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Archive for August, 2010

In my two previous posts I dealt with how seminaries can improve seminary education and how students can do the same.  This is my last post in this little series: how churches can improve seminary education.  If you’re a pastor with seminary students you may want to read the other two posts as some of the points will apply. 

On to my thoughts…

Consider Saying ‘No’ (or at least ‘Not Yet’)

One of the lamentable facts of seminary education is that students often go to seminary without a home church behind them that truly knows them well.  Most seminaries require, if you’re applying for an MDiv, a recommendation from a church.  But I wonder how many churches really screen candidates for seminary.  From my experience, not many do. 

When a young man or woman (or maybe even not-so-young) comes looking for a little help getting into seminary, consider that this person may not be truly ready.  Are they capable of ingesting a tremendous amount of information, information that empowers them for ministry, without having their pride grow along with their knowledge?  Are they seeking positions of power or of service?

Perhaps even before asking these questions, we ought to ask more basic ones.  Has this person been faithful in smaller areas of responsibility?  In the ministry experience they’ve already had, how did they do?  Have they sought to learn from them?  Have they sought out the pastors and elders?  Are they being discipled or mentored?  Does their mentor think they are ready for seminary?  Have you considered suggesting they take another year before seminary and be mentored by a pastor or elder?

There should be no rush to send people to seminary.  The church will not collapse if they don’t hurry up and take a church history class.  Let them simmer a little longer before you turn the heat up.

Meet Regularly with Your Seminary Student

I stated in a previous post the importance of students sharing what they’re learning with other students.  The danger, however, can be the lack of perspective.  After all, how much can a bunch of students in a classroom really know about how to apply what they’re learning?  Perspective comes from getting an outsider’s (preferably a wiser person’s) thoughts.

I’d strongly recommend that pastors meet regularly with their seminarians.  Hear about what they’re learning (there is a good chance you’ll learn something from them).  Find out what’s exciting them.  Ask them questions, challenge them to think more deeply.  Ask them how they would apply what they’re learning.  Challenge them to think of ways to pass along all they’re taking in to people in their church.

What seminary students often miss is the connection between the classroom and ministry.  Because they’re so wrapped up in their coursework, they often fail to apply it to church life, or even their personal life.  Pastors are, in my opinion, the key to bridging this gap. 

Enforce Anonymity

I’m picking this up from my previous post on how students can improve their seminary education, so I won’t rehash it here.  Basically, I offer two suggestions to seminarians:

  1. Find a church that is unimpressed with you.
  2. Serve in a non-visible role for a while.

It may, of course, be hard for the eager seminarian.  But churches will learn more about the character of their seminarian by how they act when no one knows who they are or what they’re doing.  So stick them in a corner where no one sees them.  A little obscurity never hurt anyone.

Never Abdicate Your Responsibility to Train Pastors

The local church should be the primary training ground for pastors.  I can find no biblical (or even logical) warrant for sending your future pastors somewhere else to learn how to lead a church.  It simply makes no sense.

Notice, I’m not saying seminary has no role to play.  I loved my time in seminary; I’m thankful for Gordon-Conwell.  But seminary is not supposed to be the primary training ground for ministers.  Seminary is where you learn certain skills that will prove invaluable for ministry.  The work of seminary can’t be replaced by most churches (unless, I suppose, you have a church staff equipped and available to teach all the same things- if so, God bless you). 

I (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) commented about the logic of seminary in my first post:

  • Christian Leader #1: How can we best train people to pastor churches?
  • Christian Leader #2: I know!  Let’s take them out of the church and stick them in a classroom for 3 years!

There are some things in life that you simply cannot learn by listening to a lecture or reading a book.  (For the record, I don’t even think this is the best way to learn the Bible.  I’ve learned more about the Bible from teaching the Bible, especially in preparation time, than I ever did in a class.  Of course, class time in seminary helped me develop those skills, so it fulfilled its role.)  I can read all the marriage books I want, but nothing actually teaches me about marriage better than being married.  My wife and I did some premarital counseling, which helped us tremendously.  We sought advice from a lot of couples.  We’ve attended seminars and got some books.  But in the end, there’s a lot of learning “on the job.” 

