Where I Learned to Practice My Theology
By Sarah Sumner
August 10, 2012
I cannot recommend seminary in general any more than I can recommend books in general—as if to say it’s irrelevant which seminary a person attends or which books a person reads. However, I highly recommend Christian leaders learn theology, and probably the best way to do that is by attending a good seminary and reading important books.
Already there is a problem: very few people have an accurate understanding of what good theology truly is. It’s a subtle ploy of the devil, I believe, to popularize the idea that theology is theoretical, not practical, and doctrinal, not relational. No doubt, bad theology is just that. Good theology, by contrast, has the power to change the world.
Though I started going to church at the age of 12 days old, had my own set of Bible commentaries in my room before I could read, and regularly attended Sunday school, church and Bible study, I grew up in a theological desert. I was not aware of it at the time. Neither were my parents, who tried so hard to raise us to follow Jesus. In my home church, we simply didn’t think about theology. We just paid attention to God’s Word.
Thus, when I entered seminary, I was stunned to discover the vast influence theologians have not only on society, but also on world history. Whatever people think about God—even if they think God is not God—is the determining factor of what they think about everything else. That’s why A.W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”Personally, I take exception, even to the idea that theology is the “study of God.” How can we, as finite beings, study the Infinite God? If I attempt to fit Infinite God into my finite head, my head’s quickly going to split. We can most definitely know God, but we can’t study God.
God is not an object to be studied. He’s not an object in the universe; He’s the Subject of the universe. He’s the Creator. Had I not gone to seminary, I wouldn’t have such clarity of thought.
Unlike many people who sign up for seminary because they don’t know what else to do, I attended seminary by compulsion. God drew me there. I went to seminary because God hemmed me in to go, even though two prominent professors threatened to quit their jobs if I were accepted as the first woman Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology where they taught. My testimony is that God led me to seminary and helped me to flourish there too. Whereas most students attended to prepare for a job, I went to seminary despite being told I would never land a job once I finished.
I approached seminary as a way of approaching God. I took my honest questions to my classes. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the subject of godly human anger because, back then, I was trying to sort out my feelings about my parents’ tragic divorce. Writing my dissertation was a holistic act of worship for me. I saw the Lord Jesus in the most vivid way I had ever seen Him. I learned about Jesus’ anger and praised Him for it. I discovered in great detail—in English, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and German—that Jesus was a man of pain. I never could’ve learned this in Sunday school. I had to be formally trained in order to see Christ’s anger in light of the atonement, God’s wrath and Jesus’ indescribable faith in the God He cried out to on the cross. I wept in profound joy while writing that nearly 350-page paper.
Granted, if a seminary only teaches students to become opinionated critics of other people’s sermons and critics of the Word, that seminary should probably just close. But if a seminary opens the Word and shows students how to mine it, teaching them how to reason so they can share the Gospel with others by thinking theologically and thus truthfully, that seminary will become a grand adventure.
Soon after I became dean at A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary, I changed our tag line to, “Come deepen your relationship with God.” I did that because so many Christian leaders fear that seminary will ruin their relationship with God. Seminary at its best should be wildly stimulating, both intellectually and spiritually. It should be downright thrilling. There is nothing more interesting or enlightening than good theology. While bad theology leads (that is, misleads) people to think the things of God are esoteric and abstruse and ethereal, good theology blabs the secret that the things of God are enlivening and real. Any seminary worth its muster should make it obvious from the start that God is the sheer opposite of boring.