Christian Living

Confessions of a Black Seminarian

John Richards

Seven years ago I walked onto the campus at Fuller Theological Seminary completely unaware of what to expect. I’d already gotten some ill-fated advice from others about my decision to attend seminary for my formal theological education. A black pastor who’d earned his Master of Divinity (M. Div.) told me, “I wouldn’t suggest you go to seminary. There’s a reason they call them cemeteries. People go there to die [spiritually].”

Not the response I expected. I thought he’d be excited about my decision to immerse myself in theological reflection and education. Others shared his thoughts, though —especially others in the African American community. For some, there’s a stigma attached to seminary training. For these people, this training shouldn’t be necessary for those who are attuned to God’s Spirit.

In the African American community, there’s always been a real tension between faith and reason. Dr. Riggins Earl, in his work Dark Symbols, Obscure Signs: God, Self, and Community in the Slave Mind, writes, “black church leadership, since slavery, has been unable to hold reason and faith in critical tension with each other for holistic institutional development and progress.”

[Tweet “In the African American community, there’s always been a real tension between faith and reason.”]

What’s a TULIP? 

This is part of the reason that many in the African American community have been isolated from the teachings of great Reformed thinkers like John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. Ask most black churchgoers today what TULIP is and they’ll point you to a local garden. There’s little thought that goes into the five points of Calvinism, or theology as it pertains to soteriology or predestination.

In the past, there were both internal and external barriers that prevented many blacks from attending seminary. Internally, many felt attending seminary was some kind of “Spirit-grieving” endeavor. There was no way they’d venture to a place that would hinder their spiritual growth and development. Externally, many seminaries in a segregated America just didn’t allow blacks to attend. The same racism present in the Civil Rights era South was present in seminary institutions across the country.

No wonder so many black pastors refused to attend seminary for decades. Historically, African American culture has rejected the idea that you needed to attend school to “hear from God.” Today, there are many large churches in the African American community that are led by pastors who have little or no seminary training.  Whether it’s an access issue (not allowed to attend) or excess issue (too much head knowledge, not enough heart knowledge), seminary or theological training hasn’t always been at the top of black clergy’s list.

Making Sense of It All

So that was the history that followed me as I walked onto Fuller’s campus my first day. Those voices followed me. Was I making the right decision? Could that pastor have been right about the lack of spiritual awareness on seminary campuses? Would I lose my faith?

To be transparent here, my first Systematic Theology class made me think twice about my decision. Following Bultmann and other German theologians as they set out on a quest for the historical Jesus was, at times, a tough process. But then I started to see how important form criticism and historical criticism were in the exposition of Scripture. I started seeing how that original quest led other biblical scholars to think through Scripture critically. I learned how it helped strengthen Christian apologetics at a time where numerous skeptics questioned the veracity of Scripture.

As I matriculated the M.Div. program, I learned to read Hebrew and Greek, to preach and communicate by new methods, and to grasp Church history in unthinkable ways. And something strange began to happen. My faith began to grow. The same place I was told would serve as a cemetery helped buttress my already strong faith in Christ. I left seminary fully equipped for ministry.

[Tweet “The place I was told would serve as a cemetery helped buttress my already strong faith in Christ.”]

The Tension Between Faith and Reason

Throughout my seminary experience, I’ve learned to ease that tension between faith and reason—a tension that some African Americans continue to live with. But there are others out there who have learned to navigate that tension. Ironically, many in the Christian hip-hop community have been the forerunners as it pertains to theological reflection in the African American community. As a result, Reformed Theology is becoming increasingly popular among black millennials.

One of the lamentable facts about the lack of access to formal seminary training is the dearth of substantive commentaries written by African Americans. While I respect and admire our Anglo brothers and sisters for their contributions, I sat in some classes hoping for a day when there would be a considerable amount of African American scholars and theologians involved in this process. Given the interest in RAAN among African Americans, I have to believe we aren’t too far away.

[Tweet “Reformed Theology is becoming increasingly popular among black millennials.”]

