How to Waste Your Theological Studies
Posted On June 26, 2017
To commit a few years, or even one, to careful and concentrated study of the Bible and theology as a Bible college student can be a great opportunity. It’s packed with all sorts of potential that can be either realized or wasted. As both a graduate of and instructor at Bible colleges, I’ve seen how easy it is to earn high grades, gain popularity among peers and professors, and even hold positions of leadership as a Bible college student, and yet waste the better part of the experience. How so? Theological students are in particular danger of missing out on special opportunities for spiritual growth through their studies.
Despite the title of this post, I’m not actually going to suggest how you might waste your studies by neglecting your spiritual life. It turns out that we’re pretty good at that without any assistance. Instead, I’d like to pass along some old advice that I wish had been shared with me as a Bible college student.
In 1911, the great Presbyterian minister and Princeton seminary professor B. B. Warfield addressed the students of the seminary and local ministers on this very issue. The danger of wasting one’s theological studies wasn’t new in Warfield’s day either, but it was something that had concerned him throughout his teaching career. On this particular occasion, he spoke on the “Cultivation of the Spiritual Life in the Seminary,” which was later published as an essay titled, “The Religious Life of Theological Students.”
Warfield asked the seminarians a series of probing questions about the spiritual state of their lives as they pursued their studies: “Do you prosecute your daily tasks as students of theology as ‘religious exercises’ [spiritual disciplines]?” “Are you, by this constant contact with divine things, growing in holiness, becoming every day more and more men of God?” “How much do you pray? … What place in your life does the ‘still hour,’ alone with God, take?” Then, referring to both their work as students and whatever ministry they might undertake after graduation, Warfield warned, “There is no mistake more terrible than to suppose that activity in Christian work can take the place of depth of Christian affections.” In other words, for students pursuing theological studies, the great danger is to mistake busyness in one’s studies for faithfulness.
Thankfully, Warfield offered his students, and he offers Bible college students today, three ways to avoid wasting their theological studies. In light of their vital importance to the spiritual lives of theological students, Warfield even calls them “duties.” These are not arbitrary or whimsical tips, but careful reflections from a deeply devout Christian man who knew firsthand the temptations theological students face. After all, the previous forty years of his life had been spent first as a theological student and then as a teacher of theological students. Let’s listen in on the wise words Warfield has for us.
Duty #1: “[F]ind daily nourishment for your religious life in your theological studies.” Do not exclude your studies as sources of spiritual growth. The pursuit of Christian discipleship should not take a student away from his or her work, Warfield says, but send them to their work “with an added quality of devotion.” Rather than allowing your work to occupy your mind only, “[p]ut your heart into your studies.” All theological training should be approached as spiritual exercises that daily bring you into the presence of God. This means that memorizing Greek vocabulary or writing a research paper on early Christian heresies really can be done for God’s glory and your good.
Duty #2: “[E]nter fully into the organic religious life of the community of which you form a part.” Here Warfield is speaking of the community of faith you find in your fellow students, professors, and support staff. This is not an accidental fellowship. Each individual is a member at this time for purposes ordained by God. With this in mind, attend chapel services and take advantage of other opportunities for worship and fellowship as a college community.
Duty #3: [K]eep the fires of religious life burning brightly in your heart.” This is the chief duty of anyone pursuing theological studies, the duty that undergirds the others. The fires are kept burning through the spiritual disciplines of reading and meditating on God’s Word, prayer, and doing good to others. It’s a real struggle even for diligent theological students to cultivate and maintain the kind of life that fulfills this duty. Warfield offers this advice: Be constantly reminding yourself of the huge privilege and responsibility it is to be a student of theology. “[I]f we face the tremendous difficulty of the work before us, it will certainly throw us back upon our knees; and if we worthily gauge the power of the gospel committed to us, that will certainly keep us on our knees.”
These duties are helpfully cooperative: pursuing the first two encourages you to remember the third, which in turn refreshes your commitment to the others.
So, how do you waste your theological studies as a Bible college student? It’s easy. Keep your studies at the intellectual level, quietly neglect to worship and fellowship with your learning community, and don’t spend precious time on personal practices of devotion. As Warfield put it, let your theological studies become common to you; let yourself become weary of God.
Eric Brandt is instructor of church history at Reformation Bible College.