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

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.

On the Dangers of Seminary (Pt. 4): The Danger of Becoming a Dork

Dork: [dor’k] noun. USA pejorative slang for a quirky or socially inept person, or one who is out of touch with contemporary trends. Often confused with “nerd” and “geek,” but does not imply the same intelligence level.

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In this series of posts, I am dealing with the perils of the unique and sometimes bizarre world of seminary education. Most of the dangers of which I speak are dangers to which I have succumbed at one point or another during my times as a student, teacher, or administrator. This post is no exception, as my friends can attest (and would eagerly affirm).

I would like to point out that seminary students in particular find themselves confronted with the danger of becoming dorks. That’s right. Seminaries often attract and produce pencil-necked geeks. These are guys who have lost themselves in parsings and prophecy charts, but have little awareness of their surroundings, and sometimes little or no ability to make conversation with ordinary American citizens. “No,” you opine, “I’m not one of those guys.” Really? Well, here’s a quiz. If you answer yes to any of these questions, you are a certified dork-in-training.

1. Do you know all about Cyril of Alexander and Johannes von Staupitz but are blissfully unaware of the existence of Dwight Schrute?

2. Are you able to immediately find your copy of Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor amongst the 2,643 books in your library, but have no idea how to change the oil in your lawnmower?

3. Are you upset that I mentioned The Reformed Pastor in the last question because you thought I should have spotlighted Why I Am Not a Calvinist instead?

4. Do you wear a bowtie?

5. Are you rockin’ a (volunteer fire department) moustache?

6. Do you own a searsucker suit?

7. Is your name Nathan Finn, J. D. Greear, or Micah Fries?

But there is another, and equally potent, way to become a big dork: try just a little too hard to be culturally savvy. In order to find an example of this path to dorkdom, I need to look no further than myself. For those of you who know me now, as a coat-and-tie-wearing pencil pusher (a dork of the first type), you might be surprised to know that this wasn’t always my style. Soon after becoming a “youth evangelist” in the mid-90s, I found myself needing to be a lot “cooler.” Before long, I could be found sporting wide-leg pants, fat belts, steel-toed boots, and enough faux-silver jewelry to make Scott Stapp blush. (If you don’t understand any of the ostensive referents in the previous sentence, I’d like to refer you back to the first category of ‘dork’ above.) I was workin’ it like Geoff Moore and the Distance (that’s a joke). I fancied that I looked like the frontman of an indie rock band, or some other type of über-cool cultural icon. But I didn’t. I looked more like a Steve Buschemi double who had really bad luck on his latest trip to the Goodwill store. And I’m not alone. There are others. I’m thinking of any number of Seminary Bible jockeys who came to campus wearing penny loafers and golf shirts but who all of the sudden and without notice sport a pierced pre-frontal cortex, faux-hawk, girl jeans, and a little dust bunny on their chins.

So what is the point? The point is that we need to be in the world, but not of it. For some of us, we need to get our head out of our books each week long enough to be aware of our surroundings. We need to meet our neighbors and have conversations with them. We should make ourselves aware of the televisions shows, movies, and music that shape the hearts and minds of the people of this country. We should take a little bit of time to become acquainted with the major moral, social, and political debates of our time. If we don’t, we’ll be unaware of the language people speak and the culture they are consuming. Further, in a sense, we neglect our own humanity. To reject culture qua culture is to reject the God who made us to be cultural (artistic and scientific and social and political) beings. The danger is cultural anorexia.

For others of us, we should be careful lest we become uncritically like the broader culture. Underlying the television shows, music, and even the fashion trends in our country are producers, writers, and designers who do their work from within a particular worldview. If these shows, music, and trends are “the very air we breathe,” then it is likely that we are also influenced by the worldviews (nihilistic, relativistic, etc.) underlying them. If we do not consciously, carefully, and consistently keep watch over ourselves, we will find ourselves being consumed by the spirit of the age. We endanger our own humanity by not allowing Christ to conform us to His image. The danger is cultural gluttony.

Of course, seminary is not the only place where one faces the perils of cultural anorexia or gluttony. But it is a place that offers ample opportunity for the former, which I suppose is what drives some seminarians towards the latter. We seek to avoid the perils on either side by (1) as my former seminary professor put it, “allowing God’s Word to be the grid through which we filter the surrounding culture;” and (2) allowing others to provide correction when we err on one side or the other.

John 17:15: “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.

Acts 17:22: “Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, ‘Men of Athens’….”

