So You Want to Go to Seminary: Seven Words for Aspiring Pastors

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In recent months I’ve had the joy of talking to a few young men who are thinking about seminary. With that in mind, I want to share seven words of advice that come from my own experience, which inlcudes choosing a seminary, going through seminary, helping found a seminary, and now teaching at that seminary—Indianapolis Theological Seminary.

These words of counsel are not fool proof, but hopefully you will find them faithful.

1. Your church, more than your seminary, will shape the formation of your theology.

When I went to seminary, it became immediately obvious who the most mature students were—they were the ones who had gone through a pastoral internship at church just down the street from our nation’s capitol. Immersed for a semester or more in this church, these brothers had thought deeply about the church and had been shaped by the pastors and the community found therein. As a result, they came to seminary with a great understanding of the church and pastoral ministry. Moroever, their theological training built on a solid foundation of practical and practiced church ministry.

At the same time, there were other students who sat in the same classes and believed the same doctrines, but whose experience in the local church differed. As a result, this second group tended to maintain the pragmatism of their churches, even when their theology, defended in class, did not match the church’s methodology.

Certainly, there are other healthy churches beside the one highlighted above, but the point remains: Where you go to church matters. And, in my limited experience, where you go to church will shape your views of ministry more than the classes you take in seminary. So, as you go to seminary, do not forsake the local church or ignore the way that your local church will confirm or deny the faith you profess.

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If Dietrich Bonhoeffer Were Your ‘Doktorvater,’ or, Seven Qualifications for Ministerial Students

seminaryIn doctoral studies doktorvater is a term for the direct supervisor who oversees your research and writing. It is not surprising that aspiring seminarians seek out a program based on the possibility of working under such a supervisor. For historically, it has often been the case that rising disciples take on the theology and ecclesial habits of their doktorvater.

Sadly, in seminary life there are many students who go through their studies without such a ‘father in the faith.’ Paul House has written about this trend in contemporary theological education, and his book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer is aimed at correcting it. I am sympathetic to his argument, as my forthcoming book review at TGC will show. In what follows I want to consider once slice of what seminary training with Bonhoeffer might have looked like.

Seven Requisite Qualities for Studying Under Dietrich Bonhoeffer

For now, I am especially intrigued by the program of study instituted by Bonhoeffer. What would it have been like to have Dietrich Bonhoeffer as your doktorvater? Based on Paul House’s book, Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision (44–45), here are seven things it might have entailed and what Bonhoeffer would have expected.

  1. Submissive to the Word. “Candidates would be committed persons, individuals who knew that their calling ‘demands the entire person. It demands a life under the word of God. Everyday must stand under the discipline of the word.'”
  2. Self-disciplined. Candidates must “foster daily habits of Bible reading, meditation, and holy living.”
  3. Willingly submissive to church authority. Candidates must “pledge themselves to brotherhood with one another and obedience to the church authorities.”
  4. Loyal Allegiance to Christ over Country. “As a citizen [in Nazi Germany], a candidate would ‘serve the truth alone and understand himself to be accountable only to the word of God.'”
  5. A Diligent Student of the Word. “‘The candidate should make it his duty to read a section of the New Testament and the Old Testament daily in the original language. The expectation is that by so doing, he will come to know the entire New Testament and important parts of the Old Testament in the original text and will have worked through several texts with scholarly aids (concordance, dictionaries, commentaries).” [emphasis mine]
  6. An Apt Theologian. “A candidate was to have ‘thorough acquaintance with the confessional writings of his church and be completely accountable with regard to them.” Additionally, “since the church [i.e., the German United Church] had both Lutheran and Reformed congregations, the directors wanted pastoral candidates to be familiar with both confessional traditions.”
  7. Pastorally-Discipled. “Each candidate was to have spent some time as an apprentice with a fellow pastor who prayed with him and guided his work.”

All in all, the men whom Bonhoeffer sought to train were those who gave themselves to the Word and gladly submitted themselves to Christ, his church, and the pastors of those flocks. Moreover, in the face of Hitler’s reign in Germany, Bonhoeffer was looking for those men who would stand against the grain of national opinion. To be a servant in Christ’s church, Bonhoeffer believed one had to be an apt theologian, student of the word, and disciple of the church, while at the same time not seeking a position among the world.

