Is theological education a faith killer?

There is not much that I remember from confirmation classes as a young Anglican over thirty years ago. But there is one statement from our minister that has remained with me. As we talked about my future plans, he told me that whatever I did, I should not go to seminary because it is almost impossible to keep your faith. I did not understand what he meant, but I did not push the issue.

Such sentiments were encountered again in my late twenties as I prepared for pastoral ministry by going to seminary. There were plenty of jokes about it being “cemetery” rather than seminary. But beneath the jokes, there was real concern that formal theological education would lead to, at best a cooling of the faith and at worst, a complete loss.

Is it true that theological education is a faith killer? Will the head always drain the heart?

First, it must be acknowledged that there are people who enter seminary and leave without their faith. Well known skeptic and New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman studied at two strongly evangelical schools (Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College) and today regularly writes books attacking the Christian faith. While Ehrman is a prominent example, there are many other ex-seminarians that have slipped into unbelieving obscurity.

It should also be stated that there is a shaking of faith that happens to many people when they study the Bible in an academic way for the first time. Some of the simple understanding of the Bible learned in Sunday school and youth group begins to fall away. Certain answers that were satisfying before are now seen to be less than adequate. There may even be significant shifts in theological beliefs.

This can be an anxious time as ideas change so quickly, Some may retreat into the old and familiar, while others boldly move forward to see where new understandings lead.

My own experience with theological education has been very positive. I am currently working on my fourth theological degree and I can honestly say that my faith is stronger now than it has ever been. Yes, there was some initial pain with the loss of the Sunday school faith but what has replaced it is much more fulfilling.

What keeps me going is knowing that all truth is God’s truth. I am never going encounter a biblical or theological truth that is going to take God by surprise. In addition to being the Way and the Life, Jesus is also the Truth (John 14:6). Any quest for the truth, no matter how uncomfortable, will always bring us closer to Jesus.

The Church needs people who are willing to wrestle with the hard questions on an intellectual level. This journey need not damage faith but will, if we choose to persevere, lead to a stronger and more robust faith in God.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Stephen J. Bedard is an author, blogger and speaker. He is interested in discipleship, apologetics and disability advocacy. He co-wrote the award-winning book, Unmasking the Pagan Christ, which was also made into a documentary. He is the director of Hope’s Reason Ministry and editor of Hope’s Reason: A Journal of Apologetics. Additional writing can be found on his website

  • Neil

    I have by no means gone to seminary. I have however, taken many courses relating to theology and Christianity. Some of which were shared by students enrolled in seminary at the time. All of these courses were from an accredited Divinity College and University. Speaking from my own perspective I found that man himself has complicated what I feel God tried to keep simple. Theology has become, over the years, bound and strapped in its own form of legalese. Similar to law, there are often times debate for the sake of debate takes place, not for the purpose of seeking God’s truth. I can see where one could fall from faith by getting caught up in all these different viewpoints. The world of academia often times tends to strangle itself from the real world by focusing on little things and thereby losing the clarity of the whole. Jesus was meant to bring better understanding for mankind of God’s love and salvation. Man just needs to learn to stop injecting his own beliefs and get back to focusing on God and His message. Just my thoughts from a lay person’s perspective.

  • ksed11

    Christians need theological education (whether formal or informal). For myself, reading scholars like N.T. Wright, Richard Bauckham and others has been faith affirming and strengthening.