Seminary: Life or Death?

Seminary is dangerous. Yes, the fragrance is to life for many. But for others — far too many others — the aroma is to death.

Names changed to protect the guilty, Don Carson tells the story of an “Ernest Christian” in the introduction to his infamous Exegetical Fallacies. Ernest was converted as a senior in high school, grew in leaps and bounds through a campus ministry while in college, sensed a call to full-time ministry, was affirmed by his local congregation, and “headed off to seminary with all the earnestness of a new recruit.”

But at seminary, the story followed a path all too familiar to many of us.

After Ernest has been six months in seminary, the picture is very different. Ernest is spending many hours a day memorizing Greek morphology and learning the details of the itinerary of Paul’s second missionary journey. Ernest has also begun to write exegetical papers; but by the time he has finished his lexical study, his syntactical diagram, his survey of critical opinions, and his evaluation of conflicting evidence, somehow the Bible does not feel as alive to him as it once did. Ernest is troubled by this; he finds it more difficult to pray and witness then he did before he came to seminary. (23)

Carson goes on to explain a concept called “distanciation” and how a good seminary must teach its students to be able to distance their own thinking from the intention of the author they are reading, so as not to impose their own thought on the text but be enabled to have their thought shaped by the text. Such distanciation, Carson warns, “is difficult, and can be costly.” But it need “not prove destructive,” even if “some steps along the way are dangerous” (24).

Carson’s exhortation is that the student “work hard at integrating your entire Christian walk and commitment.” He finishes with this warning: “Fail to work hard at such integration and you invite spiritual shipwreck.”

This New Series

In this series of posts on “How to Stay Christian at Seminary,” we’re hoping, under God, to do precisely that — help keep you Christian. We have seven ways in mind. We’ll put flesh on each of them in the coming days, with the first starting today, "Know Your Value of Values."

Our prayer is that serious students of the Bible not only avoid spiritual shipwreck, but experience what it is to thrive in the disciplined study of the Scriptures, whether at seminary or in the local church.