For Contemporary Application

In historical context, the training Bonhoeffer offered only lasted a few years. Beginning in 1935, the Third Reich shut down his school in 1940. Because many of his pupils would be drafted into Germany’s army, most of them never reached the fields of pastoral service. Nevertheless, his labors were not in vain. His two most influential books, Life Together and The Cost of Discipleshipwere born in these seminary years and addressed to men in seminary contexts.

One can hope that in the days ahead, as theological education becomes more imperiled and the costs of pastoral ministry increase, more pastor-theologians will see the need for such educations models. Already, this trend is beginning in schools like Bethlehem Seminary and Beeson Divinity School. Without denigrating larger schools (of which I owe my whole theological training), it is my hope that schools—large and small—will take serious the call to develop godly servant leaders, not just enlist large numbers of graduates.

Scripture reminds us that the qualifications for pastoral ministry are high (1 Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9), which means that the standards and structures for theological education should be equally high. Though this kind of standard may shrink enrollment, it may in the end raise up a stronger band of brothers. This, House argues, was Bonhoeffer’s vision for training gospel ministers, and it is one that we should seriously consider as we plan and pray to train the next generation.

May God be pleased to raise up a generation of stalwart biblical stewards. And may he at the same time, raise up local, pastor-led, church-centered theological schools to do such training.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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Don’t Despise the ‘Plain Things’ of Life: What the Lord Uses to Prepare His Ministers

Thinking about ministry and concerned about your ‘theological’ preparation?

Consider that some of the greatest “pastor-theologians” (biblical authors) were entrenched in mundane occupations and the plain things of life for decades before God opened the door to ministry.  For instance, consider Jeffery Niehaus’s words that remind us of Moses’ calling and equipping:

When Moses flees to Midian, he learns to be a husband (Ex 2:2), a father (v. 22), and a shepherd (3:1).  These [plain things] are theologically important facts for him, because he now encounters the God who chooses to become a husband (Jer. 31:32; Eze 16:1ff–both reflecting the Exodus events), a father (Dt 1:31), and a shepherd (Ge 49:24) to his people (God at Sinai: Covenant & Theophany in the Bible and the Ancient Near East, 185).

For 40 years, Moses learned the plain things of life–caring for a wife, leading a family, and tending a flock.  Each of these prepared him for his ministry to Israel, and his ability to record God’s Word.  Likewise, for us, marriage and work, the common but significant lot which all humans enjoy (or despise), prepare us greater Christian service.  In fact, 1 Timothy 3 disqualifies ministers who fail at home.  Thus marriage (which pictures Christ’s love for the church), fatherhood (which reflects God’s love for his adopted children), and vocation (which requires thoughtful creativity, organization, and physical strength, resemble God’s work in the world), all demonstrate aspects about God and his gospel. And thus, all of these “plain things” prepare you and I  for more fruitful service.

Moses example teaches us to stop fearing insufficient training and to recall the fact that for those who God has called, he will use all of life to prepare us for our “received” ministry (cf. John 3:27; Col. 4:17). So, while we ought to look for ways to further our knowledge of god (cf. Ps 111:2; 2 Pet 3:18), we should at the same time realize that all of  life points to God, and prepares us for useful service–with or without “theological training.”

In the plain things are hidden the main things, if we look at them with eyes of faith and minds renewed by God’s Word.  In this way, God reminds us that he is the one who uniquely prepares us for his service, and that our plans are accomplished according to his steps (Prov 16:9).  May we seek God and see him in all of life, so that we may better communicate the divine truths of God’s word as we encounter the daily regimen of life.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Carl Trueman on Academics and the Local Church

Lately, I have been thinking about my entrance into the PhD program and the impact such heavy-duty training has on the edification of the local church.  Such academic equipping is certainly not required.  Most biblical prophets and apostles were “regular joe’s.”  Amos was  a shepherd.  Peter and John were fisherman, “uneducated, common men” who had been with Jesus (cf. Acts 4:13).  Jesus himself was an unschooled carpenter, while his cousin, John the Baptist, was a self-taught wilderness prophet.  According to the Bible, theological education is no panacea for heresy (cf. John 5:39ff); nor is it the golden key that unlocks the mysteries of God’s word.  All true understanding is Spiritually given (1 Cor. 2:1-16). 

