[Review] – How To Stay Christian in Seminary

About a year or so ago a great blog series came out from David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell from Desiring God, about how to stay Christian while in seminary. The posts were great, but at the time I wasn’t in graduate school yet and the words didn’t stick. Recently, Crossway partnered with Mathis and Parnell to expand this mini-series into a concise book, How To Stay Christian in Seminary (HSXS).

The timing couldn’t be better–this book fills a needed void in equipping students–of any discipline and level–on the disciplines (especially spiritual) that effectively puts education in its proper place: secondary to glorifying God and the health of personal faith. Coming in under 100-pages, HSXS is a quick read; I was able to read HSXS in two sittings, totaling about 2 hours.

Aim of the book

As the title suggests, Mathis and Parnell aim to: “help you be aware of the danger and appropriately sobered by [seminary]. We want you to face the challenge in earnest and see your faith strengthened, deepened, enlivened, and enriched by seminary, not shipwrecked.” The book certainly accomplishes this aim and more; I was particularly challenged with my leadership assumptions on top of walking a daily Christian walk.

What I Wish

Two things about the text. First, I wish Mathis and Parnell would have expanded their audience to all students rather than just complimentarian seminarians. Second, much of what HSXS admonishes the reader to do has hints of an air of perfection, as if the authors were able to master the concepts they present during their seminary experiences. Make no mistake, both Mathis and Parnell are solid men of God, active in the Church, love and lead their families well, but I know them well enough (via Bethlehem Baptist Church) to know they write from these struggles and admonish us to learn from their mistakes before we make them ourselves.

What I Walked Away With

Whenever I read, I filter the text through 6 questions based off of the Swedish Method (below). Not only is this helpful in processing the information during consumption, but it’s also a helpful schema to share the information with others.

Any New Ideas?

  • Approach academics devotionally
  • The goal of seminary [and all education] isn’t to be unweak, it’s to learn and steward your gifts.
  • Make Jesus the explicit center of all our learning
  • Tie everything back to glorifying God.
  • Home is the first ministry. There is no “just a season” for school & study to replace our calling in the home.

Any Questions it doesn’t answer?

  • I know it’s written for seminarians, I would love to see this expanded to include all education, not just seminary. Seminary is particularly hard, especially when Scriptures are studied academically and not devotionally, so I understand the urgency of the authors to reach this specific population.

How can this be applied?

  • HSXS is rich with applications. A few things of note:
    • I have the immediate application of a biblical liturgy to daily pray over my wife.
    • To constantly connect the learning to the glory of God.
    • The radical need to not partition my devotional life from my academic pursuits.
    • Parnell suggests in the first chapter to write a life mission statement. Best part of the book I’ve been emphasizing this for a couple years, and Parnell does a great job to equip the readers to start this important, nay vital pursuit of intentional living:

    “That mission is articulated in a memorable line that becomes the point of gravity around which everything operates.”

How does it make much of Jesus?

  • HSXS is laced with glorifying God, making much of Jesus, and treasuring the gospel. The best quote implies the breadth of God’s glory and our inability to completely understand him. “You go to seminary to grow, yes. You go to seminary to learn and steward your gifts, absolutely. But here’s the thing: the goal of seminary is not to become unweak…Therefore, determine to be known less for your strengths in academic rigor and more for how that rigor helps you grasp what it means that the God-man was crucified to save the world. Embrace your weakness. Bring it all back to grace.”
  • And they end, so beautifully, with this:

    Finally, and most of all, we thank Jesus— our matchless Savior, peerless Lord, and priceless Treasure— who took our place on the cross, defeated death for our sake, ever lives to be our Life and Joy, and keeps us Christian by his Spirit.

  • The church needs this book to be read, because at the end of the day our churches are at stake: seminarians plant churches, lead churches, shepherd churches, and this book is a field guide for seminary students to live devotionally before, during, and after seminary.

Who Should Read This?

  • Not just seminarians, but everyone. The point isn’t that it’s harder to stay Christian in Seminary; the point is it’s hard to be Christian as a learner. I’m convinced life is a continual exposure to learn, some enjoy it, and some avoid it. Everyone needs to learn how to make glorifying God primary, not learning.

If this didn’t exist, what would be missing?

  • As I said before, there’s been a void in the literature for a practical guide to root oneself in the faith while attending seminary (explicitly), but (implicitly) attending any educational institution. This hits the spot, even the length makes it easy for already overloaded students to read it, apply it, and share it.

In sum, to refresh your mindset with seminary, graduate school, undergraduate studies, high school, and even daily living. Pick the book up, your mind and heart will be refreshed and challenged. Your church will benefit from it; your family will benefit from it; your spiritual walk will benefit from it; and God will be glorified by all these things.

I’m grateful for Crossway who gave me an early copy of How To Stay Christian in Seminary through their program, Beyond the Page. I’ve partnered with Beyond the Page to review and provide feedback on the various books they publish. I encourage you to check out the program and see if it strikes your interest.