Who Should Go To Seminary?

Dan writes to ask this question. It’s a good and important question and the answer is in two parts: anyone but not everyone.

First, anyone may go to seminary. Since I teach at a seminary and I know how we operate, I’ll write out of my own experience as a teacher in a seminary. The faculty in my school are ministers or ruling elders and we are each called by our congregations or presbyteries to the work we do here on behalf of the churches. Nevertheless, a school is not the visible, institutional church. We do not presume to do the work of consistories/sessions (the local elders and ministers), or presbytries/classes (the regional gathering of elders and ministers), or synods/general assemblies (the national gathering of elders and ministers). We don’t call people to ministry or to mission fields. We don’t send people to congregations or mission fields.

As a school, our vocation is to work closely with and for the visible church to educate, prepare, and train men for pastoral ministry and to train and prepare other students for other vocations. About 70% of our students are in the MDiv program which prepares qualified men to serve (mainly) confessional Reformed and Presbyterian congregations. We also offer three MA degrees enrollment (in Biblical Studies, Theological Studies, or Historical Theology) in which is open to men and women. These degree programs are designed to prepare student to fulfill a variety of vocations. Our MA graduates are teaching in Christian school, serving as missionaries, counselors, earning PhD’s or other graduate/post-graduate degrees, or serving as elders in local congregations.

Let’s talk about two degree tracks, MDiv and MA and two types of callings, internal and external. First the MDiv and calling. If you’re thinking of pastoral ministry, if you have or are developing a strong desire to study, teach, and/or preach the Word, if you would love to be able to read God’s Word in the original languages and to explain it to other people, those may be indicators that you have an internal calling to pastoral ministry. Must you have seen visions, heard voices from God or other supernatural phenomena? No, in fact, we generally prefer if you haven’t since, if you’re currently receiving divine revelation it makes our job as teachers more difficult. Why would you want to listen to a mere historian when you can hear directly from God? I should think that sitting in a seminary classroom, watching mere mortals work through the difficulties of theology, piety, and practice would be exceeding boring when you’re hearing directly from God. What you need is a good secretary to write down these revelations, so you should call that temp agency right away!

If, however, you are a mere ordinary Christian who struggles to be consistent in his prayer life, who believes but doubts, who struggles with sin, whose experience of the presence of God ebbs and flows, who loves the church, the means of grace, the people of God, the lost, and most especially the Lord of the church, then you might be a good candidate for ministry and a for seminary. If you’re an undergraduate student and you never miss the college fellowship, if you find yourself with opportunities to teach or lead bible studies, then you might be a good candidate for seminary. If you’ve finished your undergraduate degree and are in business and If you’re good at what you do but you’ve had a nagging sense that you’re doing the wrong thing, that you should be spending your life for Christ in his church but you’re afraid to take the plunge because you don’t know how it will work out: you’re not alone. Come on in, the water is fine. Trust the Lord to provide for you (and your family). People do it every day here. If you’re working in a para-ecclesiastical organization or in congregational college ministry and you realize that you’re not really prepared for the work you’ve been asked to do, you should think and pray about real seminary where you can get real, face-to-face preparation.

Pray? Yes, absolutely, I didn’t say that you should pray for extra-canonical revelation. Pray for wisdom (godly skill in understanding reality and applying God’s Word to it), pray for self-knowledge, pray for godly advisors (e.g. elders or pastors) who will tell you the truth about your self, your gifts, and your circumstances. These three gifts are relatively rare. Congregations and para-church groups are often reluctant to turn loose of good people and this reluctance may color their evaluation of your situation. Of course, if wisdom were easy to get we wouldn’t need large chunks of holy Scripture or the Holy Spirit would we? It isn’t easy to “get a heart of wisdom,” and we do need the Spirit to illumine Scripture and to enlighten our minds, hearts, and wills. Reality is a remarkably slippery thing. Self knowledge is a lot harder to come by than it might seem and especially when you’re young and don’t have a track record by which to judge. If God graces you with these three things then you are blessed indeed and on the path to the sort of maturity needed for pastoral ministry.

