The flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention plans to become the first Protestant institution in the United States to offer a Ph.D. in spirituality, according to an announcement this week.
And the men behind the new program say Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's introduction of the new degree this month comes at a key time.
"Spirituality is one of the fastest-growing areas of theological education," noted Don Whitney, senior associate dean of Southern's School of Theology and director of the Center for Biblical Spirituality, according to the news service of the Louisville, Ky.-based seminary.
Michael A.G. Haykin, prominent church historian and author of The God Who Draws Near: An Introduction to Biblical Spirituality, meanwhile said a heightened interest in spirituality in the culture and the current fascination with piety among evangelicals makes a Ph.D. program in biblical spirituality particularly timely and important.
"The cultural interest in spirituality, though not in religion, compels evangelicals to think seriously about this area," he told SBTS's Towers Online before noting the "massive changes afoot in our culture."
According to an October 2008 study by the Barna Group, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the nation's adults think of themselves as "deeply spiritual" while 71 percent of Americans describe their religious faith as personally very important.
Notably, however, an earlier 2007 study by Barna found that only 49 percent of Americans described themselves as absolutely committed to Christianity although 83 percent identified themselves as Christians.
"[O]ne reason why beliefs fluctuate is that most Americans' hold few convictions about their faith," observed David Kinnaman, who directed the 2007 study. "Most Americans have one foot in the biblical camp, and one foot outside it. They say they are committed, but to what? They are spiritually active, but to what end? The spiritual profile of American Christianity is not unlike a lukewarm church that the Bible warns about."
Like Haykin's book, The God Who Draws Near, SBTS's programs in biblical spirituality attempt to recapture an understanding of true biblical spirituality at a time when so many ideas are abounding of what spirituality is, both secular and religious.
The new Ph.D. program in biblical spirituality degree at SBTS accompanies the seminary's doctor of ministry in biblical spirituality, which was started in January 2008. Haykin had been added to the SBTS's faculty in May 2007 to team up with senior associate dean Whitney in pioneering the seminary's innovative new programs in biblical spirituality.
The doctor of ministry program in biblical spirituality focuses on spiritual formation with seminars on topics including spiritual disciplines, spiritual warfare, evangelism and discipleship, mentoring, and spiritual awakenings.
According to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), SBTS has been an innovator in theological education since its founding in 1859 as the first seminary of the Baptist church body.
The SBC is currently the largest Protestant denomination in America with over 16 million members and more than 42,000 churches.