How to Waste Your Theological Education: A Commentary

Derek Brown has recently bestowed upon the theo-blogosphere a entertaining and convicting post, outlining no fewer than 45 ways that one can waste one’s theological education (“ How to Waste Your Theological Education”). However, as one who has had and is continuing to acquire a theological education, I found myself wanting to pick nits with a number of his points and make clarifications about others from my own perspective. So, here is an abridgment of Derek’s list complete with commentary by yours truly. Here’s to continuing the conversation.

My comments are in italic text, following Derek’s original points.

1. Cultivate pride by writing only to impress your professors instead of writing to better understand and more clearly communicate truth. I find that one impresses professors by writing papers that clearly understand a given topic and communicate one’s arguments well. There need not be a conflict here.

3. Mistake the amount of education you receive with the actual knowledge you obtain. Keep telling yourself, “I’ll really start learning this stuff when I do my Th.M or my Ph.D.” This distinction between education and acquired knowledge seems off to me. The fact that such a distinction can be made speaks ill of the current evaluative standards of theological education in the United States.

7. Don’t evangelize your neighbors. It may not be a good idea to ‘evangelize’ one’s neighbors if you, like me, reside at your seminary. No matter what more-or-less secret thoughts you may have about the eternal mailing address of the Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, or Russian Orthodox student down the hall, the best course of action is to make a charitable judgment and recognize that Christians come in all shapes and sizes.

20. Don’t waste your time forming friendships with your professors and those older and wiser than you. On the other hand, when developing relationships with professors, take pains to avoid developing a groupie mentality, or being perceived as having such a mentality.

21. Make the mistake of thinking that your education guarantees your success in ministry. Let’s not forget, however, that a good theological education gives an irreplaceable depth to your ministry. Once you have progressed a bit in your theological development, you will begin to recognize when ministers do or do not have this depth.

22. Don’t study devotionally. You’ll never make it as a big time scholar if you do that. Scholars need to be cool, detached, and unbiased - certainly not Jesus freaks. One ought to spend time in Scripture, but one also ought not be so emotionally attached to one’s favorite doctrinal positions that any critical discussion of them degenerates into name-calling and questioning of the Christianity of one’s conversation partner. See Derek’s #27

25. Spend more time blogging than studying. Of course, theo-bloging can be a form of study, and a way of working through arguments and positions more carefully and clearly – and with the help of others.

29. Look forward to the day when you won’t have to concern yourself with all this theology and when you will be able to just “preach Jesus.” A hearty ‘Amen’ here, for what is theology proper pursued but an attempt to describe who Jesus is, what he does, and how he does it?

31. Master Calvin, Owen, and Edwards, but not the Law, Prophets, and Apostles. Of course, if you read Calvin, Owen, and Edwards, you have read quite a bit of the Law, Prophets, and Apostles in the process.

33. Pick apart your pastor’s sermons every week. Only point out his mistakes and his poor theological reasoning so you don’t have to be convicted by anything he says. But also learn to recognize when a sense of ‘conviction’ can come simply from social conditioning into a form of Christiantiy for which persuasive arguments are not forthcoming. One must always test the spirits.

42. Let your passion for the gospel be replaced by passion for complex doctrinal speculation. But augmenting the former with the latter never hurts and, in truth, I’m suspicious if I ever find the former without the latter.

45. Don’t really try to learn the languages - let Bible Works do all the work for you. On the other hand, work smarter and not harder. It would take years and years of studying biblical Hebrew or Greek before one could surpass the functional ability to study the biblical text in the original languages that comes with a summer suicide course in the language and access to Bible Works or other good study tools. Besides, Christianity – unlike Islam – has always been comfortable with translations of Scripture. Know the original languages enough to use the tools and have a sense of what is going on behind your English translation, but I wouldn’t worry about much more than that – unless you want to be a NT scholar, of course.


Anonymous said…
#1. I think it is possible to write to impress your profs instead of to better understand the topic at hand. I have done this many times. It's no secret that it takes less intellectual effort to adduce a prof's position on an issue than an opposing, or alternative, view.

In most cases, if I argue A with a professor who is committed to B, he'll take me to task. I will really bear a considerable burden of proof as compared to those students who agree with him on B. Now arguing A (where my intuitions actually lead me) will take a good bit of study on my part because A wasn't really discussed in much detail in class, nor was it central to our reading. But if I simply nod at A and argued a shaded version of B, the prof won't require much convincing to follow my overall direction. In the end the siren song of getting an A and not having to do massive amounts of research for a term paper often lead me to just argue something like B if I'm at least open to B. Then I take of mental note to continue studying A when I can.

#7. I understand that one doesn't want to evangelize students (and certainly not profs) under most circumstances. But you seem to assume that everyone around you is a Christian. Most people don't find themselves in that world. Hopefully one's notion of Christianity does preserve some notion of what it means to be in and what it means to be out. Moreover, we ought to be skeptical of "Christians" who are ambivalent or, worse, hostile to evanglism. Jesus seemed to be for it, so I don't see the sense of being a Christian if one opposes it.

#21. "Let’s not forget, however, that a good theological education gives an irreplaceable depth to your ministry. Once you have progressed a bit in your theological development, you will begin to recognize when ministers do or do not have this depth."