The second part of the call is external. The external call operates on two levels, informal and formal. if your local congregation has identified certain gifts for teaching, preaching, and/or leadership in you, then you should think seriously about seminary. If, when you teach, the elders and the congregation are edified, then you should think about seminary. The formal aspect of the process occurs when you appear before your consistory/session to ask for their blessing to attend seminary, when you come “under care” of a presbytery/classis (depending upon the situation).

Of course, this presumes that the candidate is in a confessionally sound Reformed congregation. If not, then this process becomes a little more difficult. I’ve seen cases where students begin to become Reformed outside of a recognizably Reformed congregation and the elders/pastors worked against the student! There are cases where ostensibly confessional congregations are beset with either the Quest for Illegitimate Certainty or the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience and thus the view of ministry is skewed by revivalism, pietism, fundamentalism, or moralism. These things can all make the external call more complicated. Some students don’t come from congregations that are recognizably Protestant and that makes the external aspect of the call more difficult.

In such cases or in cases where the external call has not been clearly defined before seminary–and it isn’t always, remember seminary is a school, a training ground, a place to test one’s calling and gifts not a place merely to confirm them–then that testing and confirmation must come during seminary. In any event our extensive and extended internship requirements provide opportunity for such testing and evaluation.

MA programs provide opportunity for preparation and testing for non-pastoral ecclesiastical service (e.g., as a ruling elder or deacon or in a Christian education program). We regularly send a small number of well-qualified graduates to doctoral programs in North America and overseas. Our MA students find a variety of ways to be useful in the church and in extra-ecclesiastical service (e.g. Christian school teachers, counselors, administrators).

With all that said, not everyone should go to seminary. Anyone may go to seminary but not every one should go to seminary.  The second part of the answer is who should not go to seminary.

Before I continue let me say, for the sake of our current students, that I am not thinking of any of our current students. I am generally very impressed with our students. They make a lot of sacrifices to prepare to fulfill their vocations and they are typically quite dedicated to their studies.

That said, I have known students who should not have been in seminary. They come in three kinds.

1. Those who already know everything and are simply seeking confirmation of their prejudices. I’ve seen lots examples of this but one stands out. I recall a student who had not been on campus for a week who submitted a paper (which in itself was legitimate and part of an administrative process) explaining why a certain interpretation of Genesis 1–2 could not be correct and why a certain learned professor (who reads multiple ancient languages) was all wet. Now, to be sure, there may be good reasons why that view is not the best understanding of Genesis 1–2, it’s possible that the prof was all wet, but I doubt that a seminary student who couldn’t read Hebrew to save his life is in a position to to know that and nothing in the paper suggested that he did. It was the work of an amateur. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that the student didn’t realize that he was an amateur. He was arrogant and seemed blissfully unaware of it.

Such an approach to learning establishes a poor basis for future ministry and service. Mature, patient pastoral ministry requires willingness to learn and change. It requires the ability to be wrong—to recognize when one is or has been wrong. It requires humility and the knowledge of what one is not and what one does not know. One who seeks confirmation of his prejudice is not committed to learning (or getting it right) but is only committed to “being right” and ultimately that is about power and not about truth. One who is seeking power is not preparing for ministry. Jesus did not pick up a sword but wrapped himself with a towel.

2. Those who are interested only interested in practica or what they refer to as “ministry” and not in “learning.” The juxtaposition of these disciplines is deadly for the church. This student is the one who asks, “Do we have to know this?” Nothing makes me want to expel a student from a course more quickly than this question. The short answer is, “Yes.” If a student is not interested in learning, if a student is has no genuine intellectual interest, if a student is not willing to read, learn, dig, and research then he will almost certainly be a mediocre preacher and minister. A seminary education is only a beginning. Those who treat it as the terminus of their education are ill-suited to serve a congregation. The Word of God is large collection of multiple literary forms in three languages and multiple contexts and settings. To preach that Word one must become an adept student of the congregation, of the Scriptures, of ancient cultures, of hermeneutics, of grammar, of homiletics, and of theology and history. The student who will not learn and who is not prepared to be a life-long learner will be ill-suited to address new counseling problems or difficult practical and theological problems in the congregation, classis, or synod.

