Finding a living faith in seminary

August 28, 2011

Fifty years ago this week I began my thirty-three-year career on the faculty of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Our purpose was to provide a teaching-learning environment for men and women preparing to serve in ministries of the church.

My memories of these years have been prodded this week by statements published during the past two years by graduates of the seminary, both of whom took one or more of my courses and now serve as pastors of churches.

Statement One: In my final year of graduate work I, along with my fellow students, was required to write a thesis describing my theology…Seventeen years later, as I was sorting through old papers, I happened upon a copy of my thesis and read it. While my life’s experience confirmed some of my previous observations, much of what I had written years before made little sense now. Assertions about the character and activity of God, prayer, the purpose of the church, the nature of sin, knowing God’s will, the person of Jesus, and the afterlife now seemed implausible, if not impossible. I could no longer affirm what I once believed…Even as I reflected on the theological evolution in my life, I was also conscious of the language of my thesis, noting it was incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t studied theology.

Statement Two: Christian Theological Seminary brought me back to Jesus and saved my soul. I had been raised in the church. I was born on the mission field to two people who had done more brave things for Christ’s sake by the time they were 30 than I will ever manage to do. But by the time I had arrived in the office of my academic advisor at CTS, at the ripe old age of 23, life had dealt enough serious blows that I no longer believed. I’d seen enough of death and disappointment that I didn’t much like the God of my Sunday School teachers, the magical God who could reach down into the world to save one of them from being killed in a runaway automobile…It took me nine semesters to finish seminary. I took almost 120 credit hours (even though only 90 were required) four and a half years…But I have never regretted a single one of these courses. And I continue to feel incredibly privileged that I was able to take that much of my life to learn to think, to sit with incredibly gifted minds and hearts and souls in order to learn to love God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength.

Other graduates of the seminary would probably line up along side each of these graduates. For some seminary took hold and for others it did not. Some people in churches today argue that seminary does a disservice to prospective ministers, and some very large churches are pastored by men who have stayed away from the disciplined and technical theological study provided by graduate level seminaries.

Many people in the churches, however, believe that serious, disciplined study is important. They pay attention to where their physicians studied and trained and to the law school and formal clerkships their lawyers have in their background.

We ought not be surprised, therefore, that many of these same people search out spiritual guides—pastors of their churches—who are deeply rooted in Scripture, Tradition, and the literature of theology and pastoral care, and who hope that these disciplines were learned while participating in communities where the Christian life was lived fully and deeply. They want pastors who combine deep learning, vibrant spirituality, and practical intelligence, the very qualities that seminaries seek to impart.

The two students quoted above have continued to be pastors and spiritual guides, one (it would seem) in spite of seminary and the other because of seminary.

This very week, one of them will become interim pastor of my church. I’m looking forward to this change of roles as the former student becomes teacher of the one-time professor, confident that the person who delved so deeply into the church’s treasury of learning and wisdom will now minister to me and mine as we move into life’s late years.

Can you guess from my hopeful anticipation which of the graduates is coming?    


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