Ministry is, in many ways, similar.  You will learn better about how to minister by actually being involved in ministry, under the tutelage of a more experienced pastor. 

Pastors- do not give up your rightful place as the primary mentors of future pastors.  If you hold on to your responsibility and do not forfeit it, if you allow a seminary education to complement your role as discipler rather than the other way around, your seminarian will be more prepared for a lifetime of ministry than they otherwise would be.

Some Concluding Thoughts

I’ve spent three posts on this subject because I think it’s important.  Even though I’m only 30, I’ve spent a long time observing churches and seeing how they train leaders.  In fact, a large part of my job now is helping train future leaders for our churches (a job I’m probably unqualified for). 

My point in spending three posts on this is that I think the responsibility to improve seminary education falls on the shoulders of more than just the seminary, though I clearly think they have areas of needed improvement.  The primary responsibility to make sure seminary is fulfilling its function lies with the student.  The seminarian needs to make sure they’re learning, not just being taught.  And I think the local church is primarily responsible for training a person to pastor well.  If the student and the local church do their job well, seminaries will be far more effective and the future of our churches will be much brighter.

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Keener on Romans 7:7-25

It’s Craig Keener Week here at BBG!  Or, more accurately, it’s Craig Keener-Related Link Week.  CKRL Week, as the kids call it.

Anyway, a couple weeks ago Marcus at Seeking the Truth… (ellipsis original, though unexplained) posted a review of Keener’s (apparently) excellent commentary on Romans.  In this review he refers to a table used to explain Keener’s understanding of Romans 7.  Marcus wrote:

There he showed 10 statements from Romans 7:7-25 that would contradict what Paul says elsewhere if we were to understand them as referring to Paul’s present struggle with sin.

So, in the comments, I asked Marcus if he’d reproduce the chart for those of us unlucky enough not to own the book.  He has kindly done so.  I found it quite helpful, and now has me searching for an excuse to get Keener’s commentary.

Go check out Marcus’ post and see what you think.  And while you’re at it, add his blog to your reader.  Other than a couple oddities (he’s a Mets fan- no, seriously) and downright craziness (the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is only the 3rd biggest in sports?  Puh-lease), it’s quite good.

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I’ve been staring at my computer screen for about 10 minutes, wondering how to start this book review.  So I’ll just jump to my conclusion- I loved it.  Christopher Wright is quickly emerging as one of my favorite authors, combining a biblical scholar’s precision, a theologian’s broad scope and a missiologist’s heart, not to mention an uncanny ability to say much in little space (the book is under 200 pages). 

The book, as you can surmise from the title, is about salvation- Salvation Belongs to Our God: Celebrating the Bible’s Central Story.  The “control text” (as he calls it) is Revelation 7:10:

Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.

He unpacks this little song, sung by the innumerable multitude from “every nation, tribe, people and language,” phrase by phrase, sometimes dealing with something as small as a word (“our”), to unpack “what the Bible means when it uses such phrases” (p16).  That may seem painstakingly slow, but what the reader is treated to is a whirlwind trip through the Bible.  This is not a classic, systematic theology-style treatment of soteriology.  Wright is much more concerned to unpack the story of salvation, from Eden through Abraham to Jesus all the way to Revelation.

Because of this, the reader learns more about the Bible than a few quick tips on “how to get saved.”  Wright covers the variety of ways God saves (sin, danger, sickness, enemies, etc).  He emphasizes the uniqueness of God’s identity as Savior (especially in Isaiah, if you’re studying Isaiah you should get this book), as well as the implications for understanding Christ as Savior.  The way he weaves the biblical covenants into the story line of the Bible was perhaps my favorite part of the book.  In most sections, he demonstrates from both OT and NT texts what he is emphasizing, showing the reader that there is far more continuity between the testaments regarding salvation than many think.

