Theological Education From a Distance

The Virtual Campus in Year 2000

We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the sight of our God and Father, knowing, beloved brethren, your election by God (I Thessalonians 1:2-4, NKJV).

Dr. Andrew Peterson, Vice-President for Distance Education

"the theological seminary in the 21st century faces the awesome challenge of re-presenting the Bible's teaching to a new, postmodern generation..."

"While maintaining a commitment to the high standards of the scholar-pastor, more seminaries see the need for a training process that is tuned to actual church ministry as well as thoroughly biblical, not merely academic and theoretical..."


U.S. Air Force Captain Shawn Kalis goes to seminary classes, but not the kind you're thinking about. He might be in class 20,000 feet above the earth in a jet or sitting in the comfort of his own study in Niceville, Florida. Shawn is one of a growing number of RTS distance education students who do their classwork through computer, fax, email, phone, and regular mail.

The virtual classroom is perfect for Shawn, a busy career military man who has served in the Air Force since 1980. Stationed in Germany, Japan, and several states, he has never been anywhere longer than three years. After more than a decade in the intelligence field, first as an enlisted Russian linguist then as a Middle East analyst, today he holds a demanding teaching position at the Air Force Special Operations School at Hurlburt Field, Florida. The job requires constant travel, making a traditional seminary experience impossible. Eligible for retirement in 2000, Shawn wants to finish his seminary work and enter the fulltime pastoral ministry in a few years. He would also like to continue teaching.

"The greatest benefits of distance education for me are accessibility, flexibility, and quality," says Shawn. "Distance education allows me access to a top-quality seminary education no matter where I may be stationed. Working with cooperative people by letter, phone, and email allows me to pursue my seminary education while engaged in full-time military service."

Also, the structure of the program makes it simple to design a curriculum which will work around his demanding and many times unpredictable work schedule.

"Often during the last course I wanted to throw in the towel because of various interruptions," he remembers. "But the staff encouraged me, gave me a few time extensions, and helped me work out the problems. I really felt a complete part of the seminary family."

Even though he is not able to attend class in residence, Shawn feels he is still receiving the highest quality education. "The instruction has been thoroughly comprehensive, extremely interesting, and most importantly, applicable to 'real-life' ministry. I've been encouraged in my personal walk with God and have been stretched theologically, philosophically, and practically."

Shawn has been able to hone his skills and apply what he learns through a mentoring relationship with his pastors. He has had opportunities to preach, to teach Sunday School, to lead weekly men's groups, and to participate in one-on-one discipleship ministries.

If you'd like more information on distance education, call 1-800-227-2013 or email us at

Did you know that often the Apostle Paul was a distance educator? In addition to ministering in person, by God's grace he was able to write epistles, which taught the faith, expressed his love, and encouraged hope among the brethren. His preparation of mind and heart for church ministers and lay persons included using the parchment media of the times to communicate the eternal biblical teaching to a particular audience in a specific era and throughout different geographic locations. The church grew daily, increasing from Jerusalem throughout the Roman empire and beyond.

In much the same way, the theological seminary in the 21st century faces the awesome challenge of re-presenting the Bible's teaching to a new, postmodern generation in a rapidly changing cultural and technological world. Computer networking for the virtual campus is one innovation for assisting the church in accomplishing the task of equipping its leaders and promoting lifelone learning from biblical study. With this "distance education," most of the formal instruction occurs with the teacher and the learner in separate locations with support from a local mentor.

Who are these new "virtual" faculty and students? What is their context for service and the specific purpose of their calling? How has distance education just now arisen to assist worldwide evangelism and edification according to Christ's commission?


Until now, much seminary training has matched the style of university education popular since the 19th century post-Enlightenment university. The strengths of this approach for advanced training are focus and in-depth, disciplined study. Professors, experts in their disciplines and particular specialties, deliver lectures to groups of students. Outlining and elaborating complex topics provide deep understanding as well as a full-orbed knowledge of course content. Theological issues can be very difficult and require ample time to understand different perspectives and prepare the student to discern between the true and the false.

But this university-based approach has its weaknesses. While office hours and discussion groups exist in the traditional school, the presentation is mostly formal lecture. Occasional question and answer adds some interaction, but only in the few small seminars is there time for the back-and-forth dialogue which is so important in working out personal views and insights. Assessment is usually group-style with mid-term and final exams, submission of answers to study questions, verification of completion of reading assignments, and a research paper or two. This student evaluation at some seminaries can be mostly intellectual, and spiritual formation can be neglected.

