By Jake Griesel
For the past 4 years, I have been blessed to be able to partake in and reflect on theological studies at university level. I have learnt a great deal in that time, and have often thought about what advice I would give to prospective students of theology – advice I wish had been given to me when I started my own theological studies. Now that I am busy with my M.Th in Historical Theology, I have made a list of 20 points of advice I would give to prospective students of theology who consider starting a Bachelor’s degree, whether to later serve in the ministry or in the academy. These are arranged in no particular order, and are by no means exhaustive:
1. A verse to be engraved in every theologian’s mind
Remember that all-important reminder for theologians: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” James 3:1. Consider your calling, and especially the One by whom you are called, and know that it is a calling of great weight – one might even say a burden – which is not to be taken lightly.
2. Do not let academic work and ambitions come in the way of your personal devotional life.
We have a saying in Afrikaans “moenie so besig raak met die dinge van die Here dat jy vergeet van die Here van die dinge nie” (lit. “Do not become so busy with the things of the Lord that you forget about the Lord of the things”). Also do not neglect your relationship with your family and friends – the key is to strike a balance. Pray without ceasing. Especially keep your knowledge of Scripture sharp. This will not only be of great value to your devotional life, but will offer a firm platform for discernment when you are confronted with not-so-kosher matters in your studies, such as theological liberalism, heresies, postmodernism, and the latest fads.
3. You are first and foremost called to be a theologian
During your theological studies, you will gain much knowledge and learn many skills. All such accumulated knowledge and skills are of course very useful and necessary, but are to be subservient to the main task of a theologian: the understanding and application of God’s Word. Your skills as a historian, linguist, philosopher or cultural critic must all be secondary to and subservient to your primary calling as a theologian.
4. Acquaint yourself with apologetics from the start
1 Peter 3:15 says we must always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” I have seen many students who are able to give a clear account of their faith to fellow believers, but crumble when they have to do the same before unbelievers. And at university there are many who challenge and oppose the faith. While most standard bachelor’s courses would include at least one module on apologetics, this is simply not enough. A great (and recent) source for equipping yourself with a knowledge of apologetics is Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith by Douglas Groothuis (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2011). Get it and read it.
5. Be an active member of your local congregation
There is a self-sufficient spirit in our day in which many Christians prefer to stay at home and watch sermons on TV (most of which are utterly heretical) or their favourite preachers on the internet or on mp3. Many students of theology have done the same. Do not become like this. There is no place for neglecting the communion of saints in a theologian’s life. Furthermore, it is highly advisable to get involved in some form of ministry early on. Get involved in outreaches, evangelism, youth work, charity, or serve as a deacon in your congregation – whatever it is you do, do not leave the ministry only for when your studies are done. Not only will this provide you with valuable experience for when you eventually enter the ministry or work with students in future, but it will allow you to put theory into practice. And on top of this, it is obedience to the Great Commission. Get involved!
6. Submit yourself to the preaching of the Word and church authority
Students of theology are prone to sit in church on Sundays and critique whatever is being preached from the pulpit. While of course we must be like the Bereans and search the Scriptures to see whether “these things are so” (Acts 17:11), I believe some take their critiques too far and practically sit in judgment on the preached Word every Sunday. I have been guilty of this myself. Do not be like this. In humility submit yourself to the preached Word. The pastoral epistles of Paul give us ample reasons to do this. The Reformers understood the central importance of sitting under the preached Word, and we ought not to place ourselves over it. It is an issue of sinful pride. Humbly submit yourself to the God-ordained authorities, including the elders, regardless if you may have more theoretical knowledge than them. Doing otherwise, simply put, is rebellion against the revealed will of God.
7. Learn to write and speak clearly, cogently, and succinctly
Verbosity is to be avoided. While eloquence isn’t the sine qua non of a theologian, it is nonetheless a highly valuable skill, especially when preaching, writing assignments, or doing research papers. Learn to express your thoughts clearly and succinctly. I have seen many students with good thoughts and ideas struggle to express themselves and clearly articulate their thoughts, with the impact and meaning of what they were trying to say thereby going astray. If you are not a natural public speaker, joining a club such as Toastmasters International may be very helpful.
