After four and a half years of study, I finally finished my Master of Divinity degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Without question, it’s one of the best investments I’ve made in my ability to understand and apply the Word of God.
For my own sake, and to encourage all who have supported me along the way, I wanted to write a short list of lessons learned during my time at Southern. The following is by no means exhaustive, nor are they ranked in order of importance. These are simply the highlights.
1) I know much less than I thought I did
One of the best things about seminary is having a knowledgeable professor guide your reading. The more I read, and the more I learned from my reading, the more I recognized how much I have not read and do not understand. My convictions about the theological issues that matter most are stronger, not weaker. Thanks be to God for confessional seminaries like Southern. But I’m far from done when it comes to grasping all there is to know about the character and ways of God.
Getting an Mdiv degree is kind of like walking down a hallway and having professors open door after door into various rooms where each room represents a new realm of theological understanding. I found that a semester class was just long enough to convince me that each room is really big and that even if I spent my life in one, I would never exhaust all there is to know.
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33)
2) Church history is bracing, not boring
I’ll be honest, some of my history reading was fascinating, some of it was drudgery. A lot of that depended on the skill and style of the author. On the whole, however, I grew in my awareness and appreciation for the saints who have gone before us. Here’s the best part, they had problems and challenges just like we do. Church conflict is not a new thing. Wrangling among faithful Christians about what the Bible teaches and how to best apply it is par for the course.
Next to meditation on the Word and prayer, reading church history was one of the single most helpful things I did when our church walked through crisis in recent years. There were days I left the office feeling like the world was crumbling around me, but then I would open a church history book and be confronted on page after page, century after century, with the enduring faithfulness of God. It put the troubles of today in perspective. And it reminded me that even when I have no clue how a particular situation will turn out, God does. He knows what He’s doing and never makes mistakes. I tend to hope in my ability to learn from difficult situations so they will never happen again. Through the pages of history, God taught me to hope in him.
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” (Psalm 90:1-2)
3) A right understanding of part of the Bible requires a right understanding of the whole Bible
How you put the whole Bible together has a significant impact on how you interpret the individual parts. That’s true with any work of literature, but all the more so with a book written over thousands of years by a multitude of different authors. Yet behind all of them stands the unified voice of one author, God himself, who superintended the construction of the parts in such a way that they form a unified whole. I leave Southern with a much clearer grasp of how the various biblical covenants (Adamic, Noahic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenant) form the backbone of the biblical storyline and what it means to read the Old Testament in light of the gospel.
“And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25-27)
4) Knowing the biblical languages enables you to discern what is clear from what is less clear
Before attending Southern, reading biblical commentaries was a significant part of my sermon preparation. Nearly five years later, I am no less jealous to see how various scholars interpret the passage at hand. But my growing knowledge of Greek and Hebrew enables me to follow their arguments much more closely, examine their footnotes, and decide whether I think the biblical text can carry the weight of a particular interpretation. In the past I would have said, “If John Stott says A is true and I. Howard Marshall says B is true, how in the world will I ever know what’s true?” Today, I’m able to go back to the biblical text and decide which arguments are more or less persuasive. That’s a tremendous gift when it comes to preaching difficult passages.
“Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11)
5) We have not truly grasped what is true about God until we love him more a result
I thank God that all my professors were genuine, born-again Christians. Theology was not a purely academic project for any of them. However, the professors who impacted me the most are the ones who showed me not only how to think rightly, but also how to feel and live rightly. I remember Dr. Wright stopping a lecture to admonish all of us to walk in the light by fighting for sexual purity. I remember Dr. Helm weeping at the podium as he recounted the kindness of God in saving sinners. I remember Dr. Plummer warning us to not get an A in Greek if it meant getting a D in marriage. I remember Dr. Wellum bursting with joy as he explained the wonder of the incarnation. Each of those men left a mark of godliness on my soul through the way they applied and responded to the truth. That’s exactly the kind of husband, father, and pastor I want to be.
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?” (Deuteronomy 10:12)
A seminary education is no replacement for the school of experience. Most of what I’ve learned about who God is and what it means to follow him has come through spending my entire life in the context of the local church and the last 10 years in vocational ministry. But institutions like Southern play a vital role in building and strengthening local churches by forging the minds and hearts of her leaders. For that reason, I thank God for sustaining me the last four and a half years and pray that every book, every lecture, and every term paper would enable me to serve the church I love the most “as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).