I will graduate from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a Master’s of Divinity this December. Reflecting on my time here at school, I am full of gratitude at what the Lord has done for me and my family. We came here to be equipped for ministry, and we feel like the Lord has done that. Every now and then I recall a handful of ominous warnings that were given to me before I went to seminary. They often went something like: “Seminary is fine and all, but what you learn in a book or classroom isn’t going to go very far in the real world…Seminary isn’t really necessary…Seminary is where vibrant faith and good preachers go to die.” I remember feeling genuinely concerned, particularly by that final warning. Joyously, I have found all of them to be untrue for me. Below are eleven blessings I have found from attending seminary:
- Learning to read my Bible better. By far, the greatest blessing of taking 3-4 years out of your life to attend seminary is to be a better student of the Bible. Learning Greek and Hebrew aren’t ends in themselves; they are tools to read and understand what the Scriptures are saying more clearly. Understanding the flow of the metanarrative of Scripture, how the Old and New Testaments relate to each other, how to read an ancient book, how to read the various genres of the Bible, how to listen to the Bible first before you rush to explain it, etc.–all are benefits of a seminary education. Seminary has taught me to read, read, read, and re-read my Bible.
- Learning to read. Of course, I knew how to read before I attended seminary–this is graduate school after all. However, seminary has taught me to read in a way I never thought possible. The sheer volume of work that needs to be done forces you to become a disciplined, studious, and fast reader. I still remember goggling at the number of pages I had to read my first semester of seminary, There’s no way. I can’t do that. But I did. And I continue to do so. I had to take drastic measures to help fight against distraction, train my mind to hold concentration longer, and I even read a book on how to read faster. And, of course, the trick isn’t just a rapid reading rate, but actually understanding the book as you read. I learned to never read a book without a pen in my hand and that if I jotted notes down in margins or flyleafs, I could process and remember the main arguments of the book much better.
- Learning to read hard books. Of course this has to do with the last point, but is a little different. The best professors to take at seminary are the ones who will push you, which often means they will assign books to read that are probably beyond the academic level you are familiar with. Few things are more discouraging than picking up a book you want to read, getting about thirty pages in, and feeling like you are reading the instruction manual to a Rockwell Encabulator. But seminary has helped me by providing professors whose lectures help illuminate confusing concepts and providing conversations with fellow students who are fighting to understand what the book means as well. Sometimes, just the presence of a looming deadline can help you to slog through what feels like an enigma. When faced with a daunting book, Mortimer Adler recommends to continue reading, even if you feel like you may not understand everything. I can’t recount how many times I have been confused by something, only to keep reading and have light shone back by what the author said later. And, of course, sometimes a book just needs to be read more than once.
- Learning to write clearly. Seminary won’t turn anyone into a fantastic writer, but it will turn you into a better writer. Being forced to articulate yourself repeatedly through lengthy, academic papers, plus receiving critical feedback from professors, will sharpen anyone. Seminary has taught me that when it comes to writing (or speaking) clarity is always to be preferred over cleverness.
- Learning to think for myself. I came to seminary as a typical young, restless, Reformed 20-something, complete with beard, glasses, and IPA’s. If John Piper spoke, it was basically ex cathedra. I had my hall of heroes, and if they spoke, it was gospel-truth. Similarly, I had my hall of villains. But you don’t have to think hard if you let other people decide all of your beliefs for you, and I was intellectually flabby. But seminary mercifully showed me that my ultimate and sufficient source of authority is the Bible alone. I still love John Piper, but feel much more free to simply follow the Bible wherever it may lead me–let the crooked tree grow as it pleases. Sometimes, I find my heroes to be wrong; sometimes the “villians” are actually right. The point is that truth comes from the Bible, not pastor-celebrities (something all of my pastor-heroes would heartily agree with). Of course, I knew this before attending seminary, but seeing it modeled by many of the professors I took, fellow classmates, and being forced to interact with the Bible so much compelled me to think for myself in a way I never had before.