On the Dangers of Seminary (Pt. 3): The Danger of Allowing Seminary to Replace Church

Hebrews 10: 24-25: “And let us…not [forsake] the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another….

Ephesians 4:1-3: “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

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My years in college were four of the best years of my life. Those were years that God taught me foundational truths about himself, and allowed me to experience the power of his gospel. I served as a youth pastor at Salemburg Baptist church, a co-captain of the FCA on campus, and together with my friend, J. D. Greear, led a Monday night Bible study where we were able in the power of God’s gospel to speak into the lives of college students from every imaginable background.

By the time I entered seminary, I had resigned my job as a youth pastor and was a full-time “youth evangelist.” I traveled and preached to youth and college students, calling them to faith in Christ. Those were great days. I have great memories of preaching at Camp Caswell, Crossroads Camps, South Mountain Baptist Camp, Go Tell Camps, Camp Willow Run, and who knows how many churches.

And boy, do I have stories to tell. One of my favorites occurred when I preached at a Four Square church in South Carolina. J. D. Greear went along with me. While we were on the ride, J. D. informed me that although he had never taken piano lessons, recently he had learned how to play two songs-the hymn Alleluia and the song Faithfully by Journey-so that he could impress a certain girl at college. [Hmmm.] Before too long, we arrived at the church. It so happened that the church pianist was sick that Sunday and there was no replacement for her (at a church of about 50 people). So, after the sermon, I informed the congregation that I had brought a pianist with me and he would play the invitation hymn-Alleluia. I promptly called on J. D., and I’ve got to give it to him: He “cowboyed up” and walked straight to the piano, unfurling his two meat cleavers, and banging out the most jarring rendition of Alleluia that I have ever heard, or could ever have imagined. Finally, the invitation was over and the noise from the piano had ceased. After shaking hands and talking with some of the flock, J. D. and I found ourselves in a conversation with the two pastors (husband and wife) who were trying to anoint us with oil from a test tube of some sort. All of the sudden, Mrs. Pastor told J. D. and I that she had a word from the Lord. I could tell that she was very excited about the prophecy to which she was about to give birth. With baited breath we waited. And then she told us: The Lord had told her I would be a “world-wide” evangelist and J. D. would be my “devoted music man.” Finally, she and her husband prayed over us that God would give us the faith of Kathryn Kuhlman (faith healer, mentor to Benny Hinn). I kid you not.

Now this is only one of the many stories I could tell of those years. There are funny ones, such as the one above, and serious ones, about the victories of the gospel. But there is one type of story I cannot tell: the story of deep relationships formed in the church of which I was a covenanted member. It is not that I didn’t have any relationships, or that I didn’t want to be a part of my church. Instead, it was the fact that I scheduled myself to be gone preaching so much that I was not in any meaningful sense a member of my church.

The church, however, is where God disciples his children. It is where we “all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:13-15a). If we want to come to unity in the faith, know Christ, mature spiritually, learn sound doctrine, and speak the truth in love, God’s intention is that we do so within the covenanted community. It is true that there are cases where God calls a man out and sends him where there is no church. This type of calling allows him to be a missionary or even a traveling preacher. However, as a young man I would have been wise to devote significantly more time to my church, being discipled by men older than I, learning to practice my gifts in relationship with the body, and growing up “in all things into Him, who is the head, Christ” (Eph 4:15-16).

Of course I am not saying that it is wrong to travel and preach. But I am saying that a young man should be deeply involved with his covenant community, discipling and being discipled. During my seminary years, I missed out on these things unwittingly. I missed out on teaching, fellowship, worship, and service. In fact, I visited Capitol Hill Baptist Church during this time, and spent a week there with some friends. I will never forget meeting Mark Dever, informing him of my ministry, and then realizing that not only was he not impressed, but he seemed to feel sorry for me. When he asked me in which ways I was involved in ministering to my own church, I had no answer. That was the first time I remember being forced to recognize the deep and abiding value of belonging to a covenanted body of believers.

For various reasons, seminary students are be tempted not to take seriously their call to membership in Christ’s church. Some students might take their preaching schedule more seriously than their calling to church membership. Others might look down upon their pastor because his sermons are not always the “masterpiece” they expect. Still others might consistently neglect church involvement because they find their studies more important. But to neglect the body of Christ is not God’s plan and is never to one’s benefit. I testify to this from personal experience, and offer some advice to students: If you neglect your calling to God’s church, you will hurt yourself, your church, and the future ministry to which Christ is calling you.