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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

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Faith Seeking Understanding

May 29, 2010

As an ordained Baptist clergyman whose second graduate-level seminary[1] degree will be conferred next week, I would like to share some reflections of my journey. I hope that they are insightful, but please take them with a grain of salt as I am surely not an expert on theological education. Thus, I can only speak from my sphere of experience.

Although I only took a few courses at Wesley Theological Seminary and the John Leland Center for Theological Studies, not continuing at either institution due to an eventual relocation across the country, they are where I began as a seminarian.

As you may well know, there are longstanding debates as to if institutionalized, accredited ministerial preparation is even helpful at all. In this view, seminary is merely a cemetery for the Spirit, a stuffy ivory tower where all of that exegesis, biblical criticism, theological debating, and scholarly gobbledygook, in a sense, extinguishes rather than further ignites one's devotion to God. In fact, it can lead to an inability to effectively connect with everyday people, rendering you lukewarm. And, we know how God feels about that.[2]

Then, there are those who view seminary as the sole or primary means by which ministers are to be trained. It is the way in which you justify yourself as having been set apart, complete with ecclesiastical credentials that render you officially fit for professional service. Here, the academic rigor of seminary combined with the ensuing ordination process refines one's faith similar to how iron sharpens iron.[3] Leaning on 1 Timothy 2:15, you are equipped to, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth."

I have described these positions as relative extremes in order to make the contrast more apparent, per the dogmatic tone that each side sometimes asserts. Please understand, though, that neither perspective is without merit. Both sides' concerns are well-placed, to some extent, when presented sensibly, and informed by a love for God, the people of God, and genuine concern for the effectiveness of 'the called' in an increasingly complex local and global mission field.

Many theological institutions attempt to indoctrinate students with their particular brand of Christianity: Methodist, Baptist, Assemblies of God; Arminianism or Calvinism; orthodoxy or postmodernism; liberal or conservative; and the list goes on and on. Just like in churches sometimes, there are also institutions that strongly suggest or even demand that students echo their beliefs about dispensationalism, glossolalia (speaking in tongues), pedobaptism (infant baptism), or a host of other issues.

I have been fortunate, however, I think, to have attended two institutions that, respectively, do a first-rate job of providing students with competency in Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, also known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral;[4] with Scripture serving as the most critical element in acquiring a core understanding of God's salvific revelation to the world. We were taught to carefully and humbly handle the word of God, and to trust the Holy Spirit as our eternal tutor while still utilizing the tools of biblical scholarship.

We were taught to personally discern how best to mesh Christian belief and practice; that is, to work out your salvation in fear and trembling[5], but we were also provided with ethical guidelines, as related to our faith, in doing so. We were taught to trust the bible not as a sacred text, but the sacred text for our lives. The words of the sixteenth century reformer, Martin Luther, ring true today as much as when I began seminary: "Faith is the 'yes' of the heart, a conviction on which one stakes one's life."[6]

Still, though, institutions of any kind are not without room for considerable improvement. Thus, in the interest of full disclosure, both institutions, George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, lack a racially diverse faculty and staff. Seemingly, they are earnestly attempting to address this need, but must do more. Also, they could do better in fully integrating the historical contributions of women, and racial and ethnic minorities into the required courses. Most significantly, they must persistently challenge themselves to embrace the creativity of the Spirit, and boldly--which some of the aforementioned shortfalls are examples of--strive to be in the world, but not of the world.[7]

Overall, I am quite pleased with my seminary experience, having learned that theology is faith seeking understanding;[8] an understanding, a lifelong expedition, which ought to be used as a means, like John the Baptist, to point others to Jesus Christ. As one of 'the called' it is my desire to bear witness to God's goodness in the great, as well as the seemingly mundane of life, to communicate God's unconditional love and providence in both word and deed.

Therefore, in whatever setting I find myself in the future--the parish, the academy, or both--I know that God will use me to create a confessional bridge between the Word and the world. And, in doing so, no matter what life brings, I will endeavor to keep the faith, knowing indeed that the One whom I have faith in will keep me.[9]


[1] For some introductory resources for those considering seminary, see Michael J. Brown, What They Don't Tell You: A Survivor's Guide to Biblical Studies (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2000), Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1997),  Burton H Throckmorton, Jr., Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992), Brian K. Blount, ed., True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007), Phillip G. Camp, Finding Your Way: A Guide to Seminary Life and Beyond (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009), Barbara B. Taylor, The Preaching Life (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993), Derek Cooper, So You're Thinking About Going to Seminary: An Insider's Guide to Seminary (Waco, TX: Brazos, 2008).
[2] Revelation 3:16.
[3] Proverbs 27:17.
[4] See Albert C. Outler, ed., John Wesley: A Library of Protestant Thought (New York: Oxford University, 1964), and Don Thorsen, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, & Experience as a Model of Evangelical Theology (Lexington, KY: Emeth, 2005).
[5] Philippians 2:12.
[6] Grace A. Brame, Faith the Yes of the Heart (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1999), 171.
[7] John 17:11-19.
[8] See Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), and Jack Fortstman, Anthony L. Dunnavant, eds., Christian Faith Seeking Historical Understanding: Essays in Honor of H. Jack Forstman (Macon, GA: Mercer University, 1997).
[9] For more thoughts on seminary and best practices for preparing those called to vocational ministry, see Carnegie S. Calian, The Ideal Seminary: Pursuing Excellence in Theological Education (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002), Charles R. Foster, Lisa Dahill, Larry Golemon, Barbara W. Tolentino, Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005).


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