How to Succeed in Theology Class

The best way to succeed in a theology class is maintain a healthy “fear of the Lord.” In theology class, “the Lord” refers to the professor, and not God. If this sounds irreverent, it’s meant to be, because a good sense of humor is needed as much as a desire to know more about the divine.

Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, noted retired professor of theology at Duke University Divinity School, was fond of saying that he often told his first-year classes that he didn’t care what their opinions of God were. Hauerwas asserted that they were in his class to learn what the church said about God, and that they had darned well better pay attention!

Paying attention represents the first key to success in seminary, but it’s also one of the habits that may be hardest to achieve. With a reading and writing load that often surpasses that of doctoral students, seminarians can find themselves burning the altar candles at both ends and in the middle to keep up with their studies. What’s more, not every student learns best in the traditional lecture teaching style of seminary. Those comfortable with lectures can take copious notes and make whatever study guides will most help them retain what they’ve heard. However, students with other learning styles such as kinesthetic (movement) or rhythmic (musical) approaches may need to devise their own means for capturing, retaining and then repeating what their theology professors teach.

Gathering the information provides the input, but there’s always the output to consider as well. Seminaries are frequently faulted for turning out ordained ministers who are better academics than they are pastors, and there’s something truth to this criticism. Nonetheless, the dominant teaching model in schools of theology remains the preparation of tightly reasoned written papers that give instructors some idea of what students have learned. Unlike other disciplines where it might be possible to “appropriate” an outline or structure from outside research, theology often demands that students present their own interpretations of the doctrines that professors have taught. This rationalistic, Enlightenment model still reflects an 18th century social model in which preachers were often the most educated persons in a community. They were therefore expected to be not only skilled in oratory, but had to be thinkers who could examine social problems and recommend solutions.

Good theology students quickly realize that for all they ask them to think independently, many professors feel gratified when students return to them the same concepts upon which they’ve lectured. It’s wise to put such returns in one’s own words, but it doesn’t hurt to use a professor as a reference in a bibliography, either.

Prayer remains the last resort of any student who wants to succeed in theology class. God may have parted the Red Sea for Moses, thereby saving the Hebrews from Pharoah’s armies, but it’s highly unlikely that divine intervention will save any seminarian who failed to do the reading before exams rolled around. Keep up with the work, and classroom achievement will be assured.