Following Jesus in Seminary
Dr. Paul Pettit (ThM 96; DMin 07) is the Seminary's Director of Placement and an Adjunct Professor in Pastoral Ministries, Educational Ministries and Leadership, and Media Arts and Worship. This excerpt is from the first chapter of his book Blessed Are the Balanced: A Seminarian’s Guide to Following Jesus in the Academy, available in paperback and as an ebook.
Can Anyone Balance Christian Maturity and Higher Education?
Consider these two scenarios:
Lingering at the moving truck’s sliding back door while glancing at old correspondence, Tyler somberly reflected on being so excited at receiving his acceptance letter to seminary. He had envisioned late nights with friends studying the classic theologians of the faith. He longed to know more about the content of his faith, the reasons he should believe, the underlying nature of his faith. He desired to dig deeper. He wondered why, in just two brief semesters, he now struggled with deepening levels of doubt. He was confused as to why he had become so cynical and sarcastic toward the faith he once held dear. Tyler entered with such eager anticipation and was now leaving with little enlightenment and certainly no degree in hand.
When I (Paul) was in grade school I enjoyed most subjects. Reading, writing, and arithmetic all held my interest. Growing up in northeast Kansas the fall months seamlessly turned to winter and normally a blanket of snow covered the school parking lot and playground. Then spring would arrive in its full splendor. Like suddenly awakened flowers shooting up from their long-dormant positions under the cold soil, all the kids in my class sprang from our assigned seats and raced to the playground.
Plenty of options existed from which to choose. There were the swing sets, monkey bars, merry-go-rounds, and jungle gyms. But one piece of playground equipment always captured my imagination more than the others. I was always drawn to and intrigued by the teeter-totter. Simple in design, this playground staple consisted of one long piece of lumber bolted atop a sturdy metal bar. But oh, the potential dangers lurking; for a group of young boys they seemed endless.
The normal way to ride on the teeter-totter was for one child to sit on one end of the long board and a similar-sized child to sit on the opposing end of the board. While we pushed off with our feet and legs, the up-and- down motion provided hours of endless fun.
But hilarity followed when different-sized kids would try to keep one end of the board suspended in the air. Or two or more kids would try to launch one child into the air. And especially dangerous was to quickly run up the teeter-totter and then to the metal bar; keeping one foot on one side of the bar and another foot on the other side. As weight was slightly shifted from one side to the other, the final goal of balancing the teeter-totter could be achieved. This took skill, patience, experience, and wisdom. Too much weight in one direction always produced a painful and embarrassing spill.
Students also need to exercise extreme caution in order to balance growth in Christ (a life-long pursuit of spiritual maturity) with a concentrated effort at learning more about God (undertaking a course of Christian study or pursuit of theology). Surely the desire to accomplish this task is a worthy goal. Scripture always emphasizes the holistic nature of humanity. For example, Jesus answered an expert in the Law by referring to Deuteronomy 6:5, pointing out that believers should love God with all of their being; heart, soul, strength, and mind. In addition, Peter advised his readers to know the reasons why they believe. He urged them to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).
Those who desire to learn more about God long for a good thing. Today the church has been accused of “dumbing down the gospel,” and some say that the technical and digital revolution means we are “amusing ourselves to death.” Now more than ever, we need theologians who can learn and defend the orthodox doctrines of the faith. The church desperately needs vigorous defenders who can engage a lost and broken post-Christian culture.
In addition, evangelicalism is in need of those who burn with passion for following Jesus Christ. The church is looking for sold-out disciple-makers who mirror the commitment of Jesus and His earliest followers. Possessing a head full of facts and dogmas without a heart filled with love for Jesus and a passion to serve the Savior is of little value.
But how can a balance occur? Can you really stand in the middle of the teeter-totter as a whole person who is passionate about Christian formation and deeply engaged in advanced academic pursuits?
The answer to the question is a resounding yes. However, you must adhere to certain principles, guidelines, and warnings, for the journey to become a success.
