5 Common Pitfalls Theologians Fall Into and How They Can Be Avoided

ImageI am a nerd. A silly, wacky nerd, but a nerd nonetheless. I read theological musings for fun, attend lectures on my day off, and play the violin. I’m also the proud owner of a “serious hat”, a “study tie”, and an exam mustache – all of which I insist on wearing to my exams… my professors at Tyndale just shake their head when they see my getup. I truly do value higher education and as someone who is completing a Master’s degree with the intention of hopefully claiming a PhD down the road, I’m the first to say that I believe many pastors benefit from general academic theological training as well as practical ministry experience.

Yet, as someone who has spent much time in the academy, I’m also aware that the more you learn in Theological Studies the harder it is (for some) to maintain their own spiritual practices and to continue to desire to hear a Word from the Lord rather than simply a Word from A.W. Tozer. Therefore, I have written this blog post for all of the seminary students out there who are academically minded as an encouragement to them to consider how to stay married to Christ while also being wedded to the intellectual institution known as higher education.

Pitfall #1: Reading the Bible ONLY as a textbook rather than as the Word of God.

Make no mistake, the moment you decide to pursue your MTS, MA, or MDiv degree from a seminary is the same day you will discover that you will be taking Old Testament, New Testament, and church history courses. I have a few friends who are apprehensive to do seminary courses despite the fact that they already serve in ministry for the simple reason that they are worried about how seminary will affect them spiritually. The truth is, that at times I (and many others) have struggled to maintain a deep spiritual walk while also dissecting and probing the depths of the Bible. Yet a wise and understanding professor will be able to teach their students how to “explore the Bible” rather than to simply “tear it apart.” I had one really great professor when I was a student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. Himself the closest thing I have ever seen to a MENSA, and a true scholar, Dr. Ben once asked the class “can you still read the Bible spiritually?” After allowing space for us to reflect he then added quietly, “The person who first asked me this question admitted to me, ‘I can’t.’”

What is the solution? To make space for the Holy Spirit, to occasionally practice reading the Bible as if you’ve never read it before, and to form friendships with non-academics. Consider making a friend with Alzheimer’s or who has a developmental disability, read the Bible with them and then don’t shut them down or try to correct them when they say something that is not at all historically accurate or goes against the original Greek or Hebrew. Ask your non-theological practical ministry friends what God is teaching them and then stand back and be amazed at how God still works in our lives today. Obviously, as someone who is more academically minded I believe that there is a very important place to distil Scripture, but as a Christian I also know the importance of maintaining an attitude of worship in my daily devotional life.

Pitfall #2: Cynicism

Cynicism is perhaps the biggest pitfall that our non-theologian friends pick up from those of us who have spent significant time in the academy. The more we know about the Scriptures, the easier it is for us to become critical about the emotionalism and charismatic activities we may hear from well-meaning Christians who have never taken a single seminary course.

What do I recommend to combat this problem? Believe that the Word of God still has power today and that it still shapes us in community (remember that community is made up of EVERYONE, not just PhD candidates!). Occasionally worship in a tradition that is not your own (I would especially encourage you to attend Charismatic worship from time to time if you are from a more reserved tradition). Read up on topics you disagree with (for example Prosperity Gospel, tongues, prophesy) to learn more about different viewpoints rather than to simply use it as ammo as to why these groups are wrong and you are right. Make friends with brand new Christians who are still so young in their faith walk and so on fire with Christ that they aren’t bogged down with the theology that has been instilled in those of us who grew up in the church over years and years of Sunday school and church camps. Also, I’d really encourage you to hang out with kids – they have a real spirituality going on and take everything at face value. Their faith is so simple and yet so profound. Plus, they will be completely bored if you talk about hermeneutics with them, so it’s also a nice brain refresher 😉

Pitfall#3: The temptation to read C.S. Lewis, Bonhoeffer, Nouwen (insert great theological writer here) in a way that places their beliefs as higher than Biblical truths

Okay, all Theologians have their favourite writers and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In many cases there is so much we can gain from reading books! However, the difficulty I face (and I have heard others in seminary face) is that when I read Lewis or Nouwen I sometimes feel like I’ve reached my spiritual quota for the day and therefore can neglect the Bible – after all, I’ve been reading it for several hours for my classes already.

My solution: Carve out a minimum of 15 minutes a day to read Scripture with no other agenda in mind (don’t bring your concordance, Greek or Hebrew Bibles, or commentaries to this practice). Just read the Word in order to hear what God wants to say to you that day and how He wants you to apply it to your life. I’m not advocating to take a bunch of verses out of context or to read into the text, but I AM saying that it is very important for scholars to nurture their own spirituality. Also, make time to read other theologians (rather than just your favourites) and make space for a healthy mix of spiritual AND theological writing. Read for pleasure, rather than just what is assigned to you in class. Reading biographies, fiction, and poetry are all great ways to be inspired by the deep spirituality even in common day occurrences and even in writings which were not necessarily written by theologians.

