My First Semester Shock, or Seminarians Without Chests

• September 21, 2009 • Comments (17)

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I approached seminary with many of the common illusions seminary students have. I thought it would be a spiritually vibrant and intense time, full of people who were overflowing with passion for Christ.

Boy was I surprised. My first semester, I enrolled in Hebrew class, like many beginning M.Div.-ers. I made friends with some other young single guys in the class, and we got together to study. I lived off campus, but they lived in the men’s dorm on campus, so I went over and hung out with them.

One day a group of us got in a conversation about scriptural interpretation. A prominent church leader had shared (in chapel I think) how he had made a major life decision based on a particular verse of scripture…and by the rules we were studying at the time, we agreed that he’d not interpreted the scripture correctly. So we were batting that around.

Somewhere in that conversation one of the guys made a remark I’ll never forget. He said, “Interpreting the Bible properly is so difficult and such hard work, that I don’t even bother to read my Bible devotionally any more.”

This gave me pause. I asked for clarification. I got way more.

I agreed with him about the challenges of proper interpretation, but then I asked him, “You mean to tell me that Farmer Jones out in East Texas can’t sit down with his Bible and his morning coffee, pray that God will speak to him through it and expect reliably to hear from God?”

He said, “No, that’s not possible.”

He went on to say that God could speak just as well through the “funnies” in the newspaper as he could through the Bible.

Wow.

So I chalked it up to him being one of those weird students that you’re bound to run into anywhere. I found out he went to one of the loopier, left-leaning churches in the area, so I figured he was an exception, a little nutty. I’m still pretty sure I was right about this.

But after a while, the others left the room, and I was talking with another friend, one more stable, more normal, more conservative, more in the mainstream of what I considered seminary students to be. The kind of guy you’d want to be on church staff with you.

I was bemoaning the weird guy’s (I thought) abandonment of God, and he said, “Well, to be honest with you, I don’t read my Bible devotionally either.”

He paused.

“And neither does John, or Keith, or….” He went on to name about six guys from his floor that he knew for a fact had abandoned daily time in prayer and in the scriptures.

I was amazed. We talked more. He had been very faithful in personal devotion in college, but somehow just stopped.

These guys, in this atmosphere of saturation of study of the word of God, had abandoned a devotional pursuit of God. They started studying God and stopped loving Him.

I went on to discover that this is very common among seminary students. In all honesty, I struggled very much with this during seminary. By God’s mercy, I managed to keep my habits of prayer maintained, but seminary was a dry and difficult time.

Philosophical riff:

It reminded me of C. S. Lewis’ lament in The Abolition of Man
that the modern world produces men without chests: heavy on reason (the head) and heavy on animal appetites(the belly) but without sentiment (the chest), that ennobling blend of emotion and truth that warms the aridity of cold reason and ennobles the raw impulses of the body. The head, reason, makes us like God; the belly, our appetites, make us like animals. The chest is the mediator that brings them together and makes us really human.

It’s no accident that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God. The basic duty of man to the Lord is worship: an activity of the chest—of the heart—if ever there was one.

The modern man, Lewis said, has a big head and no chest. So apparently, did some of my fellow seminarians.

Conclusion:

Seminary is a dry time for devotion. The easy way out is to blame the seminary: the modern institution produces modern men. I don’t buy it. You and I are responsible for our own growth. In the midst of all your study, be sure you are loving God well.

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Category: Spiritual life, Stories

About the Author

Mark Warnock is the founder and General Editor of Seminary Survival Guide.com. He serves as Associate Pastor of First Baptist Church of Columbia, Illinois, and is a Ph.D student in Christian Philosophy at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is working with Ed Eubanks on a book on how to survive seminary.

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Comments (17)

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  1. Brian Ayers says:

    Great encouragement! SO true. I’ve seen this same sort of thing happen to kids in undergrad programs at Christian colleges too; its sad every-time.

    You hit the nail on the head though! WE are the one’s responsible- sometimes I think thats easier to remember in a secular environment and too often neglected when we are immersed in an environment where there is a lot of talk ABOUT God and too little talk WITH God.

    Thanks for a great reminder!

  2. Mark says:

    Thanks Brian. Appreciate the feedback. I have to say it’s easy to wag my finger at young seminarians, but after 12 years in ministry, I still need the constant reminder to abide in the vine.