As the Deer…

I visited Fuller Seminary recently while on vacation. As I walked into the prayer garden, I couldn’t help but think about the consternation I felt my first time on campus. The prayer garden has an inscription and Psalm that has always stuck with me: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God” (Psalm 42:1, ESV). That pretty much sums up my seminary experience: thirst. A thirst for God’s Word and God’s presence. A thirst that an increasing number of African Americans are starting to develop. In attending, I learned that faith and reason can live in perfect harmony. And I’m grateful for other brothers and sisters who have discovered the same.

[Tweet “I learned that faith and reason can live in perfect harmony.”]

8 thoughts on “Confessions of a Black Seminarian

  1. Daniel Thomas

    Personally, I am attending a seminary school seeking to complete my M.Div/Apologetics and I am African American. God must have knew I needed to read this article because I have been so frustrated with the stigma that comes with Theological education. Understanding form criticism and how to think critically about a text has been the source of my criticism. Mostly viewed as a know it all and that is one thing a seminary education does is eliminate all your pride because you finally see how much you don’t understand. The one point that gave me hope in your article was the psalmist declaring that HIS THIRST for GOD kept him searching like a deer looking for a refreshing stream. An older preacher told me years ago to not read too much of that Bible. I thought that this was terrible advice and I prayed at that moment for GOD to never take my desire for his word away from me. This is a prayer he has answered that led me too Seminary.
    Thank you, I needed that encouragement

  2. Mark La Roi

    I think we’re in an excellent position for the skilled communicator to
    bridge Reformed theology to the Black churches which on the surface at
    least, refuse it. When the terminology gap is filled, the remaining
    complaints are usually grounded in ethnic distrust, which must then be
    taken back to the Word.

    I am grateful that The Reformed
    Presbyterian Theological Seminary has worked hard to attract students of
    all backgrounds to refine their tools and return to serve the church in
    their own communities or in whatever community the Lord should send

  3. Ella

    “But then I started to see how important form criticism and historical criticism were in the exposition of Scripture. I started seeing how that original quest led other biblical scholars to think through Scripture critically.”

    I think sadly, this is the very reason why many Black Churches are spiritually dead. They are not taught how to think and reason through scripture from the pulpit down, therefore there is no spiritual growth and no change in one’s life. The inevitable happens, one remains spiritually dead, reliant on feelings to dictate reality. Church then becomes very shallow and just an emotional “spiritual” show. Thats not God honoring at all. I also don’t think one has to go to seminary to be taught the importance of faith and reason, or know what TULIP is (even though I know what it means 🙂 ). God wants us to know Him and follow Him alone.

    However, I am glad that seminary actually equipped you to handle, know scripture and to think critically because many seminaries do the opposite.

    Many Pastors also fail their congregation because of lack of knowing, rightly handling and applying scripture. They model this same behavior and the dreadful cycle continues,” My people perish (are destroyed) for lack of knowledge” Hosea 4:6.

    Thank you for sharing your article.

  4. revdavemapes

    Every Christian needs to read this wonderful testimony of God’s grace at work and the overflow of joy that results from a deepening thirst for the Lord’s Word and His Presence and Person. Thanks RAAN!

  5. azuspeak

    Thank you for this article. I am a current student at Fuller and can relate to this very well. I have grown tremendously in my faith over the course of this past year after coming to realize that it is ok to hold faith and reason in a good, healthy tension. And to that point, and to the points made in the comments, one of the main reasons that I chose Fuller over other seminaries is that it is non-denominational, and therefore there are people from many, many, many, different backgrounds and beliefs about Christianity. I often joke and say that in that sense, the think I love about Fuller is the thing I hate about Fuller. With so many different opinions, it can be hard and frustrating to discern the truth. But what good would it do me to be in a room full of people who think just like me? Part of the joy that I have experienced here is being able to have meaningful conversations with my brothers and sisters about where we differ and why. I am not afraid to learn from others, and I’m not afraid to say maybe I got it wrong. I’m also not afraid to say I don’t know, I’m still processing that…Also, Fuller has gone through some major leadership changes in the past year–new president, new dean of intercultural studies, and they have different ideas. Maybe things will change, maybe they won’t. Either way, I think Fuller is not a place to give you easy answers and I think that’s a good thing. I also think it’s good to wrestle with the ideas that I disagree with…

    I agree with your point about the lack of commentaries by black theologians. And as a filmmaker, I would love to see other artists besides rappers embrace a more robust form of theological reflection within the black community.

