Even though Timothy Dalrymple says "the point here is not really about sex," he nevertheless titled his article, "The Young Christian's Guide to Sex at Seminary." The seminary in question is Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Dalrymple, an evangelical, expresses shock at finding out that some of his Princeton Seminary classmates had sex and drank beer. This is the first half of the article. The second half is that these seminarians' moral laxity is an outward symptom of mainline protestantism's vacuous moral center.
While saying, on the one hand, that Princeton seminary is a "fine institution" and that his fellow seminarians were "good people" whom he loves and respects, he managed, on the other hand, to accuse them of disobeying God and not loving Jesus very much either. With such "friends," who needs enemies?
I'm a graduate of Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. My seminary, at least in regard to sex, was nothing like the Princeton that Dalrymple describes. It's been awhile since my seminary years, but I don't remember being aware of any pre-marital sexual activity, for example, and certainly not any extra-marital activity.
Then again, it wasn't a topic that was of very much interest. Unlike Dalrymple, most of us Lutheran seminarians were not raised to regard premarital sex as "grave sin" against which we "were most gravely and constantly warned." Sexuality is just like everything else. It can be, and often is, tainted with sin. We didn't see anything particularly special about it.
We did drink beer, however. Wartburg is a Lutheran seminary, after all, and we Lutherans have never been particularly abstemious about alcohol. Lutheranism began in Germany, and trying to get the Germans to stop drinking beer is not the path to peace and prosperity. (Katie Luther herself made the brew in the Luther household.)
In fact, Wartburg had a tradition of "spiritual formation" on Thursday evenings which amounted to making the trek across the Mighty Mississip to East Dubuque to Mulgrew's bar. The former seminary president, the late and beloved Bill Weiblen, is the one who initiated me into this hallowed practice. In my world, beer and theology have been partners for at least 500 years.
Dalrymple's more interesting point is that the faith and ministry that were modeled at Princeton (PTS) were mostly about "the aesthetics, the atmospherics, the experience, the rites and rhythms of church life, and not enough about plunging ever-more deeply into (to use the dreaded evangelical language) a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, by which I mean the day-to-day and moment-to-moment yielding-to and being-with Jesus."
I take exception to the language with which he expresses it--more later--but his basic point seems to be that mainline seminary life can be hazardous to your spiritual health. I think he is wrong on the point, but it is certainly true that seminary life can be a challenge to your faith.
You find out that most of your brilliant theological insights were condemned as heresies in the fourth century--and for good reason too! You find out that pious fluff might have impressed your relatives, but it won't get you out of Systematics 101. This is upsetting!
It's also good for you. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if your faith isn't re-examined, re-wrestled, re-worked, and re-integrated through your seminary experience, then you missed the most important part of seminary education.
Basically, Dalrymple faults Princeton for not being evangelical. His mistake is to assume that not using evangelical language, or not viewing the world through an evangelical lens, means that a person, or a seminary, is not sufficiently Christian.
Faithful people can see things differently. Dalrymple may not care for the "aesthetics" and "atmospherics," but, at my seminary, the "aesthetics" and the "atmospherics" were--and are--critical elements of our spiritual life and spiritual formation. When evangelicals need encouragement in the faith, they talk about their personal faith in Jesus. When Lutherans need encouragement in the faith, we do a liturgy.
It is on precisely this point, in fact, that mainliners, and especially Lutherans, find evangelicalism lacking. Evangelicals have gone out of their way to strip the faith of "aesthetics" and "atmospherics." The early evangelicals threw out stained glass and statues. Today, evangelical churches look like shopping malls.
Without "aesthetics" and "atmospherics"--or, as we see it, without the richness and texture of the "catholic substance" of the faith--the Christian message is truncated. Where is the beauty? Where is that which engages not only head but heart? Without art, Christianity is reduced to mere dogma.
It is not fair, of course, to hold Dalrymple to a Lutheran standard, any more than it is fair of him to hold mainliners to an evangelical one. He writes, "I have always drawn closest to God when I have been obedient to him." My guess is that such sentiments are common at an evangelical seminary, but might be unusual at a Lutheran one.
"Lutheran irony" informs us that it is precisely when we are most spiritually cocksure of ourselves that spiritual danger is closest at hand. As soon as you start patting yourself on the back for how righteous you are, the devil has you in his hip pocket.
As Reinhold Niebuhr once put it, “Human pride and arrogance rise to new heights precisely at the point where the claims of sanctity are made without due qualification.” Or, as my seminary advisor also put it, "Piety can be the deepest form of idolatry."
In taking mainliners to task, Dalrymple makes no reference to any particular Biblical teaching. It appears he believes that his evangelical childhood was, without question, Biblical. He seems to assume that the mores and customs he was taught growing up in an evangelical household pretty much are the Christian faith.
That being the case, it's not surprising that he thinks evangelicals understand the Bible better without seminary training than mainliners do with it:
For instance, students (like myself) who had attended Bible churches or belonged to evangelical fellowships knew the Bible on the first day of the year-long survey course as well as the rest of the students knew the Bible on the final day of that course.
Even allowing for rhetorical license, I doubt that very much.