Use the Right Tool for the Right Job: Gospel Maturity for Seminary

In my humble opinion, seminary students should seek from the seminary what the seminary exists to give them, and the seminary exists to give them the Bible. Let me be quick to add that the seminary’s main purposes include systematic theology and church history, but God has revealed himself in the Bible. Let me say that again, because it’s that important: God has revealed himself in the Bible.

Seminaries exist to teach people the Bible, which means seminaries exist to teach people Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, introduce them to the Bible’s big story, and teach them how to read that story parts and whole.

This means that there are many jobs the seminary does not exist to do: the seminary is not a church. The seminary is not an evangelistic crusade. The seminary is not your small group, your missions and evangelism coordinator, or even your pastoral internship.

I have often heard preachers comment on some pastoral difficulty then say, “They don’t teach you that in seminary!” I usually think to myself, “nor did they intend to; nor were they supposed to.”

Cars don’t sprout wings and fly, and they don’t teach you to pilot a plane in Driver’s Ed. Evaluate a car, or a Driver’s Ed. class, according to what it is intended to do. The seminary is built to prepare people for ministry, yes, but it’s a school. That bears repeating: a seminary is a school. This means, by definition, that a seminary is not a church. So the seminary is preparing people for ministry, but it can’t do everything necessary to prepare people for ministry. It’s not built to do everything necessary to prepare people for ministry. It’s built to be a school.

What’s the best way to ruin a tool? Use it for the wrong job.

Want to ruin a butter knife? Use it as a screw driver, chisel, or wedge. Want to ruin a baseball bat? Use it to hammer a nail. Want to ruin seminary? Expect it to do something it doesn’t exist to do.

How will bad expectations for a seminary ruin its utility? Much in every way. Here I want to focus on the main way I think people should use the right tool for the right job when they go to seminary.

What is the job the tool of seminary was built to do? Give people the Bible. I know that not everyone needs to learn Greek and Hebrew, nor does everyone need to learn legal theory. Law students need to learn legal theory, though, and those who would be unashamed workmen ought to give themselves to Greek and Hebrew (insert all relevant caveats about non-traditional students or those not seeking to be pastors, etc.).

A seminary is a school that exists (for the glory of God!) to teach people the Bible, and the Bible was written in Greek and Hebrew. What is more important than learning to read God’s revelation of himself in the language in which it was composed?

Here’s the payoff, two pieces of free advice, for what they’re worth:

1) Seminary students who want to learn the Bible in the original languages should take the languages early and often. Why let a semester pass in which you’re not in a Greek or Hebrew class? No one expects to be fluent in Spanish after two semesters. We’re unwise to think that after two semesters we’ll “know Greek.”  You’re at school to begin to learn Greek and Hebrew so you can spend the rest of your life studying the Bible in the original. Why not give all your electives to Greek and Hebrew exegesis classes? There are lots of conference opportunities where you can learn everything from counseling to preaching to evangelism and missions. There will never be a conference for pastors on Hebrew syntax. There will never be a Greek exegesis of 1 Peter conference where you are taught to diagram the Greek text and trace its argument. Get from the seminary what you can only get from the seminary, what the seminary exists to give you. You can get the rest in a good church, in a pastoral internship, or at a conference.

2) You are cultivating Christlikeness as you lay your life down for others by studying the biblical languages. Don’t forget that as you study Greek and Hebrew, you are serving people you will only meet in the future. You haven’t met them yet, but they will benefit from the ability to feed them the word of God you’re cultivating now. They will benefit from your character made strong from the diligence and discipline required to learn Greek and Hebrew. They will benefit from the humility such study produces, to say nothing of the wisdom and instinctive discernment that comes. Serve them now by preparing for your ministry to them in the future. Lay your life down for them by memorizing vocab, learning morphology, and sticking with it.

In The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century Roland Bainton tells of Thomas Platter, who was so eager to learn the Bible that he did manual labor by day and studied the languages by night, putting sand in his mouth so the gritty grains between his teeth would keep him awake (82–83). Bainton also tells of the enthusiasm with which Ulrich Zwingli received the edition of the New Testament in Greek Erasmus edited: Zwingli “memorized the entire Pauline corpus in the original” (81).

I keep these words of Martin Luther on a 3×5 card in my Greek New Testament:

Without the original languages we could not have received the gospel. Languages are the scabbard that contains the sword of the Spirit. They are the casket which contains the priceless jewels of antique thought. They are the vessel that holds the wine. If the languages had not made me positive as to the true meaning of the Word, I might have still remained a chained monk, engaged in quietly preaching Romish errors in the obscurity of a cloister. No sooner did men cease to cultivate the languages, than Christendom declined, but no sooner was this torch relighted, than this papal owl fled with a shriek! If we neglect the literature, we shall eventually lose the gospel!

[This article was written at the request of my friends at Desiring God, in connection with this series.]