A reader emailed me this query:
Hi Mr. Phillips,Oh, boy.
I've been impressed with your writings, as well as Mr. Johnson's. [He knows we're two different people. Nice move. Starts him out on my good side! — DJP] I have a question. This is a young man seeking [counsel] from a man with more wisdom. [Yes, I'm very old, thanks for mentioning that. Buh-bye, "good side"! — DJP]
How much did you benefit from seminary? In regards to your understanding of the Bible and theology, how much was learned on your own and how much at school?
Would you do it over again at the rate of $200.00 per semester hour?
Thank you sir.
Well, first my convictions, and then my experience.
Convictions. Though I earned an MDiv and am glad of it, I don't think seminary is universally necessary, nor best.
The Biblical model is apprenticeship. Paul apprenticed Timothy, then urged him to do the same for other gifted men (Philippians 2:22; 1 Timothy 4:6; 2 Timothy 1:13; 2:1-2; 3:10-17; cf. Titus 1:5). And so, I think the best model is a pastor leading men under his care in guided studies and instruction in Greek, Hebrew, the Biblical sciences, pastoral ministry, and theology. Which I am assuming (in my ideal world) that the pastor has; as all pastors should.
The best model is preparation of pastors of churches by pastors of churches for producing men who will pastor churches. The best model is not academic instruction in a non-church environment by men who have not themselves been pastors.
Now, I said "not universally necessary." It depends on where you're heading. If you see yourself needing a level of academic expertise and recognition, then formal cred will be necessary.
And at least some churches "get" that. I am seeking pastoral ministry, and churches I've reviewed say they are looking for an MDiv "or the equivalent." I think that's a wise escape-valve. An MDiv at some solid, not-necessarily-Caesar-approved institution does demonstrate a degree of commitment and discipline and focus and perseverance. But it isn't the only way.
Experience. I was absolutely thrilled to be at Talbot, under the instruction of men whose reputation I respected. Knowing them was instructive and joyous at the time. Being selected and invited to teach classes even before I graduated remains a thrilling memory, one of the highlights of my life. Doing as adequately as I did, academically — where it's not just me alone with a book, but me up against some external and objective measuring-devices — was and remains encouraging to me.
But I entered Talbot with a pretty solid grasp of Greek, and a degree of Hebrew, plus Biblical and theological knowledge. Most of this, I'd gained by my own studies. All of it stood up well in that setting, which gave me a sense I'd been on the right track. Also, it gave me (as I said) an objective measurement I could show other people. That's a good deal more helpful, in interviews, than saying, "I've read and studied a lot on my own."
I was intensely motivated, interested, hungry and needy. So I read. A lot. I started teaching myself Greek the year I was saved, 1973 — because I was sure I'd flunk if I didn't! By the time I started Talbot (1981), I had long-since been reading the Greek New Testament for my devotions. My four-year pastoral training school had only started me out in Hebrew, so I took a supplementary class (under the marvelous John Sailhamer; what a fantastic teacher!). Thus, I was able to "test out" both in Greek and Hebrew at Talbot, and begin with more advanced classes in each.
As I alluded, Talbot was good insofar as objectifying my academic progress and abilities. It's one thing to read and do some work and have good folks in a Bible study think you're adequate. It's another thing to have to test, write, perform, meet deadlines, observe standards, be evaluated. Also, it made me buy and read books I'd otherwise not have read, forced me to interact critically with perspectives I might have bypassed — and required me to air and defend some of my own notions in an analytical environment. All this is good. You don't need seminary for it, but it served.
My greatest regrets include:
- Assuming I'd be able to find any of my classmates later, when I wanted to. Now I've tried, and can hardly find any of them. And so...
- ...not working much harder to make lasting connections and friendships and partnerships with my good classmates.
- Believing the lab-grown notion that, if you were faithful, God would bless you (—with a thriving, growing ministry).
- Not taking the opportunity to find out much more about a much broader array of denominations.
So, concluding brevities:
- In an ideal world, pastors would apprentice gifted men within their congregations.
- At most, area pastors could pool resources in apprenticing gifted men within their congregations.
- On the basis of the Word, such apprenticeship is sufficient for a God-honoring ministry.
- In an ideal world, churches would focus on evaluating candidates individually, against vitally necessary Biblically-based criteria, and not solely on the basis of institutional boxes checked.
- HSAT, it probably does better position at least an American candidate if he can demonstrate some academic performance via some kind of valued, earned degree. Pulpit committees can't test every applicant in Hebrew, Greek, and the branches of theology; it is useful to know that some institution already has.