Is formal theological education good or bad? PART 1


Years ago, I would have never imagined that I would ever be pursuing a formal seminary education.  The Christian community/tradition I was in was pretty anti-institutional in many respects.  We called seminary “cemetery”, and it was only for stuffy, proud, rich young men who had turned Christianity into an intellectual pursuit, much like the other sciences.  Formal theological education was only for the “hireling” who was seeking to make merchandise of the saints by applying for the CEO (pastor) position at a local hymn singing country club (typical church) so he could hear himself give speeches (sermons) to as large crowd a crowd as he could muster (congregation), hoping to make his name great. 

And now, years later, after many paradigm shifts, here I am, with seminary applications in hand.  And I need to ask myself honestly, ‘have I sold out?  What has changed?’

Some things have indeed changed, and some have not.  I would still extend a critique to the way many of us in America (and around the world) ‘do church’, as many of our gatherings reflect the ways of the world rather than the pattern entrusted to us in the Scriptures.  I am still grieved by the way that many are making merchandise of God’s people, and the way we perpetuate this problem by handling church leadership like a corporate office over a business venture.

But now I look at many of these churches, and in them, I see many of God’s beloved people, struggling to see the Kingdom of God while keeping one foot in the world.  People gathering with other believers to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, worship God, and to be exhorted by means of His Word.  They are looking for encouragement, discipleship, and others to walk with on this calvary road, and all too often they come to the church only to hear, see, and be surrounded by the same things they are seeking refuge from.  They hear contradictory messages from different corners of the congregation, and being untrained in the scriptures, many of them choose to follow whoever is speaking the loudest.

I want God’s Word to be what is loudest in those churches.  I want them to hear things, that by the Holy Spirit, will fight back the flesh and encourage the Spirit.  I want them to be encouraged to trust a Holy and Perfect God, even when everything in their life seems amiss.  I want to grow with them in discipleship and discerning the will of God, cherishing the one who rescues us through His own shed blood on the cross.  I feel called to shepherd, and I want to learn, I want to study, I want to be mentored.  Certainly, not all the training (or even most of the training) needed for tomorrows elders takes place within the four walls of a Seminary.  However, I would argue that in our present day, Seminary is one of the best places to:

1. Study the heritage of the faith passed down and entrusted to us, and to learn from  the lives of Godly men and women who have gone before us.  

2.  Acknowledging the mistakes of the past so that we might avoid them as a church in the future.

3.  Consider the struggles of those who are in our churches today and considering how to care for them in light of God’s Word. 

4.  Develop and practice rhetorical skills to be used in defending right doctrine and proclaiming the truth in a winsome manner.

5.  Grow in critical thought as it relates to theology and the church.

6.  Study God’s word on a daily basis in a community that is thinking critically and pastorally.

7.  Learn to read the Bible in the languages it was originally written in.   This may help us grow to understand the underlying misconceptions in many modern day controversies, and walk in the awareness of any assumptions translators may have made while translating the texts into English.

8.  Spend time listening to older people who have spent dozens of years pouring over the Scriptures.

9.  Spend more time reading.  

10.  Spend time learning to communicate well through writing.

These are all important skills that are invaluable to our next generation of church leaders.  There are indeed many dangerous things that Seminary may bring before us.  Many Seminaries are steeped in bad doctrine and are unhelpful all together.  Many things about our current conceptions of Seminary itself are  just plain unbiblical.  However, God is still using many Seminaries as a key component in the training of tomorrow’s church leaders.  

All this to say, we should work towards reform in our Seminaries… more on this to come.  But just as a teaser, here is the way one Church/Seminary is reforming the way Seminary is done: The Bethlehem Institute.

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4 Responses to “Is formal theological education good or bad? PART 1”

  1. thefuerstshallbelast Says:

    Looks like a good piece of reflection, to me. Part of the problem is the anti-intellectualism still prevalent in many of our churches. While seminary can be hurtful in some ways, it is a great place to go and think about your faith, ground it more solidly, and engage different arms of the church of God that you wouldn’t have access to if you stayed in your own church. Most churches only have one or two pastors. They don’t have the time or experience to teach you all the things you will learn in seminary. Don’t think you’ve sold out. Be gracious, but also understand that people who don’t like it generally are relatively ignorant about what it entails and how it can be beneficial.

  2. Dorian Says:

    Its sad that many young people in the church today don’t see any need to study doctrine and history and languages. They “just want to love people.” They don’t see doctrine and study as having any bearing on loving people. Similarly, some people study doctrine and live as if the doctrines they study have demands on their life.