Pitfall #4: Neglecting fellowship/communion and spiritual disciplines due to book writing, dissertations, and lectures

As one who has spent much time in the academy, I am all too familiar with the temptation for up and coming theologians and pastors to skip chapel and church because they feel they have too much to do and have been tearing the Bible apart all week anyways. However, when students fail to be part of a body of believers on a regular basis they are missing the whole point of their studies. See, the point of being a Theologian is not simply to be a super genius who knows the Bible inside and out – if you aren’t living the kind of lifestyle the Bible expounds your studying is in vain! Going to church and being part of a small group allow you the opportunity to nourish the spiritual side that might be starved during your studies. It also gives you an opportunity to engage in worship and fellowship rather than just in reading and research.

My Solution: Regularly keep the Sabbath. I cannot stress this one enough. It wasn’t until I was a grad student that I finally began taking the Sabbath seriously and being intentional about not doing research and writing on that day. Once I did decide to keep this practice, however, I soon realized that it was the most amazing thing for both my spiritual and emotional/mental wellbeing. Choosing not to write a Thesis on Sunday provided me with an opportunity to read books for pleasure, to pursue other passions such as practicing French and playing my violin, and to hang out with friends without guilt that I still had homework waiting for me. I also noticed that once I started keeping the Sabbath my grades went up, I started prioritizing more during the week, and ultimately I was able to get way more accomplished. (To read more about my experience with Sabbath check out: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/learning-and-re-learning-to-keep-the-sabbath/).

Aside from keeping the Sabbath, I believe all seminarians and would-be theologians need to be part of a vibrant church AND small group (not just one or the other) and they need to make attending these meetings a priority. I also recommend that aspiring Biblical scholars have a wide network of both Christian AND non-Christian friends from a variety of professional backgrounds (not just other PhD candidates). Also, remember to leave room for FUN (avocations) and do not feel guilty about turning down invitations to speak or write when you are feeling overwhelmed. Know your limit and write within it 😉 (To use a rip off of the Ontario Jackpot commercial).

Pitfall #5: Pride OR False Humility

Along with cynicism, pride is one of the biggest enemies to what we are trying to accomplish as Scholars and it does not go unnoticed by our congregations, best friends, and spouses. To be sure, there is such a thing as a healthy dose of confidence and an ability to claim and live into your gifts. L’Arche truly has taught me that to name what I am good at and to accept compliments is a must to living in community. On the other hand, academics must be very careful to guard their hearts against haughtiness and thinking they are better than the rest of the church simply because they have intensely studied the stuff with which pastors are made.

I once had a random conversation with the bookstore manager at Tyndale University College and Seminary. Although it was a short and random conversation it is one that I hope to carry with me throughout the remainder of my academic and professional life. In this conversation, the manager told me that in her native language the word for “Knowledge” is actually the same word as “little.” She reminded me that the more we learn in school the more temptation we have to think that we know it all. In reality, even after we get a PhD we have only begun to scratch the surface of the iceberg. There’s still so much we DON’T know. It’s impossible for a PhD to know all the ins and outs of Theology. Therefore, we need to remember that even if we are very knowledgeable, we in fact know very little.

My Solution: Never stop learning. A true scholar does not stop educating themselves as soon as a PhD is earned, instead they devout themselves to a life of scholarship, research, and bettering themselves. They choose to publish and lecture on different topics rather than just sticking to only one. So, after you get your Bachelor’s, Master’s, or PhD continue to learn, continue to read, and continue to discuss your findings with others.

You’d be amazed at the number of seminarians I have met who absolutely detest going to Sunday school at their church because they find it “annoying” to sit through a discussion where someone shares their own beliefs and this person happens to have no theological training and thus does “not know what they are talking about.” If this is your current mindset, I’d urge you to re-examine yourself – perhaps you have fallen prey to pitfall #5. What I recommend is that you DO attend these Sunday school classes, hear your classmates out WITHOUT correcting them or shutting them down and truly listen to the questions they are fielding. Chances are the questions they are asking are more personal based ones rather than simply historical-critical ones.

Live and walk alongside recent immigrants, the illiterate, and people with developmental disabilities. Get to know people who learn in non-traditional ways and figure out how to teach and connect with this crowd. How to bring the Bible to their level and make it interesting to them rather than being a professor who can only connect with a handful of students who are academic like yourself.

Learn to accept your own flaws and short comings and resist the urge to always prove yourself (a very easy pitfall for seminarians and scholars). Know that your essential worth is tied up in who you are as a person and how God has formed and made you, not how many books you have written and how many lectures you have given. Make your legacy one of kindness, trust, and faith rather than simply one of writing and scholarship (as important as those two things are). Value the spirituality of homemakers and retired folk. Spend much time with children and learn to see God and the world through their eyes. Lastly, continue to mentor AND to be mentored. One of the best ways to safeguard yourself against intellectual haughtiness is simply to have someone mentor you who knows more than you and to continue to tell yourself that there are still areas you need to probe and learn about. That you don’t have it all together, and never will, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice and can’t share your insights.

I truly believe that academic scholarship is a high calling and that God uses both men and women in this field to further God’s Gospel message. By avoiding the common pitfalls that most academicians fall in to from time to time, we are making that Gospel even more real and tangible. So go, explore, research, write, and come back ready to teach a seminary class 🙂

For more musings on what I’ve learned since starting seminary check out: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2013/05/29/words-of-wisdom-to-college-grads-considering-seminary/

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