The Danger of Seminary Education
Seminary is dangerous. Its gospel fragrance proves life-giving to many. But for others—far too many others—its aroma can lead to death (2 Cor. 2:15–16). Seminarians whose hearts grow cold and dull not only leave the ministry; many leave the faith, and show themselves to never have been truly saved (1 John 2:19). We’re not playing games here.
And we’re not just talking about liberal seminaries when we warn of this danger. Of course, it’s perilous to have professors playing fast and loose with the biblical text and Christian theology. But even the best of evangelical, confessional seminaries can be spiritually dangerous places, not mainly because of the administrators at the top or the teachers at the front, but because of the sinners in the seats.
However well the seminary as an institution does in contending for the truth once delivered to the saints (Jude 3), it can’t keep “evil” outside its walls. It’s too late. Evil has already broken the seal and penetrated the fortress into your seminary experience. It came in with you. The deepest danger comes in your heart, whose condition carries more influence than the doctrinal fidelity of your school. It is your heart that is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9).
Regardless of the theological pedigree of your handpicked and respected seminary, you, the theological student, face danger.
Be intentional to keep your mind and heart together rather than allowing them to be separated.
Big Heads, Little Hearts?
We could flesh out this danger in many ways. For starters, there’s Helmut Thielicke’s angle in his 1962 classic, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. Simply put, students’ heads often pick up on theology faster than their hearts and lives.
Seminary is a special season of preparation when you are presented with a veritable buffet of information. It’s typically good information, mind you, precious information. But just because you can pile heaps of tasty food on one plate doesn’t mean you can swallow it down easily. And just because you can force it down doesn’t mean it will be nourishing. If you stuff your head full of more than your heart can digest, you will not be well.
Thielicke says the fundamental problem for seminarians is that intellectual accessibility exceeds spiritual capacity. Capturing the plight of far too many students, he writes, “He has not yet come to that maturity which would permit him to absorb into his own life and reproduce out of the freshness of his own personal faith the things which he imagines intellectually and which are accessible to him through reflection.”1 In other words, the seminarian can say a lot of things he can’t live.
What’s at stake in this situation? The church is soon to suffer. Fathead theology students parachute into local churches, where they model an insidious detachment between truth and love. With a subtle attitude of “smarter than thou,” this kind of seminarian spews God-talk isolated from faith and acts more like a mercenary than a member of the body. He may actually resemble more the Serpent than the Servant. “Such a person nevertheless has not comprehended a penny’s worth of what it means to live on the battlefield of the risen Lord.”2
Ernest Christian, Memorizing Paradigms
D. A. Carson gives another angle on the danger in the introduction to his book Exegetical Fallacies, notorious among students and pastors for how skillfully it exposes our bad interpretations. Simply put, Carson says the necessity of distancing yourself from your subject of study can be perilous when you’re studying the things you most deeply believe.
Names changed to protect the guilty, Carson tells the story of “Ernest Christian,” who was converted as a senior in high school, grew by leaps and bounds through a campus ministry while in college, sensed a call to full-time ministry, was affirmed by his local congregation, and “headed off to seminary with all the earnestness of a new recruit.”
But at seminary, the story followed a path all too familiar to many of us:
After Ernest has been six months in seminary, the picture is very different. Ernest is spending many hours a day memorizing Greek morphology and learning the details of the itinerary of Paul’s second missionary journey. Ernest has also begun to write exegetical papers; but by the time he has finished his lexical study, his syntactical diagram, his survey of critical opinions, and his evaluation of conflicting evidence, somehow the Bible does not feel as alive to him as it once did. Ernest is troubled by this; he finds it more difficult to pray and witness than he did before he came to seminary.3
Carson goes on to explain how a good seminary must teach its students to distance their subjective thinking from the more objective meaning of the biblical text so that they might be shaped by the Scriptures rather than impose their own notions on the text. Such a learning process “is difficult, and can be costly.” But it need not prove destructive, even if “some steps along the way are dangerous.”4
Carson’s exhortation is that students “work hard at integrating your entire Christian walk and commitment.” Don’t partition your devotional life from your academic pursuits. Instead, approach your studies devotionally. Be intentional to keep your mind and heart together rather than allowing them to be separated. Carson concludes with this warning: “Fail to work hard at such integration and you invite spiritual shipwreck.”5
A Trial of Faith
Theologian and longtime professor John Frame also warns about the danger. In an article titled “Learning at Jesus’ Feet: A Case for Seminary Training,” Frame addresses seven objections, framed as questions, often raised against seminary. The second is, Could seminary be a spiritual danger to me? “This objection is not as strange as it may sound at first hearing,” says Frame. “For some, seminary can be a trial of faith. One can become so immersed in academic assignments, papers, technical terminology, Hebrew paradigms and such that he comes to feel far from God.”6
So seminary can be dangerous. But neither Frame, Carson, Thielicke, nor we think this should keep you from it. Frame continues:
Seminary does require a devotional discipline to match our academic discipline, but that challenge, on the whole, is a good thing. And what most students find is that once we face that challenge, the academic and the devotional merge in a wonderful way. The dry periods tend to be at the beginning, when you are struggling to master the basics. But when the theology of the Bible starts to come together in your mind, when you start to see the overall shape of it, your academic study will feed your soul.7
- Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, trans. Charles L. Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 12.
- Ibid., 29.
- D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996), 23
- Ibid., 24.
- John Frame, “Learning at Jesus’ Feet: A Case for Seminary Training.” Accessed online at http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2003Learning.htm.
This article is adapted from How to Stay Christian in Seminary by David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell
- How to Read the Bible in Seminary (David Mathis, Jonathan Parnell)
- What Dietrich Bonhoeffer Can Teach Us about Seminary Education (Paul R. House)
- 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me