In the United States, even Princeton Seminary, within 100 plus years of its founding in 1812, eventually conformed to this formal academic approach. Despite a grand history of excellent scholarship, personal mentoring, and thorough piety, education became more of the stereotypical "ivory tower" setting, which presented problems for ministry preparation. The curriculum and the artificial environment of its classrooms could be unrelated to the requirements of the pastorate.

Certainly lectures on the historical perspective of church tradition and the knowledge of the theological disciplines are crucial. But our religion is an action to be lived out -- all good doctrine is applied doctrine. And with the heavy load of academic requirements at Princeton and other seminaries, not enough pastors could be graduated to meet the need of a growing population in 19th century America.

Thus, a few excellent scholar-pastors were educated over the years, but many who were not able to attend seminary -- yet became ministers in new denominations and local churches -- had very little formal academic training. Eventually, this made the church at-large less prepared to meet the intellectual as well as pastoral challenges of modernism in the 20th century. At the same time, seminaries tended to follow increasingly the German model of graduate education, including intellectual specialization and pluralism, which was first planted at Johns Hopkins University in 1876. With an increased emphasis on the required Ph.D. degrees from humanist universities, the seminary faculties often became more distant theologically from the congregations as well.

Today some seminary faculty are increasingly recognizing this overly-intellectual model for pastoral training and realize the need for a curriculum which is more Bible-based, more historically-grounded, and more local church-oriented. While maintaining a commitment to the high standards of the scholar-pastor, more seminaries see the need for a training process that is tuned to actual church ministry as well as thoroughly biblical, not merely academic and theoretical.

Finally, as clergy and laypeople employ the new educational technology with CD's and the Internet, a productive synergy of intellectual resources in applied situations results. Professors who turned from typewriters to word processors at their own expense a decade ago are now discovering the Internet as a new worldwide reference and presentation tool for their teaching. Such communication devices can bring them closer to more students in more churches.


What characterizes today's seminary student? For the past decade, seminaries have been attracting more older students with families. Rather than just another type of graduate school to follow the undergraduate years, the seminary is a professional training facility for a more mature individual who immediately will assume leadership in the church.

At the same time, however, that individual may not be as academically prepared as his predecessors. Academic standards in the schools and churches generally have slipped in the past generation. When necessary, today's theological education must include prerequesite knowledge required for more advanced concepts. Thus, accessible and convenient models must be available for the necessary background as directed by expert advice from the seminary.

(Brooke Holt, Distance Education Administrative Assistant) Brooke Holt at work

Attitudes toward the process of learning have also changed. Today the idea of "lifelong learning" is popular. The computer revolution itself has spawned many training programs outside traditional schools, as well as self-instructional programs. Microsoft or Novell certification is preferable to a degree in computer science for many employers. The practical, technical approach, not always appropriate for good systematic theology, is the norm today. The question often is, "Will the software work and will our people know how to run it?"

Moreover, a new eagerness to try non-traditional forms of education has arisen. The Christian day school movement in the '70s ushered in the new thinking, and it continued with the homeschooling movement of the '80s. Many are suspicious of what Machen called the "tyranny of the expert" and are looking for non-traditional places to study. Like any paradigm-shift the new consensus is not immediately clear, but the enthusiasm for fresh educational programs is growing among the members of our society, including the seminary's segment of the market.

Most likely the new student will be a key member in a church congregation when he is inspired to begin fulltime preparation for ministry. As he goes to seminary, he may leave behind job, community, and extended family connections with no plan for return after graduation. The first pulpit could be anywhere in the country.

Such spiritual commitment is commendable, but would it not also work to have pastoral preparation in the home church or presbytery and begin service nearby? As Calhoun documents in his two-volume history of Princeton Seminary, the seminary has prepared many excellent pastors for churches around the country and missionaries overseas, but there was a long Puritan tradition of "training by living and studying with an experienced pastor." He can begin ministry where he already has community connections, relationships, and a network of service established.


Similar to other turning points in history, a new communications medium is changing the world. When Gutenberg perfected movable type, he provided a tool for the Age of Reformation. In God's providence, computer-based digitized print and images are here to help us with the teaching/learning enterprise for a much-needed New Reformation in our church and society. Networking fifty million computers in the world has made possible multimedia communication, including computer-based training, anywhere, any time.

