In my final year at Dallas Seminary I began to emerge from a time where I had become somewhat cynical. As I thought about how I had changed and observed students going through similar phases, a common pattern seemed to emerge among all of us. Not every seminary student will follow this pattern, but you might see yourself or someone you know somewhere along the continuum.
Stage 1 — Enthused – “I love Jesus”
First year students are often the most joyful people on a seminary campus. They love the Lord, and they are excited to dedicate their life to serving him and his church. They do every assignment with vigor, attend every chapel the campus offers, and tend to be a little mystified at those students who do not have the same fervor that they do. Stage 1 can as long as a year or two, but sadly has a tendency to fade out rather quickly.
Stage 2 — Smug — “I love Barth”
Sometime in the first year or two, students begin to notice that what garnered attention at their home churches — deep love for God and his people — is not as noticeable in the classroom. The academic setting naturally emphasizes the importance of knowledge — knowledge of theology, theologians, and theological positions. Slowly, students stop raising their hand in class to ask questions, and begin to raise their hands to make statements showing their brilliance.
The ancient spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and Scripture meditation tend to a backseat to skills that can be graded numerically. In conversation, students at this stage are more likely to drop the name of an obscure theologian (“It wasn’t assigned, I’m just reading it for fun”) than to speak of the goodness of God. This phase is one of the longest, and quite often students from Bible colleges or strong Bible churches tend to skip Stage 1 entirely and begin seminary at Stage 2 (I know I did!).
Stage 3 — Disillusioned — “I hate seminary”
All of the gesturing and posturing of Stage 2 eventually gives way into a third stage characterized by cynicism thinly veiled as “critical thinking.” The tell tale sign of students this stage is the tendency to be decidedly anti-something or other. They might have been pro-something before, but now they are very much against it. They regularly point out serious — grave, even — errors in their church, their tradition, or their seminary. Perhaps the student noticed his or her own smugness from Stage 2 and begins to question the entire concept of seminary itself. If you hear a student start a sentence with “The church never —” or “Christians always —” he or she is mostly like struggling through Stage 3 which, along with Stage 2, is often long and difficult.
Stage 4 — Broken — “I hate pride”
Somewhere toward the end of seminary or perhaps some time after it, something remarkable begins to happen. The finger that was pointed at everyone and everything in Stage 3 is supernaturally turned back toward the accuser. As the student enters this final stage, he begins to realize that the problem is not the American church, systematic theology, or Zondervan. “The problem is me,” he finally realizes.
Although the student is now an expert in critiquing sermons, theological systems, and church models, he begins to remember that the reason he entered ministry was to bring the Gospel to broken people, not already perfected people. It dawns on him, “Of course the church has lots of problems. Why else would we need to go to seminary to learn how to minister to them?” The sharp cynicism that was only able to point out the problems is now capable of illuminating needs and seeing opportunities to minister to the very people to whom God has called him.
For me, seminary functioned a lot like how Paul described the function of the Law. There is no problem with the Law; it was not designed to save us, only to point out sin and point us to Christ. I used to think that seminary was supposed to save me, and instead it made me cynical. I finally realized it wasn’t seminary that had changed me, but my flesh that had ceased upon seminary as a way to amplify my pride. Thanks be to God that seminary eventually performed its function as schoolmaster to point me to Christ that I might point others to him.