3. The emotionally and spiritually immature. This is not to say that only those who have entire sanctification should attend seminary. In that case the entire faculty, administration, and board should have to resign en masse. Nor is it to say that we should not have young students. I enjoy the energy and enthusiasm of students just out of college. One hopes, however, that seminary students, particularly MDiv students, will understand that whatever sacrifices they are making to be here, many people have sacrificed a great deal to provide them with a place to study, a library, a faculty, and an administration. Donors and supporters made those sacrifices for the sake of the Christ, his gospel, and his church. Thus an MDiv student isn’t there by himself. It’s not a purely personal or private enterprise. He’s carrying the hopes of many others and preparing to serve Christ and Christ’s people. He’s preparing to bring the Word and the sacraments to people he’s never met. He’s preparing to counsel families and catechize children and to speak to people he can’t even imagine right now. He’s preparing to take on the most important vocation in the world. All honorable vocations are good and right before God and should be pursued as such, but there are two kingdoms in this world and only one of them is the kingdom of God with message of salvation from the king of the church. Thus the maturity in view is the sort of maturity that enters into ministerial preparation with joy and a sense of adventure but without self indulgence or narcissism.

Of course no one is mature enough. We all live by grace, but not everyone who lives by grace is ready for seminary. The irony is that it is probably the one who doubts that he is ready for seminary who is more likely to be ready! It’s those who worry if they are really saved who probably believe. It’s the ones who have no consciousness of their sins about whom I worry. Non-Christians don’t worry about such things. It’s the foolish pre-seminarian (or seminarian) who troubles me, who thinks he has everything in hand, who has no awareness of what he’s about to begin who gives me pause.

If one has limited spiritual interests, if one is unwilling to learn, if one simply wants his passport stamped, or, on the other extreme is satisfied to substitute intense religious experience for hard work, if one is not ready or willing to engage prayerfully and thoughtfully difficult questions, if one is unwilling to enter into the discipline of learning the biblical languages, of learning history and theology, the practice of the church and the other disciplines involved, then seminary, and certainly not the MDiv program is not be the place for that one.

This post, however, is not meant to discourage those who are struggling with their sense of call nor is it meant to add to the load of the burdened. It is meant to trouble the foolish, the arrogant, the senseless, and the immature. That’s a relatively small group. Frankly, I see a lot more of this lot on the web propounding the latest fads or their latest brilliant insight into the problem of evil than I do in the classroom but that’s the stuff for another post.


Advice Regarding Your MA (Historical Theology) Thesis

[Written originally June, 2011]

Students frequently ask the same questions when beginning their MA (Historical Theology) thesis. They are not certain where to begin. The prospect of a 30,000 word project itself seems daunting and then there is the problem of choosing and narrowing a thesis topic.

You should decide for yourself, in consultation with your advisor, what your topic should be but these guidelines and questions may help you narrow things and find a way to think about your research.

  1. Decide which epoch you want to study (patristic, medieval, reformation, post-reformation, or modern to 1950). Which period interests you most? Which has drawn your attention thus far? In which field might you want to continue study?
  2. Within that epoch narrow the question or field. Obviously, a 30,000 word project cannot and should not try to cover every aspect of a person, question, text, or event (PQT or E). Having picked a PQT or E, decide what is it about that PQT or E that you want to investigate.
  3. Pick a topic (PQT or E) that needs to be done i.e., that hasn’t been done to death or that fills a gap in the existing literature. My advice is to avoid Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards and the like on the theory that the secondary literature is too overwhelming and that the world probably doesn’t need another MA thesis on one of these greats. There are always exceptions to such rules. You may discover some aspect of a great PQTE or E that has not yet been investigated and that can be managed within the space of a short study.
  4. Remember that the MA thesis is as much a demonstration of skills and ability to do serious research as it is about the research itself. Thus, though it is hoped that you will not do something that has been done to death it is also not expected that your thesis will turn the academic world on its collective head. The hope is that you will research a question that has been neglected and so perhaps make a modest contribution to the discussion or understanding of a PQT or E and thereby grow in your understanding historical research and writing.
  5. Pick a topic (PQTor E) that can be done, i.e., one for which there are sufficient primary sources and for which the body of secondary literature manageable for an 30,000 word MA thesis. This usually requires that one narrow the question. It also means that researching a PQT or E where there are not existing texts to study will be that much more difficult and time-consuming. For example, if you wish to study an event for which primary source documents do not exist then you must must create a body of primary sources (e.g., transcripts from interviews) that would be analyzed and that would form the basis for the thesis. Are primary sources readily available? Can you read them easily or will you have to translate them. Be realistic about what you can do in the time that you have.
  6. Students sometimes worry that there is not enough secondary literature on a given PQT or E. That may be a good or a bad sign. It may signal that others have considered a question and decided that it is either not worth pursuing or that the “payoff” is not worth the effort. It might mean, however, that other scholars have simply missed this PQT or E. There is no way to know which is the case until you have done the basis research but the relative absence or paucity of secondary literature does not itself mean that a topic should not be done.
  7. As always the the reference room is the place to start. That’s where you will discover the basic information and the state of the question. From there you should go to ATLA and WorldCat to see what research has been done your prospective PQT or E. You will want to use a variety of likely search terms to avoid being surprised part way through your project, e.g., discovering three weeks before submission that someone has recently published a book making the very same argument that you are completing.
  8. Be patient. Walking through these steps carefully may take you a couple of weeks but it will save you time in the long term. If the prospect of doing this sort of research does not interest you that may be an indicator that the MA thesis process will probably not interest you.