    And by the way, I know what TULIP is, and I even knew it before I came to Fuller…lol 🙂

  6. Mike Tisdell

    I do recognize that there are many good men and women at Fuller, but I don’t believe the problem is limited only to the school of Intercultural Studies. I would agree that the problem is much more epidemic in that school but the problem is not isolated to that school. Some very controversial positions have been held by those outside of that school including the President of Fuller. At the heart of this issue is the acceptance of a postmodern epistemology that has produced some very errant theological views and that acceptance appears to come from the very top of the organization. So while there are good men and women and Fuller who do not accept these ideas, it is increasingly difficult for them to take strong stands against ideas that are accepted by those who are setting the direction of the Seminary.

  7. johncrichards

    Thank you for your thoughts. Since I wrote the article (and attended Fuller), I think I need to respond. Interestingly, I share some of the same concerns regarding the issus you raised with our School of Intercultural Studies. In an attempt to create relational dialogue with the Muslim community, some of the students and faculty have written and said some things that I don’t necessarily agree with. The interesting thing about your comment, however, is that your critique (and subsequent warning re: attending Fuller) wasn’t of our School of Theology faculty. Some of our faculty in the School of Theology are the top scholars in their field of study. In fact, you probably have commentaries that they’ve written or worked on in your collection. Joel Green, John Goldingay, and Veli-Matti Karkkainen immediately come to mind. So I just wanted everyone to be mindful that you’re talking about two completely separate programs. And I appreciate your candor and concern. Removing an entire institution off the list of viable choices for seminary based on a small contingent in a program that’s not the subject matter of this article is sweeping and unfair.

  8. Mike Tisdell

    While I recognize the value of a Seminary education and do not believe that attending Seminary is a spiritual death sentence, I do understand the concerns shared by the pastors with whom you spoke. Some seminaries do a very poor job of mixing biblical scholarship with true Christian faith. Like your pastors, I too have seen the faith of far too many destroyed in the process of attending the Seminary. That doesn’t mean one should not attend Seminary, but it does mean one should choose their Seminary with great care.

    Fuller Seminary is one of the Seminaries that raises great concerns for me because I have seen the influence Fuller has had in world missions and very little of what I have seen has been good. Some of the leading thinkers in Missions from Fuller suggest that conversion to Christianity, belief in the divinity of Christ, and belief in his attaining work on the Cross are unnecessary. While these men and women have not rejected “faith” in God, they really have rejected faith in the Gospel of Christ. Far too often I have read through research papers submitted by Fuller faculty and students in support of these new ideas in Missiology that are rife with theological, hermetical, and linguistic errors. Sometimes the errors are so glaring that one must wonder if these were deliberate misrepresentations of the facts. For example, this year a Fuller student submitted a paper before the national church in Ethiopia (with the support of Fuller faculty) claiming that the apostle Paul re-purposed the name of a pagan god (theos) for use in the Christian Scriptures; this became the basis for his argument that “Allah” should be used as the word for God in the Christian Scriptures (despite a very long tradition in bible translation in Etheopia were other vocabulary had long been used). In Ralph Winter’s article “The two structures of God’s Redemptive Mission,” he makes an almost identical claim in regards to the word “kurios.” Charles Kraft argues that “[The Muslim] doesn’t have to be convinced of the death of Christ. He simply has to pledge allegiance and faith to the God who worked out the details to make it possible for his faith response to take the place of a righteousness requirement. He may not, in fact, be able to believe in the death of Christ, especially if he knowingly places his faith in God through Christ, for within his frame of reference, if Christ died, God was defeated by men, and this, of course is unthinkable. Shaw and Van Engen’s book on Hermenutics suggests that the Israelite borrowed from the Babylonian Myths when communicating the stories of the creation, the deluge, etc…

    Is Seminary a good idea? Absolutely. However, I personally would recommend Fuller be taken off the list of viable choices unless there were major changes within this institution.

Leave A Comment