The Dangers Involved in Failing to Achieve Balance
Someone may argue, “What difference does it make if I’m not involved in either of these pursuits.” All Christians are called to grow. And all Christians are called to know what they believe. As stated earlier, we are always to be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15). So both of these goals are more than simply worthwhile attainments; they are scriptural mandates. Think of these two arenas of development as the two ends of our teeter-totter example.
On one far end stands the believer who does not see the benefit of learning about the content of his or her faith. Because he does not see the importance of learning “sound doctrine,” he is in danger of being led astray by false teaching. As Paul warned, “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14). All Christians should “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth&edquo; (2 Tim. 2:15). Believers need to understand why they believe what they believe.
On the other end of the teeter-totter stands the believer who slips into the practice of always studying and learning but fails to practice or implement what he is learning. This subtle danger can creep in unawares. As James warned his readers, “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was” (James 1:22-24).
After much biblical or theological study, some may tend to think proudly, “I know so much more than most Christians,” or “I am smarter than the average Christ-follower.” How strange that the advanced study of a book promoting humility and service toward others would leave one feeling smug over his knowledge or ability to recall biblical data or doctrinal facts.
Understanding the Inherent Imperfections in All Theological Systems
God has made Himself known through revelation. Theologians distinguish between general and special revelation. General revelation holds that God’s existence and attributes can be known by all through both an internal sensing and by external observation and discovery of nature, the universe, and even historical events. Special revelation refers to the distinct self-disclosure of God to specific persons and ultimately through Scripture. Christian maturity and academic theological study, which are to be held in balance, can be addressed by these two categories of revelation.
Because of the gift of general revelation, humanity can observe the world as it is. From the intricacies of nature, the complexities of the human body, and the wonder of beauty and art, people can reason there must be a Creator. The apostle Paul explained this concept clearly: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:18-20).
All theological systems are man-made and therefore inherently flawed to some degree. Of course they contain truth, but they are not the truth like the Scriptures. The Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God. As Paul wrote, “All Scripture is inspired by God [lit., God-breathed] and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Inspiration can be defined as the work of the Holy Spirit in enabling the human authors to record what God wanted written down. The writing of the Scriptures was divinely guided. Inerrancy means that the Bible is trustworthy and reliable. And because the Scriptures are authoritative, they can be referred to as God’s Word.
Christian maturity is ultimately based on both the general and special revelation of God. The special revelation of God speaks to the mystery of salvation (right relationship with God). For example, the apostle Paul told the Corinthian believers, “We speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory” (1 Cor. 2:7). The special revelation of God describes the process of sanctification (right fellowship with God). The following passages all mention how God sanctifies (sets apart for service) His own:
- “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
- “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).
- “For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
- “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13).
These passages show that God is at work in the lives of believers to bring them more and more into conformity to Christ. Sanctification is both an accomplished fact and a process of growth. We are formed and ever forming. To use the metaphors mentioned above, we are growing up into our full stature, we are producing good fruit that benefits the body of Christ, and we are learning to walk in the light, as more and more light is revealed to us. Special revelation shows how the process of sanctification should occur. But we rely on general revelation as well. We tap into the wisdom of saints who have gone before us to learn some of the “best practices” for growing in godliness.
We look to learned men and women of the faith who have studied the Scriptures and systematized their observations into reasonable divisions of learning. Believers today rely on (a) the insights and knowledge of Christians who lived in previous ages, (b) doctrines and dogmas formulated through church councils, (c) popular and academic writings on the faith, and (d) faith practices and patterns from others who have embraced Christ as Lord.
Humans were created as moral agents. We were gifted with the incredible power of choice. A glimpse into a Garden of Eden scene reveals, “The LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely,’” (Gen. 2:16). However, even though humans have been granted this amazing freedom to choose, we are ultimately still frail, weak, and finite. The following Bible passages address this weakness:
- “Can you discover the depths of God? Can you discover the limits of the Almighty? They are high as the heavens, what can you do? Deeper than Sheol, what can you know? Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea” (Job 11:7-9).
