“Did God Leave Me When I Went To Seminary?”

classroomRyan at Sola Gratia raises a question that many first-semester seminary students ask. In essence the question 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. What he’s experiencing is not unusual and neither is the dichotomy with which he seems to be working. I encourage students to pray while they study and study while they pray. In other words, I want students to reject the opposition between study and piety. If a student is fulfilling his academic vocation to prepare for ministry and takes a 15-credit semester load then, in reality, he has made a 45-hour commitment. I wonder about the implicit pressure upon students to add to that a certain number of hours of devotional reading on top of that 45 hours of weekly study. Devotional reading is useful and I’m not discouraging it at all but I hope to relieve students of the burden of an unquestioned.

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. This is a significant change. Many pious, well-intentioned Christians read the Bible rather unhistorically (e.g., as if Moses lived last week) and naively. They read Scripture as if it was primarily about “God and me” or even “me and God.” Reformed 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 students come to seminary fully formed and prepared to study the Word in the way that the ministry requires. 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. The hope and prayer is that, by getting caught up in preparation for the mature study of Scripture, by getting caught up in 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 mere textbook. This is why students should pray while they study and study while they 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. May the Lord give us grace to always remember who speaks to us in Scripture and to whom we are being pointed in it.

Sometimes I 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 this 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 in a confessional Reformed seminary 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 or misinterpreted 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. Jesus say that the Spirit operates where and when he wills. One implication of the passage is that we may not necessarily know when and where he operates:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8, ESV)

Growth usually happens unseen. We are rarely conscious of growing physically when it happens. We see it retrospectively . Sometimes there are growth spurts  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.

Lest someone might think that I’m 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. Possibly 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 and Calvin, we should choose the latter.

Gradually the piety of a seminary student should evolve from the quest for illegitimate religious experience (QIRE) 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. 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.

This post first appeared on the HB in 2008.

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  1. Scott:

    Morning Prayer, Mon-Fri.

    (1) 1 classic hymn or Psalm, (2) Call to confession, confession and declaration of the remission of sins, (3) the reading of 1 chapter of OT, 1 chapter of NT, and 5 said Psalms (unison or responsively), (4) Lord’s Prayer, (5) Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, (6) 3-5 Collects or Prayers for the Morning (or even from the Evening Prayers), and (7)closing with 1 classic hymn or Psalm.

    About 40 minutes. No sermon. The class lectures are the sermons or expositions related to the reading.

    I lament the absence of this at WTS-P while receiving other good things.


  2. I wish that I had read something like this when I was beginning seminary study nearly 30 years ago. For a time, being forced to know what the Bible meant before I could apply what it means and to read the Scripture grammatically, literarily, and historically felt like a de-spiritualizing of Bible reading. It took quite a while to get over that and to realize that such study is, in fact, spiritually invigorating, because it receives God’s Word as he has given it to us.

  3. This is also useful for us non seminary students. When reading theology it can be easy for me to think of it as an intellectual study only, but praying as you read and study helps to remind me that is one of the most practical things we can study as well.

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