Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter

The Benefits of Ignorance (Part 2)

Yesterday I wrote about my inflamed duoduwhatzit and the untrained doctor who is going to be removing it for me. This was only a parable, of course, and likely not a very good one at that. Yet it stimulated some good discussion for which I am grateful. I thought I would take the opportunity this morning to clarify my feelings on seminary education. But let me begin somewhere else.

People who serve in the military will all be able to describe times that they were required to do things that seemed utterly irrelevant to their chosen career. I have read of people who spent days upon days digging ditches and then filling them back in. Hour after hour, day after day. Their joints ached and their hands developed painful blisters. And all the time they wondered, “Is this why I joined the Army?” The activity seemed to bear little resemblance to what they had imagined would be involved in a career in the military. And to a great extent they were right. Yet it is only later that they realize that this was not an empty exercise. It was a deliberate exercise. It taught them teamwork. It taught the soldiers to work together as a unit. It forged a bond between them that would drive them to take heroic measures on the battlefield. It was these exercises that created the bond that would make these soldiers become a band of brothers.

That analogy is true, at least to some degree, in almost every type of education. There are some exercises that are given as a means to a greater end. Many of the essays I wrote in college are long forgotten. They meant almost nothing to me then and mean nothing to me, or to anyone else, now. Yet they were valuable. My professor did not need to know anything more about whether the Allies overcame the Axis powers in World War II by virtue of superior numbers or by virtue of greater application of technology. Yet he forced me to write about it. I did. I don’t remember what I concluded, but the exercise, and many like it, was valuable because it taught me to think critically. It taught me to do careful research. It taught me to attempt to understand both sides of an argument before forming an opinion about a particular topic. Students are constantly required to do things that seem utterly irrelevant. Yet they must have faith that somehow these things will prove useful in the end.

When I was in the eleventh grade I decided to study Latin. I don’t remember what it was that compelled me to study the language, but I suspect it had something to do with the small class size. Where most classes in my high school had twenty five or thirty students, Latin usually had only seven or eight. And so it was that for a year I studied Latin. The teacher, Dr. Helder, quickly became my favorite teacher and grade eleven Latin stands out as my favorite class in all my years of high school. Dr. Helder was faced with the daunting task of making a group of teenagers enjoy Latin, a dead language. Yet he succeeded in making us not only learn the language but also in making us enjoy learning it. How did he do that? He proved to us that Latin is not dead, but in fact, is still in common use. One ongoing task throughout the year was to collect Latin words and phrases we found in books, newspapers and magazines. We were to collect all these examples and at the end of the year, part of our grade was based on how many of these we found. The more of the language we learned, the more Latin we found. As our eyes were opened to the language, suddenly we saw it all around us - in print, in law, in theology, in advertising, and just about everywhere else. And of course we also saw it in our own language and in other languages we studied. Latin brought English and French to life in a fresh way. The study of this dead language helped undergird my study of other languages and gave me a greater love and appreciation for my own language.

After I pointed to Perry Noble’s article yesterday I got a nice email from him. He wrote:

I picked up several hits from your blog today. WOW-you have some awesome insight…and I love your writing style-sarcastic, yet not in an attacking sort of way.

Let me be honest dude-I love what I do-I can’t believe the opportunity that Jesus has given me to work in His church. He changed my life…seriously, I was an awesome PAGAN…and then He rocked my world.

You say you are putting the fun in being a fundamentalist-I love it!

However, I think you may have slightly misunderstood my post in my letter to the staff. I never meant for it to get blown out of proportion. I am not anti-seminary; however, I do think it is a calling and not a biblical mandate.

I completed 36 hours towards my Masters degree in seminary…and I dropped out. Not because I was making bad grades; in fact, I was blowing most classes out of the water. It is just that the particular seminary I was in was not teaching me anything that I could practically use to assist the people I was ministering to.

Trust me-I believe that we should all immerse ourselves in the study of Scripture. We should know and be able to defend our doctrine…AND be able to recognize and refute heresy when we see it. And trust me…I am in the word every day! I do an incredible amount of research and study…and the more I learn…the more I realize that there is even more to learn.

