The 5 Virtues of a Graduate Theological Student
I spent 5 years as a theology student at Covenant Seminary, and now I am to embark on a PhD. in New Testament. Lately I have began to reflect on what it would mean to be virtuous PhD. student. I also look back on my Seminary days with some degree of regret. I could have prosecuted my studies in a way more pleasing to God, it seems to me, if I had first thought about how I should study. I knew well enough what I wanted to study, but until recently it never occured to me to think about how I should study. The following is my attempt to think about the how of theological studies. I will suggest that their are 5 virtues critical to a vituous theology student: humility, diligence, prayerfulness, service, and devotion.
Our first thought as students of theology should not be: “Wow, I have so much education. I am so much wiser than all these laymen!” Rather, we should constantly say to the Lord, “Surely I am too stupid to be a man. I have not the understanding of a man. I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One (Proverbs 29:2-3).”
We need the Lord to lisp to our simple minds. If ever we begin to say, “I have the understanding of a man,” then we have left the way of Biblical learning. I once heard an elementary school student at a Christian school say, “I know everything about God.” He had been taking classes on basic theology, apparently. At the time I was a seminarian, and I was shocked to hear such a prideful remark. This kid was 9 years old, and had taken one class on theology, and so he thought he had mastery of the mysteries of the Holy One! Sadly, I did not stop to consider that I was falling into a similar error in my Seminary studies. I also was a little child who had taken a few classes on theology, and left thinking that I knew everything about God.
Will we ever be able to really say that we “know the Holy one?” Are not the mysteries of the Trinity and the person of God infinitely profound? The fact that God is ‘holy’ implies complete separation from his creatures. This has been referred to as God’s “majestic holiness.” He is infinite. We are finite. He is the creator. We are the creature. He is righteous. We are sinful.
The Holiness of God makes us fall to our knees and cry out, “Unworthy! I am unworthy to dwell near the Most High!”
God is Holy, and so we should have humility in our studies. This means realizing that there is a subtle and insidious temptation every time we open up a theology book: the temptation to think we have mastered God, rather than submitting and being mastered by God.
How do we begin to be mastered by God? The simple, humble assertion: “I do not have knowledge of the Holy One” is a good place to start.
It is easy to see the results of diligence in many labors. The carpenter produces a fine cabinet. The mechanic rebuilds a broken engine. In our studies we are not producing much in the way of physical produce. We are, instead, building and rebuilding our minds.
We are making our minds a more fit instrument for truth. Is there ever a pay off to seemingly invisible work? If we are diligent, there will be a payoff indeed, but we will not partake of this payoff without the virtue of diligence.
Diligence involves two things:
1. Focused work: “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense (Proverbs ).” It is easy to become distracted as a student, and pursue all sorts of worthless things while neglecting our studies; things like television and entertainment are so much more enjoyable in the short run than translating a passage from Romans. In the midst of temptation to sloth, it is virtuous to put our hand to the work before us, and to do our work with all our hearts.
2. Patience: “From the fruit of his mouth a man is satisfied with good, and the work of a man’s hand comes back to him (Proverbs ).” We may not see the results of our work right away. Our minds will often resist discipline. Our hearts will often stray from the truth. No matter, let us keep task and know that there is a pay off for all hard work.: “The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor (Proverbs ).” The writer of Proverbs stresses that our hard work will eventually pay off, while slothfulness will come back to haunt us: “Whoever is slothful will not roast his game, but the diligent man will get precious wealth (Proverbs ).
Diligence does not mean becoming a work-aholic. If we neglect our families or our health, then we have ceased being diligent in the Biblical sense. Diligence means working when it is time to work, and resting when it is time to rest. In fact, we will accomplish much more if we rest at the appropriate times, and give our minds a chance to recoup from hard labor. Whatever one’s view on how the Sabbath should be kept, we should all realize that the principle of work and rest is embedded in creation. God worked 6 days and rested on the 7th. We are his image bearers, and so some similar pattern must be evidenced in our lives.
The theology student comes constantly in contact with the secrets of God. To study God’s work is to come in earshot of the divine voice. But will we profit from such a privilege? Will we actually understand the words we study, or will our hearts be hardened? The best way to keep a tender heart, while at the same time gaining a degree of understanding of the sacred truth, is to bathe our studies in prayer. We must go to the speaker of the word if we desire to know His meaning. To go on in hours of study without once appealing to God for wisdom is like plowing hardened soil without waiting for rain.
Spurgeon said it best:
“If you can dip your pen into your hearts, appealing in earnestness to the Lord, you will write well; and if you can gather your matter on your knees at the gate of Heaven, you will not fail to speak well...texts will often refuse to reveal their treasures till you open them with the key of prayer...the (prayer) closet is the best study. The commentators are good instructors, but the author himself is far better , and prayer makes a direct appeal to Him and enlists Him in our cause.”
We can study for the sake of wealth: I want to make a lot of money. We can study for the sake of prestige: I want to have a lot of degrees. We can study for the sake of curiosity: I want to understand a lot of things. We can study for the sake of pride even: I want to be smarter than the other students. It is better to study for the sake of the Church. It is better to study for the sake of love of neighbor.
I had a lot of questions when I first entered Seminary. I went to one of my Professors and he advised me to make a list of my questions and work through them one by one as I had time. I should not attempt to answer them all at once, he advised. Then he added this advice: “As you answer these questions see it as an opportunity to serve other people. See it as an opportunity to help others with their questions.” This transformed my studies.
Is the goal of our paper, our memorization, or our dissertation a worthy goal? If we endeavor to write something that helps people then we aim at a noble thing. A basic question must be: How can these studies benefit the Church? Where are the needs most profound in the body of Christ, and how can they be addressed? Many people will never have the opportunity to attend a Seminary. They could never spend long hours in research. But God has placed a privileged few in the library so that they might benefit their brothers and sisters.
To study for pride is vain glory. To study for others is love.
We must get something for ourselves from our studies. We ought to be greedy for personal gain in godliness as we look into the treasures of the Word. The things we read apply to us in the most practical ways. They direct us how to raise our children, how to avoid sin, how to be a better spouse, how to deal with all sorts of relational situations; the list could be multiplied. How practical is the Bible and the study of theology! Our own hearts should be nourished on our studies or we will find our labor exhausts us, and leaves us empty. One of the most basic questions we can ask is: what is the Lord saying to me in this passage.
I will begin another round of theology studies this Fall. My prayer is that God would make me a man who prosecutes the Lord’s studies in the Lord’s way (to borrow a phrase from Francis Schaeffer). I hope to be not only a person who knows virtuous things, but also a person pursues virtue along the way to such knowledge. God has given us some direction in what this would look like. The path to virtue in the study of theology involves: humility, diligence, prayerfulness, service, and devotion.
 Calvin famously said, “For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to "lisp" in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness (Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book I:13:1).” I would go on to suggest that we need grace even in understanding the lisping of God. We need him to accomodate us, even in his accomodation!
 Charles Spurgeon, Lectures To My Students (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954): 43.