On the Dangers of Seminary (Pt. 5): The Danger of Seeking Academic Acclaim

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Ps. 111:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments.”

Titus 1:7-9: “For a bishop must be blameless…a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught….

Sometimes seminary people forget that theology is primarily a spiritual task, done for the glory of God and the good of his church. If you are at seminary for any other reason, you should re-assess your calling. Looking back on the period of time during when I decided to come to seminary, I think I can gather together my various reasons for coming to seminary and distill them into one sentence: I wanted to be fully prepared to study, preach and defend God and his Word, in season and out. This was, I think, the right reason to come to seminary and for the most part I have maintained that desire. However, along the way, there have been times that other desires have trumped that one. Allow me to illustrate.

During my second year of seminary, I realized that I loved theology. I enjoyed studying, discussing, and debating theological method, the classical loci, contemporary theology, philosophical theology, and everything else in between. My favorite place to study was the Caribou Coffee on Falls of the Neuse Road. I spent hours there, reading and studying, and engaging in debate sessions with the other students who gathered to study and drink $3 coffees. It was “Theology on (Caraffe) Tap,” Southeastern style. In those days, Open Theism was the rage and it seems that we were all whipped up in a French-Canadian frenzy over the theological infelicities of Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and company. During Ph.D. studies, my mind turned to George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, Brevard Childs, and the Yale School, as well as John Milbank and the oh-so-Radically Orthodox. I began attending ETS as well as AAR. I wanted to keep up with everything that was going on in the field of theology.

As I began working on my dissertation (the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein on late 20th century Anglo-American theology), I found myself talking with a whole new group of people. Almost none of them were Southern Baptist and not too many of them were evangelical. Overall, it was a great experience. I was forced to think rigorously like never before, as all of my assumptions were being challenged. It was during this time that I remember finding myself in discussion with several of the AAR’s big stars (I had interviewed one of them for my dissertation) and, for the first time in my life, I shrunk from defending my convictions. The discussion had turned toward the subject of biblical inspiration and inerrancy, with evangelicals being on the receiving end of more than a few belittling comments for believing such poppycock. And I did something that I had never done before: I stood there and said nothing. Now, there isn’t anything wrong with keeping one’s mouth shut at the appropriate time. But I kept my mouth shut for the wrong reason and at an inappropriate time. I was silent because I didn’t want to be looked down upon or condescended toward, and probably also because I was afraid of being “shown up,” unable to stand toe-to-toe with the big guys. There is a name for the malady from which I suffered that day: fear of man. With the choice between fearing God and fearing man, I chose the latter rather than the former.

Fear of man is especially dangerous to the theologian because theology is a spiritual task. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10). Theology is done primarily for the glory of God and the good of his church. That is why the qualifications for teachers (1 Tim 3:1-7, Tit 1:5-9) are primarily spiritual, not intellectual. Paul does mention the ability to teach (which implies analytical and communicative ability) but most of the qualifications he gives are ethical in nature. In order to be a good theologian, one must be godly. In order to see clearly, one must walk closely. That is why there are many simple believers who know God better than many learned theologians. I suspect that my father and mother (who never earned college degrees) walk more closely with the Lord than I and therefore in some ways are better theologians than I. Theology and godly living enforce one another.

During the encounter I mentioned above, I demurred when given the opportunity to speak my convictions about God and his Word, and I did so because I was seeking the acclaim of the academy rather than the pleasure of God. And the acclaim of the academy will likely never come to one who confesses that the Christian Scriptures are ipsissma verba Dei (the very words of God). Rather than receiving acclaim, one is likely to be put in the dunce’s seat and told that he is not allowed to play in the “big boy” sandbox.

Maybe you have never been tempted to hedge on one of your convictions, but there are other ways of seeking the acclaim of the academy. I have seen more than a few students make an idol out of their grades. “No,” you say, “I would never do that.” Really? Have you ever found yourself going to professors more than, say, once a year, and asking for your exam grade or paper grade to be adjusted? Do you talk trash about teachers under whom you do not receive an A? Are you more concerned about the grade you received than the knowledge and virtue you gained? Are you willing to neglect your family and your church in order to receive a high grade or the respect of your students or professors? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, there is reason to examine your heart.

For other students or professors, academic idolatry takes the form of high-brow theology and preaching. Do you find yourself theologizing or preaching in a way that is not helpful for the church? Are you unable to preach the Word in a way that ministers to a congregation of believers who do not have a college education? Do you find yourself looking down upon, or being frustrated with, the beliefs and practices of “simple” Christians who have no inkling about the regulative principle, the mid-trib rapture, or the Evangelical Theological Society? There are few things more distasteful than a seminary student (or professor) who is unable to enjoy ministering to God’s people at whatever level of education (theological or otherwise) they might have.

If you have read this blogpost and realized that, in one form or another, you struggle with idols of the academy, here are a few suggestions:

  • Commit to studying God’s word with affection for him and his church, and a willingness to be subject to Scripture, even when your convictions conflict with modern or postmodern sensibilities.
  • Commit to treating your seminary classes as an act of worship. Never allow yourself to sit through a course in theology, biblical studies, missions, or whatever, with an attitude of indifference.
  • Commit to reading God’s word and listening to the teaching of God’s Word (whether at home, in Old Testament class, in chapel), with a concentrated faithfulness, with a disposition to obey.
  • Read the text of Scripture thoughtfully and prayerfully, meditating upon it, before taking a theological position or applying it to particular situation.
  • Resolve never to theologize or preach unless you are actively seeking to glorify God and strengthen his church.

Theology is a spiritual task, one done for the glory of God and the good of his church.

  6Comments

  1. Joy   •  

    wow, what a convicting and encouraging post! I will be the first to admit I struggle with the idol of wanting all my grades to be within the “A” category. Do you have any other practical advice for this specific idol? Thanks again for your vulnerability.

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Joy, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Two thoughts: First, we should try constantly to remind ourselves that we are always (and only) studying theology and ministry for God’s glory, the good of his church, and for the good of a watching world. When we remind ourselves of God’s primacy in that way, it helps us not to make an idol of our studies. Second, we remember that our studies are a “calling” (vocatio) that must be seen in relation to our other callings in life (family, workplace, citizenship, etc.), and that one calling should not trump all the others.

  3. Steven Gilbert   •  

    Bruce,
    Very, very good word. Thanks for your transparency and also laying it on the line. It’s this kind of humble spirit that contributes to the quality students that are coming from that part of the world and impacting it all over. Thanks for doing what you do.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Steve, thank you my brother for your kind words.

  5. rynoyak   •  

    For me, seminary was a time of growth in my relationship with God primarily. [This is not say that I didn't learn anything, however, haha!]
    This is a great and timely post for my considerations of doing further studies: thank you!

  6. chad   •  

    Wow Bruce! Thank you for obeying the Holy Spirit in witing this! As I read it I found myself saying “that’s me” quite often. What a service to the glory of God and His Church!

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