How to Keep the Seminary Christian, Part 2
By Timothy Raymond –
In my initial post in this series, I commented on how seminary is frequently portrayed as some sort of intellectual lion’s den, dangerous to a vital, robust Christian faith. This strikes me as sad and quite ironic, since seminary is still the route by which most men are trained for local church ministry. Moreover, I commented on how seminary does not necessarily have to be detrimental to a believer’s walk with God. I testified to how my seminary experience was delightful and only served to encourage me in my pursuit of holiness. I concluded that post by providing an overview of six virtues that I believe were essential for a sanctifying time in seminary.
Today I’d like to muse on the first two of these virtues. First, we’ll consider the difference a conservative evangelical theology, with the Bible as the primary textbook, makes in a seminary experience. Then I’ll look at how a converted student body with fairly high spiritual and moral standards encourages godliness.
1. A conservative evangelical theology with the Bible as the primary textbook
It goes without saying that any school that doubts the full inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible will not help bolster the future pastor’s faith. If I’m constantly being told, “The redactor slipped up there,” or “Paul let his chauvinistic biases show through here,” or “You needn’t worry too much about those historical mistakes over there,” not only will I not be edified, but over time that sort of teaching will gradually disintegrate my confidence in the authority of Scripture (and thus the authority of God). Just like an evangelical Christian should join a church that believes the Bible is the Word of God, so also evangelical young men who sense a calling to vocational ministry should seek out a seminary with an evangelical view of Scripture.
Now up to this point I imagine most of our readers are giving me the hearty “Amen!” However, sometimes those of us who are confessionally evangelical in our view of Scripture are functionally liberal in the way we study and rely upon Scripture. We don’t really behave and study as if the Bible and the Bible alone is the inerrant Word of God. Allow me to explain.
If pastors and missionaries are primarily ministers of the Word (Acts 6:4; Acts 20:32; 2 Timothy 4:1ff., etc.), it would seem reasonable that those training for such ministries should spend the bulk of their time studying the Word. That might sound obvious, but I think most of us realize that this is not always the case. Even in some evangelical schools, pride of place often goes to Calvin or Owen or Wesley or Strong or Ladd (or Barna!). While we certainly admire such men and should rely on them where helpful, they must always serve as handmaidens to the Word, not masters above the Word. And we reverse that order to our own peril. (I confess that a similar imbalance can sometimes be discerned in my own personal study, of which I need to repent.)
I’m so grateful that the majority of my seminary curriculum focused on the pure Word of God. Did we have our distinguished theologians that we looked to as trusted authorities? Certainly. When I was in seminary, every student worked through most or all of Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology. However, we were always free to disagree with Erickson where we viewed him as exegetically-incorrect and we were actually encouraged to do so. More importantly, I know that practically-speaking I spent twice as much time studying the Bible as I did Erickson or any human author. And I believe that made a massive difference in my seminary experience and my walk with the Lord.
So, as you evaluate your seminary, or the one you are considering, does it unreservedly confess an evangelical view of Scripture? Does it believe, without hesitation, in its full inspiration, inerrancy, authority, and sufficiency? Practically-speaking, do students spend more time in the Bible or in secondary literature? (A related tangent I can’t pursue now but needs to be considered is the matter of the original languages. Does the seminary require the aspiring pastor to learn the languages in which the Bible was inspired? The answer to that question says a lot about the school.) Personally, do you spend more time studying the Bible or human authors?
If the Bible is the unique Word of God, those training for vocational ministry, and those in vocational ministry, should spend massively more time in the Bible than any other source.
2. A converted student body with fairly high spiritual and moral standards
Common sense would tell us that if a man is training for pastoral or missionary ministry, he should be morally and spiritually qualified to be a pastor or missionary (or well on his way toward being qualified). These qualifications are spelled out plainly in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and usually can be discerned by one’s local church. Therefore, if a seminary is seeking to train men for pastoral ministry, it should admit into its student body men who possess the pastoral qualifications in at least seed-form (unless the goal of the seminary is not to train primarily pastors or pastor-qualified leaders, but I’ll have more to say about that later). That’s only common sense. However, like Voltaire once quipped, the odd thing about common sense is that it’s not all that common.
Some seminaries have rigorous academic requirements for admission, but minimal moral and spiritual requirements. Theoretically, a porn-addict with a 3.8 GPA may receive the school’s imprimatur and then be unleashed on a church. More common is the seminary that communicates little, if at all, with the aspiring pastor’s local church to discern his fitness for ministry. A couple of recommendations from friends I haven’t seen since high school are sufficient to set me on the path to train for pastoral ministry. In such matters, are we not far more like the world than the Kingdom of Heaven?
I’m so thankful that the men I studied with were, in general, sincerely godly men who were qualified to lead local churches. In order to be accepted to our seminary, a man needed to demonstrate that he had some inkling of the 1 Timothy 3 qualifications. Moreover, a recommendation from your home church was a necessary part of your application for admission.
This practically fleshed-itself out in our daily experience. In between classes, we weren’t discussing the antics of some contemporary celebrity but the ministry methods of the Apostle Paul. Like I mentioned in my first post, I can recall plenty of occasions when I stumbled upon two of my classmates praying together; I don’t recall ever overhearing a lewd joke or boasts of immorality. Being in class with guys who truly loved Jesus and the Bible and the Church was fertile soil for dramatic growth in godliness.
Whether you like it or not, we’re all far more susceptible to peer-pressure, for good and for ill, than we realize. In a way, I think this is actually the way God designed life to be lived. This is one of the reasons why we need healthy local churches to encourage us when we’re running on fumes. When your particular tribe stigmatizes immorality but esteems true holiness, the Lord can use that profoundly for good.
As you evaluate the seminary over which you have influence, or as you evaluate prospective seminaries, consider the holiness of the student body. Do the students seem to be generally godly men, men seeking to know and please the Lord? Are they the types of men you’d be comfortable one day being your pastor? In addition to academic requirements, is character and spirituality considered as part of the application process? Or is the seminary primarily or even exclusively concerned with one’s intellectual abilities?
Next time, Lord willing, we’ll consider our next 2 virtues for keeping the seminary Christian, namely, godly professors who were experienced pastors or missionaries, and a commitment to train primarily pastors and missionaries, as opposed to scholars respected by the secular academy.
Timothy Raymond is an editor for Credo Magazine and has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. Tim grew up outside Syracuse, NY and previously served at Berean Baptist Church, Nicholson, PA (member and teacher during college and seminary) and Calvary Baptist Church, Sandusky, Ohio (seminary internship location). Tim met his wife Bethany at college, and they were married in May 2001. Tim enjoys reading, weight-lifting, wrestling with his three sons, and attempting to sleep.