The quantitative rate of technological change has been amazing and is becoming exponential. Moore's Law is confirmed daily: the cost effectiveness of microchips doubles every 18 months. You can buy twice the computer power for the same price you paid a year and a half ago. Now the Law of the Telecosm—world computer network bandwidth doubling every four months—presents another wave of technological opportunity. Every four months the traffic on the Internet, our new Roman Road, doubles in usage by both home and business customers.

RTS Distance Education Staff

The power of doubling reminds us of the instructive story about the inventor of chess who was about to be rewarded for his great achievement with the prize of his choice. He asked only for a grain of rice to be placed on the first square of the chessboard and then doubled on the other sixty-three squares thereafter. Of course, mathematicians know that his eventual reward would be a load of rice that would fill the earth two times over with eighteen million trillion grains of rice!

(Donn DeHart and Dr. Bill Schmalgemeier, assistants in Distance Education, demonstrate the relationship between a student and a minister/ mentor.)

As to Moore's Law, we are now approaching the thirty-second doubling in the year 2000. While this would amount to only four billion grains of rice in our analogy (a few acres), the next increases are so massive that they may bring practically a qualitative change in the way we live and learn. Every communications enterprise, including seminary training, will be affected in a big and unpredictable way.

The tangible implications of technological advancement are present in all the important areas of society. We see banking institutions such as Charlotte's Nationsbank using digital technology to consolidate and implement national mega-deals in business. Disney in Orlando is no longer just a theme park, but also owns ABC News and has focused more and more on digital education as well. And once-small companies like Jackson's WorldCom have become behemoth, multi-billion dollar corporations in a short time because of investment in this revolution driven by smart microcomputers.


The communications revolution brings new ways for faculty to train students to think theologically. Distance education has arrived to service the new faculty and student relationship in the technological world of our time. Rather than replacing personal discipleship for leadership, new electronic tools are now available that enhance older helps such as books, journals, and newsletters. In fact, the tools are so "smart" that they allow some new students to stay in their present church and community context and receive their education without moving to a campus. The mentoring, the crucial personal dimension of pastoral training, is done on site at the church supplemented by the great resources of the seminary from a distance.

Reflecting on his teaching, Dr. Frank James, Associate Professor of Church History at RTS/Orlando, says, "Such variables as character formation, lived ecclesiology, good family life, and ongoing critical thinking are essential principles for seminary instruction. If education is merely information transfer, the training is inadequate. A seminary professor must demonstrate and experience a right church life to be authentic in his teaching. Likewise, how one guides a family is relevant to teaching future pastors and leaders. And, finally, evaluative study of anti-Christian philosophies with a biblical standard is important to prepare for apologetics and to review our own faith commitments."

A successful virtual campus will bring tools for professors like Dr. James to practice these guidelines. The distance student continues to grow in grace in his present church and family context without moving to a seminary campus in a new community. With the convenient arrangement of more and wider-ranging resources, the student who is "on-line" can become acquainted with a great amount of materials outside his usual reference materials and interact with other traditions under the guidance of the virtual professor. Students learn an interpretive grid for quality control as they navigate through the chaotic sea of information on the Net.

Our postmodern age of the year 2000, with its rejection of the faith in man's reason of the 18th century Enlightenment, has brought us a unique opportunity to improve and expand seminary-based pastoral and leadership training in the context of the local church and community. The secular powers today, like those addressed by Paul in Acts 17, once again must recognize the uncertainty of knowledge without divine revelation. A consistently biblical faith is crucial for a generation which has moved beyond believing that science contains all truth to the premise that truth is disclosed differently for everyone.

Our Reformed message, without idolizing human reason, provides the objectivity missing from postmodern thinking as well as the community found in good family and church life. This is taught at a number of fine residential seminaries, and the Virtual Campus will be an additional way to extend the teaching to even more students throughout the world. A network of millions of computers provides an exciting educational technology to train leaders for His church, filling the earth "with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Habakkuk 2:14).

Dr. Andrew Peterson is Vice President for Distance Education, the newly emerging Virtual Campus at RTS. He holds a B.A. from Western Washington University, an M.A. from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in educational technology from the University of Pittsburgh. Andy Peterson

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Last updated 10-22-98.