Wright does, of course, deal with some heavy theological issues.  How do other religions fit into the picture (though I should point out that he’s quick to affirm that Christianity itself does not save someone)?  What about the destiny of the unevangelized?  What is the relationship between Jew and Gentile, Israel and the nations, in the New Covenant?  Many readers will not agree with everything he states, but nonetheless he treats positions fairly and argues his case well.

It’s not that I learned something new in this book.  Wright’s conclusions and arguments are hardly novel.  Most evangelical readers can affirm the theological points he is making without reading the book, save for maybe one or two.  But it’s the way Wright goes about writing about salvation.   Having such a fully-orbed treatment of the subject, written in an engaging- one could even say “worshipful”- tone was refreshing to my soul. 

That isn’t to say I agreed with everything in the book.  No doubt in effort to keep the book short, Wright sometimes makes assertions without support (I, of course, notice these things on points of disagreement between him and me).  He is an Anglican (paedobaptist), so when he draws a strong connection between Old Covenant circumcision and New Covenant baptism, I (the credobaptist) automatically have my defenses up.  I’m also uncomfortable saying that salvation is “mediated” through the Scriptures and the sacraments.  I wonder why he chooses that word, since it hardly clarifies what he was trying to say.

I did have one disappointment regarding the holistic nature of salvation and eschatology.  Early in the book, and scattered throughout in smaller chunks, Wright notes that the Bible talks about salvation in a number of ways: salvation from enemies, poverty and so on.  He notes the danger is separating “theological” or “spiritual” salvation too far from “physical” salvation.  But, he argues, rightly in my mind, that salvation from sin and its consequences is given highest priority in the Bible.

And while he does speak about the eschatological (future) nature of salvation, I kept wishing he would bring these points, the holistic and eschatological, together more definitely.  The clear implication of what he says throughout the book, in my opinion, is that in the new creation- the New Heavens and the New Earth- salvation in all its facets, spiritual and physical (if we can use these terms) are brought together.  Physical salvation (salvation from sickness, enemies and so on) which has been experienced by various portions of God’s people at various points in history, will be experienced fully (Rev 21:4, for example).  But the key to experiencing that eschatological salvation is to experience salvation from sin in this age.  Throughout the book I felt like Wright (though perhaps he wouldn’t agree with this) was leading the reader to this point, only to dance around it and never fully state it.  I felt like he was a football team, marching down the field with ease, only needing to punch the ball across the goal line for the winning touchdown, only to settle for a field goal (sorry, football season is right around the corner and I’m getting antsy).

But you know what?  I don’t care.  I liked this book too much to worry about it for too long. 

I have not had a book capture my attention like this one in quite some time.  I took, no exaggeration, 33 pages of typed notes on this book!  33 pages!  (Now you’ll understand why I’m having trouble keeping this review short).  There was so much to soak in, I didn’t want to miss anything.  Even my detractions demonstrate how engaging Wright’s book is, as I found myself thinking alongside him with my Bible open and pen in hand.  And I’m not ashamed to admit that my heart literally raced at points as I was so drawn into God’s plan of salvation and His identity as Savior.  A theology book that brings you to worship- now that’s a great book!

So go out and get Salvation Belongs to Our God.  Read it critically (in the good sense).  Read it carefully.  Read it reverently.  Because the God who saves is not merely a point on your statement of faith.  He is the God before whom we will stand and sing, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

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What is the Bible About?

This doesn’t really count as a post, but here is a short video I found especially encouraging today:

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Within a covenant structure, the Old Testament held out a programme of ideals for a perfected people of God.  But the Old age did not reach that goal.  Now [sic] did the New.  Neither has our own.  The kingship of God sought expression through a whole web of relationships which successive covenants both pointed towards and also exercised over the people of God and their world.  But this kingship presupposed a return within history to the beginning of history.  As we have repeatedly noted, nothing less than a new creation – and thus a new covenant – would achieve this goal.  In that sense, the notion of the kingdom of God, controlling as it does the whole of biblical thinking, was always a theological assertion pointing towards a future reality – the New Covenant.

