Did God Leave Me When I Enrolled in Seminary?

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.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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16 comments

  1. I particularly appreciated this comment: “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.” Thanks for hitting us between the eyes with this; this applies to all of us, not just seminary students.

  2. I just graduated seminary and my experience began that way slightly. But then about 1/2 way through my first year, I was shown the truth of the fourth commandment. Where once I studied on Sundays, no longer did I. Having that day of rest re-energized me for the week and helped me in my focus throughout the week. To be continually looking forward to the upcoming Lord’s Day.

    It even made me more disciplined because I had to get all my work done and I did. I even managed to have 2 small jobs at seminary, 1 internship at my church, and 1 job all day on Saturday cutting trees (and you don’t want to study after that). So really I only had five days to study. But I made it and I fell in love with the day of rest.

    So it seems to me that we should make sure that we are keeping the Sabbath Day holy and that it is a day of rest to the Lord. It often refreshed me.

    Humm? Maybe this is how the typical Christian businessman struggles. Maybe they need to keep the Sabbath holy as well, keeping their focus on God too. 🙂

    Going to seminary in some sense (maybe) is no different than having a full time job which demands a lot of your time. How do you keep your focus on Him? How do you continue to love God? Love God and Keep His Commandments!

  3. Dr. Clark,

    You’re absolutely correct. Quite well stated.

    I might add that the same kind of thinking goes for ministers in the pulpit. Their sermon prep is devotion. They Sunday School prep is devotion. And, they too must learn to make due use of the ordinary means, even if they are the one’s preaching or administering them. God deals with pastors just as He deals with everyone else. Perhaps if more ministers of the Word were taught to think in those categories (and not in terms like, “I need to do devotional reading on top of my sermon prep”), then the piety of our churches would begin to change accordingly?

  4. One other way of looking at this is re-examining the Lutheran/Reformed doctrine of vocation. The vocation of “student” is also blessed by God and used by Him. This doesn’t mesh with our “super-spiritual” beliefs where God only meets us in our private devotionals.

  5. “Did God Leave Me When I Enrolled in Seminary?”

    No, but for His own purposes in furthering your character as a future minister He may have let Satan off of the leash!

    I think that this is a fine essay containing much truth, but I do think that seminary studies (if they are rigorous, and if you are taking a full load along with a job and/or family) have a detrimental impact of the life of prayer that cannot be avoided. This is the problem which many students experience, and I know that it was a big one for myself.

    While it is always a good idea to pray along with one’s studies I see that as only supplementary prayer, if you could put it that way. The best prayer is not something that can be “multi-tasked” along with whatever we have before us on our desks. I never did find it very fruitful to try and engage in serious intercession, sincere praise, or other acts of prayerful communion while at the same time trying to balance all of the reading, translation, paper writing, internship work, and preaching that was being juggled on a daily basis in my head.

    When students who have had a fruitful life of prayer and Scripture reading (which is by no means something that should be branded as pietism by those who would desire to be future minsters of the Word, just in case anyone may be misunderstanding the intent of the essay) come into that sort of academic frenzy, they have the double whammy of oft overwhelming academic work, and depleted prayer life that is unable to sustain them in those labors.

    I think that it would be a great thing if studies, say at WSC, were a mandatory four year course using the current three year curriculum. I realize that the increased time in SoCal and sustained higher cost of living would make many shirk from this, but if that were to be the standard I think that a much, much greater benefit would come of it not only in the students’ prayer lives, but also in their internships, family relationships, and the general state of their health. I still remember a couple of young guys going to the doctor for chest problems and insomnia after the first semester – no kidding!

  6. Adam,

    At least part of the answer to the very real problem you identify is twofold:

    1) Better academic and catechetical preparation of incoming students;

    One reason for stress is that incoming students are not ready to work at this level. This means that they must play catch up when things are moving very quickly.

    2) Better financial support for seminary students.

    Too often students are sent on their own or come on their own with little or no financial support from a congregation or presbytery. This forces students to work and distracts from their ability to study and pray.