8. Tolle, lege! Take up and read!
I couldn’t emphasize this enough. Tolle, lege! We are not the first people to study the Scriptures or theology. Many brilliant (and sometimes not so brilliant) men have written before us, whether long ago or recently, and by reading we engage with these great theologians of the past and present. Not only is reading the primary method for acquiring knowledge, but it also offers us a platform for discernment. Start collecting books from the start and build a personal library, whether printed or digital ones (the latter which are ever-increasingly becoming readily available). I myself have greatly benefited from retiring pastors who were giving away their books (something I can’t imagine doing before I die) – look out for such opportunities or spend less money on trivial things (which good books certainly don’t qualify as) so that you may be able to buy decent books for your collection. Building such a library is not only an investment for the future, but may also come in handy when doing assignments. I can’t describe the number of times my own collection has helped me with assignments – sometimes even more than the university library! Start collecting today. On top of this, do not only read the prescribed curricular material. Read beyond that. Especially if the faculty or seminary where you study often exposes you to liberal theology, balance such readings with more conservative texts. And a last comment here: memorize the names of prominent and authoritative authors/works in the different disciplines, it will come in handy as your studies progress.
9. Try to discover your favourite discipline/subject early on
Later in your studies when it comes to research papers or dissertations, this will be important. I’ve seen many students uncertain about what discipline they want to focus on for their dissertations. I was fortunate enough to discover my two passions early on: Church history/historical theology on the one hand, and systematic theology/dogmatics on the other, with the former always being my favourite subject. Once you’ve discovered the discipline that most interests you, you can start exploring it in your own time and collecting sources, so that by the time you come to your later studies, you will already be well-acquainted with the subject.
10. Read on non-theological subjects as well, and regularly converse with non-theological students
As much as your studies in theology will naturally have the preeminence over other subjects, it is of great interest to the edification and well-being of a theology student to also stay in touch with other subjects. As depressing as some news headlines may be (especially in South Africa), try to at least keep one eye on contemporary issues and events. Acquaint yourself with history, the great classics of literature, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, politics, economics, agriculture, sports, or whatever other subjects there may be. In doing so it will also allow you to discover the gifts God has given to people in other fields, as well as the value of such fields. Theology cannot be done in a vacuum, and other subjects will give you greater perspective, offer you the chance to bring such subjects into theological light, and also provide more common ground with your future audience.
One positive aspect of studying at a public university as opposed to a seminary is that you are frequently in contact with students from other fields of study. Two years ago I shared a house with a final-year medical student and a final-year architecture student. The conversations I’ve had with them about things I knew nothing about, such as medical ethics, what medical students do in a hospital, how architecture has changed over the past 50 years, and many other things, have left a lasting impression on me, and though I am admittedly utterly ignorant in these fields, I at least understand the world of medical and architecture students to a slightly better degree than I did before. Just do it. Make friends with non-theological students.
11. Put in the effort with languages
Looking back, I wish I had put in more effort during my two years of Hebrew and Greek. Though I never struggled with these languages and did alright, I was lazy at the time and was one of those “open a book the night before exam” students. Two years later, though I can still help myself with these languages when doing exegesis with the aid of Bibleworks and lexicons, I wish I had put in the hard yards back then to gain a firmer foundation in Hebrew and Greek. Especially future pastors who will be exegeting texts on a weekly basis for their sermons, do not make the same mistake I did. Put in the effort and make sure your foundation in Hebrew and Greek is solid.
On top of this, if possible, consider taking Latin, German, and French as well – especially if you intend to do extensive postgraduate research. Latin is especially important if you intend to study church history or historical theology, that you may have access to the primary sources. The same goes for German and French. There are oceans of sources on all theological disciplines written in German and French, both old and new, which are only accessible if one is literate in these languages. Many theological terms and phrases are also fixed expressions in Latin, German or French, which are generally left untranslated in scholarly works. While I am thankful to be busy with third-year Latin, I only started German and French this year and wish I had somehow started earlier. Do not waste time. Start early so that by the time you get to postgraduate studies you are already familiar with these languages.
12. Exegesis is extremely important
In line with the previous point, I reckon one of the aspects of your theological training that deserves most attention is exegesis. If there is one aspect of your studies in which you must strive for excellence, it is this. Especially if you are going to preach the Word on a weekly basis, “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15b) deserves the utmost attention.
