Doing Seminary Well
Have you heard the whispers of the past? I have.
Everything is normal. You’re sitting in an easy chair, doing your church history reading for the third consecutive hour. Then, suddenly, your reading seizes you. For just a few moments, you are face-to-face with Luther before he enters the Diet of Worms and changes the world forever. He paralyzes you with his stare, and then he whispers, Be faithful.
Or perhaps you are studying Greek vocabulary. You’re well past tired and losing the battle with concentration. Then—in a second—you are face to face with the Apostle Paul. He is writing Romans, weighing each word to communicate justification by faith so that the world will understand it. He looks up from his work, pierces you with a glance, and whispers, Be faithful.
The whispers of the past are awesome things indeed.
All Christians may hear them. But the seminarian, the one who is consecrated for the service of God’s church, is called to listen extra hard. This privilege must be taken up with thankfulness and diligence. But how may one do this? Or, to put it another way, how do we listen well?
This first installment of the "Doing Seminary Well" column seeks to answer this very question. This column is written with the hope that current and future seminarians will approach the task of theological learning with a love for Christ, a humble heart, and an ear for the whispers of the past. We must be those who listen well, in order that we may be those who lead well.
In this particular article, I want to encourage seminarians to approach their work with reverence, receptivity, realism, and responsibility.
1. APPROACH SEMINARY WITH REVERENCE
The opportunity to study the Word of God in an academic setting for several years is an incredible privilege. For the majority of students seeking the master of divinity degree, one of the longest master’s degrees available, this undertaking will generally involve three to five years of class work The amount of study can be daunting.
Not only that, it can obscure the special nature of theological study. We must therefore fight to remember that nothing is more powerful, more special, more helpful, more transformative, more enlightening than sustained study of the word of God and its doctrines. No other book engages our intellect and stirs our heart like the Bible. Men and women could study it all day every day their entire lives and utterly fail to exhaust its riches. Seminarians may not get a lifetime, but they do get a few years.
This is an incredible privilege, and a weighty one. The learning accumulated in this period comes like a theological blizzard. The original languages, the theology of the Bible, and the history of the church all engulf the student who tries diligently to absorb such matters.
How important, then, for students to approach seminary with reverence. Given how quickly our hearts become hard, it is very easy for the joy of Bible study to fade into a programmatic dutifulness devoid of passion. Those who enter seminary not just as a "graduate school," but as the place for preparing for the work of the ministry, will avoid many of the initial letdowns of the average seminarian.
Seminarians will need to fight to maintain a reverential outlook. This attitude will be continually revived and invigorated through a daily devotional walk, fellowship and service with one’s church members, and the continual effort to apply one’s studies devotionally. More than these important practical matters, though, is the need to keep the gospel ever in view. The gospel is everything. It is the reason we want to attend seminary, it is the means by which we complete seminary, and it is our motivation to leave seminary. We must remember this. We do not attend seminary to become evangelical all-stars. We come to learn about the gospel and how to declare it. That thought alone should awaken daily reverence in our hearts.
2. APPROACH SEMINARY WITH RECEPTIVITY
Students should also approach their studies with a teachable spirit. The humble student will try to learn as much as possible from his professors, both inside the classroom and outside. He will, of course, hold fast to truths already learned. Yet he will also welcome opportunities to test ideas and debate positions.
Ironically, seminarians often fail to have teachable spirits. Yet they must remember that the individuals who teach at respected evangelical seminaries have spent years mastering their field, reading material, arguing with other scholars, publishing books and articles, and marinating in the material of their discipline. While students may have a different viewpoint than a particular professor, they may still learn much from that professor and better define their own beliefs. Students should not simply seek to rubber stamp their own opinions but should try to sharpen their understanding of God’s word through theological engagement.
Seminarians also show teachability by seeking out friendships with professors in order to learn from their lives and doctrine. Do not pass up the chance to share a meal with them and learn how they integrate life and doctrine together.
At my seminary, for example, one well-respected professor holds a weekly lunch hour in the school dining center. All students have an open invitation to join him for discussion and conversation. This is merely one example of how a professor can pass on his wisdom and experience to future leaders of God’s church. Students should not disdain such opportunities, but seek them wherever they may be found. We will only grow as we receive counsel, correction, and instruction with moldable spirits and teachable hearts.
3. APPROACH SEMINARY REALISTICALLY
It is a great privilege to attend seminary. One should avoid, though, unrealistic and inflated expectations of it. Seminary is not heaven. It is a training ground for the church. It is an artificial environment, in the sense that the makeup of the student body is not reflective of the church itself. Seminary is male-dominated, textbook-oriented, and often lonely.
A good number of people come to seminary expecting something different. They expect an academic utopia and are disappointed to find out that it is not. Classes are demanding, time is short, and interactions are often rushed. There are not enough hours in the day to do everything one might want to do. Lectures can be dry, classes disappointing, and life demanding. In this regard, seminary is like everything else of this earth—it’s imperfect.
Prospective students who keep this truth in mind will experience less of the letdown early on in their seminary career or even beyond. In short, do not expect too much from seminary.
But how can students practically avoid the seminary letdown? Let me offer just one idea that is easy to apply: be involved in the local church. Be active and committed to it. Love it, and serve it well. The local church, not the seminary, is the nerve center of the Christian life.
Like all Christians, you need to hear about God every week. You need to hear the Bible’s stories of faith, its imperatives to holy living, its sweet words for the weary soul. You also need fellowship with God’s people that does not consist of grade comparisons and professor evaluations. You need to focus on evangelism, discipleship, and serving the body. The local church provides the arena for such nourishment.
Brothers and sisters, enjoy seminary. Prize it. But love the local church. You will be in seminary for a few years. In some capacity, you will serve in the local church for the rest of your life.
4. APPROACH SEMINARY RESPONSIBLY
It is important that students remember that seminary is fundamentally academic. It is not Sunday School. There are quizzes and tests and papers and research. Not everyone gets the grade they want. The realistic seminarian comprehends this element of seminary and does not buck against it. Again, approach seminary responsibly.
I said above that seminary is not just another graduate school. That said, seminary is a graduate school. Students must remember this, and not pester professors for excessive information about the test, or grow angry for grades lower than expected, or casually submit late papers presuming on the professor’s grace. Being a Christian does not mean being exempt from the rigors of academic life.
Students should thus come to seminary ready to work hard, to learn, to cope with the occasionally low grade, and to take seriously the opportunity to study. From experience in the academic environment will come a stronger work ethic and the ability to handle success and failure with grace.
Remember that seminary is fundamentally serious. People should not come to seminary because it is the best thing to do after graduating from the college fellowship group. Seminary is not a year-round Christian summer camp for adults with a few quizzes thrown in. It is not college extended. It is quite different. The years spent in seminary contribute to the foundation one lays for a lifetime of ministry.
Students should not treat seminary as they might treat college. They should go to their classes, read the materials assigned them, and study it for the purpose of learning. They should work diligently and not treat seminary lightly. We seminarians have one chance at seminary, which is one more chance than most godly people ever get. We must make the most of the time we have, for the glory of God and the betterment of the church.
We should thus take up our work with vested diligence and sober minds. Though the hours stretch on and the semesters go long, the student is not alone. For it is in the midst of study that the saints of the past approach our side and stand for a minute. There they lock eyes with us and with holy solemnity whisper to us, Be faithful. May we be those who make the most of the opportunity given us. May we listen well.