I wish I had read this thirty years ago; it would have saved me many years of growth. If you are thinking of going to seminary, get it here and read it slowly and devotionally.
David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell. How to Stay Christian in Seminary. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. 80 pp. $7.99.
“Wait, you’re in seminary? What would make you want to attend cemetery, er, I mean seminary?” So said a pastor when my friend mentioned he was in grad school studying for pastoral ministry. This sentiment is common. Seminary is dangerous. It can turn the Word of God into a textbook and zealous disciples into pompous eggheads. To be fair, these critics have probably seen a tragic irony play out: seminary, the very tool intended to bolster faith and love for God, can create cold, listless hearts.
But, David Mathis (MDiv, Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando) and Jonathan Parnell (MDiv, Bethlehem Seminary in Minneapolis) argue, this need not be! Yes, seminary can be spiritually dangerous, even in orthodox, evangelical, confessional schools. But the root problem is not the institution; rather, it’s the sinful heart of every seminarian whose affection for God struggles to keep pace with his fast-growing knowledge. How to Stay Christian in Seminary equips seminarians to approach their training with open eyes and warm hearts. When done right, seminary can in fact reignite love for God and zeal for his glory.
How can this happen? By giving careful, ongoing attention to the source of the problem: the heart. For the seminarian who prizes communion with God and intimacy with Christ, greater knowledge can result in deeper affection for him and more faithful Christian living.
Each short chapter of the book applies “the basic premise that what believers learn about God must affect they way they live” (20).
1. Know Your Value of Values. Every student’s ultimate purpose for attending seminary should be God’s glory, and this “means that we are about God being seen for who he is” (27). Parnell advocates making a personal mission statement to protect this priority. Otherwise, accumulated information can subtly get confused with gospel ministry (24).
2. Be Fascinated with Grace. One who studies to teach others can forget his own desperate need for God’s undeserved kindness. As gospel truths become more familiar to a student, he must work hard to remember that God’s grace toward him is shocking and glorious.
3. Study the Word for More Than Words. The goal of studying Scripture must not be to gather information but to see Jesus. At the same time, “preaching the gospel” to your own heart can never replace personal Bible study. Mathis warns that neglecting regular Bible intake will make one stale: “There’s an expiration date on the fruit of preaching to yourself once it’s off the vine” (39).
4. Push Your Books Aside and Pray. Knowing God, the sovereign Creator and sustainer of all things, should result in awe and wonder. Yet so often it does not. Incredibly, the same students who are quick to affirm God’s immensity often live as if he is quite small. The remedy is prayer. Prayer wakes us up to the awesome reality of our access to almighty God in Christ.
5. Love That Jesus Calls the Weak. Any true Christian recognizes that he is a weak, needy sinner. As seminarians work to strengthen their gifts, they must remember that “the goal of seminary is not to become unweak” (53). Indeed, studying Scripture should result in a greater awareness of one’s own weakness.
6. Be a Real Husband and Dad. Parnell devotes this chapter to seminarians who are husbands and dads. “It’s not that you’re in seminary and happen to have a wife and children, but rather that you’re a husband and dad who happens to be in seminary” (58). Familial duties hold priority and cannot be put on hold during seminary. “However clear your subjective sense of ‘a call to the ministry’ may seem to you, the objective calling to be a husband and father is much clearer” (59). Parnell lists ten biblical things to pray for your wife.
7. Keep Both Eyes Peeled for Jesus. Everything—the universe, the Bible, your life—is about Jesus. Only when Christ remains in his rightful place at the center of your life and study will you live and study rightly.
Mathis and Parnell are personally acquainted with the dangers of seminary, and their advice is spot on. Articles on “how to do seminary right” often appear on Christian websites, and many of them are helpful. But this book offers fresh insights and digs deeper than a 500-word article. Yes, certain things could be emphasized more—like personal evangelism and local church involvement—but this small book gives readers plenty to ponder, moving seamlessly from rich theological observations to on-the-ground application. Though it can be read in one sitting, each chapter triggers personal reflection and deserves prayerful contemplation.
Yes, seminary is dangerous. But How to Stay Christian in Seminary is less a sober warning and more a hopeful guide for students who want (or at leastwant to want) God more than theological precision, a soft heart more than a sharp mind. What good is it if a man gains the whole world (theological acumen, ministry credentials, the respect of academic peers) and yet forfeits his soul? No good at all. Mathis and Parnell have provided a tool that can help preserve the seminarian’s soul.
Nathan Lugbill (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville) serves as associate pastor at Castleview Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.