License to Learn
I remember that when I received my post-graduate degree I was excited and contacted a number of former professors who sent along congratulatory words. But one of my professors wrote back, “Congratulations, now you have a license to learn!” My professor had given me a new perspective on the ministry with that simple statement. For many, a degree is considered a plateau, a destination, the end of a journey. In fact, in the academy the doctoral degree is called a “terminal degree.” In one sense, this is true. As a budding academic you study a body of literature and you master it. In fact, one of my friends gave me some encouraging words as I prepared for my thesis defense, “Remember, you know more about the subject than your examiners. You wrote the book!” This is true in many ways.
However, one of the things one quickly finds is that the more you read, the more you discover you do not know. You realize how deep the literary ocean is for each discipline and sub-discipline and that there is no way you will ever be able to read it all. The most you can hope to do is snorkel over the literary equivalent of the Marianas Trench. But this does not mean that a minister or young academic should resign himself to snorkeling over the body of theological literature never to plumb its depths.
First, as my professor encouraged me, never stop learning. Never believe you have arrived. This means that one should be marked by a great degree of humility. Chances are there is someone out there who knows more, or there is a rock that has not been overturned, or there are certainly other disciplines about which one does not know. And most importantly, in the end, all that we have and know comes by God’s grace (1 Cor. 4.7).
Second, we have to be willing to invest a lifetime in learning. I was recently reading a book that highlighted this point: “After a decade of research and writing, one will not spend a lot of time identifying the topic. One’s area of specialization and its subthemes become so familiar that the nature and extent of future research projects are easily anticipated” (Muller and Bradley, Church History, 126). Some might balk at such a proposition—ten years?! But if you want to learn something well, it takes time, dedication, discipline, and patience.
Third, all too often people flit about like bees looking for yet another flower and they seldom settle down. They will read a book on this and that and never really try to master a field. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with reading things out of interest or entertainment. But at the same time, ministers should seek to learn a subject well. One way to do this is pick one doctrine or theologian and dedicate yourself to reading regularly on the one subject.
Fourth, and finally, above all else, ministers should always remember their primary objective—to teach and preach God’s word. This means that above all other reading and studying, a minister must and should know his Bible. Dedicate yourself to memorizing, studying, and learning as much as you can about it. Much of this learning will come through sermon preparation. Though, study of the Scriptures can be greatly aided through lectio continua preaching—systematically working through books of the Bible. If you always cherry-pick your favorite passages, you will never deepen your knowledge of large portions of Scripture.
In the end, no matter how many letters follow your name, always remember that you have a license to learn. The best teachers make the best students.