Ryan at Sola Gratia raises questions that many first-semester seminary students ask. In essence the question/problem is this: Before I came to seminary I had an active devotional life and a vital, immediate, experience of God and now things have changed. I left a comment there on which I want to expand here.
What you’re experiencing is not unusual and neither is the dichotomy with which you seem to be working. One of the things we encourage students to do is to pray while they study and study while they pray. In other words, we want students to reconsider and even reject the opposition between study and piety or prayer. It may be that I continue to over react to my evangelical (SBC and Navigators and Crusade) background, where the “quiet time” was the unbreakable law (indeed we never heard about the moral law of God but we heard about the quiet time constantly) but if a student is fulfilling his vocation and takes a 15-credit semester load then, in reality, he has made a 45-hour commitment. Not that you’re saying this, but I wonder about the implicit pressure that says to a student that he ought to add to that a certain number of hours of devotional reading on top of that 45 hours of weekly study.
Why must we choose between study and piety? It’s true that, in the first semester, when a student is typically memorizing Greek and Hebrew paradigms and vocabulary and where translation exercises can become life dominating, a student’s relationship to Scripture changes. You are taking the beginning steps toward engaging scripture on a more mature and even more profound level.
Many pious, well-intentioned Christians read the Bible rather unhistorically and naively. They read Scripture as if it was primarily about “God and me” or even “me and God.” At WSC students are taught and expected to begin to learn to read Scripture historically (in its time and place), grammatically, theologically, and literarily. Students begin to read Scripture in a way that it wants to be need, that it demands to be read, but in ways that are often new and challenging.
It is also the case that students are gradually eased into the study of the Word. One spends proportionally more time in the earlier semesters preparing to study the Word and proportionally more time actually studying the Word in the following semesters. That preparation is a holy task. Few of our students come to us fully formed and prepared to study the Word in the way that the ministry requires. Not all of our congregations teach students to read the Word in the best possible way. Few students arrive with a comprehensive grasp of the biblical languages, setting, redemptive history, the history of exegesis and theology. Yet these skills and disciplines and habits of thinking are essential to the mature study of Scripture. Our hope and prayer is that by getting caught up in your preparation for the mature study of Scripture, by getting caught up in one’s school work, the student will be spending time in the Word. By the third and fourth semesters, certainly, students are ordinarily spending an extraordinary amount of time in Scripture! Does seminary life bring changes and challenges to one’s spiritual life? Absolutely. Memorizing Hebrew for fifteen hours a week or outlining a book of the Bible can become real work. I hope, however, that students mature in their expectations and that they prepare themselves for a life of steady, faithful service to our risen Lord.
It is true that it is possible for Scripture to become a sort of textbook. This is why I say, pray while you study and study while you pray. Scripture is the Word of God and we must always recognize it as such. Our experience of it does not make it God’s Word but it his holy Word regardless of our subjective experience. Sometimes we are more and sometimes less acutely aware of the reality that what we are reading is God’s authoritative, inerrant, self-revelation. God give us grace to always remember who speaks to us in Scripture and to whom we are being pointed in it.
I sometimes have the sense that incoming students feel as they are missing their earlier religious experience or their sense of the presence of God. Not that it’s true in your case, but if one’s devotional and spiritual life has been nurtured on the “me and Jesus” approach to Scripture and if spiritual intimacy with God has been premised on such an approach to Scripture then studying at WSC is meant to change one’s relation to Scripture and one’s religious experience. If one has been reading the Bible naively or even wrongly, that can produce a misguided religious experience. I realize that it is heresy today for one person to evaluate another person’s experience since, in our time, personal experience is the ultimate authority. Nevertheless, consider this example: if one has become addicted to the high produced by cotton candy and one suddenly exchanges white sugar for apples and pears, there will be, and should be, a marked change. The dramatic highs and lows will evolve into a more even keeled experience. That’s a change for the better, even if the transition is difficult.
Thus, I wonder about the criteria that some students, particularly incoming students use to determine whether they’re having the correct or desired religious experience? Yes, we hope and pray to experience a sense of God’s call (the inward vocation) but we always balance that with the external or ecclesiastical vocation (call). I’ve known people who thought they had a vocation with whom the church did not agree! I’ve known people who clearly had a vocation to ministry who lacked a decisive “inner” experience but who gradually developed a sense of vocation over time, sometimes after the external call. Yes, we hope and pray that the Spirit will illumine his Word and apply to us and convict us of sin, grace us with a sense of his presence, and work all his graces and virtues within us but he may be doing so without our awareness. Doesn’t Jesus say that the Spirit operates where and when he wills, without our consciousness? Growth usually happens that way. My children were rarely conscious of growing physically but it happened. Sometimes there were growth spurts (that could be painful) but most often it was gradual, even imperceptible process.
According to the Westminster Confession, our experience of the presence of God waxes and wanes. According to Hebrews, we live by faith not by sight. Sometimes we substitute our subjective religious experience for “sight.” We live by faith, not by our immediate encounter with the risen Christ or by our subjective experience of his presence. Doubtless someone some reader is thinking, “He’s counseling dead orthodoxy.” No, I’m not. First, there’s no such thing really. If it’s orthodox, it’s not dead and if it’s dead, it’s not orthodox. I am becoming more aware, however, that we have always had forms of pietist, mystical, pentecostal and charismatic excess amongst us, at least since the Montanist movement of the early third century. Montanus and his followers practiced something like what modern Pentecostals (since Topeka or Azusa Street) have called “tongues.” They too practiced something like what today is called being “slain in the Spirit.” They claimed to have prophecies immediately from God. Arguably they were reacting to the close of the canon and the cessation of apostolic phenomena by trying to keep it alive. I submit that some seminary students go through an analogous sense of withdrawal. Our modern church life and the modern paradigm for religious experience has been highly influenced by pietism, neo-Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement so that many of our worship services and much contemporary Reformed piety has become indistinguishable from neo-Pentecostalism or the charismatic movement. To give a benchmark: when the Reformed encountered a similar piety in the sixteenth century, in the Anabaptists, they denounced it as religious fanaticism. Given choice between Muntzer or Menno and Calvin or Turretin, we should choose the latter pair!
Gradually the piety of a WSC student should evolve from the quest for illegitimate religious experience to a life of faith. We can only do so, however, by grace, and with the “due use of the ordinary means,” i.e. Word and sacrament ministry. As students mature in the faith they will begin see that one’s private encounter with the Word, as important as it is, is relativized by the centrality of public worship, the singing of God’s Word with his people, the preaching of the Word, the public prayers, and the holy sacraments. In short, what often happens to incoming students is a paradigm change, from the private, neo-Pentecostal piety to the public, Reformed piety of Word and sacrament. I’m sure you know all this but it’s good to be reminded of basic facts. Christ said that he would never leave us and that’s a reality on which we can trust regardless of our present subjective experience.
In this regard, I recommend Warfield’s booklet on The Religious Life of Theological Students.