Ten Things I Learned at Seminary

In Theology by Stephanie Christianson

[Kurt Note: This is one of the most helpful reflections about one’s experience in seminary that I’ve read. The ideas in this piece, apply to many arenas of life, even if you never go to seminary yourself!]

I remember my first seminary class: The Trinity in Theology, History, and Discipleship. In between conversations about the filioque clause, three hypostates in one ousia, and social trinitarianism, I had this scary, sinking thought:

I am definitely the dumbest person in this class. They will find out that I am a fake soon enough.

Lots contributed to this fear: I was the youngest in the class, I was one of the only females in the class, I couldn’t quote the church fathers off the top of my head, and my Greek skills consisted of knowing the order of the alphabet.

Now, I am on the “other side” of seminary: I’ve come through all of my classes and have almost completed the first manuscript of my thesis. I have learned a lot from my professors and classmates; I have learned how to use the library better; I have learned about John Wesley, redaction, and the missio Dei.

But what have I learned with my heart as a theology student in seminary? Who have I become over these past two years? Where have I met God in my studies? Here are ten things I learned studying theology in seminary:

1. Theology is discipleship.

I don’t want to know how many hours I spent in the library over my two years at seminary: studying Greek verb tenses, editing papers, reading thousands of pages. And at times, it all became a little much.

I became frustrated: there were so many things I could be doing to serve God, and here I was, in my cubicle, by myself, again.

Over time, I came to see my scholarship as an act of discipleship. Theology became a pursuit of relationship with the Triune God, rather than abstract, theological facts apart from this God. I was greatly helped by Leslie Newbigin’s concept of personal knowledge in his book Proper Confidence.

As I take the risk of knowing God through my work, opening myself up to him and allowing him to control my thoughts, words and actions, I come to know him more (14).

Seminary taught me that theology is one of the ways I respond to God’s call on my life. In every season, I will be a disciple of Christ, and in this seminary season, this meant deeply studying and soaking in Scripture, the work of fellow saint-theologians, and the tradition of the church.

2. Listen to understand, not to respond.

In classroom discussions, I noticed a tendency in myself to tune out my classmates’ comments, so that I could come up with the jaw-dropping comment of all comments, instead of actually listening to them. This was a prideful way to go about things.

Academics are particularly guilty of “listening to respond” rather than “listening to understand.” This can be seen not only in the seminary classroom, but in one-on-one discussions and on Facebook threads.

When I listen to someone in order to understand them, I acknowledge their humanity, value our relationship, and come with a posture of dialogue rather than domination. I am still learning how to do this, and my fiancée will confirm that I  am often too quick to jump in with my own thoughts on a theological topic before I give due consideration to his.

Seminary taught me to really listen to those I have deep and important conversations with.  There is a time for everything–a time to speak and a time to listen (Ecclesiastes 3:7b).

3. Inter-denominational dialogue is essential.

I came into seminary as an Anabaptist and left as one. However, since I attended a non-denominational seminary, I came into contact with classmates and professors who viewed theological and ecclesiological issues differently than I did.

I remember one class in particular where every single student came from a different ecclesiological background: Methodist, Pentecostal, Redeemed Church of God, to name a few.

At times, encountering these different viewpoints made me want to run for the hills, back to where my fellow Anabaptists wouldn’t question me.

In the end, though, I came to value this inter-denominational dialogue, and how it was shaping my own Anabaptist convictions, and challenging me to see how my ecclesiological tradition could be refined. And we had some great conversations: I remember a lively discussion on baptism in particular.

Seminary taught me not to be scared of other viewpoints, and not to reject them without giving them due consideration. Seminary also taught me the value of holding to my Anabaptist convictions, not as a way of making barriers with other ecclesiological traditions, but as a way of contributing to the Body of Christ as a whole.

4. I will not know everything.

I distinctly remember a humbling moment in my second year of college. I took a class on Philippians, where the final project was memorizing the epistle. By the time the course was over–the lectures had been engaged with, the homework completed, the books read, the text memorized– I still felt like I was only touching the surface of Philippians.

I wouldn’t be able to know everything about this book! And I’d studied it heavily for four months!

Fast forward to seminary, and this awareness has only grown. Even now, as I write my thesis, I realize that I have touched only a small sliver of the pie related to my topic. There is still so much to learn! My college professor called this “conscious incompetence,” when you know that there is so much more that you don’t know.

The deeper I dive into the theological discipline, the more layers and intricacies I discover. This doesn’t make me throw up my hands in despair, and declare truth unknowable. Rather, it keeps me humble, driving me back to God as I seek to know him and be known by him.

Seminary taught me that I will not know everything, and that is okay. I will keep learning throughout my life, pursuing God in my theology. And as I study, I will let God be God, and I will be the human, with finite knowledge and a seeking heart.

5. Ask questions.

There is a certain pressure in seminary to know the field and the words used in the field. Thus, it can feel a little embarrassing when you have to raise your hand and ask for clarification on something that “everyone else seems to know,” like the difference between ousia and hypostatis, or whether Athanasius was an Eastern or Western theologian.

At times, this embarrassment has kept me from asking for clarification when I needed it. And that is unfortunate, for I let my pride and fear overcome my desire to learn.

Even in my thesis work, I feel reluctance to ask questions in my meetings with my supervisor at times. But I am working to develop a posture of asking questions when I need to, and when I am not sure. In fact, I think the best way to learn is to ask questions, because it forces you to engage with the material and draw conclusions and implications from it.

