Tuesday, May 24, 2011
What I learned from DTS (and what I didn't learn)
Dallas Theological Seminary has a reputation. Most Protestants in the United States have heard of it and have some opinions about it. Many positive, many negative. Of course, in this world little is either all good or all bad. A year after graduating from seminary as I labor within the church and in hospital life as a Chaplain, and I have had a little time to reflect back on what I believe I was given in seminary that was helpful, what I was given that was not helpful, and what was noticeably absent. I have changed since I entered, entering as a "non-denominational" Christian looking to teach in a school, and exiting as Presbyterian, recently licensed and serving as a Chaplain, looking to pastor in the church.
This is not an advertisement for, nor a tearing down of the seminary, but rather a personal reflection on what was useful about the seminary experience as it related to being thrown into the ministry experience.
First, the positive:
1) Language and Exegetical tools
No one leaves DTS with a Th.M. without knowing Greek and Hebrew grammar and why making a case for the meaning of a text only in the English is unacceptable in the academic world (or sometimes, even in the world of the pulpit, for right or wrong). Although this was a struggle and certainly not the most fun part of seminary, it is a necessary cross for every minister to bear. DTS certainly offered me this in spades.
2) Theological Framework
Six courses in Theology (101-Introduction, 102-Trinitarianism, 103-Anthropology, 104-Soteriology, 105-Sanctification/Ecclesiology, 106-Eschatology) made sure we at least received an introduction to many of the topics we will encounter in Scripture and Theology. I was surprised, when interacting with those in an ecumenical environment, that a solid theological language was not a priority at many other seminaries (with the local exception of Westminster Dallas/Redeemer).
3) General Biblical Knowledge
Although I complained that some of the Bible courses seemed like Bible Trivia prep, the characters and important events and geography of the Bible were seared on my mind. This often helps connect stories of personal experience to the Scriptures. It set the stage for the life-long study of Biblical Theology.
Second What I Learned that was not helpful
4) Value for the Facts over the Pastoral. (A false Facts vs Pastoral dichotomy)
I had professors that I otherwise adored who seemed to revel in giving the "hard answer" over the comfortable answer. This isn't necessarily bad. Sometimes this was a needed way to shock us into telling the truth rather than just what people want to hear, to be prophetic and not just therapeutic. However, sometimes this was the equivalent to giving a snake when our congregation asked for bread. Pastors should be able to speak the truth in love, not merely smack people with truth. The Truth is pastoral, there is not a balance or a choice, but a marriage, and divorce on either side is not helpful.
Finally, what I wish I learned (what was absent and I have had to learn on my own):
Anything about Worship. The nature, the order, theories about worship. A definition even. Something other than a value of the "experience" of worship. Also what would have been helpful is how to put together a worship service, what are the elements (heck, what "elements" are in worship would have been helpful). The exception to this would be the Spiritual Formation department's classes (which are not required) that did focus on the formative aspect of worship.
6) Pastoral Care.
Not basics in Pastoral Counseling. Counseling classes almost exclusively focused on pre-martial counseling, with some attention to getting sinners to stop sinning. Pastoral Ministry classes were focused on preaching and evangelism. Not much required on suffering, how to listen, how to analyze both theologically and psychologically, nothing on the value of "shutting up," or even being there/present.
7) a coherent theology of sanctification -
I took 3 or 4 courses where sanctification was a major component. When you get 3 evangelicals together, it seems you will have 4 models of sanctification. None of the models seemed to have as much in common with Scripture as it did with revivalistic American evangelicalism. It seemed like those who drank in the classroom sanctification material ended up with a higher life or even semi-charismatic spirituality. Unfortunately, little seemed to be said about the role of the community or the church in spiritual formation. (again, exception with the Spiritual Formation Department, whose classes -again- are not required. Most of my practical views on sanctification have come from John Owen.)
Finally) a focus on the Gospel
The organizing construct seemed to be getting as much info on theology and the bible as possible. The shining exception would be classes I took with Dr. Svigel, where he consistently made Christ the center of all theology, whether Eschatology, Ecclessiology or Bibliology. I loved once hearing him take exception to Piper's title of his book: "God is the Gospel." No, Christ his person and work are the Gospel. [I think Piper believes that, but the book title doesn't flesh that all out] I was thankful for this, but wish it was the consistent focus of the seminary and course structure.
Currently, I am in an environment where other ministers have gone to various other seminaries. What I note in comparison is I believe I was given a wonderful preparation in exegesis, knowledge of biblical material, and an ability to engage theology critically and deeply (I would judge that preparation as superior to most of the seminary backgrounds I encounter). However, I was given very little preparation for pastoral care, engaging humbly and humanly with another person (rather than a book), or preparation to talk to suffering people with a mind towards spiritual care. Some professors took an interest in integrating the pastoral into the theoretical (I would cite Dr. John Hannah and Dr. Barry Jones as shining examples) but the course direction itself did not have these things in mind.
I appreciate the cultivating of the mind and languages I received, but have realized I have entered a new classroom of the real world. In this classroom, knowing the reality of the Greek text is important, but so is knowing the reality of the fallen world, the human soul, and the joys and griefs of this world, and the Glory of God as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. In this course of study, however, I don't think anyone will hand me a paper at any point, while I am still alive, that claims that I have graduated.