    Best to you.

  3. Brett Gross says:

    Mark: Thanks for the information. That is kinda surprising to me. I guess it would be easy to assume that every seminary student just spends quiet time with the Big Guy. So…we should never make assumptions I guess. Great reference from C.S. Lewis. Today’s men have too big of heads and appetites, but no heart. Unfortunately, that is very true.

  4. Mark says:

    It IS surprising, but very common. It’s important to guard our hearts, and remember our first love.

  5. Mark, I enjoyed reading your post. Seminary days are indeed challenging. Knowledge is a dangerous thing. The more we learn about language, theology, hermeneutics, history, higher and lower criticism, etc., the more we can become both proud and ambivalent toward divine truth. By the grace of God, we must always retain a child-like faith, affection, and confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ in our studies.

    John Frame has a helpful little booklet called, “Studying Theology as a Servant of Jesus.” In it, he writes, “Remember that your seminary years are not only a preparation for discipleship. They must themselves be a time of discipleship. They are not a hiatus from the Christian life. During these years you will and should have somewhat different priorities from those you will have later on. But even as a seminarian, you have a responsibility to do things other than study. You are a Christian first, a student second.”

    Having just finished seminary a year and a half ago, I can testify it was “the best of times and worst of times,” but God used seminary to refine me and build a firm theological foundation that could withstand the storms of life and ministry. Press on, and God bless you brother!

  6. Jason Lowe says:

    Mark,

    Great word and very true. I’m currently a full-time M.Div student at Southern Seminary, working a full-time secular job, full-time husband, and the Sunday School Director of a local church in Louisville. With all of the demands on my time, it quickly became a struggle to read the Word for the pure spiritual nourishment that I need. This is still a struggle, but I have found that it was better for me to connect with some lay-members of my church who are not seminarians. I have an accountability partner relationship with two of them and this has really helped me to read the Word devotionally. We each read the same Scriptures each week, and then meet weekly to discuss what God has revealed to us. This has really helped me to guard against the struggle of becoming a cold, theological egghead. The insights that these brothers share with me simply blow me away sometimes, and it is truly a humbling experience. I would recommend this type of accountability partner relationship to seminarians and current ministers alike.

    Thanks for the encouraging site. I ran across it from the Said at Southern metablog and I will be back often.

    In Christ,
    Jason

  7. Mark says:

    Stephen,

    Great quote from John Frame. I wasn’t familiar with him. Thanks for sharing that. As a recent seminary grad, your insights will be very helpful here, so come by any time!

  8. Mark says:

    Jason,

    Welcome, friend. We’ll have some good time management ideas up soon for you. I did seminary as a single guy, and I have no idea how the married guys managed it.

    Your story affirms two of my convictions: (1) Life is found in the local church, (2) life is found in sustaining relationships.

    Hope SSG is helpful to you. If you have any ideas, I’m always open to suggestions.

  9. Craig Beeman says:

    I have found that that is very common. I am also a Southwesterner. I find it hard even today, at times, to maintain a regular devotional time with God. I run here and there, from a member’s house to a hospital. I could get up earlier. I really need to. It’s all about self-discipline. In fact, I think I’ll do a bit of it now. Thanks.

  10. Mike says:

    Great article and I agree. I fought this a lot in Bible College and know it can rear its ugly head again. Interestingly, you can actually loose sight of God in the Bible…almost seems like a contradiction, but if you have attended BC of Seminary you understand exactly what I am refereeing to.

  11. Julie says:

    Also an MDiv student, though an older one, and also struggling with this. I find that staying involved in my local church has been important, also I work with a spiritual director, and consider that essential. That said, I have lots of dry spots in my devotions. I’m working full time (that is ending soon) and have difficult time finding time for prayer and meditation.

    On the plus side, having grown up Catholic, without a daily scripture habit, I am finding that I am reading scripture much more now than I have been.

    I’m making the daily prayer part of my personal goals, and incorporating it in class where I can. That helps a lot.

  12. steve says:

    No, the “Golden Rule #1″ does not say “WORSHIP”. It says, at least in most interpretations, “LOVE”. Not really the same thing.

