Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Preparing for Seminary

From time to time I, as a seminary graduate, get asked what someone should do, especially in undergraduate studies at university, to prepare for a seminary education. It’s not easy to answer, but I thought I would put a few thoughts down here and invite feedback, especially from other seminary alumni. PLEASE REMEMBER THAT THIS IS ADVICE ON PREPARING FOR SEMINARY.  Disagreements over what belongs in a seminary curriculum is another discussion.

These are general guidelines.  Every student is different, every seminary or divinity school is different, and denominations have their own individual requirements for ordination, etc.  Investigate them thoroughly.

These pieces of advice apply most to:

  • Students who feel called into ministry and are seeking the standard ministerial degree, usually the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) in the U.S. context.
  • Students who plan on studying in a U.S. seminary or divinity school–things vary elsewhere and this advice may not apply.

With those provisos in mind, here is my advice, such as it is.

  • The best preparation for seminary/divinity school is a well-rounded education in the liberal arts.  As a great example of this, I give the undergraduate program at the St. John’s Colleges (Annapolis, MD and Santa Fe, NM).  This is a highly selective program and admission isn’t easy.  There are no majors or minors. All students take the same curriculum which is centered around the Great Books of the Western World.  There are 4 years of seminars, four years of language study (2 in Ancient Greek; 2 in modern French),  4 years of math, 3 years of laboratory science, and one year of music.  Seminar readings include great works of literature, theology, philosophy, political science, and history.  The approach is roughly chronological, beginning with the ancient Greeks in the freshman year and reaching the 21st C. by the senior year.  You can see the reading lists here.  There are no survey textbooks. One reads the authors of the Great Books themselves.  This program is so rigorous in general liberal arts education, that it would prepare someone well for any graduate school, from an engineering degree at M. I. T. to Harvard Law School, to Johns Hopkins Medical School, to almost any seminary or divinity school program.  I wish I had known of this program when I was applying to college. I am now trying to use their guidelines to continue reading through the Great Books.  For online video introductions to the program, see here.

Not everyone can get into the St. John’s Colleges and it is a very text-based and student directed program.  Some places have a similar emphasis on the Great Books in an Honors Program, though usually not as intense as with the St. John’s Colleges. If you attend  a college or university with majors and minors, what should you take?

First, you do not need an undergraduate degree in Bible, religion, etc. at a church-related college or university.  There may be good reasons to go to a church-related college or university, stressing a Christian worldview in education.  But there is nothing particularly helpful in majoring in Bible, theology or religion as an undergraduate.  You could find yourself taking many of the same courses at seminary. Also, if you should find that seminary is not for you, such an undergraduate degree is not very marketable.  At most, a course in world religions or comparative religions, would be helpful.

However, a strong familiarity with the contents of the Bible is very helpful.  Most seminaries or divinity schools expect you already to know the broad outlines of Scripture.  If you do not, begin reading the Bible through as many times as possible.  Familiarize yourself with the contents from Genesis to Revelation, but don’t worry greatly about deep interpretation.

  • English, or Classics.  A degree in English with an emphasis on literature will get you used to concentrating on the interpretation of texts and that is very helpful in seminary. Also, one will have plenty or opportunity to see the enormous impact of Christianity on Western literature and to make connections between faith and imagination.  A degree in Classics also gets one into interpreting texts, but also has you study ancient Greek and Latin.  If one can read ancient Greek, the koine Greek of the New Testament is usually fairly simple.  Latin is less helpful in a standard seminary curriculum, but it allows you to read many important theological classics in the original and you will recognize many phrases which have become technical terms in theology.  Christian theology emerged from the encounter of the biblical texts with Classic philosophy and a course in classics will help you make those connections easily.
  • History. A history major, especially with an emphasis on Western civilization (rather than U.S. history), will be of great help.  Historians also have to spend time interpreting texts.  Also, many Christians have been raised to study the biblical texts in a devotional manner also with seldom any historical context.  Training in historiography prepares you for the historical-critical study of Scripture.  “History is the laboratory of ideas,” said the great H. Richard Niebuhr.  To think historically is an enormous help to a theological student.
  • Philosophy.  Philosophy teaches one to think, to ask hard questions and not expect easy answers.  A major in philosophy will be very helpful as background to a theological education.
  • Other helpful majors include psychology, sociology, or languages.  But any major, biology, physics, geology, etc. is fine as long as placed in a context that includes broad exposure to the liberal arts.

What about Hebrew? Most seminary degrees require students to pass koine (New Testament) Greek and biblical Hebrew.  Some denominations require this for ordination.  Some degree programs allow you to skip this, but don’t take them if you plan on becoming a pastor.  Any pastor who cannot read the Bible in the original languages is in sad shape and needs to take remedial steps immediately–and, no, I do not care if she or he is a brilliant preacher, great pastoral counselor, visits the sick, is an excellent evangelist, is great at leading the church to tackle social problems creatively, etc.  One of my big educational convictions is that proficiency in NT Greek and Biblical Hebrew should be basic for all pastors.

But seminary courses in these languages, unfortunately, tend to be rather fast-paced.   Some students have trouble keeping up, especially in Hebrew since Hebrew is a different kind of language than they have likely studied before.  If your undergraduate college offers courses in Hebrew, take them. Audit them if you fear for your GPA. If your undergraduate college or university does not offer such a course, check with a nearby synagogue or Jewish cultural center.  They often offer remedial Hebrew courses–and these are often open to the public.  If there is nothing like this handy, but a nearby pastor or retired OT prof. will allow you to study with her or him, try that.

If you cannot prepare in this fashion, but you suspect you will have difficulties with Hebrew (or Greek for that matter), take a reduced load in seminary during the times you have those classes.  Get study partners and practice daily. Try to attend a Sabbath service at a synagogue to get a feel for the pronunciation of Hebrew.  But you may have done all you can to prepare.

If you know prior to seminary that you plan on doing graduate (Ph.D.) work, then you might want to take some courses in French or German, now, especially German.  But this is not necessary to prepare for the basic seminary (M.Div.) degree unless you are studying in a French or German speaking country!

It is also useful to have experience outside one’s own country, in a different culture.  If you have opportunities to study abroad or to go on mission trips, etc., take them.  Why? Because, maybe especially in the USA, one has a tendency to read the Bible through American eyes and to think “our way is the way its always been done back to Jesus and Paul.” Get exposed to other cultures.  If you cannot arrange to study abroad for a time, try hanging out with the international students at your college or university and learn all you can about their “life back home.” I was always disturbed in seminary by the numbers of students who “felt called to foreign missions” but knew little about ANY other culture and avoided contact with the international students! They were convinced they had much to teach others, but arrogantly assumed they had nothing to learn. I pray to God they were turned down by mission agencies or, failing that, changed their minds and learned humility!

Take some sciences. Learn the scientific method. Take a course in the history of science and/or the philosophy of science.  That should cure you of ridiculous pseudo-scientific warped theologies such as “creation science,” or “intelligent design.”  However, unfortunately, most universities teach history of science (if at all) in history departments and philosophy of science (if at all) in philosophy departments. It is, sadly, quite possible to earn magnificent science degrees at major universities without ever knowing the history or philosophy of the disciplines! Church-related colleges often have different problems–seeing science as “the enemy” and wanting to inoculate you against evolution, etc.  Neither way is helpful for ministry.

That’s all the advice I have.  I await feedback on whether or not it is helpful.  Remember that every student and every program is different.  These are very broad guidelines.

September 10, 2007 Posted by | labor, theological education | 26 Comments