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. 8): The Danger of Missing Out

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.

On the Dangers of Seminary (Pt. 7): On the Danger of Being THAT GUY

This installment is the last one in which I deal with the dangers of seminary (although I plan to follow up with a post speaking to the many positive aspects of seminary). I am certainly not saying that there are no more dangers. In fact, more than a few of you have pounded my inbox with suggestions for additional “dangers” that could be mentioned. Some of the suggestions were serious, but most of them were…not so much.

Actually, I have collated many of your suggestions and expressed your sentiments under the heading, “the danger of being THAT GUY.” Often, THAT GUY is the one who has only recently come to a new theological position and is positively obnoxious about it. You know, the guy who nobody wants to have a conversation with because of the axe he has to grind. A lot of attention has been given to “cage stage” Calvinists (these are freshly minted Calvinists who ought to be locked in a cage for a couple of years until they can stop referring to four-pointers as “quasi-Pelagian” and start learning to utter sentences that do not contain the phrase “the doctrines of grace”). But there are cage-stage anti-Calvinists too (and they can’t claim that God ordained them to be obnoxious).

And don’t forget the Contextual Seminarian (this guy is similar to the second type of dork to which I refer in an earlier post. He’s the guy with the wounded poet look, emerging church glasses, girl jeans, and a soul patch. And he doesn’t even have a prescription for the glasses). Or the “Courting Only” guy (I’d like to offer him a cold compress for his fevered brow). Or Mr. “Home-School Only” (If one more person at the SBC comes up to me and tells me that it is ungodly for me to send my kids to public school, I think I’m going to strangle him with a floral-patterned jumper).

Other times, THAT GUY is the one who can’t seem to keep his mouth shut in class. He is always pregnant with an inane question. Are you THAT GUY? If so, you are probably blissfully unaware. Did you know there is a Fantasy Seminary League? Are you aware that some of your fellow students choose the names of their favorite THAT GUYs at the beginning of the semester, and form their own Fantasy Seminary team? That’s right. Every time you start into another 4.5 minute question, the guy who picked you gets a point. If you ask three or four of those questions, he gets three or four points. If the teacher ignores you, reprimands you, or pokes a little fun at you, they get double points!

“Oh, no,” you opine. “I’m not THAT GUY.” Really? Well, here is a test: Do people groan and roll their eyes when you start showing off your knowledge, attempting to disguise it in the form of a question? Do you like to bring up your pet theories in every class, struggling to adapt them to interrogative form? Are you personally committed to uttering, in the form of a question, every stray thought you’ve conceived during the lecture? Do your questions start with the phrase, “But don’t you think that…?” Does your teacher get an odd look on his face when you raise your hand? Do your fellow students ever tell you that every time you talk in class they feel like a hamster swimming in a bucket of Thorazine? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might be THAT GUY. And if you are THAT GUY, stop it. Stop it right now.

Still other times, THAT GUY is one who idolizes a particular man in the ministry. Usually, THAT GUY imports his idol’s interests, theological convictions, pulpit mannerisms, and sometimes even his clothing preferences. Take, for example, students who idolize John Piper (I call them “Pipettes”). When they preach, they try to imitate Piper’s intensity and earnest demeanor, and even his intonations, but instead they look like they are in great pain and might implode on the spot.

But it is not just Piper. Our campuses have students who seek to impersonate any number of other ministry figures. When I first started preaching (waaaaaay back in 1993), I had discovered James Merritt’s sermon library and started preaching his messages to my youth. Verbatim. Soon, I discovered Adrian Rogers and started preaching his sermons. I tried to imitate his voice and intonations, and even the Adrian Rogers “chuckle” at the end of my (his) jokes. Seriously. Of course, there is nothing wrong with looking up to certain men and women who have walked with the Lord longer than we, and who have much to teach us. However, any time we admire a man inordinately we are in trouble. Ultimately, we are called to emulate Christ (and not our heroes) and hold Him and his Word supreme (rather than some man’s theological system or methodological distinctives).

OK, enough of that. I hope that you are not offended by the warning not to be THAT GUY. I’ve tried to be candid, while staying on the nearside of disrespectful. On a more serious note, others suggested that I include the danger of burnout: Seminary brings with it many challenges. There are financial pressures, intellectual challenges, family responsibilities, and church commitments. It is not easy. Likely, you have never had to try to juggle a 30-hr. per week job, 12 hours of class, and 60 required books per semester at the same time that you try to love your family and serve your church.

The real question here is how to juggle the multiple callings God has given you: family, church, and two workplaces (seminary and job). This challenge is not easily met, and it continues throughout life, but two insights are particularly helpful: First, recognize that faithfulness should not necessarily be equated with excellence. Being faithful to your seminary studies is not to be equated with making A’s in your studies. This might be a season in life when the best thing for you to do is to make A’s at home and B’s and C’s at school. Second, recognize that there is a reason that the Lord gave us a day of rest. Enjoy your church’s fellowship and worship time, devote several hours to reading and reflecting upon Scripture, and if possible take a nap.

As for the dangers of seminary, this concludes my reflections. In the final installment, I will speak of tremendous assets of the seminary context, of the way in which it can be a catalyst for spiritual growth, theological maturity, and methodological creativity.