Nevertheless, assiduous study has its place and the church has benefitted greatly from the likes of its church doctors.  Augustine, Luther, Machen, and Mohler have each benefitted the church in God-honoring ways because the Sovereign Lord of all wisdom (Col. 2:3) has been pleased to use their scholarly gifting and theological training for purification and expansion of his church.

In a recent edition of Themelios, Carl Trueman in hi article, “Minority Report: The way of the Christian academic,” reflects on the relationship between theological academic(ian)s and the church.  He concludes with an exhortation to wannabe theologians:

The calling of a Christian academic is a high one, for anyone charged with the teaching of God’s truth will, as the Bible tells us, be held to a higher level of accountability than others. The path is marked with difficulties and challenges; but none are insurmountable, and the basic disciplines of the Christian life are in fact more, not less, important and useful. You want to be a Christian academic? Work hard, pray, read your Bible, and go to church.

Personally, I am still working out how my own theological training serves the local church.  However, the question is not own of principle, but of specification.  The church is central, not theological education.  This is an absolute: all investments in biblical and theological studies must be for the church (cf. Eph. 4:11-16).  Why?  Because I, along with all those pursuing doctorates in theology, will be judged accordingly (cf. James 3:1). To those who have been given much, much will be required (cf. Luke 12:48), and those of us who have had the privilege of studying the Bible for years are accountable for sharing the riches. 

When we stand before our Lord and beneficient giver of all Truth, may we be found faithful.  Until then, may we labor to tell the Good News to the lost and build up the church with the nourishment of God’s Holy Word.  Theological training and biblical institutions of higher learning must be committed to the local church.  Until that end, may we pray and labor.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss


The Academy and the Church

Owen Strachan, friend and “Consumed” blogger has recently contemplated the tension raised between the priority of local church ministry and the allure of academic pursuits. A few weeks ago he referenced an article by Covenant Seminary professor and administrator,Sean Michael Lucas, which cogently articulated many of these notions with which seminarians–young and old–wrestle.

This struggle is not new, as illustrated by John Angell James comments in his book on the need for earnestness in ministry. The pastor emeritus does not dismiss the place of scholarship, but neither does he exalt it. In his day, he speaks of the commality of such degrees and reflects on how such ubiquity will temper pride and how attainment will eventually undo the all-consuming initial desire for learning. Consider his balanced sentiments and his emphatic call for earnestness–regardless of ones level of schooling:

In an age like the present, when so much is said about knowledge, and such high value is attached to it, there is a danger of our being seduced from every other qualification, and taken up with this. The establishment of the London University, and the incorporation of our Colleges with it, have give our students access to academic degrees and honours: and there is some danger in the new condition of our literary Institutions, lest our young men should have their minds in some measure drawn away from much more important matters, by the hope of having their names graced by the marks of Bachelor’s or a Master’s degree [or Doctor]. It is a foolish clamour that has been raised against all attention to such matters, and it is a vain and barbarous precaution that would fortify the ministerial devotedness of our students, by restraining them altogether from such distinctions. The studies necessary to enable them to attain this object of their ambition, are a part of the their professional education; while the vanity likely to be engendered by success will soon be annihilated by the commonness of the acquisition. When these degrees are so common that almost all ministers possess them, they will no longer be a snare to their possessors. Besides, like every other object of human desire, when once they are possessed, much of the charm that dazzled the eye of hope has vanished. Henry Martyn, when he came from the senate-house at Cambridge, where he had been declared Senior Wrangler of his year, and had thus won the richest honour the University had to confer, was struct with the vanity of human wishes, and expressed his surprise at the comparative worthlessness of the bauble he had gained, and the shadow he had grasped. It is not by closing the door against such distinctions that we can hope to raise the tone of devotedness in our ministry, but by fostering in the minds of our young men at College, and in the minds of our congregations, and our ministers in general, the conviction that earnestness is just that one thing, to which all other things must be, and can be, made subservient, and without which all otehr things which educaiton can impart are as nothing (John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times [Edinburg: Banner of Truth, 1993: Original 1847], 247-48).