- “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; what is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him?” (Ps. 8:3-4).
- “LORD, make me to know my end and what is the extent of my days; let me know how transient I am. Behold, you have made my days as handbreadths, and my lifetime as nothing in Your sight; surely every man at his best is a mere breath” (Ps. 39:4-5).
- “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it” (Ps.139:6).
- “A voice says, ‘Call out.’ Then he answered, ‘What shall I call out?’ All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isa.40:6-8).
- “Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:6-8).
Understanding the Inherent Imperfection of All Christian Formation Systems
Both general and special revelation help gifted and learned scholars build systematic theologies, which are useful for the church and her people. But since these systems are based on the writings of imperfect people, these systems of thought are not inspired or inerrant. In a similar manner, methods and plans for growth in godliness also contain imperfections.
Becoming more like Christ has been God’s goal for His followers since Jesus first chose 12 followers and began the process of building His church. Since that time, Christians have relied on the revelation of God and their own human intellect to devise plans and strategies for growth. The earliest followers of Jesus employed the methods they learned from the first disciples including prayer, the sharing of all things in common, regularly meeting together to observe baptism and the Lord’s meal, and other distinctly Christian practices.
Through the ages, various practices were added to these in an attempt to become more fully devoted disciples of Jesus. But these practices, habits, and patterns of devotion, all devised to help us become mature Christians, do not have a 100% guarantee of success.
We can surely employ these methods in good faith expecting desired results, but God produces the results. Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going” (John 3:8).
Balancing the Head and the Heart: It Can Happen!
God made humanity in His own image (Gen. 1:26) and part of that image is the gift of reason. Scripture reveals the wisdom of God, which differs from the ruminations of the most learned or brilliant human thinkers. C. S. Lewis is an example of an atheist who was drawn to faith over time. His mother, Florence, died when he was nine years old. His best friend, Paddy, died during World War I. And yet the subtle emotion that prompted Lewis to keep investigating Christianity was joy. Joy was Lewis’ term for a stab of longing that unexpectedly welled up in him during moments of contemplation, such as listening to an opera or reading an ancient Norse tale.
In his book, The Weight of Glory, Lewis wrote that the yearning he experienced during those moments convinced him there was another existence beyond this world: “For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a love we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.” In Lewis, faith and reason found a comfortable home. His was a brilliant mind and by all accounts a heartfelt, genuine faith.
The psalmist asked, “Examine me, O LORD, and try me; test my mind ּכ ְלָיה (kilyah) and my heart לב (leb)” (Ps. 26:2). In Hebrew, ּכ ְלָיה stands for the motives or understanding (the mind) and לב stands for the affections or emotions (the heart). We can truly find the golden mean between our heart and our head; we can strive for the healthy, holistic lifestyle of a devoted walk with the Savior and the passionate pursuit of academic excellence. A blessed balance is possible!
We do not have to suffer from spiritual frostbite when we pursue advanced studies in theology or the Bible. Paul encouraged the Philippian believers by admonishing them to focus on the peace of God. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7, italics added). In the Greek language kardia “heart” was considered the center of the body and thus the center of the spiritual life, while norma “head” stood for mental perception or thoughts. The apostle Paul placed these two seemingly disparate parts together and promised us that the incredible peace of God can guard (garrison) both our emotions (feelings) and our thoughts (mental choices).
About the Contributors
Paul E. Pettit
Paul Pettit serves as Director of Placement and teaches in the departments of Spiritual Formation and Leadership and Pastoral Ministries. He and his wife, Pamela, and their five children live in Rockwall, Texas, where they are involved in their church and a local Christian school. Paul’s background includes experience as a sportscaster, author, and speaker. His books include Dynamic Dads: How to Be a Hero to Your Kids, Congratulations, You’ve Got ‘Tweens, Congratulations, You’re Gonna Be a Dad!, which he coauthored with his wife, and Foundations of Spiritual Formation. A graduate of the University of Kansas and the Moody Bible Institute’s Advanced Studies Program, Paul has also earned a Master of Theology degree and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.