How To Prepare For Seminary

Over the years I have had the privilege of having many conversations with prospective seminary students. One of the more frequent questions has been, “how should I prepare for seminary?” This is a natural, good, and important question.

A Renewed Need In The New Dark Ages

It is probably a more urgent question today than it has been for a very long time, and by “very long” I  mean centuries. When I first began teaching seminary students, I used to joke that in their lifetimes (but not mine) they would probably have to face a new “dark ages.” This came up because what the so-called “dark ages” were and when they were is a question of interest as we seek to understand the Medieval church. The Enlightenment propaganda would have us think that virtually everything that happened before the eighteenth century was part of a “dark age.” Today, however, I do not joke about a coming dark age since it came much more quickly than I expected. It is here. I have always emphasized the importance of the Renaissance as a precondition for the Reformation. Twenty-five years ago I felt some need to defend the idea of Christian humanism against those fundamentalists who regularly decried the evils of “humanism” without distinguishing between the Christian humanism of the Renaissance (and some of the great Protestant Reformers, e.g., Calvin, Bucer, and Melanchthon) and other forms of humanism. Today, however, my defense of the Renaissance is aimed more at instilling in students the need for them to acquire the skills and spirit of the Renaissance to preserve and expand learning even as the vanguard of a new, illiberal and unlettered dark ages is sacking the university right before our eyes. If, dear reader, this seems like hyperbole, I would suggest that you enroll for a liberal arts degree in any big state university (or small liberal arts college) and find out for yourself what has happened to free speech and free thought on campus.

Where To Start: Valuing Learning

The Christian churches and theologians had always valued an educated ministry. The American evangelical pragmatic approach to education is an outlier when judged against the sweep of history. The first place to start is to commit oneself to getting an education rather than a credential, which, if that is one’s aim, are available widely and inexpensively. If the student, however, commits himself to learning, that will set the stage for real progress. To be committed to learning rather than credentials means taking the attitude of a student, which is the true sense of a scholar. In American usage, we tend to distinguish between students and scholar as between those who are becoming and those who have already become. This is completely wrong. The professional scholar is merely licensed to continue learning even as he teaches other learners.

Once one has adopted the posture of a teachable student, of a learner, then one is prepared to make progress. This, however, presents a challenge to the recent undergraduate who has been told for some years that he is already quite learned. Let me be frank: this narrative is part of the bait and switch scam being run by the undergrad business. I hesitate to call them schools. Many schools have abandoned what we have known as education while simultaneously raised tuition by as much as 400%. My beloved alma mater (well, the football team anyway) charged me something like $32.00 a credit hour when I graduated in 1984. Today she is demanding $259.00 per credit hour. Adjusted for inflation it should cost just over $91.00 per credit. Contrary to what they are being told, students are not brighter or more well-educated than previous generations. Most indicators are that they are less articulate, less knowledgeable, and less able to think clearly and critically. Every seminary professor I knew now spends more time on skills that were once taught in high school, e.g., how to write a term paper, how to use a library, and how to read a text.

Learn To Read

For years, when we have had a faculty panel with prospective students, and a prospective student has asked this question, I have said, “learn to read.” People usually chuckle because it seems absurd to tell those leaving (sometimes prestigious) undergraduate programs that they need to learn to read. It has always, however, only been semi-humorous. The truth is that experience tells me that undergraduates do not actually read very well. By that I mean that they do not read texts perceptively and critically. They do not, by training or by instinct, ask basic questions such as, “what claim is the author making here?” or “what evidence is the author adducing to support this claim?” Increasingly I find that students have not been taught to engage a text carefully and patiently. There are a lot of reasons for this decline in basic reading skills. The changes made to the educational system five or six decades ago, which have hit warp-speed in recent years, have come to fruition. What matters most now is not the objective (what the author is trying to say) but the subjective (the reader’s experience of the book). To be successful in seminary a student shall have to recover an older approach to texts, the Renaissance approach to texts, which asks and answers basic questions: when was this text written? To whom? Why? By whom? In what context? To what end? What does the author want me to believe? What is the evidence for this claim? Does it stand up to scrutiny, i.e., is it logically sound and true?

