Advice To Those Considering Biblical Academia
If you’re considering the path of Biblical and/or Theological academics, there are some things to consider. For now, I’m only going to consider the academic climate in context of an evangelical church climate. There will be conflict that will be difficult to navigate. It is important to understand the role of biblical academics in the church if there is going to be any patience or persistence with the road it takes one down.
Scripture consistently warns against false doctrine (Rom. 16; 1 Tim.; 1 Jude; 2 Peter 2). The fact is, heresies get more and more creative, and destructive teaching will always find ways to sound true despite being twisted. In this way, we are called to match cleverness with cleverness, taking up the fight of ages against those who would otherwise lead many to a horrid fate. This means learning your theology, languages, hermeneutics, and text critical skills is of the utmost importance. It’s more than a career path – it’s a ministry in which eternal things potentially hang in the balance. Unfortunately, people are more dogmatic than they are critical. And often any challenge to dogma will be ill-received, even if it is not of eternal significance. Well-meaning people will often blur the lines of essential and peripheral doctrines. On the other hand, there is also the folly of academic arrogance that permeates academia.
Your studies will lead you to question many of these peripherals, and will even lead you to question the categories of “peripheral” and “essential” and what belongs in either category. You will be introduced to people who think complementarianism or egalitarianism necessarily question biblical authority, or even suppose it to damage the heart of the gospel. You will find people who do not believe that inerrancy is a must for being a disciple of Christ. If you are in the United States, you will undoubtedly have to deal with the question of Dispensational versus Covenantal theology. You will be faced with questions of biblical authorship, and the ever-dreaded sophomore conversation of Calvinism versus Arminianism and the people who claim it’s a matter of orthodoxy.
You will likely be taught by incredibly intelligent professors who have navigated these waters and have had similar questions that they don’t necessarily address in class. Seek them out and ask them all the questions you think you aren’t allowed to ask, it will help tremendously. There is no wisdom like that which comes from the people who have gone before you and come out the other side. While it is entirely possible to find people who are hopelessly dogmatic and uncritical at those levels, I have found it to be rare. My professors have, without exception from what I can remember, always been able to both describe and defend their own position while understanding the ones contra to it.
Just like there is no lone-wolf Christianity, there is no lone-wolf academia. It will devour you entirely if you choose to approach it that way because you do not know much of anything. A person who does not know anything cannot reliable discern true from false, much like I could not tell which quantum physicist has the most accurate theory if given the opportunity to judge. Thus, find people who are further along than you to bounce your ideas off of. Assume you are wrong until you can prove otherwise, and always require reasoning and proof insofar as it is available.
Because the first years of your academic career will be volatile – you will be learning what everyone thinks in many different camps – so will your stance on everything be. As a general rule of thumb, your pastor is probably not uninformed, and you would not be better suited to lead the congregation. He is not unaware of the general content of your introductory level classes. Essentially, your pastor is probably not a moron, and you are not a modern day Luther, Bavinck, or Barth until proven otherwise. Your pastor probably has a wealth of knowledge. Instead of being combative (which was the folly of most of us who have gone through this), get wisdom from your pastor as well. If he’s been through seminary, he’s been through the same long-haul you’re in for. He is also aware of what you’re going to deal with when talking to non-academics, and can probably help you navigate that a bit better.
As an academic, your role is to build up the church and add to it. Your goal is not to go to a bible study and start using all the fancy words you learned so that everyone is aware of the education you are receiving. Academics cater to the trajectory of a church, not to the actual building of it. Your studies should prime you for what is important to understand and look for, but once you are among your brothers and sisters in the church, you are one with them in the building. Smugly countering someone’s interpretation of a text because it does not account for the nuances you found in Greek or because they fail to see a chiastic structure is hardly productive. In fact, go buy “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians” and just read the whole thing, it’s only 57 pages and covers everything I’d hope to say in much greater detail.
On the other hand, you will also be resisted from time to time. If you voice your questions, people will often be skeptical of you. If you’re unsure of inerrancy, you will be met with general misunderstanding if not outright denunciation. If you wonder why the hermeneutics involved in the general complementarian reading of 1 Timothy 2 is strangely lacking and glossed over, people will usually just buckle down dogmatically. If you question the nature of profanity after reading articles on “Skubala” or pretty much all the Old Testament prophets, you will be met with incredulous-rhetorical questions like “But do you really believe Paul would agree with that?” These are seriously important issues, and unfortunately you will not get very seriously thought out answers all the time. That is why it is absolutely necessary to confide in professors or people who have gone before you and have genuinely wrestled with the questions at hand. You will only know a foundation is stable once you’ve tried to shake it.
Above all, know that if God has called you to this sort of ministry, he will both establish and keep you (Romans 8, 9). If you strive to keep a tight hold of Jesus, knowing that apart from him you can do nothing, he will remain with you and you will bear fruit in your ministry (John 15). Academia is where serpents from both sides go to play, and you must be ever vigilant. The amount of people that lose their faith in seminary or in the pastorate is staggering, and that should serve as a warning to all of us – we will fall unless God himself keeps us. Keep your eyes on Christ, go to him with everything that troubles you because he cares for you (1 Peter 5). Stay close with your church, your friends, and your Messiah.