In an “Exciting and Important Update” email to alumni/ae on March 29, Cornerstone University President Gerson Moreno-Riaño announced that Grand Rapids Theological Seminary is no more. The school is now known as Cornerstone Theological Seminary. The email also announced the appointment of Rev. Dr. Jeff Halsted as the new dean of the seminary. He will remain in his pastorate as he leads the seminary. You can learn more about Dean Halsted here.
In this latest post in our series on theological education, we lay out what led up to the name change and assess what it may mean for the seminary’s future.
What’s in a name?
The previous appellations of Cornerstone Theological Seminary amount to a history of the development of the school’s identity and mission:
- 2023 Cornerstone Theological Seminary. The university envelops the seminary to project a single conservative image and provide revamped programming to a post-COVID audience enthralled with online education.
- 2003 Grand Rapids Theological Seminary of Cornerstone University. In keeping with student body demographics and the desire to appeal to a wider evangelical market, the word Baptist is dropped from the name.
- 1999 Cornerstone University and Grand Rapids Baptist Theological Seminary. The state of Michigan approves the school as a university.
- 1994 Cornerstone College and Grand Rapids Baptist Theological Seminary. The new name reflects a merger of sorts after the failing Grand Rapids School of the Bible and Music is absorbed into the institution.
- 1972 Grand Rapids Baptist College and Theological Seminary. Liberal arts programs are added to the Bible and ministry-related disciplines.
- 1963 Grand Rapids Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary. The school is now approved by the state of Michigan to offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in Bible and ministry. The next year the school moves to the East Beltline campus.
- 1948 Grand Rapids Baptist Theological Seminary and Bible Institute. The name change reflects the state of Michigan’s approval of a B.D. program. [The Bachelor of Divinity degree is now known as the M.Div.]
- 1941 Grand Rapids Baptist Bible Institute. The seminary begins as an evening school with around 200 students in the basement of Wealthy Street Baptist Church in Grand Rapids. The top program is a 3-year diploma in Bible, theology, and ministry studies.
As is true of many Christian ministries, name changes have been a regular part of the seminary’s history. The question is what led to this most recent change, and what does the change augur for the seminary’s future?
Why the change?
President Moreno-Riaño’s email opined that the name change will benefit the seminary by identifying it with the current and expanding brand recognition of Cornerstone University. He added that the change signals the institution’s continued uncompromising commitment to one university with one mission, one vision, and one statement of faith. While the word “efficiency” wasn’t used in the email, the stress on one university implies that the administration believes the name change will simplify and improve public relations, internal governance, and the utilization of faculty. The name change means the seminary will be marketed as one of the graduate schools of Cornerstone University. In the previous administrative season, as a seminary tethered to a university, yet with its own brand, GRTS had become the proverbial stepchild, an afterthought in administrative priorities. The current administrative vision is to grow the university brand. With the seminary now folded into that brand, marketing it to prospective students, donors, and other stakeholders is simplified and arguably improved.
Was it a good idea?
I’ve already posted about the tumultuous times at the university and the seminary since President Moreno-Riaño arrived. In this post I’m still speaking from a position of informed realism or loyal dissent. I still think dissent is an obligation born from loyalty.
We have a saying down in Appalachia that you may have seen on a bumper sticker: “If it ain’t broke, don’t be a’fixin’ it. Was GRTS broken, or just neglected? Hopefully the name change may mark the end of a period of administrative indifference. Will it signal a new season of seminary advancement, or will the seminary continue to be an afterthought? Only time will tell. We can only hope and pray that the seminary does not get lost in the shuffle. It’s not like the previous model was unworkable. Several well-known Christian universities have theological seminaries with distinct names. That list includes Samford University/Beeson Divinity School, Biola University/Talbot Theological Seminary, and George Fox University/Portland Seminary.
One seminary alum told me that the name change “seems like an erasure of history.” One has to wonder about the wisdom of a move that discards an 80-year-old brand with a track record of faithfulness to the Lord of the church. It’s not like the Cornerstone moniker carries any unique cachet. The name Cornerstone was first applied to the university about 30 years ago. There are a handful of other Christian academic institutions that bear the name Cornerstone, not to mention thousands of churches and para-church ministries, many in Grand Rapids. One has only to google the word “cornerstone” to be inundated with such organizations.
What was wrong with identifying the seminary with the city of Grand Rapids, especially considering the rich and diverse Christian tradition that is a key strand of the city’s fabric? Several evangelical seminaries are known by the cities they serve—Dallas, Denver, and Phoenix, to name a few. In 2017 George Fox University changed the name of its seminary to reflect its location in Portland Oregon. It’s not like a seminary named for the community it serves is unusual or unworkable.
Another alum wryly remarked that a new name might be a good idea for a school that is at the crossroads, with a future that may diverge from the seminary’s historic values and identity. Sadly, although we hope and pray for better things, this could turn out to be true. The presidential email referenced above stressed the new seminary’s uncompromised commitment to its statement of faith. This is all well and good, but it seems to imply the mistaken narrative that GRTS had drifted from that commitment. Banging the orthodoxy drum plays to a certain part of the school’s constituency, but with plans to scale back MDiv requirements and shorten academic terms, one would like to hear the boom of the academic integrity drum as well.
Up to this point, throughout all the developments in nomenclature, there has been a consistency in what happened at the seminary. Whether the classrooms were in the basement of Wealthy Street Baptist Church, at the Beltline campus on the site of a dairy farm purchased by W. Wilbert Welch, or in the Leon J. Wood Seminary Building on Leonard Street with folks zooming in from all over. Students received rigorous training in biblical studies and theological thought as preparation for faithful ministry engagement. The seminary inculcated critical thinking skills—investigation—not rote indoctrination. Plenty of schools teach people what to think. Not that many also teach them how to think. Will Cornerstone Theological Seminary continue that worthy tradition?
What’s not in a name?
Promotional hype and nay-saying aside, the new name on the sign will mean next to nothing unless it marks a renewed commitment to promoting the seminary’s historic values, identity, and mission. The appointment of Rev. Dr. Halsted as dean is a crucial step toward casting a vision that motivates faculty, engages pastors, and attracts prospective students. We hope and pray that the name change brings with it a new initiative to bring together students, professors, pastors, trustees, and administrators. The path forward should include the sort of steps I wrote about six months ago in my previous post about the seminary:
- Reaffirmation of the seminary’s historic brand and its niche in evangelicalism
- Appointment of new trustees who are conversant with theological education as well as pastoral ministry, forming a seminary oversight committee on the university board of trustees
- Improved communication with and service to the seminary alumni/ae community
- Cultivating churches and individual stakeholders who will fund seminary scholarships, especially for the MDiv program.
We trust the administration will take appropriate steps like these. Please comment constructively below on your thoughts about G̶r̶a̶n̶d̶ R̶a̶p̶i̶d̶s̶ T̶h̶e̶o̶l̶o̶g̶i̶c̶a̶l̶ S̶e̶m̶i̶n̶a̶r̶y̶ Cornerstone Theological Seminary.
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Timothy, my dear son, be strong through the grace that God gives you in Christ Jesus. You have heard me teach things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others.
Endure suffering along with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. Soldiers don’t get tied up in the affairs of civilian life, for then they cannot please the officer who enlisted them. And athletes cannot win the prize unless they follow the rules. And hardworking farmers should be the first to enjoy the fruit of their labor. Think about what I am saying. The Lord will help you understand all these things. (2 Timothy 2:1-7 NLT)