  3. James Says:

    Check this article out from this month’s WSC newsletter:

    Stephen Lewis (M.Div. ’98) is currently the pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Salem, Oregon as well as adjunct instructor at Chemeketa Community College. He and his wife, Amy, have six children.

    Thirteen years ago when I was setting off for Escondido, CA to study at Westminster Seminary California, not everyone who knew me was thrilled. Some people at my church worried that it would ruin me. They often referred to seminary as “cemetery.” Upon graduation, one of my relatives gave me a book—All The Things I Didn’t Learn in Seminary. If they knew much about WSC, the anti-seminary crowd would especially be worried, since my education focused on subjects like Greek and Hebrew, redemptive-historical exegesis, confessional Reformed orthodoxy, and preaching, rather than on fundraising, church boards and committees, organizing community art events, exegeting pop cultural trends, and how to take your church’s web site to the next level. (I would take Greek grammar with Dr. Baugh any day over that kind of stuff.)

    To humor my anti-seminary friends, I’ll concede that WSC was a “cemetery” of sorts because during my studies I was buried six feet under with reading assignments and Hebrew vocabulary lists. But a resurrection occurred. I had entered WSC loving the Scriptures and believing that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God, but I didn’t see Christ and the gospel in all of Scripture, and my mastery of Bible trivia was not going to sustain me in the storms of the pastorate. At WSC, Dr. Johnson and Dr. Clowney helped me begin to see Christ in all of Scripture—both the Old and New Testaments. At first I thought redemptive-historical interpretation was just a fun game whose object was to hunt for mysterious literary foreshadowing and, if necessary, force a Christ-figure into the text. I remember looking for chiastic structures everywhere, and spinning out theories as to what they meant. Only later did the big picture of christological exegesis hit me, as I began to see the gospel permeate through biblical passages.

    For the past 8 years I have been a PCA church planter in Salem, Oregon. Many people have done their best to try to knock seminary out of me, but there are some things that simply won’t wear off: I can’t help but analyze life and various arguments without using the grids given to me by Cornelius Van Til and John Frame. My way of understanding contemporary American church life is deeply colored by Dr. Godfrey’s church history classes. The comparative religion classes I now teach at our local community college have Peter Jones’ and Dr. Godfrey’s fingerprints all over them. At first I couldn’t get over the fact that Dr. Godfrey was so adamant that the Psalms are central to our worship. In time, I walked away from his classes with a passion for sola fide, for preaching Christ rather than moralism, and for valuing the ordinary means of grace rather than the latest revivalistic techniques. Likewise, Dr. Strimple made sure I understood the “extraspective” nature of faith in Christ, an emphasis that constantly surfaces now in my evangelistic conversations and in my pastoral counseling.

    Something I never anticipated receiving from WSC was lifelong friends and counselors. Even though hundreds of students have passed through the halls of WSC since I graduated, there are still faculty there who pray for me by name. About 4 years ago, my church planting work was so fragile and weak that I was seriously thinking about quitting. I called Dr. Duguid and got through to him personally. He prayed with me, gave me perspective and advice, and flew up to Oregon to preach a couple of years later when our church plant was finally particularizing.

    What needed to die and be buried in seminary was my personal pride and arrogance. Unfortunately, much of it survived because the WSC were so kind to me when it came to grades. All except one. One faculty member threatened to give me an F grade when I submitted my term paper 5 minutes late. I still think his threat was a little over the top, but he succeeded in sobering me up—to what extent was my GPA an idol? Far from being a place of death, a killing field where my supposedly pristine faith was ruined, WSC was used of God to be a place of new life for me. Without WSC, not only would I have never been ready to face the rigors of ministering to a neo-pagan, post-Christian, un-churched Pacific Northwest culture, but my own faith in Christ would be floundering on the rocks of pastoral disappointment. WSC helped point me to Jesus, and that has made all the difference.

    Read a sermon by Rev. Stephen Lewis in Preaching Christ: Alumni Sermons >>

  4. Is formal theological education good or bad? PART 2 « Paul & Timothy Blog Says:

    […] This might be a good time to pitch an interactive web forum we attempted to launch some time ago, and are hoping to resurrect.  It is our desire that it would be an effective tool for those seeking to be trained for the ministry. .  Write anything you know about a school, post questions about a school you are considering, add a school to the discussion.  Our goal is that it would be a place where potential students can see what is available for those looking to train for the ministry, and can have an idea of what is really being taught at various institutions. Part 1 […]

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