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.]

28 Responses to Use the Right Tool for the Right Job: Gospel Maturity for Seminary

  1. Matt Damico March 26, 2012 at 11:20 am #

    Excellent!

  2. Noah March 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    Thank you Jim!
    Great encouragement and challenge for me.

  3. RAP March 26, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

    First, Great article!!! I have taken this to heart from seminary with you.

    Second, off subject: your church website has a bug. I thought it might be my computer, but it does not happen on any website but yours. I pop up your site and it wants to go to, “You have a virus” “Purchase this software”

    Just thought you might need to know.

    • Zack Ford March 26, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

      Yes, same thing happened to me! Clicking on the link for Kenwood Baptist completely froze my computer and caused me to force quit.

  4. Joseph Justiss March 26, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

    Dr. Hamilton

    I cannot say thank you enough for writing on this. I feel the effects of impoverished preaching everyday because the languages have been neglected. What happens is that, as Piper has argued elsewhere, the pastor doesn’t have access to the original languages so his confidence to accurately and definitively interpret any passage is undermined. Thus, he contents himself with basic gospel generalities which become the subject of basically every sermon. Keep swimming up stream until the current switches course, my brother.

    P.S. My children and I have been listening to the podcasts of the Jeremiah series on the way to school every morning. I thank God for men like you who still preach the word like this.

    Every grace
    Joe Justiss

    • JMH March 26, 2012 at 2:05 pm #

      Thanks for this heartily encouraging note! I praise the Lord that his word is blessing you and yours,

      Jim

      • Joseph Justiss March 26, 2012 at 2:13 pm #

        I just thought of something and I want to get your thoughts. I fear that one of the reasons for the pastor’s neglect of honing exegetical tools, besides the fact that the languages are difficult academic work, is that shepherds have forgotten that the primary beneficiary of the local church’s ministries are the sheep, not the unbeliever. So, in an effort to be esteemed by outsiders they devote themselves to the latest and most clever apologetic arguments for this or that objection to Christianity because systematic exposition of biblical books is something only people who are already believers would be interested in. Then they say, when the sheep complain, that there are other avenues to get that kind of feeding while we pastors are going to focus on reaching the unbeliever who might be hearing our sermons. Your thoughts?

        Joe Justiss

        • JMH March 26, 2012 at 2:16 pm #

          I think that’s probably part of it. Honestly I think another huge part is that it’s just hard to be disciplined and to stick with the languages over the years. It takes time and opportunity, and twitter, facebook, blogs, and conferences (to say nothing of books, magazines, movies etc) all try to steal time and opportunity from us . . .

          It takes a commitment. It takes believing something like this: God really has revealed himself in his word.

          JMH

          • Joseph Justiss March 26, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

            On that note, with which I totally agree, don’t you think it is time to combat that a bit by seeking ways to make the languages as easy and natural to acquire as possible? I fear this may mean moving significantly beyond the traditional grammar-translation approach to a more natural way of learning language whereby the biblical languages can actually be internalized, allowing one to process the text fluently at the speed of reading as Randal Buth claims he can teach one to do.

            http://www.biblicallanguagecenter.com

            Your thoughts
            JJ

  5. Michael March 26, 2012 at 4:49 pm #

    Amen. Thank you

  6. Daniel March 29, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    Amen! The summer before I began seminary, I was blessed to do an internship under a youth minister who told me essentially this same thing. I never forgot his advice, and I considered it often when choosing my classes. I could take classes on leadership/worship/education/etc that would be fairly easy, or I could get ground into dust by Peter Gentry in Hebrew Exegesis of Isaiah. I am glad that I did the latter.

    I am going to save this post so that I can give it to anyone I know who is headed into seminary.

  7. Daniel March 29, 2012 at 7:26 pm #

    Dr. Hamilton,
    Do you mean to make an implicit swipe at “Practical Theology” classes? I am in seminary right now, and my beef with the PT classes has been, I think, precisely what you said: The material is good, but it’s the kind of material I have always gotten in church.

    I would be very interested to know, if the seminary curriculum was totally under your control, what would it look like?

