Below you’ll find a brief interaction with Bible scholar Mark Strauss (Professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary, San Diego) who answers some of my questions concerning the pros and cons of Seminary. 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?
Mark: It is certainly true that seminary can become an ivory tower disconnected from Christian ministry. But good seminary training provides the skills to read Scripture well and apply it appropriately, to engage contemporary issues from the perspective of sound biblical theology, and to interact in the world with a truly Christian worldview. These are essential and invaluable skills for ministry, and for the most part are not achieved in leadership development in our churches. I teach hermeneutics each semester and the comment I hear every year is, “I’ve been going to church my whole life and I’ve never learned this stuff.”
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?
Mark: I would certainly ask them to describe their call. Hearing the stories of my students helps me to understand them better and so to teach them better. As far as words of advice, I would ask whether their spouse is affirming of their call and supportive of it. I would ask about support from their church and their financial resources.
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?
Mark: Every seminary’s essential purpose should be to equip the next generation of leaders to shepherd the church. This, I believe, means affirming the priority of love for God and for others, the authority of Scripture, and the necessity of the Holy Spirit’s empowerment and guidance. Every seminary, I believe, should be focused first and foremost on these goals.
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?
Mark: I know each year that some of the things I’m going to teach will challenge certain students’ faith, particularly with issues like the imperfect process through which the biblical text has come down to us, the ambiguity of Scripture’s interpretation, and the limitations of our apprehension of truth (epistemology). The absolutist language related to Scripture used in many evangelical churches does not necessarily jive with the phenomenon of Scripture itself. My goal is to establish a safe environment where students can explore these issues without feeling their faith is threatened. I frequently say that my faith is stronger now than before I had engaged these issues. In certain circumstances, where their faith is truly under attack, I would question their choice of seminary and would encourage them to consider one that is more in line with their theology and their view of Scripture.
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?
Mark: I think the key is to stay in ministry and engaged with the church. Seminary must always view itself as the servant of the church.
Thanks for your time!
*Mark Strauss is the co-author of the well-known How to Choose a Translation for All it’s Worth (2007, coauthored with Gordon Fee) as well as Jesus Behaving Badly: the puzzling parables of the man from Galilee (2015).