Seminary Formation, both Doctrinal & Personal

by on February 15, 2016

When it comes to the “theological education” aspect of seminaries, there are several different philosophies. One school of thought says that you go to a school that shares your convictions (or is close enough) and you learn that particular denomination or tradition’s doctrine all the more deeply. You familiarize yourself with their particular theologians, polity, history, confessional statements, etc. The seminarian is seen more as like an empty pitcher that the seminary will pour into in order to reproduce itself in the world.

Another says that you should be exposed to a whole buffet of traditions, thoughts, and theological perspectives. Among all of these different things, the seminarian is absolutely free to pick and choose what they wish to agree with as they move on in their ministry lives.

There are probably more, but there’s one more I want to talk about today. And it’s the perspective it seems that my own school has. Rather than focus on either doctrinal content or breadth, it seems to focus on ethos. It is a school with a definite doctrinal and confessional perspective and history, but it’s a tradition that is itself quite broad and diverse.

And so, rather than tell us what to believe, or tell us all the options out there, the school focuses on forming us into a type of people that will go into the world to discern their beliefs and convictions, albeit with a particular “accent”, as they call it.

They want to teach how to see, rather than simply describe what we’re looking at or putting everything before us that they could.

I am certainly wired to flourish in this atmosphere, and I love it. But it does have one difficulty: it is constantly challenging my current convictions and, rather than give me the “right answer”, they try and help me become the type of person that can think through it and “figure it out”.

No matter which model of seminary you attend, I think there’s a way in which you can engage it that focuses on your own personal formation just as much as your theological education. By cultivating the ethos mindset rather than the narrow denominational or buffet models, this helps train us in that all too rare Christian virtue of charity.

 

Yes, my seminary has left me with many questions, many tools to seek answers, and the burden (joy?) of seeking answers myself. But the benefit of this is that anchors me somewhere while letting me see other traditions and branches of the Christian family tree as my brothers and sisters who are equally seeking answers in their own “accents” and convictions.

Perhaps you don’t go to a seminary like mine that consciously tries to cultivate this in you. You can still strive to build it in yourself. I spent my first year of seminary in a different school, which is closer to that first model I talked about. It was in the process of narrowing all the more its “accepted” level of diversity, and the spectrum of views expressed was very limited.

Well, this was true of the curricula and many professors. It was not true of the students. I was still exposed to a lot of different views on the topics we learned in class, as I spent time with a wide variety of students with differing doctrinal convictions. These classmates and those extra-curricular discussions had more of an effect on me than my time in class actually did.

So get to know the students whom you might not immediately mesh with. Spend time with the ones with whom you know you disagree.

Also, ask your professors in class who disagrees with the view they are talking about and what their arguments would be? Ask the professor how the “other side” would respond to their view and if the classroom characterization of their theological view was accurate.

Lastly, I would encourage you to check out blogs, article, and podcasts of people form very different perspectives of your own. I won’t tell you to read whole books, as you won’t have time. But you can cultivate this ethos of charity and personal growth no matter what sort of institution you happen to be in.

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About

Frequenting the coffee shops of Philadelphia while employed in social work and finishing up a Masters of Divinity from the Newbigin House of Studies at Western Theological Seminary. He serves Liberti Church as a deacon and seminary intern. Paul blogs at the long way home and tweets as @PaulBurkhart_.