Does Seminary Still Matter?
By jason byassee
August 7, 2012
Seminaries may seem more irrelevant now than ever. They are inarguably more expensive now than ever. Churches exploding in growth in the non-Western world are often led by non-seminary-trained pastors. And enormously successful American megachurch pastors like Bill Hybels, T.D. Jakes and Brian McLaren do not have seminary degrees. We all know the stereotypes about seminary: student goes in on-fire for Jesus and desiring to learn more; student comes out poorer, uncertain in faith but having read a lot of expensive books. How exactly is this helping the Kingdom?
Now a word on behalf of the defendant: I love theological education. The church leaders I have met in Africa, Asia and Latin America do not wish to continue to be without theological education. Rather, they’re hungry for it to be offered with sensitivity to their particular cultures. Ellen Davis, an Old Testament professor at Duke Divinity School, often speaks of how her Sudanese pastor friends want to learn, of all things, biblical Hebrew. They are accustomed to reading the Scriptures in the language of their imperialist oppressors—English and Arabic—but they’re gifted linguistically, knowing several tribal languages at least, and they long to read the Bible on its own terms. Hybels, Jakes and McLaren do not advocate that others follow their path and, in fact, have sought out innovative partnerships and relationships with theological institutions. The old story about the student going in hot and coming out cold has enough relevance to linger, but for every real-life story of faith slain, there are a thousand of faith awakened, enlivened, steeped in rich soil and growing deep and lasting roots.
Why? Four reasons: orthodoxy, the Bible, the Church and Jesus.
Seminary, it is sometimes said, is the place we learn to love God with our minds. This is not entirely true—the church is actually that place. Yet churches need leaders. Those leaders need to be equipped or they will continue to foist their own ill-conceived or even heretical ideas on unsuspecting parishioners. Heresy is not simply a matter of bad religious ideas—it’s poison for souls.
Seminary training is no guarantee against heresy, Lord knows (or one Josef Stalin would have turned out a bit differently). But it is a place where we learn the terrain on which the Church treks in pilgrimage to the heavenly city. Heresies are places where the Church has faltered before. Don’t step there, or there, or there, theological education says. Where we’re headed positively is a bit more mysterious—that’s the adventure—but God goes with us and promises a glimpse of Himself at its end.
If the landscape of faith is what Church traverses with guidance from Her leaders, then the Bible is the map with which those leaders lead that trek. In the middle of the fourth century, a prodigiously talented young man named Augustine converted to Christian faith from a then-popular sect called the Manichees. Then he was seized and ordained against his will (things happened a bit differently then), and so made a pastor. Now, unlike most of us, Augustine had received the finest classical education possible in his time. Imagine a man or woman today with every degree Harvard can grant. Except he hadn’t studied the Scriptures. And this terrified him. How was he to preach—not weekly, but daily—from a book like this? He’d been steeped in the stately prose of ancient rhetorical geniuses like Cicero, and now he was faced with stories like this: In Genesis 38, Onan is struck dead for spilling his seed on the ground. Or in Revelation, stories and images of beasts and monsters fly fast and furious and bewildering. In one place, Jesus says everyone who is not against us is for us (Mark 9:40). In another, He says exactly the opposite: everyone who is not for us is against us (Matthew 12:30).
Some in the Church grew up in a Sunday school where children must answer their name in the roll call with a memorized Bible verse. The first child would respond, “And Judas went and hanged himself.” The next: “Go thou, and do likewise.” They might have responded with 1 Samuel: “And Saul hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal” (1 Samuel 15:33, KJV). And this is the book from which we’re to preach the salvation and making-whole of the entire universe?
Augustine’s bishop denied his request for study time. And Augustine learned on the job, as Hybels, Jakes and McLaren have done. But most of us are not geniuses. Most of us are just trying our best to do our ministerial work faithfully and well for the sake of the Church and the world. Seminary is the place for us.
