What Is a Seminary Professor?

I just began my 16th year as a seminary professor. That itself is hardly remarkable. But over the last decade and a half, and for the years before teaching at Houston Baptist University and adjunctively at other schools, I have tried never to stay the same, but to grow and learn and get better at the craft to which God has called me. I have gone through the phases many go through, from wanting to teach every student possible to recognizing the greater value of mentoring a few, from obsessing over lectures to understanding the value of a life consistent with them, and from a serious attention to the academic to a greater focus on a holistic, gospel driven identity.

I am hardly qualified to describe what a professor should be; I am still trying to figure that out myself. The following simply offers my limited perspective on what a seminary prof should be, but it mostly demonstrates what I am trying to become. So many of my colleagues push me with their excellence in the classroom, effectiveness in writing, and godly character. But I thought I would throw out a few features that in my mind should mark a seminary professor.

A seminary professor should be:

1. A churchman. We are tasked with equipping leaders of the church, and thus our commitment to the local church should be exemplary. In most cases a professor should have significant experience in a local church. Having been a pastor helps me to understand the rigors of church life. I am grateful our president encourages active church involvement even to the point of allowing faculty such as myself to serve local churches as pastors or staff members. The 21st century is the century of the local church: the heroes of my students are almost without exception pastors. We who teach should in our words and by our lives show our love for the local church.

2. A gospel lover and a gospel-bearer. We are a gospel people, and regardless our area of specialty we should both love and share the good news consistently. This includes being faithful locally and globally, in the neighborhood and going to the nations. Again, this is a great joy to me at Southeastern as I have colleagues in various fields who both live and the gospel daily.

3. A generalist, and yet an expert. We should all have some awareness of the other disciplines and yet have substantive expertise in our own. When I taught at the university level the need for being a generalist was greater, as I taught OT and NT survey and Christian Doctrine. Now, having expertise in my field matters more. But I cannot teach my discipline without having some level of understanding of and appreciation for the others. I have seen schools where the faculty divides over their various disciplines, and where a silo mentality creates antipathy more than gospel driven unity. This normally comes from a lack of appreciation for, and too often an ignorance of, other disciplines.

For example, I have a degree in music. I am not genius in the field and I have no business teaching courses there. But I have such a great love for music and the arts and understand how music can be a powerful communicator of truth. If we will understand the generation we currently teach, we had better have more than a sophomoric view of music.

I am grateful that in preparation for my PhD studies I had to take an entrance exam that required an hour of examination over virtually every major area from Hebrew and Greek to missions, from philosophy to ethics, from preaching to evangelism. I am in no way qualified to teach theology or New Testament at the masters level, but having done so in the undergraduate program has (I think, and I hope) helped me to teach evangelism better. So a professor should be well read in his field but should also be at least conversant with issues in others as well.

3. A mentor, not a talking head. I recognize that teaching a class of 75 requires a different approach than an elective class of 15. Once upon a time I preferred the huge classes, thinking that those would be the main way I influenced leaders for the gospel. I still love these classes and love teaching these students. But I finally figured out (I am thick) that the greatest impact I will make for Jesus comes from the individuals I have mentored in smaller classes, in small groups, or individually. It is unfathomable to me that a professor would not be constantly mentoring some student or students. I am grateful that colleagues of mine have brought great conviction to my life by their example in mentoring.

4. A catalyst, not only a communicator. We should be excellent in the classroom. One of the great sins of a teacher is to be boring, especially given what we teach at seminary. But communicators come and go and the world goes on spinning. Catalysts bring change. Catalysts do more than communicate; they inspire. Communicators cause a stir for a moment, but catalysts change the trajectory of students for a lifetime. Students today need much more than information. They need a vision. They want encouragement. They seek permission. And as we impart these, we bring catalytic change to young leaders.

5. A disciplemaker, not merely an information disseminator. Related to the above, we teach not simply to help students learn a discipline. We teach as a means to make disciples. If any teacher thinks their primary calling is to teach a discipline, I fear for his students. We teach STUDENTS, not subjects. Our subject matter does in fact matter. But if we have not helped to make disciples, how are we different than a professor in a state university?

6. A family man and a father to the fatherless. We can and will demonstrate our weaknesses and struggles as parents as we do life with our students. But we must do more. This generation is a fatherless generation like none before in American history. Particularly those of us who have children the age of our students (old guys like me) need to give students a vision for a godly family. I love hearing stories of students at the homes of faculty. I love seeing students pop in our home on Monday nights during football season just to hang out. We must do more than tell. We must show.

7. A man of integrity and not only a man of ability. If a man (or woman) has the rare honor, and it is indeed rare, of teaching at a seminary, he certainly has a level of ability. But integrity matters more. Integrity gives credence to our ability.

8. A teacher and a prophet of God. We are not simply teachers of a subject, we are spokesmen for the Almighty. What a heavy weight that is to bear! Thankfully, God has called us and He is faithful (I Thess. 5:24).

9. A contributor to the greater Christian world. We dare not think that our influence extends only to the students who sit before us in class. Our books, our ministry beyond the campus, our influence through our graduates should contribute to the greater Christian world.

Okay, so I wanted to have ten but after reading over this I pretty much agree with what I said and now want to resign as a professor for failing so much at all of it. So I guess since “9 marks” is fashionable these days I will stop just here.

I am sure I missed some big ones and I fail at these. My overall point is this: we who teach at seminary do not teach just like people at the university. We seek to teach the leaders of the people of God so that they can go and lead the people of God to fulfill the mission of God. And I can think of nothing I would rather do than this.

These are my simple thoughts. What are yours?

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  1. Bruce Ashford   •  

    Hey Doc! Nice article. I am grateful for the influence you had on all of us when we were students at SEBTS 13-14 years ago, just a year or two after you were hired. You were good, even then!

  2. Keith   •  

    Doc, you do have 10. You used the # 3 twice. Great reminder to even those of us who teach adjunct at a Bible college. Thanks for the word.

  3. Ted   •  

    Great post, question, should these not just be for professors of seminary but parked/ministers too?

  4. alvin reid   •  

    Wow. Ten points indeed. Good thing I don’t teach math lol.

  5. Mark Terry   •  

    This is a good reminder to all of us who teach. I’m just glad you did not include snake handling!

  6. angela reid   •  

    loved reading your points. as a young seminary prof, i try to soak up all the pointers i can get!

  7. Phillip Marshall   •  

    Alvin, thanks for posting your thoughts. I’m so thankful to see men like you leading our future pastors in this vital ministry you have a SEBTS. May God continue to pour out His Spirit upon you. Although I’ve known who you are, I didn’t realize that you and I had Houston Baptist Univ. in common. I’m a faculty member there now (I have an office in Atwood 1) in biblical languages, linguistics, and OT. Last October we actually had David Black out to visit our campus, speak to some of our classes, and have dinner with our new MA in biblical languages students. We’ll continue to pray for our brothers there at SEBTS!

    Phillip Marshall

  8. alvin reid   •  

    I should have said something like REAL PROFESSORS HANDLE SNAKES. And Philip, give my regards to old friends at HBU. Tell David Capes I am sure he misses sharing an office with me. But I did not have a snake back then.

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