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


  1. Great advice! I started seminary with 10 credit hours of Classical Greek behind me (5 for credit, 5 audited) and never regretted it! I also agree that a broad liberal arts background is far superior than a “Bible” or “Religion” major. If it is anything, pastoring is a multi-disciplinary field. The wider one’s reading and familiarity with the way the world works, the better.

    Comment by D. P. | September 10, 2007

  2. Although I believe that reasonable people can disagree on this, my own judgment is that the study of Greek and Hebrew in seminary is overrated. The typical seminarian would be much better served being trained in the basics of exegesis (which, contrary to 19th century classically trained Germans, doesn’t necessarily require a mastery of ancient languages) and applied morality. As things are now in many seminaries, graduates acquire a smattering of Greek and/or Hebrew, loathe the courses, and forget what little they learned as soon as they hit the real world of the parish. Why not give them something they can actually use?

    Comment by Kerry | September 10, 2007

  3. Kerry, I fight against the “smattering” approach. I would INCREASE Greek and Hebrew requirements at most seminaries. I have fought the mindset you describe all through my career.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 10, 2007

  4. I agree with Kerry, but from a different standpoint. I studied Greek and Hebrew, plus Akkadian, Ugaritic, Aramaic in seminary in preparation for a career in Semitics. To my suprise, God decided on pastoral ministry. My seminary linguistic adventures was added on to being trained at the Defense Language Institute/West Coast to speak and write Arabic (complements of US Army). While I have the ability to pick up languages fairly easy, my views about the desirability of Greek and Hebrew in seminary changed when I came in contact with cultural and missional linguists at Fuller Theological Seminary. They convinced me that to be sufficiently able to use a foreign language (whatever variety) requires mastery beyond the capabilities of the average seminary trained pastor. My observations on hearing Greek and Hebrew “butchered” and “misrepresented” in over 50 years of listening to sermons in the church has led me to agree with them.
    I would prefer to teach a basic understanding of the alphabet, grammatical orientation, use of the secondary tools such as dictionaries, lexicons, and such so that a person would be able to research the linguistic background of the text. Most such people are going to be relying on the voice of experts in Greek and Hebrew, anyway.
    Better in my opinion would be a really good course in english grammar, an intor course in linguistics, and something like Adler’s How to Read a Book.

    Comment by David | September 10, 2007

  5. I’ve heard far more butchered sermons because the preacher had no biblical languages and didn’t give much in exposition, but just rushed to be “relevant.” Warmed-over psycho-babble in place of solid biblical exposition is horrible.
    Adler’s How to Read a Book would be great, though. Significantly, Adler was one of the creators of the Great Books series. This reinforces my view that a well-rounded course in liberal arts, with an emphasis on intelligent reading of texts, is the best preparation.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 10, 2007

  6. Unfortunately, I agree with you about butchered sermons. I even butchered a few myself. However, I was trying to be more specific, i.e, how people who don’t understand the intracacies of syntax and so on can butcher the Greek or the Hebrew. I have heard the greek quoted, only to go and find out that they had misinterpreted the meaning of Brown, Driver, Briggs, et al.
    I remember reading James Barr on the uses and abuses of Greek linguistics. It made me very nervous about my deficiencies in the languages, even though at that time I wasprobably father along then many.
    But not to quibble. You are right on about the liberal arts education.

    Comment by David | September 10, 2007

  7. I’ll vote in favour of biblical languages. The sermons I’ve heard butchered tended to be by hot-shots who didn’t know the languages at all but used Strongs to pretend. Or by those with no comprehension of how any language works and tried to preach from etymology and one-for-one correspondence translation.

    One thing I’d demand. READ the BIBLE — the WHOLE BIBLE, in multiple translations and forgetting everything heard in church as you read. Get to know the BOOK on ITS OWN TERMS discovering as many questions it provokes as you can and you’ll be prepared for serious study.

    You’d be surprised how many people get into the pulpit (and even get MDiv + degrees) without ever carefully reading the whole Bible (all the while proclaiming that they believe it as verbally inspired from cover to cover).

    Comment by Tauratinzwe | September 10, 2007

  8. Michael,

    I appreciate your conviction about biblical languages. I took the requisite courses — and then passed further exams in Latin, German, and French for the Ph.D. — which I did in British history.