- Learning to appreciate those who have gone before me. Not to let my last point get too lopsided, the opposite blessing of seminary is to realize just how many other saints have gone before us and thought through these things. We don’t have to rebuild Christianity de novo every time someone comes into the faith. There is a long line of faithful witnesses who have thought on, studied, and taught the Bible for two millennia. It is the height of arrogance to neglect this embarrassment of riches. Many seminaries make shipwrecks of students faith because they deviate from historic orthodoxy, the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I am immensely grateful my seminary teaches within the bounds of classic Reformed orthodoxy.
- Seeing the body of Christ display the theology I am learning. I have been ridiculously blessed with a wonderful church while I have attended seminary. Immanuel Baptist Church has displayed everything I have been learning in the classroom, in real life. I have seen proof-positive that my education is not some stale, arcane philosophizing that cannot actually take root in people’s lives. Week in and week out I have seen what healthy ecclesiology, soteriology, pneumatology, eschatology, anthropology, doxology, etc. looks like in the living and breathing members, deacons, and pastors of my church.
- Learning to disagree well with others. Seminary has helped me be able to disagree with someone, but still believe that I can learn something from them. Not every disagreement needs to turn into a knife fight where I must prove that this person is wrong. Rather, I need to be faithful to plainly speak God’s truth, not apologize for it or act like it is hopelessly obscure, and if the person still disagrees, being okay with that, and still assume the other person might have something they can teach me. One of the smartest, wisest, and most godly men I know here believes that women ought to wear head-coverings in worship. I think he is wrong. But, I also firmly believe that he is much smarter than I am and a much better exegete of Scripture than I am. I still believe he is wrong, but continue to learn daily from him and his wisdom. This also applies to reading books where I may strongly disagree with parts of it.
- Learning how much free time I have. I am a full-time graduate student, married, two children, work a part time job, and a member at my church. For as long as I can remember, I have complained about being “too busy.” But, after every wrung of life I climb up, I find myself looking back and saying, You idiot, you had no idea how much free time you had! Seminary has been that lesson, to the nth degree. Seminary has forced me to become much more rigid and disciplined with how I spend my time–this may be the most common lesson learned from seminary students I hear. For one year I worked a second job, totaling over forty hours every week (on-top of my studies), and it just about killed me. Seminary has also been a time to learn my limitations, humbly accept them, and seek to prioritize my family and church as much as possible.
- Getting to answer some of the big questions. I went into seminary with a list of questions about theological and Biblical topics that I knew I wanted to address. “What is my view on spiritual gifts?” “Is church membership Biblical?” “What is my view on the millennium?” “Is the Old Testament Law still applicable?” Plus a whole host of questions about history, philosophy, and systematics, and on and on the list could go. Seminary has given me a unique chunk of time in my life where I have been able to devote myself to dive deeply into study and reach a settled conclusion on many of my questions. Of course, there is a double-edged sword to this. Seminary doesn’t just give you an opportunity to answer the questions you had going in, but it gives you many more questions to answer in their place! It widens the lens, so to speak. I was not wrestling with the questions I am wrestling with today when I started seminary. Seminary isn’t a panacea to answer all questions; it will instead give you the tools to keep learning for the rest of your life.
- Learning to trust the Lord more and more. To attend seminary you have to move away from home, pay tens of thousands of dollars, make all new friends, find a new church, find somewhere to live, a job to pay the bills, and try to do well at school while balancing your home life. It is a constant temptation to become overwhelmed with it all. I know very few people who are attending seminary who aren’t scrimping and scraping everything to make ends meet (affectionately called the “seminary budget” by us all), or who don’t desperately wish they could have more time at home with their family. Early on my wife and I decided that overall it was not worth it for her to go out and find a job when she could be home with our boys. This has led to untold blessings in our home, and has also come with a cost. We have had to practically trust the Lord to provide for us so often, and –blessing of blessings– He always does. In being forced to trust the Lord more, we have seen how weak our faith was, and watched it incrementally grow.
Not everyone who attends seminary has the experience I had. Some of that has to do with the seminary you go to, and some of that has to do with who you are. But, if you are considering coming to seminary you should count the cost, but also count the blessings. There are so very many.