So true. I wish that this was generally understood among ministers.

#29. "Look forward to the day when you won’t have to concern yourself with all this theology and when you will be able to just 'preach Jesus.'"

I've met knuckleheads like this too. I wonder why they even bothered coming to seminary.

#33. I wholly agree here. I may be a pick-apart person here but in my limited experience the vast number of sermons I've ever heard didn't need to be preached and those preaching them had no business doing so. This includes myself. I've only preached one good sermon; one that really needed to be preached, was biblically faithful, and reached the congregation. A handful of others had good parts and the vast majority have been slop and fluff. We need a lot more criticism. Besides, how can one "be convicted" if he can't even agree with the point or be sure he agrees given its flabby rationale.
#1 - I have argued positions that my professors disagree with and have never been penalized for it. Perhaps I have simply been lucky.

#7 - You'll notice that all the examples given were of people clearly Christian. If they are baptized, its not my problem to worry about their eternal mailing address. For those in other religions, I don't think proselytism is the way to go - I am interested in understanding them better and expressing myself to them better, and if God should work conversion out of that so be it. But, I'd rather witness to Christ's love by respecting their traditions even as I seek to explain my own in relation to them, than to be always in 'evangelistic' (as usually understood) mode. Coincidently, one of the members of my faculty was converted in this way that I suggest.
Anonymous said…
Regarding #1: I'm not saying that there one is unfairly penalized for disagreeing with the prof. Though that happens with some individuals who loose their scholarly bearings, I trust that most scholars have some understanding of how to fairly judge the academic merits of a paper even if they disagree with the position it takes.

I'm just saying that it's far easier to write a paper that will be somewhat more agreeable to the profs. own views. There's just less proving that one needs to do. You probably won't write a great paper that wows him or her, but if you are competent you'll probably get a good grade. It's the safe route. You could knock it out of the park by disagreeing with the prof, writing a great paper, and having it judged so on it's scholarly merits. But that's more difficult. When pressed toward the end of the semester I have often taken the easy route.

I think many people do this without knowing that it's what they're doing. I suspect that if you ask those same people to write what they really want to write, and argue for their own position, apart from any grading you'll get somewhat different papers. This is my admission to intellectual cowardice.

I must admit that I'm skeptical of your show-don't-tell view of #7. Speaking of cowardice (and I am a coward her too) I would personally like to develop courage in this area. I'm not saying I'm doing it but we are to go into all the world an "teach" men to obey the Gospel. Not just act really nice. THere are too many nice pagans... that alone is disconcerting to me. Either it's true or it's not and if it is, I'm going to go with the view that it's worth sharing.
#1 - It certainly is easier, and far too many people are getting good grades and even degrees simply by agreeing with their betters. Such needs to stop, and I hope that I recognize it if my own students someday take this tack.

#7 - I didn't say "don't tell." The picture that I drew was one of mutual exchange, where I learn about the other's tradition and faith while learning to better express my own. Whether or not a person is converted is not up to me but to God. If he wants to get involved and make such use out of this dialog, fine by me. But I'm not going to try and force it.

Finally, I must strongly disagree with your comment that "There are too many nice pagans." It isn't up to me that they are pagans, and I'd much rather deal with nice pagans than those who are otherwise.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for clarifying #7. I am all for tact and mutual respect. I apologize if I misread you.

Also, I did not intend to say "there are too many nice pagans" as if to imply "and there shouldn't be so many." I only meant to say that we can't really share the truth about Christ by merely being nice. But, as you said, you aren't saying that we should be "merely" nice, but engage in mutually constructive conversation.

I do agree. I'm not for forcing anything either. Yet I am often troubled by the Jesus of the NT. He was obscenely kind but also forceful and disturbing at times. He rebuked and reproved and argued. I console myself by remember that he is the Messiah so that's his prerogative, I guess. Still, there may be a place for that in evangelism. But I think you and I would be far more agreeable to erring on the side of caution here. I certainly don't get into shouting matches with people over their incorrigibly sinful state and rebellion against God... usually. ;-)

The change entailed in moving from the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of Light is up to the Holy Spirit. But I think that sometimes he does use us in uncomfortable ways to do things we'd rather not do. It's his work but he uses us a tools; I have no idea why. (Well, I do have some idea, but I suspect you do to.) Even though it is done with gentleness and respect, I don't assume that giving a defense of the hope that is within us will always win friends. And I do think there's a time and a place for saying, "This is right and your religious beliefs are wrong."

I think and hope that the Spirit is saying that to me all the time.
The important thing to remember about Jesus is that he is engaged in an in-house conversation. The Jews are not 'pagans' in any sense, but worshipers of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. In many senses, the arguments Jesus has with the Pharisees are comparable to the Protestant revolution - both are virulent, and both have to do with re-conceiving the character of a shared religious orientation. Fights with you family are generally worse than fights with strangers. In other words, I'd be a lot quicker to get into a heated argument with my Lutheran friends about how and why their view of the Lord's Supper is deficient, than I would be to get into a similar argument with a Hindu, etc.
I would just add another way to waste one's theological education which is pretty self-evident: to not take any courses on theology.

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