When I first began wrestling with a call to ministry, I was immediately warned by some well-meaning Christians, “whatever you do, don’t go to seminary; that’s where people lose their love for the Lord.” In my experience, the opposite proved true. Admittedly, when I first started as a student at Talbot School of Theology, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting myself into. Yet my time here became the most life-changing and spiritually-enriching thing I have ever done. Against the warning of those well-meaning Christians, seminary was a place where I grew in my love of the Lord and left with a vision for Christian faithfulness that I hadn’t known prior.
It wasn’t until later that I witnessed what those people warned me about, when I saw the ways that academic training can lead away from the Lord rather than to him. None of that is necessary, however, even while we admit that the academy can often trade in an economy that is alien to the kingdom, one where credentials, significance, and meaningfulness are ordered to academic elitism rather than to the truth that the first will be last and the last will be first. The academy, for all its usefulness, will never become a place where kingdom values reign; but this is why the seminary is not primarily an academic institution, even while it does academic sorts of things. It is possible to be intellectually rigorous without being in service to the academy. In this sense, the seminary is an institution seeking to train men and woman for faithfulness in all areas of life, and to walk with them into a deeper Christian faithfulness for the sake of Christ’s reign in this world and the furtherance of the Gospel. The seminary is meant to be a servant to the church, in other words, and should not abide by the chaotic waves of the academic world.
After finishing my PhD I came back to Talbot as a professor. I was hired to teach what we call spiritual theology. Each seminary student takes a three-course sequence in spiritual theology, picking up the core features of the distinctively evangelical vision for seminary life. But what is this vision? What defines the spiritual culture of a seminary? Few have put it more clearly than B.B. Warfield. In his 1903 address to incoming students to Princeton seminary, entitled, “Spiritual Culture in the Theological Seminary,” Warfield exhorts: “we should pause to remind ourselves that intellectual training alone will never make a true minister; that the heart has rights which the head must respect; and that it behooves us above everything to remember that the ministry is a spiritual office.” It is this training for spiritual work that I was confronted with when I came to Talbot. I had hoped to grow in knowledge, but the training I received here did more; my study of spiritual theology was a calling into wisdom and love.
Too often, Warfield explains, we pick and choose one of the three features of Christian training, as if we can choose our favorite from a buffet-line of options. These three features of Christian training concern your head, heart, and hands, what he calls a “single three-ply cord.” Importantly, however, the way to stoke the flame of intellectual rigor and practical wisdom is only through the spiritual life of the student. This does not mean, of course, that we undermine the calling of deep and thoughtful intellectual work. The heart is not set against the head of the person. The trouble we see among pastors is not that too many are “highly trained intellectually,” Warfield explains, “but that they are sadly undertrained spiritually; not that their head has received too much attention, but that their heart has received too little.” However, when pastors are under-developed intellectually, Warfield argues, the fault is in the heart itself. In other words, a failure to engage one’s mind is first and foremost a failure to love. The seminary curriculum must awaken the loves of the heart because the intellectual life of ministry is driven by love. The seminary, to be faithful to its task, must “not merely keep alive, but fan into a brighter flame, the fires of our love for our Lord and Saviour.”
Seminary should never replace the vital role of the church, of course, but is to be a season of life focused on training in head, heart, and hands for the sake of the body of Christ. This means that a devoted engagement to the life of the body is essential for a seminarian’s training. After exhorting his students to engage in the public means of grace, along with community, singing, Bible reading, and prayer in the seminary itself, he writes, “The entire work of the Seminary deserves to be classed in the category of means of grace.” Furthermore, “I do not know how better to express what I mean than by calling the Seminary a three years’ retreat.” Seminary is meant to be a season when one “withdraws from the world and gives his time exclusively to study and meditation on God’s Word, in company with a select body of godly companions.” Aware of how unusual his words may seem, Warfield warns, “with our natural Protestant objection to all that in the remotest way savors of the monastery, we may be prone to take little account of this feature of Seminary life — much to our hurt. Much to our hurt, I say; for a ‘retreat’ is what a Seminary life is, and it will have its effect on us as such — one way or another, according as we do or do not prepare for it, and are or are not receptive of it.”
Increasingly, students are opting for more part-time rhythms of seminary life, balancing work, family, and other life circumstances with their seminary education. Nonetheless, Warfield’s point remains: this season is meant to be a focused season of intentional growth, reflection, and training for truly spiritual ends. This means that things like community, prayer, and praise, all emphasized by Warfield, should be a part of that rhythm of life alongside of the intellectual and practical engagement that comes from deep reflection on Scripture, theology, and ministry (regardless of whether it is full-time or part-time). After considering the importance of community specifically, and the profoundly meaningful relationships that come out of a time in seminary, Warfield worries that he may have given the impression that community and the classroom will ultimately form one’s soul. Instead, he explains,
“True devoutness is a plant that grows best in seclusion and the darkness of the closet; and we cannot reach the springs of our devout life until we penetrate into the sanctuary where the soul meets habitually with its God. If association with God’s children powerfully quickens our spiritual life, how much more intimate communion with God Himself. Let us then make it our chief concern in our preparation for the ministry to institute between our hearts and God our Maker, Redeemer and Sanctifier such an intimacy of communion that we may realize in our lives the command of Paul to pray without ceasing and in everything to give thanks, and that we may see fulfilled in our own experiences our Lord’s promise not only to enter into our hearts, but unbrokenly to abide in them and to unite them to Himself in an intimacy comparable to the union of the Father and the Son.”
As he casts a spiritual vision for the seminary, Warfield turns to prayer specifically as a point of emphasis: “Above all else that you strive after, cultivate the grace of private prayer. It is a grace that is capable of cultivation and that responds kindly to cultivation; as it can be, on the other hand, atrophied by neglect.”
Next to prayer, Warfield turns us to meditation: “It is commonly said around us that the old gift of meditation has perished out of the earth. And certainly there is much in our nervous, fussy times which does not take kindly to it. Those who read nowadays like to do it running. It is assuredly worth our while, however, to bring back the gracious habit of devout meditation.” Furthermore, quoting the “Plan of the Seminary” affirmed by Princeton Seminary in his time, he asserts ‘that every student will spend a portion of time, every morning and evening, in devout meditation and self-recollection and examination; in reading the Holy Scripture solely with a view to a personal and practical application of the passage read to his own heart, character and circumstances; and in humble, fervent prayer and praise to God in secret.”
Warfield’s vision of the spirituality of the seminary is, admittedly, in contrast to what I hear from many pastors concerning their own experience. For too many, seminary became a place to grow intellectually but not spiritually. Warfield casts a vision for something more holistic and integrated, and it is the same vision that Talbot School of Theology seeks to embody. What we used to call “experimental divinity,” “practical theology,” or sometimes just “Christian ethics,” Talbot calls spiritual theology. At its core, it was evangelicalism’s spiritual vision that oriented its mission. We have sought to embody that vision through the spiritual theology core at Talbot, but also through the Institute for Spiritual Formation, picking up Jonathan Edwards’s task in the Religious Affections to discern the work of the Spirit in the life of a Christian (see my work, Formed for the Glory of God, for Jonathan Edwards’s view of spiritual formation). The calling of all theological education should be faithfulness to our Lord in the full integration of our person, that we would love him with our entire body, mind, soul, and strength. Far from being a place where a spiritual life atrophies, the evangelical vision of seminary life is a season of focused devotion in mind, heart, and hands for the glory of God.
Kyle Strobel is the associate professor of Spiritual Theology at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.