  7. I also highly recommend Warfield’s writing on the subject!

    Another hardship seminarians face in this regard pertains to their isolation. As students begin to taste the fruits of these incredible truths, they don’t know what to do with their newfound knowledge. They begin to feel the pressure and high calling of the pastorate and feel alienated from those who don’t know their newfound anxiety.

    In any case, if a student has a wife, share these blessed truths with her and meditate upon them together. Otherwise, find a fellow seminarian who can both share in your newfound knowledge and an understanding of the pressure and work to have a relationship in which both people are sharpened by the grace of God.

  8. This is an excellent article. The value of its content is immense, even for those who don’t intend to go to seminary.

    “Too often students are sent on their own…”
    -Is it that students at times act almost independently from their congregations, thereby bringing problems for themselves (I ask this without formal knowledge of Westminster’s admission policies)?

    “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.”
    -How is it that I can be thankful to God for what He has done without knowledge of those things? How can I be praying for God’s sanctifying work unless I know about His law? Is zeal for God without knowledge a good thing (or the knowledge of God without zeal)?

    “At WSC students are taught and expected to begin to learn to read Scripture historically (in its time and place), grammatically, theologically, and literarily.”
    -Are these formal categories with respective methods of dealing with Scripture?

  9. Thanks Durrell.

    Students are required to provide an ecclesiastical reference but sometimes they come on their own without any serious connection to a congregation. Most often, however, students come with the consent of the congregation (or consistory or session) but without any financial aid.

    The categories I used are related but somewhat distinct. They are sets of questions we want students to ask about a given passage of Scripture.

  10. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for this. It is helpful to remember not only that we are to do all things to God’s glory (study included), but that in study we are blessed with the chance to more deeply understand the Scriptures. Prayerful study is something I certainly need to grow in; all too often, I rely on my own strength in my studies rather than prayerfully admit my dependence on the Creator.

    I was wondering if you had any thoughts about sanctification in study. One thing I’ve noticed about myself as I progress in my studies is that knowledge does puff me up, especially in regard to my less educated brothers and sisters. This is surely my own sin corrupting God’s good gifts to me. Do you have any wisdom to offer in this regard?

  11. Hi Jeff,

    I think this is a problem, but I’ve also sometimes thought that when Paul says knowledge puffs up I wonder if we should put that noun in quotations marks. If one is genuinely coming to understand the truth as it is in Christ, then could one really become proud and arrogant? Let’s say we’re learning about the two natures of Christ. Wouldn’t a genuine grasp, insofar as it is possible for us to grasp such a truth lead to humility rather than to arrogance?

    So, to all of us sinners, tempted by pride, I say, “repent.”

    We have always to die to self and to live to Christ.

    See also this post on a related topic.

  12. Scott,

    Great thoughts. I particularly appreciated: “Gradually the piety of a WSC student should evolve from the quest for illegitimate religious experience to a life of faith.”

    One suggestion (which may not apply to WSC students): I have studied at four different seminaries and believe that one of the things that dries up the spiritual life of many students is that they forget they are students. When students present themselves primarily as knowers/teachers rather than as students/learners this inevitably impacts their walk with God. One cannot live a life of faith, trusting God to provide the wisdom we lack (James 1:5) while simultaneously pretending to be quite capable of getting along all by oneself. I fear that many students carry the fraudulent image of being an expert about nearly everything into their first pastorates.

  13. Thanks Dr Clark for your insights about this issue. Study while I pray and pray while I study. Part of the frustration I’ve had is that i’ve erred on the Pietist side of devotion. I forget what Christ has done and try to climb the ladder of spiritual growth and discipline. Instead of fearing the Lord, I fear man. This post has been a blessing.
    Though summer Greek took a lot of work, I am grateful to have had that intense introduction and see more clearly how important it is to understand the original languages. This has also been a humbling post as well. Another blessing too has been the discussions i’ve had with other first year students.

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