    • JMH March 29, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

      Well, given the fact that I’m leading a DMin seminar this summer on “Practical Theology,” to take a swipe at such classes is to take a swipe at myself!

      Still, there is a level at which I find the phrase “practical theology” offensive, as I think all GOOD theology is PRACTICAL.

      The seminary curriculum will never be totally under any one person’s control, unless it’s entirely a one man show, and it wouldn’t stay that way for long . . .

      Blessings!

      JMH

      • Daniel March 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

        I actually took that seminar two years ago (from Dr. Betts), and it was extremely helpful to me, as were many other such classes. But I also realize that I could probably have learned those concepts on my own if I had been determined to. I doubt that on my own I would ever have figured out how to read Hebrew or what it means to “be your own lexicographer,” as Gentry puts it.

        • Daniel March 30, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

          Note: I am not the same Daniel who left the comment you responded to. I am the Daniel from the comment above it. I misread and thought you were responding to me.

  8. JB March 30, 2012 at 10:08 am #

    I took the languages in seminary and have never regretted the effort. In fact, if given the chance to do it again, I would skip all the ‘practical’ ministry things and focus on learning three things.
    1. Languages
    2. How the Bible fits together.
    3. How to verbally communicate the Scriptures in an engaging manner that does them justice.
    Experience has proven, the rest can be learned along the way.

    A note for those sitting under Jim’s teaching now: Pay attention! I’ve known him since he started flipping his first Greek and Hebrew flashcards. He’s the real deal.

  9. Matt Dickie March 30, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

    The quote from Luther is priceless. It’s going in my Bible as a reminder of why I learned the languages. I preached two sermons last week and taught a Wed night lesson where all the questions were out of left field and unrelated to the topic/text. It can be a little discouraging to know that you have spent so much time in the Bible–in the languages even–and find yourself addressing the church about everything except what you studied and what you want to teach them. The quotation from Luther grounds study in the languages, the Bible, the gospel. Thanks.

  10. Jonathan Parnell April 2, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    Great word, Dr. Hamilton. Thank you!

  11. Patrick Mitchell April 3, 2012 at 2:50 pm #

    Dr. Hamilton, thanks for this post. I’ve attended seminary where I could while pastoring, finally ending up at Fuller. Though I am not pastoring presently, I found myself unprepared for what I’ll call ‘everyday’ ministry. I.e., those things that required little theological thought but rather practical skills (e.g., budgets, leading meetings, planning, vision, etc).

    I agree that seminary can’t be all things and isn’t intended to be. Would you say then that such preparation falls on the church leadership itself? This assuming a student is in a church context during school, which was not the norm for my colleagues. Otherwise we have some good thinking folks who can lead a ministry into chaos.

    Look forward to hearing your response.

    • JMH April 3, 2012 at 8:53 pm #

      Thanks for your note, Patrick, I do think it’s the church’s job to see to it that she has pastors who are qualified and equipped. So I like what our denomination has done: a group of churches have banded together to fund the training of their pastors in the SBC seminaries.

      Historically pastors have been trained by other pastors, theological education and practical experience being gained as younger men were raised up within the church. This is what we see Paul calling Timothy to do in 2 Tim 2:2. So yes, I think than many things should be learned as elders mentor men being trained for ministry. Some things, like Hebrew and Greek, are better taught at a school. Other things, like the practical stuff you mention, is better taught on the job in an internship or elder training program . . .

      I hope this helps!

      JMH

      • Patrick Mitchell April 4, 2012 at 8:00 pm #

        Your response certainly helps. As one who is not administratively inclined, it was the everyday rhythm of ministry that tripped me up. And I can say that I was not adequately prepared for that, and that goes for the church at which I interned and the two I worked at.

        I’m not on the cusp of PhD studies because I love teaching and, as you argue in the article, want to be as equipped as possible to handle the text and the implications thereof. But pastoral ministry has proven to be outside of my giftings per se. I actually talked with you and walked around to a couple of presentations at SBL in Atlanta last year. Thanks for your work, and may see you at SBTS soon.

        All the best

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