Some seminary people are education snobs and I try not to be one. My seminary experience was necessary because when I decided to attend Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary I had just recently fallen off the turnip truck. Well, not really. Harriet and I were both college graduates and had been active in a local church for a couple of years before clarifying and responding to his call to full time pastoral ministry. In that period I had taught five year old children in Sunday School, Juniors and Seniors in the high school department, and was just beginning to teach a young married couples class. My catalog of Bible knowledge had grown substantially through those teaching assignments. But, when I started teaching young adults our own age, I was in over my head. The turnip truck thing is just a reference to my country background from church as a child and the weeds I had allowed to grow around my biblical mind. We both knew that at age thirty, with a four year old and a two year old, we would need to get serious about our Bible learning. So, we entered seminary that summer and began what was a thrilling learning experience.
The rigors of graduate study were shocking, especially the reading assignments. Every day I would attend classes, Harriet would work, we would gather with the children for dinner, and then I'd disappear for nightly reading, paper writing, and other homework. Pretty soon the rhyme and reason for all the reading became apparent. The scholarly material our professors had given us to read and study taught us the context of the Bible. For the first time in my 30-year life Scripture started making more sense than ever before because the men who instructed us and the text book authors who guided that study showed us the historical backdrop of those precious texts.
Well, yes, I could have read those texts without attending seminary. The old Baptist Book Store would have gladly ordered them for me and I could have soaked up the same learning on my own in our house in Goldsboro, NC. At the same time though, without the classroom I would have missed J. Leo Greene's lecture on Hosea or Don Cook's lessons about translating the First Epistle of John. Scrolling through the text I would never have heard missionary to Japan Dr. Bob Culpepper teach systematic theology for the first time in English, or witnessed Dr. Tom Halbrooks locomotive of church history, with stops on the tracks when each denomination got off. Yes, I could have plodded through the Hebrew text book but missed Dr. Elmo Scoggin's recitation of Psalm 23 in Hebrew, or caught Dr. Malcolm Tolbert's (a missionary to South America) explanation of the churches to whom the Apostle Paul addressed the epistles.
Let's be clear about something. It was a strange time in our convention life and in the epoch of our six seminaries. Most of my professors wouldn't use the terms inerrant or infallible when discussing Scripture and I had some serious differences with them for that reason. But, in the mystery of God's ways he used them to challenge and stretch me so that learning the context of Scripture gave me an insight into the meaning of God's Word that influences me even today. The huge lesson here was that gathering Bible knowledge was important. But, knowing the undergrowth around his word made it become even more alive and meaningful to someone like me, a relative Bible illiterate. When missionary Dr. Roy Wyatt taught us about the kings of Israel, several books of the Old Testament became more meaningful than I thought possible.
There's another angle on the context thing. Most of these professors had led churches, been on the mission field, served in administrative positive in our institutions, taught at foreign seminaries and brought experience to the interpretation and application of Scripture. I learned that context is not only significant in Bible interpretation, it is definitive in mission as well. Calm down! Truth isn't affected by our experience of it and cannot affirm or deny Scripture. In the process I learned that we can't add anything to Scripture or take anything away from it, our experience notwithstanding. But, to learn the ways God's Word is applied in various contexts was a thrilling affirmation of the sufficiency and authority of the Bible in every life setting.
Interaction with pastors is one of my greatest privileges as an old retired guy. Each day I am totally awed by the gifts, talents, skills, strengths, and abilities of the people he calls to serve our churches today. Some of them are brilliant scholars. Many are self-educated leaders with great affect as teachers and preachers. In the mix, however, are occasionally people who cannot rightly handle the word of truth and misuse the Word of God because they were too good or too smart or too sharp to learn the history of Israel, the time-lines of Moses' life, the stanzas of Psalm 119, or the background of the Greek pantheon. Somewhere in the process of preparation we have valued the stand-up model of delivery more than the substance of what is being delivered, and therefore have short-changed a generation of people hungry for truth that can change lives.
Is seminary for everyone? Maybe not. Several can absorb all the Bible data and be open to the revelation that brings it alive in teaching and preaching. Others are un-teachable anyway, already shut down beyond glitzy staging and witty platitudes. You can certainly Google your way to lots of Bible knowledge and historical fact. But, for me, seminary was a combination of teaching, instruction, revelation, shared experience, and the development of context that made the Word of God come alive, even to a dead-head like me.
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Seminary taught me to love his word, study it, memorize it, and understand it. Of that entire process, I am most thankful for helping me learn about the context of it, and of the mission of teaching it.