Having spent many years studying and working in Christian Graduate School setting I have heard the Seminary/Cemetery play on words many times from students, professors, and churchgoers.
“Oh, my son is off to cemetary to study the Bible.”
While, for the most part, in my experience, the reference to Seminary as Cemetery was made as a friendly jest with no ill intent. That is, my fellow Christians respect those who dedicate their time and energy to the hard work of studying Scripture and Theology. (Yes, it is hard work. Have you ever learned a foreign language?)
Nevertheless, usually in less overt forms, I too have experienced resistance and suspicion with respect to my “expertise” in theology and biblical studies. I suspect one question spoken or unspoken to be something like, “Why does anyone need to study and go to school to understand Christianity? After all, Christianity is a simple faith that is available to all.” Now, I think this question is a good question. When asked, I have an answer. So did the second century theologian, Irenaeus.
In his Against Heresies, a critique of gnosticism and a defense of Christianity, Irenaeus noted, if any Christian is asked what Christians believe they will be able to tell you. There are no secret beliefs. In his time and for much of Christian history, this meant that they could recite a “rule of faith” (regula fidei), a baptismal formula very similar to the Apostle’s Creed. Yet, he goes on to say, not all Christians will be able to nor are they required to explain, understand, or defend the particulars of the faith. Nevertheless, some Christians are called to this task and to the hard work of studying languages, philosophy, history, literature, etc.
Just as a pilot does not need to know how to build a jet in order to be able to fly it. So, not everyone needs to study the Bible, Theology, and Christian History to the extent that some of us do in order to live it and affirm its truth. Moreover, gaining knowledge about aeronautical engineering will not necessarily make one a better pilot.
To employ Paul’s metaphor of the body, some of us are called to be the seat of memory and understanding of the Church while others are called to be hands, feet, mouths, etc.
It is true that education can make some people arrogant but the brain should not despise the feet and hands. What good is a brain in a vat.
I will admit to being a little jealous of the skilled laborers in my congregation who can serve others in immediately practical and tangible ways. They are God’s Toolbox, literally and figuratively. As a theologian in service of the church, the body of Christ, I see my role as strengthening, edifying, and supporting these gifted men and women in the tasks to which God has called them. Helping to prepare them for conversations that may arise in response to the life they lead. Hopefully guiding them into a deeper understanding of their faith and a fuller relationship with our God.
Conversely, the feet and hands should not despise the brain. My own experience has been positive. Indeed, today I was encouraged by my brothers and sisters in Christ but not all congregations are so appreciative. After Seminary many men and women return to their congregations changed and often become rather quiescent. I think in many cases it is not the Seminary that has quenched the Spirit and drained the life out of the Seminarian. In some cases, I think it is their reception in their congregations and by their fellow Christians that quenches the Spirit in them.
These educated men and women are often excited about what they have learned and are eager to share. However, now they must go through another difficult challenge and phase of learning which is bringing what they have learned into the life of their congregations. They must translate what they have learned.
Yet, in their early (and likely fumbling) attempts, the knowledge that these newly educated Christians seek to share is met with suspicion, confusion, or outright hostility. This reaction often arises from a genuine desire to defend the faith against what is perceived as a threat. It may also arise from feeling threatened in other ways i.e. the disciple has become the teacher. Or, I suspect what is most common is something more akin to the earlier question. “I was going along fine without this knowledge. So, I see no need to get more information.”
Met with this response from members of their congregation, these educated Christians quickly learn to be silent. Moreover, most churches have little to no outlet or ministry through which they can exercise their Spirit given gift. In many congregations, the pastor is the only one who is expected to teach. And in some traditions, it is a mark of distinction to be an uneducated pastor. If there is a Sunday School, these men and women are too erudite and critical to teach the assigned material with integrity. Moreover, they may not have the freedom to depart from the set lesson. If they are in a class, they will likely learn to be quiet because their input is either not welcome or challenging. They may also choose to be quiet in order not to upstage or contradict the teacher.
Their silence is interpreted as evidence of their spiritual death. Unable to exercise their gifts which are less tangible and not obviously practical, their seeming uselessness or lack of enthusiasm for other ministries is taken as further evidence of their spiritual death.
Yet, put two Seminarians in a room and you will see them invigorated. Or ask a Seminary graduate a theological question and watch her light up. You will see new life breathed into them.
Give the Spirit room to breathe. Find ways for those whom God has called to a deeper understanding of the Scriptures, Theology, and the history of the Church to exercise their gifts. Do not quench the Spirit.
Please share your own experiences positive or negative. How can churches make space and provide opportunities for these men and women to share their gift and expertise?
These books may help you or your congregation to see the value of theological education. These books would also make good gifts for those young men and women that you recognize as budding theologians.
Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God, Karl Barth Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, Helmut Thielecke A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Eugene Peterson’s series on Spiritual Theology especially Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Mark Noll The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Rowan Williams On Christian Theology, James Houston The Heart’s Desire, Richard Foster “The Discipline of Study” in The Celebration of Discipline