This series arose out of extended reflection on the Scriptures, out of which the Lord has made clear to me some of the perils of seminary, many of which I have succumbed to or been tempted by over the past decade and a half. I have attempted to communicate these perils to those of you who would read this post and might benefit from it. Although I have interjected humor at several points, I could not be more serious about the dangers I mentioned. After having written on those dangers, however, I would be remiss not to include one final danger: the danger of missing out on all that a good seminary has to offer.
I will never forget the first day of Systematic Theology with Paige Patterson. I had decided to take Systematic during my first semester and the opening class period would be the first experience I would have in a seminary environment. I sat on a row with J. D. Greear, Keith Errickson, and Chris Thompson. As Dr. Patterson began class, he announced that he would begin by handing out the class “syllabi.” As he said this, I leaned over to a friend and mentioned that the proper plural of syllabus is “syllabuses,” not “syllabi.” At this point, Keith raised his hand, was acknowledged by the teacher and proceeded to say, “My friend Bruce has a problem with your grammar.” I’m not joking. Dr. Patterson looked at me and said, “Yes?” To which I responded, “No sir, there is no problem with your grammar. My friend is joking.” The professor, however, insisted that I should put on my big boy pants and tell him what I really thought. So I did. I proceeded to unload my theory that syllabus was not derived from the Latin and therefore the plural should be syllabuses. Dr. Patterson thought about it for a second or two, looked at me, and said, “no, -buses are things that children ride to school, and since you know so much about everything, I will grade your weekly quizzes out loud, in front of the entire class, for the rest of the semester.” And that he did. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of theological wedgies the remainder of the semester was for me?
In all seriousness, I loved Systematic Theology. There is nothing more satisfying, more unsettling, more helpful, and more practical than asking the really big questions about God, man, salvation, the church, and last things. First and foremost, we studied the text of Scripture, drawing upon the resources of the entire canon to answer each question. Along the way, however, we investigated what the church fathers and the Reformers had to say on any of these doctrines, and learned to defend and apply those same doctrines. I was forced to write my first bona fide research paper. I had never written a paper in Turabian style and had no idea how to argue a thesis. I chose to argue for the divine inspiration theory of Scripture (vs. human constructivist and human response models).
After having mustered all of my bibliographic, analytic, and stylistic resources, I managed to complete my paper. I received it graded the next week. At the end of the paper, Dr. Patterson devoted several paragraphs of red ink to the shortcomings of my paper, gave me a few words of encouragement, and then ended with this sentence, which I will never forget: “Mr. Ashford, we will make a real scholar of you yet, if it kills us both in the process.” Hmmm. Even though I had just been informed that (1) I was not a real scholar, and (2) that to make me one might actually kill my professor in the process, I found myself encouraged, oddly enough, that I might one day make a decent theologian. There was light at the end of the tunnel. From Dr. Patterson, I learned not only theology and research, but also how it is that a teacher really challenges those whom he is teaching.
My biblical languages and biblical studies courses were of inestimable value. One of those courses was the book of Isaiah with Gary Galeotti. It was one of the most worshipful experiences of my life, as we studied Isaiah, line by line, for an entire semester. I realized that Isaiah understood Christ 800 years before the Lord’s coming better than I did 2000 years after. In addition to learning the book of Isaiah, I learned what it meant to be a godly preacher and teacher of the Word. Day after day, he opened the text of Scripture, expounded it, applied it to our lives, and challenged us to embrace and obey the words of God. He aimed not only for the mind, but for the heart.
I took Christian Philosophy, Apologetics, Christian Faith and the Modern Mind, and several other courses with L. Russ Bush. In these courses, I learned to give a defense of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Dr. Bush was a man who had thought deeply and broadly and was able to speak cogently on any issue across the range of the disciplines. At his fingertips were theology, philosophy, history, world religions, and current affairs. It was in this class more than any other that the Lord distilled in me a love for reading widely across the disciplines.
Alvin Reid was my professor for Introduction to Evangelism. I had never been around a man with such a contagious enthusiasm for the gospel. His courses were an extended argument for evangelism, missions, and revival. He argued from the text of Scripture, illustrated from the annals of church history, and applied it to our contemporary milieu. Between his evangelism course and Keith Eitel’s Introduction to Christian Missions, I found myself under conviction every week. They continually impressed upon me the fact that a love for God and His Word necessarily issues forth in a desire to commend Him to a lost world.
John Hammett was my professor for courses such as Ecclesiology, Soteriology and Baptist History. Not only was I forced to study the doctrine of the church in depth, but I encountered a man who was the consummate scholar. In presenting his own views, we recognized that he was rigorous in his research and unflinching in his argumentation. In presenting views that differed from his own, he was unfailingly even-handed. He did not need to misrepresent his opponents in order to refute their views. One of the things that most impressed me about Dr. Hammett was that one could be a tough-minded theologian and at the same time have a gracious demeanor.
From Andreas Kostenberger, I encountered not only the New Testament but also a man who embodies the severe discipline necessary to “leave no stone unturned” in the study of the Scriptures. From Steve McKinion, I imbibed not only the writings of the church fathers but also learned that one could be a missionary to the academy; he could research and write and speak in such a manner that he reaches an audience extending far beyond the bounds of the evangelical world. From Dan Heimbach, not only did I learn Christian Ethics, but also observed the life of a man who had advised the President of the United States and taught at the Naval Academy and who was willing to leave all of that in order to teach ministers of the gospel. And this is just the short list of men from whom I have learned.
Last, but not least, I want to encourage seminary students to learn from those who God has put in leadership at their seminaries. It is God who has placed these men in such positions and we would be remiss not to learn from them. The lessons learned from each president will vary according to their personality, context, and relative strengths and weaknesses. Since I live and write from within a Southeastern context, I will mention our own President, Danny Akin. If I had to limit my thoughts to only one thing that I have learned from watching him, it would be that he has modeled for us what it means to hide behind the cross. I think it was James Denney who said, “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.” Our president models this in his preaching, as he keeps the text of Scripture front and center, and puts himself in the background. The lesson here is that we should not allow our personalities or agendas or sense of humor to overtake the text itself. He also models it in his leadership. It is not often that one has opportunity to sit under a leader who is genuinely self-effacing, consistently willing to admit his faults and ask forgiveness when wrong, committed to visit and serve his missions students on the field (in less than ideal conditions), and willing to spend time with students in spite of his multiple responsibilities.
I was very, very close to eliminating this installment because I was afraid that it would seem like an extended piece of flattery. After all, in trying to give a brief exposition of God’s grace to me in a seminary context, I have focused on the faculty as much as (or more than) I have the curriculum. There are two reasons why, in the end, I decided to post this installment. First, at a good seminary, the faculty and curriculum are inseparable. That is the whole point of having a seminary community. We are drinking deeply from the well of the Christian Scriptures at the feet of men who have walked with the Lord and who have studied their chosen disciplines with more depth than we likely ever will. Theology, pastoral ministry, and leadership are caught just as much as they are taught. Second, with all of the emphasis on young leaders in our convention, I thought it fitting to focus on the benefits of listening to, and learning from, the older leaders whom God has set before us. Young men are most likely to become leaders by sitting at the feet of their elders.
In conclusion, let me affirm what I wrote in the first post, “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 years more than I. It is easy for me to recognize God’s grace and goodness to me in this calling.” Let us live and study and teach and worship in a manner worthy of our calling.