13. Be humble and listen carefully
Zeal can be a very good thing, but it can also be dangerous. Many young theologians, out of sinful pride, start their studies with the know-it-all idea that they’re “going to prove the world wrong,” and then go out to seek quarrels and debates just for the sake of showing others how wrong they are. Such was I, to my shame. As surprising as it may come to some: no, we are not inherently right on all things and others are not inherently wrong on all things. Listen carefully to others and what they have to say, do not just wait for them to stop talking so that you can say what you have to say. By this I am not suggesting that we let go of our firm convictions, but rather that we would be humble enough to acknowledge our own flaws and limitations, and humble enough to recognize and acknowledge truth when others speak it, especially when it means we have to confess and rectify our own errors. Pride is to be eliminated, and we must speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15a).
14. Know your own tradition, treat it critically, and learn from other traditions discernfully
One of the most discouraging things I’ve experienced in my studies is the ignorance of the Reformed tradition among Dutch Reformed theology students. When I began my studies, I came with the idea that all the other students would be zealous for Reformed theology, our history and tradition, as well as our Reformed confessions (the Three Forms of Unity). Much to my disappointment, I found that, with a few exceptions, the students were utterly ignorant of many of these things, nor did many of them acquire a love for these things during their studies. Such are the future pastors of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, and I find it a great concern. Get to know and understand your tradition. By that I do not mean follow it blindly; we should also be critical of our own traditions and continually examine whether any reform is necessary according to biblical teachings (ecclesia semper reformanda est), but only by understanding our own traditions will we be able to be in a position to reform and to critique other traditions. Besides, the Reformers didn’t mean by the term sola scriptura the abandoning of all tradition as fraudulent and useless (which is impossible anyway – we all stand in some form of tradition), but rather that tradition should be critiqued by Scripture, which holds the preeminent authority. Tradition which accords with Scripture is very useful, and ties us with the 2000 years of Christianity which came before us.
While I am highly critical of the ecumenical “let’s all hold hands and pretend we don’t differ significantly in doctrine and praxis” movement, I would nonetheless suggest that there is much to be learned from traditions other than our own if we do so discerningly. This includes noticing positive aspects or contributions of other traditions which, if warranted by Scripture, may complement our own traditions, as well as discerning errors in other traditions that are to be shunned. In any case, familiarity with other traditions helps us to better understand our own, and enhances our discernment. Do not go around calling everyone who doesn’t agree with you on every point heretics if you can’t make a solid case from Scripture for their heterodoxy. That is not to say we shouldn’t be critical of errors, but it is to say that we should be able to offer a well-grounded articulation of why the positions of others are to be considered heterodox, and not childishly resort to unfounded labeling and blacklisting.
15. Be critical of the critics and skeptical of the skeptics
As a student of theology, you will most likely be confronted at some stage and to a greater or lesser degree (depending on where you study) to liberal theology, liberal literary theories, and all kinds of streams and fads which rage against Christian orthodoxy. Many of these things will seem to make a great deal of sense, and may shatter many of the beliefs and positions you currently hold as indisputable. Demythologizing, deconstruction, form criticism, Historical Jesus research, postmodernism, religious pluralism, process theology/panentheism, radical feminist theology and liberation theology are just some of the things you likely will be confronted with. My advice is to critique these things as much as they critique the Bible and traditional Christianity. Many books by respected scholars have been written to counter the claims and positions taken by these theories and streams. Again, do not only read the prescribed curricular material – read beyond that and seek alternative views made by other scholars. These things have led many students of theology astray, has led to the emptying of churches in Europe, America and elsewhere, and have been the cause of many students dropping out or even abandoning the faith altogether. Some students have accepted liberal theological positions purely for the sake of gaining the favour of their professors or for the sake of furthering their academic careers. Do not lose the integrity of your confession for the sake of academic gain, it just isn’t worth it. Beware of fads and trends – they come and go like the wind. In our day there is a widespread appetite for novelty, and in academic circles this appetite has led to many falling into a strong current, sweeping them out to the depths of the sea of doubt and uncertainty, some never to return again. By contrast, the last thing the Reformers of the 16th century sought was to be novel or original, and therefore went to great pains to support what they were saying by citing Scripture, the early church fathers, and medieval doctors. Be vigilant. Be critical of the critics and skeptical of the skeptics.
