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If there’s any experience that can pull up to the surface the pride hiding down in our hearts, it’s seminary.  The very privilege of it can go to our heads.  Think about it.  What percentage of Christians over the past 2000 years have studied the Bible at the level of the original languages?  I have no idea.  But my hunch is, one percent is too high.  Studying Greek and Hebrew and biblical exegesis – with all the other majestic disciplines of a seminary education – should humble us into the dust.  What a privilege!  But if our hearts are not humbled, we will graduate from seminary in worse condition than when we began.

When I began seminary, my dad said to me, “Go through seminary on your knees.”  I did.  But I still discovered stirrings of my pride I hadn’t seen before.

I was studying under world-class scholars – Bruce Waltke in Old Testament, and others.  I worshiped the ground these godly men walked on.  Without realizing it, a new feeling began slipping into my heart.  It was this: “Hmmm.  If I become as smart as these men, whom I so admire, people will admire me the same way.  Then I will matter.  Then I will feel good about myself.”  Not that it was a conscious thought.  It was a subtle inward shift from Christ to Self.  It was justification not by trusting in Him but by leveraging my knowledge into human approval.  I starting seeing the world as my audience, and I was on stage to be noticed.  But the thing is, it was all in my head.  Everyone was displaying something of their own, hoping I would notice them too.  Everyone on the face of the earth is playing this game of self-exaltation.  It’s all wrong.  And seminary doesn’t prevent it.  Seminary can arouse it, if our hearts drift from the all-sufficiency of Jesus.

The Bible bluntly says to every seminary student, “Who sees anything different in you?  What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).  Seminary students should be the most grateful people on the face of the earth, because what they are receiving is the precious Word of God.  It is not their own, and it is not for self-display.  It belongs to God, and it is for Christ-display and for serving others.

I recommend that every seminary student read – and the sooner the better – Horatius Bonar’s classic Words to Winners of Souls, especially chapter four, “Ministerial Confession,” taking us back to 1651 and the repentance of the ministers of Scotland.  My dad gave me this little book the week before I left for seminary.  Reading it was eye-opening in an unforgettable way.

There is no shortcut to the personal significance every one of us rightly longs for.  Significance is not as simple as going to seminary.  It comes at the cost of deepening character.  And there is no way to go deep without humility before God.

This Scripture often comes to mind: “Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21).  Walk into every seminary lecture with a thought that goes something like this: “Hey you Self in there, you don’t deserve this.  But God is sharing it with you, because he wants to bless you with it.  Receive it with meekness.  It will save your proud soul.”

[The above is at the request of our friends at Desiring God, in connection with this series.]

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19 thoughts on “Seminary is for deeper humility”

  1. As a seminary student, thank you.

  2. Marc Mullins says:

    Amen and Amen…now I need to get off of the blog and back to my paper for Dr. Hamilton

  3. Angela says:

    Student #2 thanks you as well. Please pray for me–searching deeper always brings up more questions, more doubts, and nevertheless, more pride as I continue to compare the world around me to a higher standard. I fall into a trap of “I know this is wrong and you apparently don’t, so clearly I am holier than those around me”–even though I have not yet humbled my will before God to be actually changed in my character and spirit. It is an insidious problem that can be fought only by constant recognition of the battle and then fighting by the Spirit toward humility. Thank you for the reminder.

  4. Pete Gross says:

    As someone who started seminary 20 years ago– then God put it on hold through finances and subsequent missionary service–and who finally graduated 17 years later, I can attest to the truth of this article. While experiencing frustration over not being able to push through with my plan, God used those intervening years of ministry and life experience to teach me to think less of myself. I praise God that He didn’t allow me to finish when I was in my mid-twenties. I’m sure I would have become insufferable. Not that I’m easy to live with now, but by His grace I am learning.

  5. I regard myself as enormously blessed for being able to spend several years of my life full-time studying the Bible, theology and church history. Many of the good believers in church relish just an occasional taste of what I was allowed to have, and still get by being a pastor.

  6. Matt Grotheer says:

    Thank you for this post. It was helpful and I needed to hear this.

  7. Kyle Howard says:

    thanks for this reminder brother!

  8. Joshua Brooks says:

    As a seminary student at Dallas Theological Seminary, it’s easy to take for granted obtaining theological education. After becoming proficient in the biblical languages, hermeneutics, and theology, the door of the historical-grammatical context of Scripture was unlocked and opened. I walked into a holy temple of understanding and wisdom in the Holy Book (2 Tim. 3:15).

    I’m thankful for the opportunity and privilege to study the Bible in its original language, Hebrew and Greek. Thanks also to Ray Ortlund for this reminder be humble (Pro. 15:33). May we continue to be humble as we grow in our knowledge and understanding of the Word, and as we teach its truths others (Col. 3:12; 2 Tim. 2:15; Neh. 8:8). Teach Truth, Love Well!

  9. Dan says:

    There were times I really got frustrated at bible college and seminary because of this…

  10. kathy says:

    Thanks for this post- just what I needed to read today.

  11. “Seminary students should be the most grateful people on the face of the earth, because what they are receiving is the precious Word of God.”

    This is so helpful. Thank you!

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Ray Ortlund

Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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