Below is an interview I conducted with respected New Testament scholar George H. Guthrie (Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible at Union University in Jackson, TN) who among other works has a very respected commentary on Hebrews. 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?
George: Consistently I have had students go on to seminary and thrive in the environment, both academically and spiritually. Yet, it certainly is a reality that many students find their time in seminary to be very challenging in terms of their spiritual lives. At least two dynamics contribute to this: 1) Students who are doing graduate studies and working a lot of hours per week and, perhaps, trying to give attention to the needs of a family are pressed and emotionally stressed in terms of time. This means that some relationships, including relationship with the Lord and his people (time in the Scriptures and prayer and church), can be neglected. 2) Biblical and theological studies can become mere disciplines to master, rather than a gateway to a deeper, richer relationship with Christ and others. A key here has to do with the posture of the faculty. Do they portray a life of integration in which a student is led to follow Christ into the study of these disciplines, to love God with the heart and mind? If not, such study can become a dry and even deadly enterprise feeding the ego, rather than a living adventure of the spirit.
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?
George: I normally will affirm the desire (education is a good thing) and ask about their motivation and ultimate ministry goals. If the person is married I ask if his or her spouse is supportive of the decision. I encourage the student to do several things: 1) take the professors with a reputation for being challenging (I was warned off of taking certain profs early in my seminary days and often found their classes to be the most rewarding!); 2) take as much language study as possible (languages are a gateway to knowing the Scriptures deeply) 3) get the know the professors personally (some of my richest conversations in seminary were across the breakfast table from a professor I had invited out for the meal); 4) get meaningfully involved in a local church and, if you are not on staff, contribute as a volunteer.
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?
George: Assuming that we are talking about a seminary (rather than the study of religion in a secular university context), the purpose of which is to train people for ministry, I think there are at least 3 or 4 non-negotiables: 1) a high view of Scripture and doctrinal orthodoxy are mandatory, for a commitment to Scripture as the norma normans non normata, “the norm of norms, which cannot be normed,” and a commitment to theological orthodoxy, drive everything else in the theological enterprise; 2) integration of faith and learning, for a theological education that is not integrated (learning to personal life, life to the community of faith, church to ministry to the world) has missed a foundational principle of biblical faith; this also involves orthopraxy being woven into the curriculum; and 3) a profound sense of gospel mission—joining God in his Great Cause, training students to have a strong sense of the church’s mission and their part in that mission.
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?
George: Ascertain the cause. Is your faith threatened because faithful, biblically-sound professors are challenging your unexamined presuppositions, or is your faith truly under assault, professors pushing unorthodox positions? If the latter, you can consider a different context for training. If the former, engage the process and dig deeply into the Scriptures, examining both your positions and those of your professors. It will be a rich growth experience.
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 over the other?
George: This is a false dichotomy. To me biblical studies is best done in pursuit of personal, spiritual growth and in service to the community of faith. The Bible grew out of commitment to Christ and the church and can thrive in a commitment to Christ and the church. Academic rigor can be an expression of spiritual discipline and love for God. We should love God with all our strength, including our academic strength. We do this in part by consistently integrating our studies with life, asking, “How should this thing I am studying shape my life?”
Thank you for your time and insight!
George Guthrie has written widely on Bible interpretation and application, and has has taught across North America and around the world in places like Hong Kong, London, and Israel. He has participated in the revision of The New Living Translation as well as having served as a consultant on the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the New Century Version, and the English Standard Version. In 2015 his 2 Corinthians commentary in the Baker Exegetical Commentary series was released. The photo above was obtained from Guthrie’s blog (see here).