    But whatever mastery of languages — and unlike David, my foreign language abilities aren’t great — I’ve not been able to keep them up. However, the time spent in those classes, learning the intricacies of the language, taught me to respect the language and those who know it well.

    I realize some seminaries don’t require any languages — that’s a mistake — but to expect every pastor to be able to read Greek and Hebrew with the fluency of a NT Ph.D. is asking for way too much. I know enough to work with some of the tools, utilize a variety of translations, and depend on quality, scholarly commentaries — from people like Brueggemann, Craddock, and others.

    As for the breadth of knowledge — I agree. I did the Bible College route (but didn’t do the languages), but missed out on some of the breadth of knowledge. In seminary you do repeat many of the things, so a strong introduction to history, philosophy, psychology, etc. would be helpful.

    But ultimately we bring what we bring to seminary and go from there!!

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | September 10, 2007

  9. “I’ll vote in favour of biblical languages. The sermons I’ve heard butchered tended to be by hot-shots who didn’t know the languages at all but used Strongs to pretend. Or by those with no comprehension of how any language works and tried to preach from etymology and one-for-one correspondence translation.”

    But the question is why do so many preachers feel the need to pretend to be knowledgeable in the ancient languages? The obvious answer is that they’re trained in a climate–a holdover from the nineteenth century German academy–that tells them that you don’t know your Bible if you can’t read it in the original languages. This is absurd.

    Comment by Kerry | September 11, 2007

  10. This may not be popular with the church academics but courses in business and management would aid a pastor greatly. As much as people argue against it, church is a business and should be run with a high degree of professionalism.

    Comment by Fish | September 11, 2007

  11. Although a church is a non-profit, it does have to make ends meet. If the pastor knows nothing of such matters, she or he needs church elders, trustees, deacons, etc. who do. Believe it or not, Fish, some seminaries even include courses in church administration.

    So, I agree that such courses, either before or during seminary, would be helpful. I resist, however, the image of the “pastor as CEO” which is popular among mega-churches.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 11, 2007

  12. Books are written about “what I didn’t learn in Seminary.” Reality is that you can’t learn everything you need to know about ministry while in seminary. This is why some form of continuing education is essential. More and more denominations (at least Mainline ones) are requiring it. Knowledge of administration — not my favorite subject — is of course one of those things you’ve got to know about.

    On the issue of preachers making big deals about the languages and yet not knowing them — I think that’s more a Fundamentalist/Pentecostal thing than it is among mainliners. Rather than being a holdover from the German Academy, I think it is rather an attempt to look smart. Consider how many Fundamentalist/Pentecostal Preachers have DD by their name. Now, in Britain that’s an earned degree based upon certain criteria. In America it is an honorary degree (and in many cases deserved) but for far too many DD means “donated dignity.” Now, like Michael, I have a Ph.D. so I have a certain bias against undeserving “doctors.”

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | September 11, 2007

  13. Biblical languages are a must if one is coming from a Protestant tradition. All the Reformers stressed both vernacular translations for the laity and original languages for the ministers. You can get around this a bit if you are RCC or EO (and perhaps even Anabaptist) since these come from a different tradition — though I haven’t really seen this case made.

    However, I taught Hebrew out at Fuller for a time and can say that the program doesn’t truly help future ministers learn the language. Sure, students learn the rudiments of grammar and vocab; but at least for the Hebrew Bible, most knowledge of the language comes more from reading different texts. Students just aren’t forced to read enough of the text.

    It’s a nasty situation, and one for which I haven’t found an easy solution.

    Comment by jimgetz | September 11, 2007

  14. Bob, one of my favorite professors once commented (lamented) that he could usually tell, in visiting a pastor’s office, when he or she graduated from seminary because there are no books on the shelves from beyond that date! I heartily agree with your comment about continuing education.

    I also think the knowing the languages—or at least pretending—is (at least in my experience) a Evangelical/Pentecostal thing. (Not honest-to-gosh fundamentalists, though. They have the KJV; only “liberals” study Greek and Hebrew!) I was once tutoring someone in Greek when her pastor, a D.Min. student if I recall correctly, dropped by to visit and, in the course of the conversation, joked about being clueless about the biblical languages. Within a couple weeks, I saw this guy preaching on TV, noting how the Greek grammar of whatever passage he was expounding would not justify a particular interpretation. Nothing was said about where he got his information, so the implication was that he picked up his Greek NT and saw it for himself. Grrr.

