses more on the way in which the biblical metanarrative unfolds and balances well both continuity and discontinuity.  We are gaining a greater appreciation for these biblical-theological connections in Scripture where they are authentic and divinely intended. We want to appreciate legitimate thematic continuity without falling prey to an unrestrained hermeneutical imagination on the one hand or what might be a dry and abstract recitation of redemptive history without any pastoral application on the other.

Transformed: Shifting gears a bit, can you speak to the relationship between the seminary and the church?

Dr. Roberts: It ought to be collaborative. There are some outcomes that are best learned in a classroom, and others that cannot be taught or measured well in that environment. So, at Western, we are exploring how to de-centralize elements of our program, recognizing that the local church is in many ways an optimal venue for healthy formation in ways that a classroom itself might not accomplish. The church also provides a breadth of mentoring resources that can be used to give needed input to students. That way the local church is part of a mentoring constellation that also includes members of the academic community, but without being dominated by the academy.

Transformed: Western Seminary, along with many (if not most) evangelical seminaries in North America, is in a time of transition. What are the essential components of this transition?

Dr. Roberts: First, we must be careful to discern what must be preserved and what might need to be reformulated. That’s the classic tradition versus traditionalism tension. And part of that is trying to think of theological education as a transcendent function. This function must be differentiated from a particular transient form (e.g., graduate credit theological seminary). Second, there is the use of technology, and the question of “where is it an asset” and “where is it a liability” in holistic, healthy ministry leadership formation. Third, there is the affordability issue: how can we make sure that deserving men and women, of all socio-economic backgrounds, have access to trustworthy theological education.

Transformed: By way of conclusion, can you offer some advice to incoming seminarians?

Dr. Roberts: Here are five suggestions (with the last one being a synthetic summary):

  1. Keep in mind the basic contributions that seminary will make to your life: the acquisition of lifelong learning skills, a framework for that lifelong learning, and an awareness of some of the key components that need to be mastered for effective entrance into ministry.
  2. Get the essential sweep of biblical revelation down pat, so that you understand the parts in light of the whole (even if you haven’t yet mastered all of the parts).
  3. Make sure your own life is reflecting progressive sanctification, so you can be a credible ambassador of the transformative power of the gospel. That includes faithfully fulfilling the scope of biblical responsibilities (including giving adequate attention to key relationships).
  4. Learn more about what doing God’s work in God’s way looks like, even when that is counterintuitive and countercultural.
  5. Keep these three areas of progressive mastery especially in mind: mastering the message, allowing the message to master you, and mastering the methods of doing ministry God’s way.