    And, please don’t deign to tell me that my manner of loving God is not as good as yours, or not what I should be doing. Don’t you dare tell me that. I don’t care if you’re a minister in a church I attend, or some other congregation or denomination. You’re confusing Faith with Religion. That is a huge difference, and a huge misinterpretation which causes a lot of turmoil in people’s lives.

  13. Tom Ryberg says:

    Thanks for this encouragement. It’s an Enlightenment-era fantasy that we can intellectualize ourselves into our faiths. Don’t get me wrong: good theology is REALLY IMPORTANT, because bad theology is terribly destructive. But at some point, it is necessary to put down the books and say, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.”


    I agreed with him about the challenges of proper interpretation, but then I asked him, “You mean to tell me that Farmer Jones out in East Texas can’t sit down with his Bible and his morning coffee, pray that God will speak to him through it and expect reliably to hear from God?”

    He said, “No, that’s not possible.”

    He went on to say that God could speak just as well through the “funnies” in the newspaper as he could through the Bible.

    Wow indeed. It is true that going to the Bible with good intentions does not always result hearing or understanding the Word of God, and I agree with him that God can certainly Speak to anyone through any medium. But, obviously, any medium would have to include…THE BIBLE. With or without “acceptable” exegesis. Sheesh!

  14. Dan says:

    Hi Mark,

    I, too am a MDiv student at Denver Seminary, and I am relatively new as I am only entering into my second semester. Already I can feel my devotional time slipping away, while the desire to just study God and not talk to Him rears its ugly head.

    I have a few Seminary friends (both graduates and newbies like me) who cannot help but see The Bible as a textbook. That, or they cannot help but over-analyze Scripture instead of just reading it.

    Being a relatively new Christian, I still find that reading The Bible for enjoyment is very difficult for me – it almost always feels like work, and it almost always feels a bit…well…dry if I’m honest. I’m not looking to Seminary to fill my devotional time, but I am keenly aware of the dangers of being a student first and a son of God second.

    Thanks for your words.

    -Dan Cross

  15. Craig Blomberg says:

    As someone with nine years of formal theological education and twenty-eight dishing it out, I know this conversation occurs annually all over the world. I wish I could address it wherever it occurs! But since my daily google alert for “Denver Seminary” brought me to this site, I’ll do so here. Two comments I try always to make: (1) What often is involved in Western Gentile “devotional” reading–largely involving the presence of certain kinds of feelings and the absence of others–has little basis in the ancient Jewish/biblical practice of Scripture study, which was almost always corporate (at least, in the yeshiva model, involving a pair of individuals in conversation with each other about the text, if not a full-fledged small group–cf. Acts 17:11). (2) I do believe in and encourage private Bible reading/study and prayer as well but am always baffled as to why there must be a bifurcation between “academic” and “devotional” study. The more one learns rules for proper interpretation (and it’s not, in most instances, nearly as hard as many in this thread suggest), the more one can read Scripture responsibly and ask God to apply it to your personal lives, and the more one can take time after academic study to reflect on the personal significance of what one has just analyzed. It doesn’t even add very many minutes if one is serious about it. In short, there never really is any reason for the odd lament I frequently hear by students in my New Testament courses–”I just haven’t had much time for Bible study this semester.” Whatever do they think they are doing when they read Scripture for my classes! It really boils down to an issue of heart attitude and commitment, not one of ability or time.

  16. Mark says:

    Thanks, Dr. Blomberg, for your remarks. Not many people bring the kind of perspective you can on this subject.

    I wonder if the split between academic and devotional comes out of evangelical church culture that has a history of of feeling-oriented exhortation, apart from careful thought. The life of the mind hasn’t been neglected only in church, but it has been there, so what’s left except the appeal to feeling.

    My sense is that the church is recovering the proper wedded-ness of careful study and warm-hearted worship, but back when I was in seminary, we weren’t in quite the same place. Prayerfully this will become less of a problem as the church recovers the value of good thinking and study.

  17. Alisa says:

    I am so glad you posted this! Yes, I have been having the same experience that you did. I am finding out there are a lot of people at Seminary here that are not Godly people. One went so far as to say that God was nature to her. I thought Seminary was going to be filled with God loving Christions or other as this is a Mennonite Seminary, but the plain truth is, it is not.

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