    Comment by D. P. | September 11, 2007

  15. Actually, Bob, even in Britain, a D.D. is an honorary degree–but one that is given in recognition of outstanding contributions to academics, even without being related to a formal course of study. Instead of being given out like candy to every commencement speaker, British D.D.s are given out in a very conservative manner. For instance, only 2 American pastors have been given a D.D. by the University of Glasgow: Harry Emerson Fosdick (of Riverside Church, NYC) & Carlyle Marney–both Baptists who had enormous contributions–and Marney already had an earned Ph.D.

    But I share a bias against phony degrees in ministry.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 11, 2007

  16. One of the most important areas of study in my mind is the “study of congregations.” – how they work, how to analyze them, family systems theory, sociological analysis of congregational dynamics, etc. After twenty years of pastoring in three parishes, I finally was forced to admit that my ‘theology’ had prevented me from actually paying attention to the wealth of info on how congregatations work. For instance, reading Rabbi Friedman’s book on ‘family systems theory’ gave me knowledge that I could well have used previously. There is a certain amount of chagrin in acknowledging that one has adequate preaching and pastoral skills, and even some learned experience in spiritual direction, only to be force to admit that one doesn’t know jack about how congregations really work. And reading the NT, while it gives one theological basis for congregational life, doesn’t help much in practical knowledge of now not to be toxic to the church you pastor.

    Comment by David | September 11, 2007

  17. I can’t believe I am going to do this, but I actually agree with Michael for the second time in a week! This time I agree that Biblical languages are essential for good exposition and for a proper Seminary education. And I too have experienced those horrible sermons where a lack of knowledge of Greek and/or Hebrew was evident. I cringe anytime I hear about ANY M.Div (or M.A.) program that does not require them.

    But one point I have about those preparing for an M.Div degree is quite different. I think one must be familiar with foreign languages and be prepared to learn Greek, and to some extent be familiar with philosophy and the such, but more importantly I think is for one to have a degree that Michael described as being “marketable.”

    Seminary is not easy and it does take you outside of the real world. And very importantly, it doesn’t pay. If I could go back I would obtain either an Education degree, so I could teach (at least as a substitute on a much higher pay scale), or get a business degree, so I could use it in any number of ways to put myself through Seminary. Also, those degrees and the use of them in the real world, I think, prepare you to interact with people of all walks of life, and provide you with a leg up so that you are not dependent upon the Church to take care of you (as well as providing you with vital opportunities to improve leadership skills).

    Even now, as I am in the secular work world I wish I had a degree in Business, finance, or education to fall back on, so that I could work part-time in a church without that pull to pursue a position because of security. That lack of a need for compromise, to me, seems well worth the missed opportunity to prepare better academically for a later Ministry degree.

    Comment by D.R. Randle | September 11, 2007

  18. Okay, D.R., I just HAVE to know: What was the OTHER topic on which we agree??

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 11, 2007

  19. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I can’t help but think that all this talk about mastering dead languages in seminary is a red herring. Knowing Hebrew and Greek isn’t a magic bullet against bad exegesis. Bad exegesis is most likely the consequence of an already-determined interpretive worldview; philological discoveries that disagree with it are likely to be ignored. (Okay, my bona fides: earned PhD in philosophy, study at secular and Roman Catholic institutions. Languages: Greek, Latin, French, German. Too stupid to master Hebrew.)

    Comment by Kerry | September 12, 2007

  20. I majored in the social sciences as an undergraduate, but was required to take an honors seminar in the history of science (taught by an environmental biologist). That was, perhaps, one of the most interesting and informative required courses that I took outside of my major. Too bad it wasn’t required for ALL students.

    As an undergraduate theology instructor, I agree that a solid liberal arts background is essential for theological study. Too many of my students have absolutely no clue about the basics of geography, history, social analysis, or literary interpretation, thus seriously impeding their ability to grasp basic biblical and theological concepts.

    In the area of languages, I think a course or two in introductory linguistics and/or grammar and syntax would be helpful. I took both of those courses before going to seminary and found them to be immensely helpful in doing word-studies and grammar-studies in hermeneutics. And had I gone the MDiv route (instead of the MA in world missions), I’m sure I would have found that background helpful in tackling Greek and Hebrew as well.