16. Make good friends with your classmates
These are the people who are on the same journey with you, sit in the same classes as you, and probably have similar goals, dreams, and callings to you. Not only will making good friends with your class mates give you peers to discuss the work with, but these are also the people who will best understand what you’re going through when you have troubles in the ministry one day, facing problems with your studies, or battling with spiritual and personal issues. On top of this, they may become lifelong bosom friends. I have been fortunate to be part of a class where we all get on very well and have even went on road-trips and outings together several times. Do not let your relationship with your classmates be limited to the academic realm.
17. Remain physically active
It is easy to slip into physical idleness during your studies. Do not fall into this trap. Join a gym, play squash or tennis, jog, swim, play other sports, or do any other wholesome activities that will keep you active. Not only will this keep you in relatively good physical shape and healthy, but it will also serve as a profitable breakaway from studies and increase your concentration.
18. Get out into nature
As often as is possible, escape from the city and get out into nature. Go hiking, fishing, visit a nature reserve, just get out for a bit. Not only will this provide you with opportunities to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation, but it will also allow you to interpret God’s general revelation in light of his special revelation in his Word. Even if you can’t escape from the city regularly, perhaps you could go to a park or botanical garden in the city, or at least notice the singing of the birds, the wonder of bees busy collecting nectar, or spiders spinning their intricate webs. You will be all the more happy for it, and it will complement and enhance your studies.
19. Don’t overestimate your worth or knowledge
Many students start their studies thinking that they will be the next reformer, revivalist, or great “winner of souls.” Again, pride is the issue. Let’s be frank, you’re not the new Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, or Spurgeon. As wonderfully as God may use you and your ministry in future to further his kingdom, you are not indispensable, nor does God need any of us to accomplish his ends. I myself, having entered my theological studies full of sinful pride, had to learn this the hard way. What is called for here is the humility to simply be grateful for the amazing privilege of having been called by God to play a tiny role as instrument in his work in the world. If there is any measure of “success” in your ministry (and quite frankly, you will never see the full fruits of your labours), it is after all to be attributed to the grace of God. All those “heroes of the faith” we read about were what they were and achieved what they did by the grace of God. A thorough impression of the magnitude of this calling – a calling by the eternal triune God of majesty – should suffice to eradicate the foolishness of overestimating our worth, or any such manner of thinking. Also, let your desire be to teach, and not to be a teacher. In other words, you are called to preach, teach, and draw attention to a message, not to draw attention to yourself. “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Is. 40:6b-8). And for that very reason, let the focus be on the Word, not on you.
Furthermore, do not overestimate your knowledge. It doesn’t matter how many Wikipedia articles you’ve read, how many mp3 sermons you’ve listened to, or even if you’ve progressed much in your studies. The key to humility is to not look at how much knowledge you have acquired, but how much there is you yet don’t know. Expose yourself to the works of top scholars, see the research they have done, look at their vast bibliographies, consider the contributions they have made – some of these guys are walking libraries! And then realize that even these top scholars do not nearly know everything there is to know, even in their own narrowly demarcated fields of inquiry. How much more, then, is the ignorance of a novice? That is not to say that the knowledge we do have is unprofitable, but it does call for humility and proper perspective. I started my studies as a know-it-all. By this time I am well aware of my own ignorance, and the vast reservoirs of knowledge out there that I have never even encountered, let alone mastered. Knowledge of our own ignorance should therefore give us reason for humility, as well as a strong impetus to explore and do research, not being content with the little we know.
20. Be open to learn from the wisdom of ordinary Christians
Don’t ever place yourself on a theological high ground over “ordinary” Christians. There is much to be learnt from them. They too have acquired wisdom and knowledge in their walk with the Lord, they too have their stories, they too have vocations they pursue to the glory of God. God has revealed himself to them in his Word, and they may even have a better knowledge of God and what it means to walk with him than us, despite our learning. Regardless of how learned you may become in theology, always be humble enough to be able to learn from others. A small child may sometimes teach a professor profound things.
There are many other possible points of advice that can be given, but I believe these 20 points should suffice for young prospective students of theology.
I conclude with this quote by Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), which was spoken at his inaugural address as Professor of Systematic Theology at the Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam in 1902:
“Religion, the fear of God, must therefore be the element which inspires and animates all theological investigation. That must be the pulsebeat of the science. A theologian is a person who makes bold to speak about God because he speaks out of God and through God. To profess theology is to do holy work. It is a priestly ministration in the house of the Lord. It is itself a service of worship, a consecration of mind and heart to the honour of His name.”