Theological education in South Carolina, as elsewhere, is typically conducted by theological schools or seminaries. They are graduate institutions requiring a bachelor’s degree for admission and offer degrees at the master’s and doctoral levels. Although some theological schools are integral parts of private universities, such as the divinity schools of Duke University and the University of Chicago, most are freestanding institutions founded by a particular church or group of churches. Their primary purpose is to educate persons to serve churches in ordained ministry or some other professional capacity. Seminaries, like law schools and medical schools, are educational institutions with a strong professional identity, providing constituencies with the educated leadership they need.
There have been numerous efforts at conducting theological education in South Carolina. The need for an educated ministry motivated the establishment of colleges, which were invariably church-related. Education for ministry was central to the early curriculum of Furman University, which served the Southern Baptist Convention until the 1859 founding of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Greenville, a school that moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1877. Newberry College offered the theological program for Lutheran ministerial candidates in the 1880s and 1890s until the seminary moved to its own campus. Presbyterians opened a seminary in Columbia in 1830 that was housed in a residence designed by the architect Robert Mills until it relocated to the Atlanta suburb of Decatur in 1927.
South Carolina hosts four Protestant theological schools, representing different theological traditions: Reformed (Presbyterian), evangelical/fundamentalist, and Lutheran. These four are Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West (Associate Reformed Presbyterian), Greenville Theological Seminary (Presbyterian Church in America), and Columbia Biblical Seminary and School of Missions (unaffiliated). The primary accrediting agencies for such schools are the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. In addition to these four, more informal efforts at theological education, with varying concern for educational standards, have prepared those of European and African descent for ministerial careers. They include, for example, Bob Jones University and Holmes College of the Bible, both in Greenville.
With some individual variation, the faculties and curricula of theological seminaries reflect a common organizing principle. There are typically three academic areas of study: Bible, church history and theology, and ministry (formally called “practical theology”). The last addresses more intentionally the professional tasks of the pastor, including leadership roles in worship and education, preaching, and pastoral counseling. The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed renewed emphasis on such professional responsibilities in curricula; some seminaries required a year-long internship that placed the student under supervision in a congregational or institutional setting. Most seminaries require a summer of clinical pastoral education (CPE), usually conducted at a hospital and involving ministry to patients as well as intensive, small-group sessions. Optional off-campus activities introduce students to other facets of ministry or expose them to cross-cultural settings.
Methods used in studying the Bible constitute a continuing fault line in theological education. The hermeneutical or interpretive task in explicating documents dating to ancient times and reflecting culture different from our own represents a major challenge. Seminaries of mainline or “oldline” denominations (e.g., Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist) inform study of scripture with historical and literary scholarship. Seminaries oriented to a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical perspective tend to resist the application of these methods. Literal interpretations of the biblical narrative and suspicion of those unable to accept everything in the Bible “as it stands” characterize their approach. A theory of verbal inerrancy undergirds this stance as a way to guarantee the truth of the biblical record. These two understandings of scripture involve basic assumptions so antithetical to each other that scholars on opposing sides find it virtually impossible to conduct meaningful biblical and theological dialogue.
Although the four seminaries in the state do not have significant cooperative programs, arrangements between Lutheran and Erskine and between Columbia and Erskine facilitate transfer of credits for students taking courses at both schools. Lutheran and Erskine are also members of the Atlanta Theological Association, linking their programs to Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Columbia Seminary in Decatur, and the African American seminaries constituting the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.
The two largest Protestant denominations in South Carolina, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church, do not maintain seminaries in the state. The Methodists, however, have certified both the Lutheran seminary and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian seminary as institutions where their pastoral candidates may receive training.