In June of 1979 my wife and I left Cambridge, Iowa for seminary in Denver, Colorado. We were towing a fully-loaded twelve-foot U-Haul trailer with a 1976 Chevy Nova. When we pulled out of Cambridge, the temperature had risen to upwards of ninety degrees. We had to drive gingerly so the little six-banger didn’t overheat. We spent the night west of Omaha and then woke up to a welcome cold rain. The rain lasted all the way into Denver, and the following day it turned to snow while we unloaded.
When we moved to Denver I thought I would just spend a year working on a little Master of Arts in Biblical Studies. By the end of the first week, however, I had fallen in love with seminary. I knew that I wanted all I could get. Three years later I graduated with my M.Div., then the following year with my Th.M. During that time I served as a pastor of youth and music for two churches, and I began to teach as an adjunct instructor at Denver Baptist Bible College. After graduating with my Th.M., I served two years as an assistant professor and dean of men, then left for a pastorate in Iowa.
By the time I’d been a pastor for about two weeks, I knew that I was in over my head. I was encountering situations that had never even been mentioned in class, situations that I had never considered as possibilities. I felt overwhelmed, and sometimes I wondered whether my seminary couldn’t have done more to help me to prepare better for the choices I was now having to make.
I’ve subsequently concluded that the answer to that question is no. In fact, one of the greatest mistakes that a seminary could make would be to try to anticipate all the scenarios that a graduate might face in ministry and to attempt to provide a pat answer for each one. It would be impossible to do. Pastors who have spent decades in ministry still encounter situations they’ve never anticipated. I actually believe that what my seminary gave me was the very best preparation for life as a pastor.
First, my seminary gave me genuine skill in the Scriptures. I actually attended the kind of seminary where I was forced to learn Greek and Hebrew. I’m glad I did. There is an element of confidence that comes with knowing that you have looked at God’s Word exactly as He communicated it. You no longer have to rely on the opinions of commentators, though you still consult them. You are capable of understanding the fine points of disputes over biblical meaning. When you stand before God’s people and declare, “Thus saith the Lord,” you can be reasonably certain that God really did say what you are about to say that He said. That’s priceless.
Second, while my seminary did not give me the solution to every problem, it gave me a definite set of convictions that defined the parameters within which an acceptable solution might be found. When facing unforeseen challenges and wondering what to do, there have always been certain options that I did not have to waste time considering. I knew that they could not be correct because they crossed definite boundaries to which I had good reason to give allegiance. The confusions of life are much simpler for someone who understands that reality works this way and not that—and my seminary helped me to work through those issues of basic conviction.
Third, even though my seminary did not provide me with all the answers, it equipped me with the tools that I would need to discover the answers. In short, my seminary gave me much-needed tools of thought. It taught me to reason well. It taught me to reason biblically. It not only taught me to think, but also gave me something to think about. That was the point of writing all those papers and preparing for all those exams. None of it was wasted effort. Hard study is to ministry what high-octane fuel is to a race car. Too many would-be pastors are in such a hurry to drive the car that they neglect to fill the tank first. No wonder they sputter to a halt or veer into the wall.
Fourth, my seminary imparted to me a love of learning, and learning is exactly what you need to do when you encounter new situations. If you can’t learn—if you don’t love to learn—then every new twist becomes a trial and a threat. For those who can learn, new scenarios are challenges and opportunities. In fact, when learning becomes a pleasure, new discoveries can actually lead us to anticipate the situations that might otherwise have become unforeseen predicaments.
Finally, my seminary gave me a vision of the connection between knowing, loving, and living. Not once during my years of study did I ever sense that knowledge was an end in itself. Rather, knowledge was given for two reasons: to perfect love of God and to perfect obedience to Him. It was during seminary that I realized something: theology works its way out into life. If I were to teach bad theology, I would not simply be communicating falsehood. I would be ruining lives. By the same token, neither right love of God nor right conduct before God is possible without right knowledge.
These treasures are like a deposit that my seminary made in my name. That was over thirty years ago. Since then, not a day has passed without my drawing upon that deposit, spending my treasure like a bureaucrat with a budget surplus. The difference is that my treasures can never be exhausted or even diminished by being spent. That is true wealth, and it is what my seminary gave me.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Now Let the Feeble All Be Strong
Philip Doddridge (1702–1751)
Now let the feeble all be strong,
And make Jehovah’s arm their song,
His shield is spread o’er every saint,
And thus supported, who shall faint?
What though the hosts of hell engage
With mingled cruelty and rage!
A faithful God restrains their hands,
And chains them down in iron bands.
Bound by His word, He will display
A strength proportioned to our day;
And, when united trials meet,
Will show a path of safe retreat.
Thus far we prove that promise good,
Which Jesus ratified with blood:
Still He is gracious, wise, and just,
And still in Him let Israel trust.