If you want seminarians to read your book, chum the water with names like Warfield, Frame, Carson, Flavel, Calvin and Vanhoozer. “How to Stay Christian in Seminary” by David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell draw you in with the footnotes seminarians love, but behind the veil of scholasticism lies a deeply practical and necessary message. I loved everything that was written in this book, it made my heart sing. But I was also disappointed in one huge gap I believe the authors left when it comes to “staying Christian in seminary.”
When I saw the book was up for review, I lunged at the opportunity. I am a pastor, who is in seminary, who has a wife, and a growing family, and I really would like to stay Christian. In fact I would love to stay Christian in seminary. Mathis and Parnell go to great lengths in such a short book to present a picture of God which is attractive, demanding, and captivating.
Seminary is not a place where one should go to put God under a microscope. It is not a place where we attempt to enlarge and enhance aspects of a small God. Seminary is a place where we get the privilege and the challenge of viewing God through a telescope. We have a God who is beyond our comprehension and grasp, and those in seminary get the privilege of diving in and attempting to better understand the nature of this big God in small, yet transformative ways. Parnell quotes Edwards saying, “God glorifies himself in communicating himself, and he communicates himself in glorifying himself.” Seminarians are left tumbling in observation and worship. For the authors, the study of God is innately devotional and must be worship stirring. This is something I must constantly remind myself of as I can easily narrow my view to mere “study.” My study should always lead to worship, if it doesn’t, I’m not studying the God of the Bible.
This idea of seminary as worship stirring is a necessary message. Mathis and Parnell avoid the blame game, and cut straight to the heart of the “seminary as cemetery” argument: “But even the best of the evangelical, confessional seminaries can be spiritually dangerous places, not mainly because of the administrators at the top or the teachers at the front, but because of the sinners in the seats.” It is a sin to gaze into the throne room and not be stirred to worship. In true “Piperinian” fashion (Piper also wrote the forward for the book), the key to staying Christian in seminary is to provide an anchor amid the studying: “that Jesus must be tasted and treasured by us and through us.” Mathis adds, “If seminarians lose their taste for grace, they have no good business calling themselves Christians, much less putting themselves forward as leaders in the church.”
I loved this aspect of the book, but I was pressed most in the latter chapters which get into the practical applications of prayer, weakness and the Christian home. For me personally my failure to see myself as Biblically weak leads to a deficiency in my prayer life and as a husband/father. I highly recommend these three chapters by Parnell to any man, seminary or not. I have talked with a Pastor who hosts seminary students at his house over the school year. His message: “Be a ‘B’ student.” Often times the amount of time and energy required for an ‘A’ can come out of energy and time best spent on your family or the leading of your church. Obviously we should seek to work hard and diligently, but we should have a right value and weight on what it is that we are doing. I was extremely grateful for Parnell’s 10 ways in which he prays for his wife (Chapter 6). These are simple ways where I can focus on my family and lead them in silent and powerful devotion.
I love the emphasis on Biblical Theology, and Christocentric eyes in the latter portions of the book, but I wish they had written one more chapter. One of my professors at Western Seminary has engrained into my head, “You never assume the gospel.” Parnell and Mathis will not be accused of that, but in this book, they have assumed church involvement. Certainly this is assumed throughout the book. In the introduction the authors give us the severity of the message: “What’s at stake in this situation? The church is soon to suffer.” But outside of this assumption and some passing mentions (and a portion of a prayer in Chapter 6), there is no explicit mention of church involvement.
Seminary is for Christians. Christians need the church. I think it is a danger to assume that all the men who are reading this book are attending classes, growing in their knowledge of theology, as well as submitting to a local church. The lead pastor at my church often comments on the lack of church involvement from students as he finished his M.Div. This should not be the case. Before we are seminarians, we are Christians, and Christians are called to submit to, participate in, and serve the church (Eph 4). Mathis and Parnell do a fantastic job of presenting the need for affection and holiness in seminary, but the author of Hebrews connects the affection towards the blood of Jesus and the “full assurance of faith” with the need for church involvement (Hebrews 10:19-25). This small omission leaves a big gap in our pursuit of holiness amid the homework. Seminarians will one day steer the church, you best be ready to submit to one for growth, worship, encouragement and admonition in the meantime.
In the conclusion Mathis lists the need for church involvement as a real issue, but it is far too little given the weight of the issue. I loved this book, I recommend this book, but I hope that in a second edition they can weave the affection stirring and devotional nature of seminary in with the need to submit and serve the local church.
Crossway provided me with a free copy of this book via their Beyond the Page program. Don’t forget to check out some other quotes from the book in my Kindle Highlights article.