Seminary is . . . Whatever You Think

by Kyle Brooks, M.Div ’12

It’s said that Christopher Columbus couldn’t shake the idea that the land he found in 1492 was the Asian continent. Even at the end of his life, and despite mounting evidence to the contrary, Old Chris just couldn’t accept that his famous sea mission had failed (or actually succeeded beyond his wildest dreams). His preconceived ideas about what he was getting himself into governed the way he perceived reality.
Having spent the last three years at CTS and now looking down the final stretch, it is hard for me to think about leaving. “What!? Every person in the final stages of their education can’t wait for it to be finished!” you say. Not so. In my last year at CTS, I want to share something with you that I have noticed about us—us seminary students, that is. Seminary students, like the rest of humanity, often find that their preconceptions govern their perspective and even sometimes determine their reality.
We are often no different from Chris. I hear student perspectives on the value of seminary training that fall roughly into two camps: 1) Seminary is an incredible privilege; 2) Seminary is a three or four year long hoop we have to jump through. Perhaps many of us oscillate between the two depending on the day. Fair enough.
However, most of us can probably be broadly characterized by one of these two perspectives. The former often come into seminary excited for the opportunity, blessed by mentors or experiences that led them to believe a CTS education would be life-giving. On the contrary, the latter have sometimes received words of caution from pastors or youth pastors, “Just push through, bud. It’s going to be hard, and it’s probably going to be the most spiritually dry part of your life. They make spirituality all about the ‘head’ over there. But get through it because I really want to see you in ministry.” I cringe every time I hear some such story because, unwittingly, that pastor or youth pastor may have just determined for the student, my friend, how she will experience her seminary education.
God blessed me with a pastor who perceived his own seminary training as spiritually rich, fruitful, almost an oasis in an otherwise spiritually hostile world. Before I came to CTS, he had me read a deeply insightful and inspiring little book—actually a speech—by B.B. Warfield called The Religious Life of Theological Students. This fifteen page address to Princeton Seminary students in 1911 has shaped the way I have read the many thousands of pages assigned to me in seminary. This piece has so blessed me that I wanted to share briefly with you a couple of Warfield’s key points. Whether you are a first-year looking for schema to structure your thoughts on seminary, or a second-year, third-year or EPMC student looking for fresh encouragement for the road ahead, this is for you.
Warfield claims that the function of seminary is two-fold: to help you grow in knowledge and godliness. With some of those who lament the academic portion of their education, Warfield agrees that “before and above being learned, a minister must be godly.” However, (and this is absolutely key) he acknowledges that, “Nothing could be more fatal…than to set these two things over against one another.”
On the one hand, God has called you to study in preparation for serving his church. It is your duty. Warfield clarifies, “It is not the question whether you like these duties. You may think of your studies what you please…. But you must faithfully give yourselves to your studies, if you wish to be religious [people]. No religious character can be built up on the foundation of neglected duty.” As some of us are accustomed to hearing Prof. Nydam say, it is not about being happy. It is about being faithful.
Although happiness is not our primary pursuit, Warfield wonders aloud how it is even possible not to be filled with joy in our vocation! When one’s full-time task is to learn about God, God’s Word, God’s people, and God’s world, how can a Christian who has found joy in the gospel fail to find joy in his studies?
“In all its branches alike, theology has as its unique end to make God known: the student of theology is brought by his daily task into the presence of God, and is kept there. Can a religious [person] stand in the presence of God, and not worship?”
A fair and painful question. No doubt spiritual life can feel dry at times in seminary. Theology can become only academic for us, and not spiritual. But Warfield’s words imply the question, “Whose fault is that?”
As he adeptly explains, “It is your great danger. But it is your great danger, only because it is your great privilege. Think of what your privilege is when your greatest danger is that the great things of religion may become common to you!” The truth is many of these “great things” are common to us. That is a fact. However, it is we who transform them from common to cliché, from customary to banal.
So how can we possibly avoid this jading of our souls to the great things of God? Warfield advises us to “Put your heart into your studies; do not merely occupy your mind with them, but put your heart into them.” In an even stronger statement, Warfield makes this very bold claim:
“You will never prosper in your religious life in the Theological Seminary until your work in the Theological Seminary becomes itself to you a religious exercise out of which you draw every day enlargement of heart, elevation of spirit, and adoring delight in your Maker and your Savior.”
In other words, seminary education, academia and all, is a duty for us that we must perform diligently. However, like even the most mundane tasks in the Christian life, we must find our delight in doing our duty for our God. When we find that delight, when we approach seminary as a privilege, it cannot fail to be so. Indeed, from time to time we will be tempted to interpret our challenges as ‘hoops’ or wastes of time. Nevertheless, on the whole our preconceptions, for better or for worse, govern our perceptions and even sometimes determine our reality.
So if you are just starting out on your exploratory voyage of the vast sea of CTS, be encouraged. As someone who has almost crossed that sea and sees the land ahead a little more clearly, I can tell you that the journey is a challenging delight and the destination is spectacular. But if you are approaching land, and you perceive this journey as dogged drudgery, perhaps allow yourself to be persuaded that this voyage isn’t actually what you thought it would be. You might need to shed your preconceptions that have characterized your whole journey to this point in order to see that your map didn’t match reality. However, just like Old Chris would have, you may discover your seafaring adventure to be more spectacularly successful than you could have ever imagined.