“Biblical Seminary was founded in my dining room.” So wrote John Weir “Jack” Murray, pastor and radio evangelist, and founder of both Bible Evangelism Inc. and Clearwater Christian College. When Dr. Allan MacRae, retired president of Faith Theological Seminary, learned about Murray’s plans for a new seminary, he contacted Murray to offer his assistance. MacRae would become the school’s first president and later, honorary chancellor.
Despite their shared commitment to this project, the two men approached seminary education from different directions: MacRae (along with a number of faculty from Faith Theological Seminary, who became the founding faculty of the new school) sought to form scholar-pastors able to exegete the Scriptures in the original languages and then apply them within a contemporary context. Murray’s dream, on the other hand, was for a permanent training program focused particularly on evangelism. But in combining these ideas, the founders were able to form a partnership of faith that gave Biblical its special approach to seminary training.
Building a Seminary
The site for the new seminary was the former E.B. Laudenslager public school, which had stood vacant for several years and so required extensive renovations. To help defray costs, friends provided furnishings and materials at discount, as well as outright donations of needed items. After much labor, the opening convocation was held September 28, 1971, and the following day classes began with 48 students, one of whom was to become Biblical’s fourth president.
The early days of Biblical Seminary were not without their trials, but through them all, the faculty and staff believed in their vision to change the world for Jesus.
“These were extremely challenging times with faculty salaries in arrears and rather drastic steps taken in colder months to keep the thermostats quite low. On one occasion I clearly recall seeing Professor Dunzweiler wearing an overcoat and hat to retain what little heat was in the room. We had a pioneering spirit in those days. Faculty almost all had to have second jobs. (One professor) found groceries in his car provided by the students who understood the sacrifices that were made by faculty whose salaries were six months in arrears. Staff brought in their own pencils and paper to save expenses.”
Despite such hardships, from the beginning the seminary saw the need to reach beyond its doors with the Word of God. Biblical wanted to train more than just religious professionals, and in 1972, the Evening Bible Institute began to bring seminary training to lay people with a mix of Bible and theology studies.
Seven and a half years after opening, the seminary received from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania the right to grant degrees, and in order to more clearly identify itself as a graduate institution, changed its name from Biblical School of Theology to Biblical Theological Seminary.
After twelve years of faithful service, Dr. MacRae retired as president in September 1983 and was succeeded by Dr. G. Aiken Taylor.
“I was surprised at the level of dedication of the faculty and administration of the school (and) at the breadth and diversity of representation among the students. (But) I was not surprised at the level of spiritual maturity and the dedication of the young men and women I have met thus far.”
Sadly, Dr. Taylor died after only seven months in office. The Board of Trustees immediately appointed George S. Clark, who had served as vice-president from 1980, to fill the role of interim president until a successor to Dr. Taylor could be found. That successor proved to be Dr. David G. Dunbar, one of Biblical's inaugural graduates; his leadership would further the inter-denominational breadth of the seminary, first in adopting a ‘centrist evangelical’ emphasis, and then to the generously historically orthodox, missional approach the school embraces today.
Change and Growth
Under Dr. Dunbar, the seminary saw the rise of the next generation of faculty leadership, committed to the highest standards of scholarship and infused with the life and vitality of Biblical’s founders. Curriculum developed accordingly, with the seminary beginning a counseling concentration within the MA program that proved to be an immediate success, attracting a large number of students in its first year.
"I distinctly remember coming to Biblical from serving with Young Life staff and realizing that while I had been among the more conservative (there), I was probably one of the more 'liberal' students at Biblical! I remember Professor Taylor saying: “At Biblical we are Reformed, but we’re happy about it!” I have never forgotten that sentiment and try to live by it."
And the legacy of such teaching continued to grow: according to the November 1990 president’s report, “A recent Alumni survey showed 178 graduates serving as pastors, 52 as missionaries, 55 as teachers, 7 military chaplains, and many working as counselors, Christian education directors, music directors and editors for Christian publishers. Biblical graduates can be found in 27 countries around the globe.”
“In particular, I remember the gracious and encouraging spirits of faculty members, administrators, and fellow students alike. Whether in class, in study sessions, or being soundly defeated in ping pong (!) there was a real sense of fellowship and mutual respect."
Through all this, community outreach remained a priority, and President Dunbar and Executive Vice-President Thom Skinner started Breakfast with Biblical as a means of connecting with and encouraging business leaders in the community. This minstry continues today.
Continuing to seek new ways to reach out to those interested and engaged in ministry, the seminary developed a non-traditional Master of Divinity program which sought to address a number of weaknesses in theological education. The initial success of this program encouraged the seminary to expand its vision to prepare effective leaders for the church in the 21st century. This vision lead Biblical to hold classes at its urban location in North Philadelphia, bringing the new program to the city's current and future church and ministry leaders.
This desire to engage more with the seminary's surrounding community and culture found its written expression in Dr. Dunbar's "Missional Journal"; over the course of seven years he explored the idea of what it means for the church (and by extension, the seminary) to embody Christ before the watching world. As he wrote: "The good news is not just a message to be delivered, but must be demonstrated by a faith active in love." This was a topic which continued to inspire and challenge him even through his retirement in June 2013, after twenty-seven years of service as president.
Following where Dr. Dunbar had led, in 2013 the board of trustees of Biblical Theological Seminary endorsed a new statement of vision and mission, one of "Missional Engagement", in conjunction with naming Dr. Frank A. James, III as Biblical’s fifth president. Under Dr. James, the seminary continues to honor its heritage by training today's students to engage the culture and follow Jesus into the world.