-William J Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, p206

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What?  Did you think we forgot about this series?

J I Packer carries the theme of wisdom from Chapter 9 into Chapter 10 of his classic book, Knowing God.  Whereas Chapter 9 dealt more with God’s wisdom, Chapter 10 dives into how God grants wisdom to His people and what that wisdom looks like.  In fancy theological language, it looks at wisdom from the standpoint of one of God’s communicable attributes.

Packer gives two prerequisites for attaining wisdom (p101):

1. We must learn to reverence God.  “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111:10, Prov 9:10)

2. We must learn to receive God’s word.  “Your command makes me wiser than my enemies… I have more insight than all my teachers for I meditate on your statutes” (Ps 119:98-99, see also Col 3:16, 2 Tim 3:15-17)

Of course, one wonders why Packer didn’t marshal James 1:5 in support, but his point is still well made.

What we learn from Ecclesiastes is that the difficult realities of life show us that we are not as wise as we thought:

…we feel sure that God has enabled us to understand all his ways with us and our circle thus far, and we take it for granted that we shall be able to see at once the reason for anything that may happen to us in the future. (p106)

For the truth is that God in his wisdom, to make and keep us humble and to teach us to walk by faith, has hidden from us almost everything that we should like to know about the providential purposes which he is working out in the churches and in our own lives. (p106)

Packer’s thoughts are good, as far as they go.  That is, I begged for more in this chapter that gives a positive look at wisdom.  I kept wanting to know, what does a wise person look like?  In my opinion, Ecclesiastes only gives one part of the biblical picture of wisdom.  It is mostly (though not entirely) a cautionary tale.  But something like the book of Proverbs, while echoing much of what is in Ecclesiastes, offers a broader picture of “our wisdom.”

That said, Packer is correct.  We often think we are wise, when in reality we show our ignorance in our inability to come to terms with our lack of understanding of God’s ways.  We demonstrate our wisdom by accepting that we cannot fully understand what God is doing in our world.  Those who refuse to admit otherwise betray their arrogance.

Packer ends with a helpful section entitled, “The Fruit of Wisdom” (p108).  And I leave you with his words, with one interjection of my own:

Thus, the kind of wisdom that God waits [fantastic word choice!] to give to those who ask him is a wisdom that will bind us to himself, a wisdom that will find expression in a spirit of faith and a life of faithfulness.

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I wasn’t intending to turn this into a series of posts, but as I was writing my previous post on how seminaries can improve seminary education I realized that the most guilty party of whatever is wrong with seminary education is getting off the hook.  That is, the student is the person most responsible for ensuring they receive a quality seminary experience.

I made some mistakes in my seminary days, and I did some things well.  But there were two separate conversations with two different people in my first week that made me realize I had to take the initiative if seminary were going to be a success.  In one case, Student A proceeded to tell me that seminary killed his spiritual life.  In the other case, Student B strongly encouraged me to put myself ahead of the other students in order to be noticed by my professors.  These conversations impacted me, though probably for different reasons than either person intended.

With that said, here are my thoughts on how seminary students can improve their seminary education.

Remember: Seminary ≠  Cemetary

The aforementioned Student A clearly felt that his spiritual life was in decline and seminary was to blame.  Is that true?  Please.  Student A hardly ever went to church.  As time went on, I realized that Student A rarely spent time with the Lord or in the Bible, outside what was necessary to get by in school.  Can he honestly blame seminary?

It’s true, seminary can be a difficult place.  It is, if you’re not just trying to slide by, a place where studying will take up the majority of your time.  Like any other schooling or work that requires much time and energy, there is a temptation to skimp on the spiritual life. 

