A former student of mine many years ago at Westminster Seminary California once mentioned that he was feeling concerned about his devotional life since beginning seminary—a thought many first-semester seminary students have. He said that before attending seminary, he had an active devotional life and a vital, immediate, experience of God. But upon starting school, he felt so immersed in his studies that he found it difficult to spend time in God’s Word and pray. What he experienced is not unusual, and neither is the dichotomy with which he seemed to be working. As a professor, I encourage students to pray while they study and study while they pray. In other words, I want students to reject the idea that study and piety are at odds. If a student is fulfilling his academic vocation to prepare for ministry and takes fifteen credits in a semester, in reality, he has made a forty-five-hour commitment. There is an implicit pressure placed upon students to not only complete their forty-five hours of weekly study well, but to add to that a certain number of hours of devotional reading. Devotional reading is useful—I am not discouraging it at all. What I hope to do, however, is relieve students of the tension they feel.
Why must we choose between study and piety? It is true that in the first semester of seminary 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 is primarily about “God and me” or even “me and God.” Reformed students are taught to and are 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 read, 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 more time actually studying the Word in the following semesters. That preparation is a holy task. Few 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, disciplines, and habits of thinking are essential to the mature study of Scripture. The hope and prayer is that, by preparing for the mature study of Scripture and doing 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 indeed 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 experiences with Scripture are not what make it God’s Word—it is his holy Word regardless of our subjective experience. Sometimes, we are more or less acutely aware of the reality that what we are reading is God’s authoritative, inerrant, self-revelation. May the Lord give us the grace to always remember who speaks to us in Scripture, and to whom we are being pointed in it.
Sometimes it seems that incoming students feel as though they are longing for their earlier religious experience or their sense of the presence of God. Not that it is 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 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 is a change for the better, even if the transition is difficult.
I wonder about the criteria that some students, particularly incoming students, use to determine whether they are 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 call (or ecclesiastical vocation). I have known people who thought they had a vocation with whom the church did not agree. I have 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, even 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 said 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)
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 is a 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 am counseling “dead orthodoxy.” No, I am not. First, there is no such thing really. If it is orthodox, it is not dead—and conversely, if it is dead, it is 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 referred to as being “slain in the Spirit.” They claimed to receive prophecies directly and 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 have been so highly influenced by pietism, neo-Pentecostalism, and the charismatic movement that many of our worship services and much contemporary Reformed piety have 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 the 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,” (Word and sacrament ministry). As students mature in the faith, they will begin to 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 is a reality that we can trust regardless of our present subjective experience.
In this regard, I recommend Warfield’s booklet on The Religious Life of Theological Students.
- Subscribe To The Heidelblog!
- The Heidelblog Resource Page
- Heidelmedia Resources
- The Ecumenical Creeds
- The Reformed Confessions
- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008)
- Why I Am A Christian
- What Must A Christian Believe?
- Heidelblog Contributors
- Resources for Those Thinking About Seminary
- Who Should Go To Seminary?
- Why Pastors Need a Seminary Education
- Support Heidelmedia: use the donate button or send a check to:
Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization