5 Myths about Seminary
This article is part of the 5 Myths series.
Myth #1: Seminary is cemetery.
It’s a tired cliché I’ve heard many times, typically by those who fail to see the merits of a sound seminary education, but sometimes by ministers who think the pursuit of theological education means the death of devotional life: “Going to seminary is like going to a cemetery—you will leave school spiritually dead.” Sadly, the landscape of theological education is dotted with examples of seminaries and divinity schools that teach things that would shipwreck an eager young minister’s confidence in the Word of God. However, the presence of the false proves the existence of the true.
But, really, how can parsing Greek nouns, learning about the Council of Nicaea, or gaining a deeper understanding of the hypostatic union make me a better Christian? I learned early that perhaps the better question is how can it not?
During my first few days of seminary, one of my Greek professors challenged me not to bifurcate my devotional life from my academic studies. We should make them one. Never, ever ought we approach the things of God—whether it’s translating Galatians from Greek to English or writing a paper about the First Great Awakening—with anything less than the highest affections. In the same way a minister ought to make sermon prep a key part of his sanctification, so should seminary studies be approached with a warm heart toward the Lord of Galatians or the First Great Awakening. Never, ever should it become a cold, academic exercise.
Myth #2: Seminary will make me into a pastor.
Perhaps one of the most important myths a student must debunk early is the notion that theological knowledge is synonymous with the maturity, patience, and godliness that God uses to build a pastor. Theological learning is certainly a fundamental part of making a pastor, but in the same way basic training doesn’t make soldiers, seminary doesn’t form pastors. Soldiers develop into courageous, strong, competent warriors on the battlefield and pastors get made in the trenches of local church ministry.
But it would be unconscionable for a soldier to go to war without training. In the same way, being steeped in the fundamentals of the Christian faith—which includes Bible, theology, and related disciplines—is foundational for becoming a faithful and mature in wielding the Sword of the Spirit and shepherding a flock of sheep. Both orthodoxy and orthopraxis are two parts of a whole that make a man of God.
Besides, seminary without practical ministry experience could lead to a minister building a fictional church in his mind—one that is nothing more than a theological and ministerial Rivendell. And when he enters his first church position, armed with unrealistic expectations, he may be tempted to retreat when the bullets fly, the wounds leave scars, and the battle grows long and intense. He will soon learn that pastoral ministry is not for the faint of heart.
Myth #3: Seminary doesn’t focus on real-life, practical issues.
Puritan theologian William Ames (1576–1633) famously wrote that theology is the art of living well. There is hardly anything more practical than studying the doctrine of God, the doctrine of man, the atonement, the exegesis of Scripture, and how the church has conducted its business throughout the ages. We practice in accord with our knowledge. In other words, we do what we know. If we believe man is flawed but basically good, then we will align our daily lives accordingly. But if man is depraved and in need of unilateral grace for transformation, then our lives will be lived in dependence upon the God of all grace. We will teach others to live consistently with either belief.
Building a robust Christian worldview is the first step in living well and teaching others how to do the same.
Building a robust Christian worldview is the first step in living well and teaching others how to do the same. Immersing ourselves in the things of God—as Paul commanded his young understudy in 1 Timothy 4:15—will transform us in profound ways. Paul links information with transformation:
Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:15-16)
Myth #4: Seminary will teach me everything I need to know about ministry.
The man who would eventually become my doctoral supervisor, Tom Nettles, taught me three profoundly valuable words for ministry during my first week as a seminary student: “I don’t know.”
Those words came in reply to one of my fellow MDiv student’s questions about Baptist history, a topic on which Dr. Nettles has written thousands of pages and to which he’s devoted more than four decades of close, careful study and teaching.
In that moment, I realized two things: (1) I’ve received a rare privilege to be here learning about the things of God from humble men, and (2) when I leave seminary, and after I’ve studied theology, Bible, church history, and the rest for decades, I won’t even know a tiny fraction of one percent of all there is to know. In other words, I will always be a student. Seminary is preparing me to leverage my lifelong learning skillfully.
That’s perhaps the role above all roles seminary is designed to play: it teaches a pastor, a professor, a missionary, an evangelist, or a counselor how to teach himself. Seminary can by no means teach a minister everything he needs to know, but it puts strong tools in his box to set him up for a lifetime of matriculating in the school of the Lord. The best professors will teach and inspire you to dig for treasure you will use to make others eternally wealthy.
Myth #5: Seminary is a luxury, but isn’t necessary.
I have often been reminded that C. H. Spurgeon didn’t go to seminary, and we know how mightily God uses him even now, more than a century after his death. But not many of us is as uniquely gifted as the great Prince of Preachers. Not many of us were reading Puritan works at the age of twelve in our grandfather’s study. Not many of us is a Spurgeon. Someone else once pointed out to me that Jesus didn’t go to seminary. None of us is the perfect God-man. For the rest of us, finding a solid, biblically faithful seminary is a necessity—if at all possible.
Of course, the biblical admonition is that all who are called to ministry study to show themselves approved, workmen who need not be ashamed, able to rightly divide the Word of God (2 Tim. 2:15). But the best place to do that is in a place where many godly, faithful, competent Christian minds are gathered and gifted to teach men how to lead a local church faithfully.
Sometimes (though not often), that is a local church populated with godly ministers who are able to teach a wide variety of needful subjects within the setting of vocational ministry. Often, that place is a seminary that is committed to teaching God’s inspired, inerrant, authoritative Word. I was privileged to study in one such place, and I shudder to think what my life and ministry would look like without those years of close, careful study under capable, godly men. I recommend every man whom God calls to pray for the opportunity to do likewise.
—1 Timothy 2:15
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