Letting Seminary Doctrinally Change You

by on September 16, 2009

“I knew perfectly well at that time, as I had for years and years, that the Lord absolutely transcends any understanding I have of Him, which makes loyalty to Him a different thing from loyalty to whatever customs and doctrines and memories I happen to associate with Him.”

— Minister John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead”


The second year of my seminary experience begins next week. This may surprise some of you who may recall the last article I wrote for this site, “Realizing Seminary’s Not For You“, in which I laid out the reasons I wasn’t returning to Westminster Theological Seminary this year. First, I did mention that I would still be taking counseling courses there; and second, the theological direction of the seminary was a major force pushing me away, but the seminary has not yet arrived at that place. The last of the old guard of Westminster are still teaching their classes, so I will be sitting in on these classes that have changed the lives of many over the years, as I seek to absorb as much of the rich but fading history of that great institution, hoping for my affections to further be stirred for this great God and how He has revealed Himself.

This means I’m taking stock of my theological self in light of this past year. As I have, I’ve realized that I have changed a lot in my theological thinking in that brief amount of time (perhaps even more than my change from Southern Baptist Arminian to Charismatic Presbyterian in college) and several seminary classes/teachers/books have been key to these changes that have led to a greater worship, rest, and joy in God. And many of my fellow theological classmates have had a similar experience. But how does the seminarian change like this? I’ve realized that both the seminary and seminarian are bound by two, seemingly contradictory, truths. First, the seminary environment exists fundamentally to change the seminarian. But secondly, these people it exists to change are many times the most sure in what they believe and what they are called to preach. Seminaries are called to facilitate change within those people that can be some of the most resistant to it. How do we, then, as “apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers”-in-training, find the balance between still needing to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” and not being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wave of doctrine”? (Eph. 4:11-15) How do we attain while not being tossed?

My seminary experience has taught me that the ultimate truth on any given doctrine of Scripture is sort of like the bulls-eye on a target, and often times that particular precise bulls-eye has not been revealed to us in Scripture. We’ve often been told where the perimeter of the target is, so we know when we’ve gone too far off, and maybe we get glimpses here and there of the red and white stripes leading towards the middle, but on far more things than we are often comfortable with, He just doesn’t tell us everything. This means that all of us (hopefully) will be aiming with all our sincerity and faithfulness towards the center, but I think most all of us will miss it. We will all arrive somewhere in the periphery, some closer to the center than others.

But here’s the thing I’m beginning to realize: we actually have very limited vision and insight into how close each of us are to that center. I’m realizing that there’s not much doctrinally I can look at someone and say “I know my theology’s imperfect, but at least it’s less imperfect than yours.” I grew up scoffing and laughing at many things that people in the past and other denominations have believed; never being able to conceive how anyone could possibly look at the same Bible I was looking at and come to those conclusions. But then, sitting in Church History classes and taking a class where I got to hang out with a bunch of Catholic seminarians, I realized something that changed my life: there are genuine lenses entirely different from mine through which to view the Bible that are just as legitimate, just as faithful, just as sincere, and yet come to completely different conclusions as mine. I could no longer hold the arrogance of my Reformed theological “system” as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

This isn’t relativism applied to theology – or at least, relativism in the bad sense. Secular philosophical relativism applied to theology changes your views on the Bible by elevating culture, preference, or experience above the Bible. This is Biblical theological relativism (a.k.a. “humility”) which says that an infinite God has communicated Himself finitely which means this revelation is adequate but not comprehensive. This allows room for doctrinal changes as a response to the working of the Holy Spirit on one’s conscience to seek new ways to be most faithful to the text as it has been illuminated to the individual (or congregation) at that particular time in their life. And this is good. My biggest take-away from my first year was that God has so designed and constructed all of reality and all of the Christian faith such that it must be lived by faith. If things were so black and white we wouldn’t need to trust Him. And this is for our good. Being needy and trusting in Him in light of all that we can never be mathematically sure of is the posture by which He draws near. So we rejoice in this plurality of thought and theology, not for diversity’s sake, but for the sake of the faith it forces us to have.