    Comment by haitianministries | September 12, 2007

  21. Kerry, I do not contend that knowing the biblical languages (or even cognates such as Akkadian, Ugaritic, Aramaic, etc.) is any kind of guarantee to correct exegesis. There are no guarantees, no “magic bullets,” or perhaps a better metaphor would be “magic body armor.” And, yes, linguistics and translation theory should also be taught, but with the same proviso that there are no guarantees.

    In fact, one advantage of taking biblical languages in seminary is to give would-be pastors-as-interpreters some much needed “hermeneutical humility.” When I realized how often “knowing the original” did NOT settle the interpretive question, but, instead, opened up MORE possible interpretations than were obvious in translation, it prevented me from treating my sermons as infallible pronouncements from on high. Learning the biblical languages prevents some stupid mistakes, but also drives home the fact that ALL reading of texts that are ancient, written in other languages, from very alien cultural contexts, etc.–ALL such readings are ACTS OF INTERPRETATION, frought with potential for errors of judgment.

    Of course, “head interpreter,” or even “resident scholar” is not all that a pastor must be–and the sheer number of hats a pastor must wear is amazing–and an excellent argument for shared leadership by gifts even in small churches. But I do argue that one important role of the pastor is in leading and empowering the congregation to read and live the Christian Story rightly–as rightly as possible–and that learning the biblical languages is an important part of that process.
    But, Kerry, you are missing an important part of this post, even after I went back and called attention to it with bold letters: This post’s topic is not about what should or should not be in a seminary curriculum. That’s another fascinating discussion. Biblical languages ARE part of most seminary curricula, and in many denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. to name just two, one must have passed such languages to be ordained. You can take up with the leaders of such denominations the question of whether such a requirement is good.
    My post was about advising potential seminary students about preparing academically to do well in seminary. Given the fast-paced nature of the way biblical languages, especially Hebrew, are taught in most seminaries, I was trying to help students who do not learn languages very quickly to be ready: either by auditing formal classes, enrolling in classes taught by a local synagogue (I have done this SINCE seminary to refresh by rusty Hebrew and, believe me, it helps!), etc., so that they are not overwhelmed.
    I did advise them not to try to wiggle out of biblical languages in seminary and I think that is good advice, but that was a side note to my main emphasis–which was preparing FOR seminary.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 12, 2007

  22. Michael,

    The other point of agreement was over at Big Daddy Weave’s blog, which was that one’s church attendence should not be a core consideration when it comes to picking a President and that one’s stated committment to (or lack thereof) a religious position does not mean one will (or will not be) a good U.S. President.

    Comment by D.R. Randle | September 12, 2007

  23. […] Levellers, Michael Westmoreland-White has been discussing ministerial vocations, specifically: how to prepare academically for seminary and the various roles pastors/ministers are expected to play. This got me thinking about a time a […]

    Pingback by Dr. Platypus » Blog Archive » Called to Ordained Ministry? | September 14, 2007

  24. […] read a blog post written by Michael Westmoreland-White in which he gave students advice on “Preparing for Seminary”.  It’s a pretty good post and I would recommend reading it but there was one thing in […]

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  25. […] Levellers blog The intent of Road to Priesthood is to challenge how we Christians view and interact with the world around us, transcending our religious and political differences. It covers topics as diverse as politics, religion, love and marriage, and the Church itself. Subscribe to this blog at http://roadtopriesthood.wordpress.com/feed   […]

    Pingback by 6 Ways to Prepare for Seminary « Road to Priesthood | August 4, 2009

  26. “But there is nothing particularly helpful in majoring in Bible, theology or religion as an undergraduate.”

    I disagree, primarily because the more you know about religion (Bible, church history, theology, world religions) the better prepared you are for your ministry later. This is especially the case since increasingly seminaries are emphasizing “practical” courses over “academic” courses.

    Your concern about repetition once you attend seminary is certainly valid. However, students who major in Bible, religion, or something similar can negotiate with the seminaries when applying to insure that this is not the case. Rather than taking introductory seminary courses in a particular topic, the seminary student can simply take additional advanced seminary courses.

    There is another advantage to majoring in Bible, religion, etc. That is, in my experience students majoring in these areas are more likely to get full-tuition academic scholarships to seminary.

    Therefore, although it is certainly not required, majoring in Bible, religion, youth ministry, etc. as an undergraduate does have certain educational and financial benefits.

    Comment by Ray Person | February 9, 2010

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