A Practical Question on how to Approach a Seminary Education in a “Liberal” Seminary

May 8/2009

This question came in a while back, and although it was specific in this young person's life then, it might have general relevance to similar situations other readers might find themselves in (or wondering about).

Glen [sic],

I'll attempt to make this as brief as possible. I started a Master of Theological Studies degree in August of last year at XYZ (tn: very prestigious school). I'm focusing in Biblical Studies towards the goal of a PhD and eventual professorship...hopefully at an institution approaching that level of prestige. I say this not because I want or need that level of power/respect for myself. It seems that the response of Christian academia has been to segregate itself from the more liberal/secular divinity schools that typically command respect from the powers that be. One part of my aspirations is to be, instead, a splinter within the system and inspire others to do the same.

At the same time, I intend to do this without compromising my personal and intellectual honesty; I want to face problems I encounter head-on. What I've realized is that the faculty I interact with are world class scholars but will certainly, whether consciously or not, imprint some of their perspective upon me. I doubt, for instance, that any of the tenured faculty members at XYZ favor an early date for Daniel; Professor ABC there certainly doesn't.

So here's the question/advice side of things. I've been reading your site on and off for the past six years. It played a large part in sustaining my faith during the stereotypical undergrad doubting period AND constitutes the larger of two factors that set me on this very path. In light of that, I thought it fitting to ask you whether you have any advice in retaining some of my biblical conservatism in the face of (likely) brutal resistance.

And as always, thanks for all the work you do. The Lord has truly changed lives through your efforts.

Warmest Regards,

Here was my rather hastily-written feedback:

When I first read this, two things immediately came to mind, and then another bubbled up—but if I wait for more to come, I will probably forget these if I don't write them down NOW (smile);

1. The main point is one I have mentioned on the Tank several times and which you have no doubt already assimilated: the old philosophical adage that you are not entitled to criticize a position until you can DEFEND IT to the satisfaction of its strongest/best proponents. In the case of XYZ Divinity School, this means that you need to learn how to defend—to the satisfaction of the professors—all the ‘non-conservative’ positions they might teach. Only then can you be SURE that you are not ‘slandering’ the position, inadvertently. And you will avoid any ‘negative stereotypes’ from your professors, when the day comes that you have to say ‘I know the strengths of your positions—you KNOW that—but I think this other position is superior because of x,y,z…’ – they will not likely (or as quickly) brand you as a close-minded whatever this way (smile).

2. The second is one for prayer: ask God to make you MORE LIKE your professors, in the traits and positions that God WANTS you to adopt. These professors are leaders in their perspective-paradigms for many reasons—and some of those reasons will involve traits of scholarship, traits of integrity, and even perspectives and positions that our Lord might want you to learn and adopt from them—and eventually, to be able to offer sincere thanks and legitimate appreciation to them for those ‘gifts’ to you.

3. The third is a simple one: realize that you are not 100% right and they are not 100% wrong, and ask God to ‘rip up/destroy and replant/regrow’ (Jeremiah image) your theology and conservatism—AS HE SEES FIT. You WILL likely become less-conservative during the process, and if it occurs while you are growing in the Lord (and following point #1), the more-moderate position you morph into will be closer to the one He will eventually get you to, later in your career and sanctification! (smile)… realize that some positions of yours may become MORE conservative (but make sure it is not for ‘defensive’ reasons, of course), and some LESS so. But the goal is to be open to learning, and open enough to change, to ‘allow’ God to sculpt your worldview and academic starting-points more precisely.

Then, while writing the above, THIS one bubbled up:

4. There are many, many ‘liberal professors’ who love our Lord with all their heart… and would readily die a martyr’s death for His honor and cause… these folk hold their liberal positions (often) because they are convinced the positions are TRUE, and that they will have to answer to God for how they ‘handled’ the data. So be SURE not to ‘judge’ a professors’ ‘relationship to the Lord’ by the more-academic aspects of their scholarly positions… some, of course, are in the OPPOSITE position (they have picked a minority position, for reasons of anti-theology or convenience or notoriety… some of the more radical Jesus Seminar folks might fit this category, as might many of the more radical ‘lost years of Jesus’ and 'the married life of Jesus' writers…sigh… in some cases, you will suspect this, but points #1 and #2 still apply, even in THESE cases)… so, be prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt (as long as you can), and be prepared to worship along side of them, as they try to honor God in their non-academic life.

A great example of this last point, IMO, is Martin Hengel… I have profited from his works probably more than any other writer’s to date… He has an incredibly high Christology and a powerful defense of Gospel historicity… but he believes in a Late Daniel, the two Isaiahs, the pseudo-Pauline writings, etc. And it is a worshipful experience, sometimes, to read his comments about the beauty of the Savior and the power of the gospel and how the Spirit taught the Church that Jesus was God the Son… just my favorite example (smile)--and not just because it is so humbling-in-the-purest-and-warmest-way.

Well, that’s the best I can come up with friend—I hope it helps—and God will guide you to other insights yourself!

In His love,



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