Learn To Write

A seminary student will do better if he learns to express himself clearly, intelligently, and persuasively, yet few come to seminary with the necessary skills to meet these goals. The contemporary student is not alone. After seminary, I realized that I did not write very well. Frankly, few of my professors had helped me to become a better writer by doing the one thing they might have done: telling me that I was not a very good writer. I liked to write and could write a lot fairly quickly but the quality was mixed. My grammar and style were average. The reader can judge for himself the outcome of my attempted reformation, but in about 1987 I deliberately began to read writers whom, I hoped, could help me to become a better writer. Check out the Grammar Guerilla resource page (linked below) for some of the authors I have found helpful over the years.

In my experience, graduates of American universities are reluctant to say unequivocally what they have concluded, i.e., they are unwilling to state an unambiguous thesis. To force them to, I have made it a matter of academic life or death. Refusal to state an unequivocal thesis in a term paper is an automatic failing mark. Even so, students have been so conditioned not to say what they have concluded or what they actually think that some have tested me. There are a few reasons for their reluctance. 1) They do not know what they think. This is the fruit of poor research and fuzzy thinking. 2) They are afraid to say what they really think. This is the result of political correctness/critical theory browbeating at the undergraduate level. 3) Some have been taught to hide their conclusion (their thesis) until the end and to unveil it as a grand surprise, but most often it is because students have little idea of how to make an argument or because they have been taught that a lack of clarity is a sign of intelligence. I blame the Germans for this last phenomenon. Have you ever read Hegel? I rest my case.

Read Well

  • My colleagues will tell you—I agree—that there are certain texts that a pre-seminary student should read. Number one, of course, is the English Bible. One of the areas where seminary grads are weak, as evidenced by their classical/presbytery examinations, is English Bible. A minister needs a solid grasp of Scripture. Get a set of Bible flash cards in a good translation and memorize key verses. If you start now, you will be well served in seminary and after.
  • Incoming students will be well served by learning a Reformed catechism. Just as pre-seminary students ought to be reading and memorizing Scripture, so too they should be reading and memorizing the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) or the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Start right now by putting a question and answer on a 3×5 card. Put the question on one side and the answer on the other. Write it out by hand. Review it until you can repeat it by memory. Then do the next one. This will be invaluable to your seminary education and your ecclesiastical examinations.
  • Read some of the Great books, the Great Tradition, and some of great texts in the Reformed tradition. Most seminaries (including mine) has a suggested reading list. I have published my suggested list in this space for many years. See the annotated Reformed reading list in the resources below.
  • Learn to memorize. The modern educational establishment abandoned memorization in principle in the 1960s. This has been disastrous. There are three phases to learning (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the first step, the absolutely basic step is to memorize certain data. This is how a second language is acquired. This is how education proceeds. It works by imitation. Copy out by hand what you intend to memorize until you can repeat it without looking at the source. Then put it on a flash card for review. That is how memorization works. It will transform your education.
  • Put your memorization skills to work by learning Latin. I promise that, if you learn Latin as an undergraduate, Greek will be a snap. New Testament Greek is Latin with funny letters (and definite articles). It will improve your (or teach you) English grammar and style. If you have time, learn Greek. You will thank me when you get to seminary.
  • Learn some world history.
  • Do a little reading in the history of science, art, and music.
  • Learn some geography.
  • Take a beginning course in logic.
  • Take an introductory course in the history of philosophy.

These steps will greatly facilitate your seminary education. If you are able to start on this early enough you have an opportunity to arrive at seminary prepared to make use of the opportunity before you and to be better prepared to serve Christ, his gospel, and his church.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.