So…in no way was I supporting ignorance…AT ALL!

And seriously-I did really like your analogy…my wife is a doctor & so I could see where you were coming from.

Now I realized that I was taking a risk in singling out Perry in my article yesterday. However, blogging, by its very nature, invites discussion and even critical discussion, so I do not think I ought to feel remorse for pointing to his article. He intended for it to be public and thus he invited discussion. And I was glad to see that he was not at all offended.

Neumatikos had the following to say about my analogy: “Despite the fact that I’m even now going to seminary, I think Tim Challies analogy is a false one. He wants to persuade people that you shouldn’t trust a minister without theological training any more than you would trust a doctor without medical training. That’s not necessarily true. Religious education in general is just as likely to lead you away from the gospel as toward it.” To be fair, my analogy was just that: an analogy. It was not meant to portray my full feelings on a subject but merely to make a comparison or suggestion. I do not feel that the medical field lends itself to a perfect comparison with the ministry. So let me clarify my feelings about seminary.

I do not feel that every person who desires to be a pastor or to be involved in vocational ministry must have graduated from seminary. Some of the pastors I respect most did not have a seminary education. Moody and Spurgeon are two names that spring to mind! But, while these men did not graduate from seminary, they were lifelong students. Spurgeon, especially, is known as being a voracious reader. He was reading the Puritans while still little more than an infant. He had a photographic memory and had intimate knowledge of thousands of commentaries and books. Also, to my knowledge, Spurgeon did not delight in his lack of formal education. In later years he trained thousands of pastors, affirming that he knew the importance of education. He realized that he was unique.

All this is to say that I do not feel that seminary education is always a necessity for a man who wishes to be a pastor. However, I do think a career as important as Minister of the Word is worth the time of preparation. At the very least a man can learn from and be mentored by men who are older and more advanced in sanctification than he is.

A commenter, Brian Thornton, did a good job of summarizing the purpose of my little parable. “I think Tim’s whole point - if I may speak for him - is that this pastor is wrong to discount the importance and value of preparing for the ministry…or for anything else related to teaching God’s people God’s truth. There has to be a foundation from which to build upon. And while there are examples of extraordinary men who have been used incredibly by God without the usual preparation prior to ministry…that is the exception rather than the rule.” Perry Noble does not feel that he has discounted the importance and value of preparing for the ministry, but that was certainly how I and others understood his words. This may not be what he meant, yet it is what he communicated.

So what I was reacting to was not so much the fact that Perry Noble has not graduated from seminary. I know nothing about his ministry and have not heard a word about him beyond what he wrote on his blog and what he subsequently told me in an email. He may be the next Charles Spurgeon for all I know! What I was reacting to was the anti-intellectual undertone in what he said. This statement was particularly alarming: “…as I look back I think that me lacking experience was a good thing because it forced me to rely on common sense rather than textbook procedure and principals.” This statement completely discredits a seminary education. To borrow from the military analogy, it assumes that digging ditches is in no way relevant to a career in the military. It assumes that many of the subjects in seminary, perhaps languages, church history, or hermeneutics, is a waste of time that will generate only useless head knowledge that a pastor will have to unlearn before he can be useful and relevant. It may even assume that principles and procedures, passed down through the history of the church, are useless.

Perry is not alone in this type of sentiment. It may be that I am reading too much into his words, but I think we can all think of people who feel that seminary is a waste of time, money and effort. I would agree that some seminaries probably are. But seminary education should not be discredited or regarded as something less than useful. I admire the humility of men who, realizing their lack of knowledge and realizing the importance of a solid foundation, invest a great deal of time and effort in formal training. To those who struggle with the usefulness of a particular subject or course of study, I would encourage you to ask the professor or other member of staff to explain how and why a particular course is relevant. I suspect you will come to see that no course is without both long term and short term benefit.

I do not believe that seminary is an absolute necessity. But I do believe that in most cases it will be of great benefit to a man who wishes to be a pastor. Seminary is not mandated by Scripture. Yet if a man desires to be a pastor and to bring God’s Word to His people week after week, should he not wish to ensure that he is adequately and properly prepared?