Dear New Seminarian . . . Sincerely, Your Baptist Brother
Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part series, “Letter to a New Seminarian.”
I understand you intend to enroll in seminary this fall. You’ve asked if I might recommend a few books for you to read before beginning your studies. Of course, your appetite for reading will be sated—and then some—in your first year of study (interestingly, you will also find that your capacity will grow along with your appetite over the course of your degree program!).
It seems virtually impossible to single out a handful of books from two millennia of Christian history for you. But you’ll find this sort of list to be commonplace among types like us. So here goes.
First, you need to read Augustine’s Confessions. Why read the spiritual autobiography of a fourth century North African bishop? Quite simply, no one since the Apostles has had a more enduring and profound influence on the shape of Christianity. Of course, there are lots of other works you could read by Augustine that would be well worth your time. But this one is particularly vital for you, because it will help you diagnose some of the underlying sins and temptations that will try to seduce you, just as they did Augustine. It will help you understand that that the greatest gift of the gospel is God himself. If you can hold on to that promise by faith, your ministry might just have a chance.
Second, you need to read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Few books have more shaped the entire genre of English literature like this seventeenth century Baptist’s allegory of the Christian life. It’s one of the most beautiful works ever written, but it’s also full of Christian orthodoxy. Read it before seminary and you’ll have a richer sense of the glory and wonder of your own salvation, what a shocking thing it is to be counted righteous in Christ as a sinner saved by grace.
Third, read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, especially his Life Together. The martyred German Protestant pastor lays out here a vision for theological education that may seem idealistic or unattainable at times. But don’t miss the foundational truth. Preparation for ministry is not merely about the transfer of academic or theological knowledge. It’s an exercise in the school of Christ, as those called by God to serve the church give of themselves to one another out of submission to the total lordship of Christ. Learn from Bonhoeffer and it may very well help inoculate you from the persistent threat to wrongly believe that seminary and theological education is just another form of graduate school.
Fourth, read Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. One of the perpetual temptations for any pastor will always be to be lulled into an unwillingness to draw a sharp distinction between “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” and a myriad of false religions, many of them masquerading as Christianity. Machen’s treatment is still helpful and a good model. On the one hand, he was insistent upon refusing to legitimize those religious systems that denied historic biblical doctrine as Christianity. Deny the virgin birth? You’ve denied the faith. Reject the bodily resurrection of Christ? You’ve rejected Christ. On the other hand, Machen had an appropriate Christian ecumenism. He recognized that among Christians there could indeed be a variety of views on matters of second and third degree. Your own ministry will require this same balance. So think well and clearly about it now, before you’re thrust into the lion’s den.
Fifth, read Carl Henry’s Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. More of a pamphlet than a book, don’t let the short length fool you. When originally published in 1947, this book was something of a bomb, demolishing the isolationist and individualist tendencies of American fundamentalism. Henry called evangelicals to a renewed commitment to the gospel that is for “whole life.” These questions will recur throughout your own ministry. You’ll need to be crystal clear on what the “gospel” is. But you’ll also need to understand how dramatically it makes demands on all of life.
Finally, read J.I. Packer’s Knowing God. You’ll have time during your M.Div. to get into the technicalities of the hypostatic union. But let Packer’s hugely influential volume be a reminder to you of what matters most. The greatest aspiration you can have for your life and ministry is to know God more fully, more deeply. And here’s the wonderful hope in that calling—because God is infinite in his attributes, you will never come to a moment of completion in your knowledge of Him, whether in this life or the one to come. Along with the saints from throughout the ages, you and I will spend eternity expanding and growing our capacity to know God and, as we do, so too will our joy in him increase. Theology exists for the sake of devotion and doxology. Don’t miss that and you’ll find a reminder that seminary is just a means to an end, the greatest end of all.
One other thing. A list of six books to read before seminary is just a drop in the bucket. Read often, read widely, and read well. Your life and ministry will be deeply enriched if you discipline yourself to be a reader. It is pleasurable work to labor with a book, but develop that practice early in seminary and don’t let go of it. Let books be among your friends and you’ll find in them constant reminders of what is good, true, and beautiful. Most importantly, read the one book that is truly essential. Let the Bible be the one book that you always come back to, the one book that interprets all others.
Matthew J. Hall