John C. Richards, Jr.
Confessions of a Black Seminarian
Updated: Apr 30, 2022
Many 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—especially others in the African American community. For some, there’s a stigma attached to seminary training. For them, 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.”
What's a TULIP?
This is part of the reason many in the African American community have been isolated from the teachings of many of the great Reformed thinkers like John Calvin and Jonathon 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.
There were 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 flat out 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, for decades, to attend seminary. Historically, African American culture has rejected the idea that you needed to attend school to “hear from God."
Today, many large churches in the African American community are led by pastors who have little or no seminary training (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Whether an access (not allowed to attend) issue or excess (too much head knowledge, not enough heart knowledge) issue, seminary or theological training hasn’t always been at the top of the black clergy’s list.
Making Sense of It All
So as I walked on Fuller’s campus on my first day, that history followed me. 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. Bultmann and other German theologians setting out on a quest for the historical Jesus was, at times, tough to 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 when numerous skeptics questioned the veracity of Scripture.
As I matriculated the M.Div. program, I learned to read Hebrew and Greek, preaching and communication methods, and started 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 actually helped buttress my already strong faith in Christ. I left seminary fully equipped for ministry.
The same place I was told would serve as a cemetery actually 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 that there’d be a considerable amount of African American scholars and theologians involved in this process. Given the interest in Reformed Theology among young African Americans, you have to believe we aren’t too far away.
As the Deer...
I visited Fuller Seminary recently while on vacation. As I walked into the prayer garden on campus, 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 seminary, I learned that faith and reason could live in perfect harmony. And I’m grateful for other brothers and sisters who have discovered the same.