The real issue here is this: who are we trying to please?  Will stand before my theology professor some day and have to explain to him why I let my knowledge of Calvin’s Institute’s slip?  Or will I stand before my Creator, the Judge and Savior of my soul, and have to explain why I stopped reading my Bible or worshipping him outside of the required church attendance?  I’m glad I didn’t listen to my fellow student.  My faith grew enormously during my seminary years.  I’m not saying it was easy, in fact, those were some of the hardest years of my life.  But I was stronger for having slogged through it all.

If seminary kills your faith, it’s because you were already a wounded duck.

Join a Local Church

Two things to look for in picking a local church (I’m assuming, of course, you are leaving your local church in order to attend seminary, which doesn’t apply to everyone):

  1. Find a church that is unimpressed with you.
  2. Serve in a non-visible role for a while.

Some churches are excited to have a seminary trained person, even if that person has only taken a few classes.  They’ll assume you know your Bible better than they, and your ideas are fresh and innovative.  If the people in your church are that excited to have a seminarian in their church, red flags and sirens should go off in your head.  Do not let you ego be stroked. 

Regarding the second point, my primary “job” at my church for quite a while was to set up the chairs on Sunday morning.  Every now and then I’d lead discussion in small group.  This confused a lot of my classmates, who couldn’t understand why I was in a church that didn’t have me preaching, didn’t pay me (and they still don’t) or take advantage of the “enormous privilege” of having a seminarian on board.

I’m thankful that my pastors were unimpressed with me.  They were not swayed by what I knew.  They cared just as much (if not more) about how I lived.  I set up chairs (and still do) because there was a need.  But “waiting in the wings” taught me a valuable lesson- I am called to a church, not a job.  If the church needs me to set up chairs, then that’s what I’ll do.  If they need me to teach a Bible class, then I’ll gladly do that.  But I’m there to serve the church, not the other way around.

Fellow Students are Fellow Learners, Not Combatants

Student B mentioned above had a penchant for debate.  That’s fine, many of us like a good debate sometimes.  But his advice to push myself ahead of the pack forgot one simple premise: my fellow students are brothers and sisters in Christ.  My job is to encourage and build them up.  My job is to place their needs ahead of my own.  Philippians 2:1-4 (and a host of other Scriptures) do not cease to apply because I’m in school.

My advice is to avoid the temptation to make yourself known.  One lesson I learned from my father is this: if you keep your mouth shut and work hard, the right people will notice.  What if they don’t?  Well, I’ll refer you to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Then your father, whos ees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Beyond that, I’ll say this: I learned just as much from the back-and-forth with other students during meal times as I did listening to lectures.  Outwardly processing (not competing) with classmates is probably the aspect of seminary I miss the most. 

Don’t Just Be Taught- Learn

Seminary professors should be excellent teachers.  They should prepare and teach in a way that challenges the students to think through the  Bible, theology, culture, etc.  Your classroom experience ought to impact your thinking in powerful ways.

But learning well is more than listening to a lecture.  It’s about engaging the material.  It’s about researching.  I learned a lot in seminary.  But I learned just as much on my own outside of the classroom as I did listening to the professor.  That isn’t a knock on the professors.  In fact, I often would hear a little nugget in a lecture that piqued my interest and would spend time outside of class looking into it more.  My professors inspired me to learn on my own.  That’s a huge compliment to them.

If your desire is to learn from great minds, you will have to do more than be taught by them.  You’ll have to follow their example and learn to learn.  You will not remember everything you hear in class, that just isn’t possible.  But you will remember what you research.  In order for your seminary experience to be a success, and for seminary education as a whole to improve, the student will have to take the primary responsibility off the professor and put it squarely on himself.  The seminary student is the person most responsible for learning well.

There is so much more I could say, but I’ll stop there.  I do have one more post in mind, how churches can improve seminary education.  I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning of this post:  the student is the person most responsible for ensuring they receive a quality seminary experience.  A seminary education is an enormous privilege- not a right, a privilege.  For it to accomplish all that it was intended, the student will have to make it happen.

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