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. 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.online game