And our Father knows this. And I believe He delights in it. He has designed us to be interpretive creatures, knowing full well that different people and groups, armed with the exact same Scriptures, passion, and fidelity, will land in different places all over that target. He doesn’t require us to hit the bulls-eye, just to trust Him, love Him, and let the arrow fly. This is also the basis of a burgeoning renewal in evangelical scholarship of missional hermeneutics, which understands that one of the key things that will (and should!) determine where you land on that target is your context. I fully believe that there are secondary doctrinal perspectives that will be more missionally effective in a given context than others. And as you, your context, and your conscience age, mature, and go through seminary, I pray that you are able to let it challenge your corner of the target. Know the target boundaries (I’m not promoting heresy, for heaven’s sake!), but within those boundaries, feel free to wander. (A great example of recasting theology in light of community and mission is in a recent article written by fellow GtS Contributor Stephen Hess on the webzine I run.)

In conclusion, as Tim Chester and Steve Timmis in their paradigm-shifting work Total Church say:

“From time to time [we] ask people how they have changed their views over the past few years. It is telling when people cannot think of an answer. Unless someone long ago came in to a complete and perfect understanding of the Bible, it suggests that people are no longer living under God’s word so that it challenges their thinking and practice . . . Theology must be in the service of the church and its mission. Authentic theology must be shaped by what we might call a missionary hermeneutic. Theology divorced from its context is essentially barren, self-referential, and indulgent . . . Mission is the opportunity to rethink which elements of what we believe do belong to the gospel and which in fact belong to our culture.”

The original Reformers understood this well. Their rallying cry was “Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda!”, meaning “The Church Reformed is always reforming!” They had no conception of their ideas becoming canonized into a static systematic “Reformed” Theology. That was what they had been reforming against! We should all be constantly reevaluating our place on that target, the sincerity of our hearts, and how God has refreshingly been leading us; trusting that where we were was not an accident nor wrong, nor where we are going. Holding this conception of tension within doctrine and Truth will help us have unity in the midst of diversity (like God Himself), and let us be challenged doctrinally and brought to places of increased peace in our individual (and local church) consciences and worship to our amazing God.

I hope these philosophical ramblings have served you all well and are encouraging. Now that you’ve read all this, I encourage you to reread the quote up top. It’s a great summary of all I’ve tried to say. May you all have fruitful, Christ-worshiping semesters.


Frequenting the coffee shops of Philadelphia while employed in social work and finishing up a Masters of Divinity from the Newbigin House of Studies at Western Theological Seminary. He serves Liberti Church as a deacon and seminary intern. Paul blogs at the long way home and tweets as @PaulBurkhart_.


Good stuff, Paul. You should really read N.T. Wright’s book on scripture. You seem to echo alot of his ideas here.

Really enjoyed the article, and definitely looking forward to the next part. I don’t know where you currently stand theologically and doctrinally since you weren’t too clear about that, but I do believe and feel that there should be at least some conviction in what you believe is to be right. I definitely see where you are coming from though, since I have taken the same classes as you. The bulls-eye and target analogy was a great analogy, but for me, it’s too pluralistic and post-modern. G.K. Chesterton said, “Tolerance is the virtue of a man without convictions.” It doesn’t mean I am not open to other doctrines and theology and hearing out other people. The Medieval Church history class and the current classes I’m taking now (Ancient Church and New Testament Introduction) is really making me sensitive towards other beliefs and systems of thought, but I do feel that there should be some sort of a stand in terms of what one believes.

Thanks for this article. This hits home for me in a couple of places. I’m in my fourth year of pursuing a MDiv part-time (I have a wife, 2 kids, and a full-time job). What I’ve found is that my seminary has given me a framework to think through some things. My professors understand if I do not necessarily land where they do. I am not being catechized, but am learning how to think more deeply on various matters. We all agree that the Word of God has the final say, so seminary is helping me to think through the implications of that.

The other thing that seminary has helped with is to expose me to other ideas. When I wrote a paper on the Emergent Church I didn’t just read what Carson or MacArthur wrote, but I read McLaren. I learned that I disagree with the bulk of his theology, but I also learned to respect where he is coming from. Plus, I feel more comfortable disagreeing with him because I know what he wrote rather than what MacArthur wrote that he wrote.

I think many (most?) of us come to seminary expecting a rubber stamp on our current beliefs so we can get credentialed to minister or pursue further education. I’m not getting that, but what I am getting is so much better.

This isn’t a comment directly about the article, but according to the number of comments, shouldn’t there be 7 instead of 5? What happened to the other 2?