Below is an interview I had the honor of conducting with New Testament scholar Gary Burge (Professor of New Testament, Wheaton College) concerning pros and cons of Seminary. My questions are in bold followed by Burge’s responses. Enjoy!
What is your response to those who feel that Seminary is in fact the “cemetery” of Christian faith? Do you find there to be merit to such concerns? Is this simply a caricature?
Gary: I certainly understand the sentiment. The problem often comes when a young man or woman feels called to ministry, is passionate about their faith, and wants to join a community that shares that zeal. And then the community they enter either deconstructs everything they believe (a liberal seminary perhaps) or builds a rigid, fossilized religiosity (a conservative seminary perhaps). It is vital that a prospective student be discerning so that both heart and mind are shaped by the community they are entering. Is this a place that will challenge your intellect? It is a place that will inspire your spirituality? Will you leave loving the Lord more deeply or just collect social causes or well-defended doctrines?
There is a great book that I hand to my students. It is a series of chapel messages from the great German theologian Helmut Thielicke called A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. It was written in 1962 and so you’ll need to adjust to the language here and there. But Thielicke is here giving his personal advice to a church full of seminarians and his wisdom springs from an entire career teaching theology. I’ve read the book at least a dozen times. Most of what we need to know is packed away in that slim volume.
When someone tells you that they feel called to Seminary what words of advice do you offer? Or are there questions you might proceed to ask them?
Gary: Seminaries need to match who you are. There are spiritual cultures in the church and each of them have a place. If your future ministry includes denominational commitments, then it is vital to consider those networking connections and a denominational seminary. If you are committed to a region of the country then this will be a factor. Are you conservative? Progressive? Egalitarian? Complementarian? A woman who is a Lutheran from Los Angeles entering a Baptist seminary in Kentucky that doesn’t support women in ministry might find a great deal of unhappiness there. There is no perfect seminary but there are close matches to your vision for yourself and your work.
Realizing there are different types of Seminaries that respond to different needs, do you feel there still remain certain “non-negotiables” when it comes to the vision or commitment of a Seminary, or how a Seminary is run?
Gary: “Non-negotiables” often spring from the foundational commitments. For me (as one example), egalitarian commitments are foundational. But beyond these very personal commitments, an excellent seminary should teach us to read, understand and exposit the Bible responsibly. It should help us build a coherent theological system that is satisfying and useful. And it should grow our hearts to care for the needs of people in all of their messiness, sinfulness, and immaturity. In other words, the seminary should be formative both to our minds and our souls so that ideally we emerge, not perfect, but knowing how to grow in Christ so that we may lead people to good places.
What advice do you have for that student in Seminary who is feeling that his or her faith is under assault or is being threatened?
Gary: We can feel disoriented in a variety of ways. I’ve had conservative students study the synoptic problem with me and feel that their faith is threatened! The first thing to do is go and talk with the professor. Take the risk of being vulnerable and expressing what you are experiencing. Sometimes we can have private reactions the are misplaced and a good conversation can sort things out. But there are other times where concerns are legitimate. And in such cases, after much prayer and conversation with trusted friends, it may be necessary to move. Seminary is too important for you to stick around just out of loyalty. We don’t want to be reactive when it isn’t necessary; nor do we want to be complacent or passive when there are real problems.
Have you been able to find a balance between dry academic rigor and a more Spirit-ual Christianity? If so, do you have any tips for those who find themselves falling into one extreme or the other?
Gary: During my first week at Fuller Seminary, I listened to a panel of professors answering this very question. This was a golden era at Fuller and great teachers were there: George Ladd, Everett Harrison, Geoffrey Bromiley, and Ralph P. Martin. The provost asked each of them how they cultivated a keen spirituality amidst all of the academic rigor. Some of them fell silent. One actually cried and admitted failure. Dr. Harrison — with clear-eyed conviction told us all: You must [and here his emphasis was resounding], you must develop spiritual disciplines for yourself. You must learn to pray. And you must learn to read the Bible not to teach someone but to learn, to hear from God yourself. You must tend to your soul daily. I’ll never forget that moment now decades old.
Thank you for your time and honest insight!
*Gary M. Burge, Ph.D., is Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School. In the Fall 2017 he will be moving to join the faculty at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of numerous books on the New Testament and in the contextual interpretation of Jesus and the gospels. He specializes in the Fourth Gospel, its history, interpretation, and theology.