Nothing slows learning more than excessive knowledge. That statement sounds crazy to overeducated minds like mine, but it’s true. I have more theological degrees than a thermostat. My favorite place to be is buried under a mountain of books written by long dead theologians. I love to learn. But excessive knowledge and too much information can actually be a great hindrance to the practical application of biblical instruction in the real, daily lives of people.
One of my early mentors, who happens to hold three graduate degrees all from Ivy League divinity schools, told me that he spent the first few years out of seminary unlearning what he had been taught in seminary. At the time, I was working toward the goal of a doctoral degree that I have since earned. It sounded crazy to me. After becoming terminally educated and shepherding churches for a decade, I get it.
Here is some of what he meant and a few things I’ve learned about unlearning what I learned in seminary.
1. God’s message is simple. While it is very true that education is important—and I’m an advocate of teachers and preachers taking the time for Bible College, ministry diplomas or seminary—it isn’t all-important. I’ll take a country preacher with an eighth-grade education who preaches to me straight from the Bible over an Ivy League man who doesn’t believe the Bible, but knows everything about everything, any day of the week, especially on Sunday.
The message of salvation in Christ is not complicated. Don’t complicate the message with excessive academic information.
2. Build bridges; don’t burn them. Academic preparation for ministry should help us build bridges between deep knowledge and practical application. The Greek nuance of a translated English word only has direct value in preaching to the extent that it helps me follow Jesus. While some geeks like me take great interest in the nuance of Hebrew semantics, the purpose of preaching is to build bridges between the deepest meaning of the text and the deep meaning of living a transformed life. If we insist on a lengthy word study in every sermon, which I don’t recommend, make sure that it has a point other than merely satisfying the admonition of a former seminary professor who loves books more than people.
3. People’s spiritual struggles exist in the context of real life. The trouble with too much systematic theology, and I’m speaking from experience, is that it has the great tendency to make the theologian act and think and teach as though theology and life are similarly theoretical. They are not.
The theological implications of what C.S. Lewis has to say on the problem of pain has no direct value to a woman who just lost her husband unless that theology is brought out of the ether into the real experience of her present pain and suffering. It may be helpful to quote a dead theologian, but not as a part of an explanation to dismiss her pain. In real life, just being present with her as the man of God praying for her and her family, reminding them of the love of God by our presence with them on His behalf, is more likely to bring comfort and paint a welcome portrait of God’s love for them in the here and now.
4. Sometimes, the terminally educated can be very callous. I am a pastor-theologian with a love for intellectually satisfying answers to hard theological questions. But I’ve got to be careful that in my ministry to those living life in the day-to-day struggles, that I don’t push me out of their hearts with seemingly callous answers to their questions and intellectual sermons that bore them away from the love of God. Too much academia in a sermon can accomplish the very opposite of what we want.
We desire people to really the love the Bible and the God who penned it. What I’ve discovered is that the best way to do that is to passionately present the plain truth prayerfully. People respond to love. Our seminary and Bible college training gives a great foundation for our preaching. But it makes a better rudder than a sail. Sound theology must guide our teaching. Passion for God’s glory and compassion for people must be at the center of our teaching and preaching.