Chronology of the Thesis

You need to ask and answer these questions before your final academic year. You want to have a clear idea of your topic heading into your last year. Students typically finalize their topic in the summer and begin focused research then (if not before). In consultation with their prospective thesis advisor that research may even be turned into draft a draft chapter or two in the fall semester. In this period you also need to select a second faculty reader for your thesis. You want to find someone on the faculty who has some interest or background in your thesis topic. The thesis proposal submitted in January finalizes what has been worked out in the months prior. By January writing should be under way. January-March is the heart of the thesis writing season. By this point you should be writing at least 1 finished page per working day in order to meet the deadline. In March and April revisions should be underway. Depending upon the number of candidates in a given semester, submissions may begin in mid-April.

Miscellanies for Farther Down the Road

You are strongly encouraged to submit drafts of your thesis chapters serially (one at a time) rather than all at once. This will relieve pressure on you and on your advisor/reader and give them opportunity to make suggestions and to offer help earlier rather than later.

Sometime between January and March you will likely be tempted to give up. Do not be discouraged. In the midst of a major research project it is easy to lose perspective. In reality, if you have done good research, by this point you probably know as much or more about your topic than you think you do. If you are working closely with your advisor all will be well. If you find that you are unduly anxious talk to your advisor immediately.

A good thesis calls attention to the PQT or E rather than to the author. A mediocre or poor thesis says, “Look at me, look at what I’ve learned.” The good thesis is focused on the reader and it teaches. It takes the reader by the hand and says, “Let me show you what I’ve learned.”

Students are often tempted to think that “knowing” or substance is more important than “teaching” or form. Your advisor and reader, however, and your thesis defense jury must judge what you know by what you present and how you present it. Thus, attention to detail and form is more important than you might initially think.

The key is to know when to stop learning, for the moment, and to begin teaching (by writing). From January you will continue reading but the balance of your time will be spent more and more on writing and less and less on reading. By mid-March your focus will largely be on writing or the “teaching” aspect of the project.

Your draft submissions should be clean but they need not be perfect. Your thesis submission prior to the defense should be essentially finished. After you submit you will have sufficient time to make minor corrections to the form of the thesis and to prepare for your oral defense.

Remember, as Bob Godfrey says: there are two kinds theses, the good and the finished.

The keys to a successful oral defense are three: be clear, be concise, and be cogent. Compose your defense on the basis of your thesis. Introduce your topic, summarize the literature, re-state your major argument and the major lines of evidence, and summarize your major thesis in your conclusion. Be sure you have a clear, concise, statement of the one great thesis (argument) that explains your research. Your project must explain that thesis. Your outline should flow from the thesis. Once you have an thesis sentence and an outline then you’re ready to write.

Read it through, out loud, several times before you present it. It is wise to read your defense in the room where the thesis will be presented at approximately the same time of day. The more familiar your suuroundings the less uncertainty there will be during the actual defense and the easier it will be to concentrate on the actual thesis defense.

Reading your thesis defense orally will help you find typos and other errors. It will also help you to determine whether your defense is too long (the limit is 30 minutes).


Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition

Kate L. Turabian, A Manual For Writers