The Bible is a glorious and majestic book. Yet read wrong, it can be a confusing, even perilous one. With help we will never exhaust its bounty. Without it we will be tempted to skate the surface, rehash our old and increasingly tired personal preferences, step into heresy unaware and respond to perfectly valid questions of faith the way Augustine’s teachers used to respond to what they perceived as his impudence. When he asked what God was doing before He created the world, their response was, “He was preparing hells for people who inquire into profundities.” The next time you’re tempted to respond in Sunday school by saying, “Shut up, kid,” remember that’s been a very old escape hatch for those lacking wisdom (and a sense of humor).
There is a rabbinical story about rabbis arguing over a particularly recondite portion of Exodus. Rabbi so-and-so said this, another rabbi said that, rabbi whatshisname said something else. Lucky for them, Moses appeared in their midst to explain what he meant. They paused and looked at him. “But have you read what all these other rabbis said about what you wrote?”
It’s funny—and it has a point. To argue over this book, there’s a lot of reading to do. The Church is a multi-millennial argument over the mysteries of Scripture for the sake of the Church’s holy living together now. This argument is too glorious to miss, and seminary is a seat at that table of the communion of the saints.
The rabbinical story reminds us we never read God’s book alone. We can only read God’s book with the rest of God’s people.
Augustine, once again, was faced with a question like the one we opened with: Why should people put in the hard work to learn theology when a dying world out there is in need right now? The ancient church knew stories of people miraculously learning the entirety of the Scriptures without studying at all (again, things were different then). What need, then, was education—isn’t it all pagan and expensive, anyway? Augustine had to grant that people could miraculously learn the Scriptures without help from a teacher. The God of the universe has done stranger things. Though he had no formal theological training himself, his response to the criticism is powerful: “Charity itself, which holds [people] together in a knot of unity, would not have a means of infusing souls and almost mixing them together if people could teach nothing to other people.”
One reason God doesn’t infuse knowledge in our heads the way a computer downloads information is that we are embodied beings. When we live in proximity to one another—like students and professors learning together—we bump up against each other, cause friction, argue and hopefully learn how to forgive. And just so, we’ve got a shot at being Christian together. When Augustine mentions “charity,” he always has in mind the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s power and love requires learning together in intimacy, and thus vulnerability and reconciliation.
Seminary was the first place I learned to love the hymns of the African-American church. Their lyrics were different: “Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died.”
Rob Bell has said that we ask sad people to sing happy songs in church. That’s true in my mostly white church experience. But in the African-American church things are different, wiser. My closest friends in seminary were a future Jesuit priest, a future hospital chaplain with cerebral palsy and a future Methodist preacher who could burn the house down with her words (who later became my wife). Maddeningly, none of them conformed to my preconceptions of what they were supposed to be like.
I found teachers and professors, and now I find students, who were convinced I was so conservative their teeth ached, and others who would tell me they were praying for me in ways that made clear they were worried for my liberal soul. And we all worshiped together in chapel every day. And argued over Scripture. And prayed over one another’s future. In short, my “we” changed. It got bigger, to include the entire body of Christ and not just the sliver of it with which I was familiar and comfortable. And God used it to infuse charity into our souls.
None of this works without the One whom seminary is meant to serve. If any endeavor, let alone a seminary, can work without Jesus’ bodily resurrection, then run the other way. If before I’d gone to seminary you’d asked me about having my perspective expanded on the Church through time and space, I’d have thought you were talking about something called “diversity.” Yes, I was a white male evangelical in America, top of the power heap, I should be attentive to those whose circumstances differ, etc. Almost everybody now knows how to mouth platitudes about inclusivity. Here’s where I would have been wrong: The Church through time and space is not about diversity. Or if it is, it’s a Pentecostal diversity in which the fire of the Spirit is poured out on all flesh—and not just flesh like mine.
The Church is more properly about Jesus. She’s His glorious bride—wounded and tattered though She is, She’s still His beloved. To love Her in the Africa of the fourth or 20th century, to love Her in mainline and Catholic and Pentecostal churches today, to love Her arguing over the Scriptures and bumping up against one another and having to learn how to forgive, is to love Her as Jesus loves Her. And to do so with the mind is to grow intellectually in ways that can sustain decades of ministry and not just years.
Jason Byassee directs the Center for Theology, Writing & Media at Duke Divinity School and is author, most recently, of The Gifts of the Small Church (Abingdon). He blogs at www.faithandleadership.com/blog.