Seven Reflections on the Dangers of Seminary

This post is a confession of sorts, a confession that I hope will be beneficial to some who read it. In essence, it is about one thing-the fact that God’s grace toward me has been overwhelming and that at the same time I often have not lived in a manner worthy of his grace. The particular focus of this post is God’s calling on my life to study and teach in a seminary context.

From 1996-98, I had the opportunity to study for the M.Div. on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. After serving in Central Asia for two years, I returned to Southeastern to study for a Ph. D. which I completed in 2003. Those years of study were a gift from God. I was able to study the Scriptures, read widely, debate important doctrines and ideas, and learn to proclaim and defend the faith. Don’t get me wrong: there were times that I wanted to be “out there” preaching full-time rather than laboring over the Hebrew language or the intricacies of theological method.

In fact, it was during my first year of seminary that I went to a certain seminary president and informed him that devoting three years to seminary was possibly a waste of my time since there were people somewhere to whom I could be preaching and ministering. After allowing me to unload my brilliant idea, he opened the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a little blue bucket full of sand, complete with teddy bear imprints and a pink sandbox shovel. He asked me if I could see what was in the bucket. “Sand,” I said, confidently. “That is correct,” he said.

It was at that moment he pointed out that the apostle Paul took a few years in the desert (which has more than a little sand) to prepare for his upcoming ministry and that, as far as he could tell, I was no better than the apostle Paul. For this reason, he said, he was requiring that I carry this blue bucket of sand (and the little pink shovel) everywhere I went for the next week. It was a good reminder to me of the importance of laboring in God’s Word in order to prepare for future ministry. And it brought with it a dose of humility: I remember showing up for Systematic Theology the next morning (taught by the same seminary president) with a bucket, teddy bears, and a pink shovel in my hand. All eyes were fixed on me and my ridiculous accessories. I might as well have been wearing nothing but a purple unitard and a pair of Christmas socks. But I learned my lesson, as Dr. Patterson used me as an illustration to remind the class of their need not to think too highly of themselves.

But back to the point. During the dissertation stage of my Ph.D., I began teaching theology and philosophy full-time at Southeastern, and have continued in teaching and administrative capacities from 2002 until the present. Having been on campus now for 13 of the past 15 years,

I can say that life in a seminary context has been good in many respects. It is a place where I learned to study God’s Word and relate it to all aspects of His world. I was introduced to church history, systematic theology, apologetics, and much more. I formed friendships that will last for a lifetime, and was taught and discipled by men who had walked with God for many more years than I. It is easy for me to recognize God’s grace and goodness to me in this calling.

In spite of the blessing it is to live and teach on a seminary campus, however, I have recognized that this context brings with it certain attendant perils. I recognize these potential pitfalls partly because I have seen myself succumb to some of them. Knowing that I am not alone in struggling to live in a manner worthy of my calling, several years ago I published a blog series entitled “On the Dangers of Seminary.” Also knowing that a new batch of students are confronted with these dangers each year, I am republishing the blog series by linking to it below.

Through the following links, one can read about:

The Danger of Losing Your First Love for God and Your Love for the Lost

The Danger of Allowing Seminary to Replace Church

The Danger of Becoming a Dork

The Danger of Seeking Academic Acclaim

The Danger of Becoming a Punk

The Danger of Being THAT GUY

The Danger of Missing Out

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.