How to Stay Christian in Seminary
David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell
If the title of this book might have sounded over-dramatic to me 3 years ago, it just seems grimly realistic now. Theological education (especially full time) is a great privilege, but it also comes with unique challenges. And that’s the case even in a conservative, orthodox theological college. Being immersed day in, day out in the things of God is an amazing opportunity – but it can easily stay in the realm of the theoretical. Translation, essays and exams can become just another thing you have to get done. As Mathis and Parnell note in the introduction, “students’ heads often pick up on theology faster than their hearts and lives”. If we don’t live out what we’re learning (whether we’re in the pew or the seminary classroom) it can lead to, as one commentator puts it, ‘a toxic build-up of religious knowledge’.
This 80 page book aims to help seminary students fight that danger. In the forward, John Piper identifies this toxic danger and exhorts theological students to give out what they learn. It’s an age-old danger of the 3 year academic approach – taking men out of contexts where they’re already ministering to teach them how to minister better. Perhaps we should be asking not just ‘Are our students learning the right things?’, but ‘In what contexts are they putting it into practice?’
In chapter 2 Mathis takes on another key danger: ‘At the heart of the danger of seminary is coming to treat the grace of God lightly’. The answer, for seminarians and everyone else, is to ‘Be fascinated with grace’. Like all the chapters, it’s brief and can only flag up the problem and point to some correctives. But the chapters can be taken as jumping-off points. Perhaps a student could take one a week and pray over it. As there are only 7 chapters an oversight committee could work through one with their students each time they meet both during the college years and prior to licensing. The next chapters address the very practical issue of daily Bible intake and the central issue of prayer. Our chief goal, Parnell reminds us, isn’t to complete assignments and get through books, but to encounter God.
Chapter 5 is a call, based on Piper’s exhortation to his students to ‘be more like John Newton than John Knox’, to remember that Jesus calls the weak. We fall into thinking that somehow theological education makes us stronger and better – but in fact we should always be amazed that God could use someone weak like us. Piper’s comparison may grate slightly with those who hold the Scottish Reformation in the regard that we do – but the overall point holds. Don’t make the mistake of regarding seminary graduates as anything other than deeply flawed individuals God may have chosen to use.
The exhortation of the penultimate chapter to ‘Be a real husband and dad’ is vital. One area which is conspicuous by its absence however is the role of the church. I didn’t expect anything on the role of the Presbytery/denomination given where the authors are coming from, but I would have expected a chapter on the importance of remaining rooted in the local church.
This is still an excellent, and probably unique, book. It should be absolutely essential reading for theological students – and of course the dangers associated with handling God’s word full-time don’t magically end at ordination. And if you’re just a normal Christian who wants to know how better to pray for your theological students – this short book would be a great place to go.
Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.