Seminary has taught me to ask questions when I am not sure, and that, in most cases, other people in the room have the same questions I do. Asking questions reminds me that I am part of the Body of Christ, not expected to have all the answers by myself, but rather one who can learn from my fellow saint-theologians who walk the path of discipleship with me.

6. Rest is essential.

I did not rest in my first year of seminary. There was so much to do: papers to write, Greek vocabulary to memorize, thousands of pages to read, classes to attend. There did not seem to be time to rest. The unfortunate result was that studying became monotonous and tedious for me. There were certainly times of pure joy in the library, but mostly, I remember a to-do list that never seemed to decrease in size.

In my second year, I knew things had to change. I had the ability to take a lighter course load, and I made a self-imposed rule of not doing any homework in the evenings, and on the weekends, as much possible. This was a really helpful discipline for me, returning some of the joy to my studies. I also think that these practices gave me more energy and excitement for the process of thesis writing.

Seminary taught me to rest. As someone who likes to achieve and have “productive days,” I am learning to redefine success. Success is not shown in the amount of work I did, but in the kind of person I was when I did it. We all need rest; it’s built into our design by God. And seminary students are no different!

7. Speak with grace.

Speaking with grace is closely related to listening to understand. When you have listened well, the next thing you should do is tear your opponent to shreds, point out his or her blatant inconsistencies, and use a lot of big words. Right?

Wrong. Now, this isn’t to say that having strong convictions is wrong, or that absolutes do not exist. Rather, I have learned that you can express your convictions in a manner that gives life, rather than tears down.

In the context of seminary, I felt that it was a priority to speak with grace and humility when I disagreed with a classmate or a professor. Sure, I wasn’t going to back down from my convictions, and I would try and explain why I held these convictions, but I hope I did so in a manner that said: “We can dialogue about this now. And if you want, we can also dialogue about this tomorrow.”

Seminary taught me to speak with grace. This means not getting defensive when someone questions you and not assuming the high ground when someone takes a different position than you. This means talking about difficult things as Christ would: full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

8. God forms us through our study of him.

In the day-to-day life of seminary, I spent a lot of time in the library. For much of the time, this was pure, hard work. These papers won’t write themselves, these books have to be read by someone. It can become tempting to think of studying apart from God, even when you are studying theology.

But there were times when I met God in that library, where tears came to my eyes as I learned or re-learned something that inspired me to worship God, or made me thankful for his grace, or challenged me to take up my cross and follow.

In those moments, I realized that God was forming me through my studies of him, if I took the time to notice. I’ll admit, I didn’t always take the time to notice–sometimes the due dates and expectations prevented me from committing my study time and myself to God. But as I end my seminary journey, I realize how God has shaped me, comforted me, and been faithful to me throughout this time.

Seminary taught me to pay attention to what God is doing and how he is shaping me and what he is using to shape me. I am thankful that in God’s economy, nothing is wasted, least of all two years spent in seminary.

9. Don’t compare yourself to others.

Seminary gives an important opportunity to interact with and learn from classmates and professors. In fact, this is one of my favourite parts of seminary. However, there can be a creeping discontent that sneaks in: comparison. This comparison can take many forms:

Oh, I’ll never be as smart as *insert person here.* Why did I think I should come to seminary?” or “He/she is always getting recognized for his/her work. When will someone notice me?” or “Did you see how *insert person here* committed a logical fallacy in that statement? I’m glad I’m past that stage.

This is definitely not a healthy attitude, stealing the joy of studying with your brothers and sisters, and instead replacing it with a self-centeredness. As I start to engage cautiously in the academic community, I am aware of these tendencies in myself: to compare, to wish for attention, to selfishly declare myself “better.” Such is not the attitude of Christ, and thus, not the desired attitude of the theologian.

Seminary taught me about the dangers of comparing myself to others. Instead, I want to rejoice with those who rejoice over their published articles, and mourn with those who mourn about their rejected articles. Seminary, and the Christian life in general, is a team sport, not an individual pursuit.

10. Stay humble.

Looking back over the years I spent at seminary, I can see the academic fruit: I have learned how to research better, I have learned the language of the discipline, and I have grown in the ability to craft an argument. I will also, Lord willing, have a thesis to culminate this experience. Yet, I hear a still, small voice reminding me: stay humble.

I am all too aware of my tendency to think of myself as “better” or “special” due to the chance I’ve had to study. However, I don’t want the time I’ve spent studying, and the fruit from it, to be about me. Rather, I want to use what I’ve been given to glorify God, edify the church, and serve the world.

Seminary has taught me to stay humble. The journey isn’t over. And it will never be over. So I don’t want to “lord” my education over others (Matt. 20:25), but rather use it to point to the Lord, and away from myself.

Intelligent and Humanizing

Many of the points I’ve listed apply to our vision here at Theology Curator. We want to offer intelligent, well-researched resources that can help us all understand better. But we want to do this in a humanizing manner that invites dialogue and encourages discipleship. We invite you on this journey with us!

Author: Stephanie Christianson

Stephanie is currently completing a M.A. in Theological Studies at Briercrest Seminary (Caronport, SK), where her research interests include the work of Miroslav Volf and J. Denny Weaver, as well as nonviolence within Anabaptism.