One book that I would highly recommend for any serious student, even the not so serious student, is A. G. Sertillanges’s, The Intellectual Life. While there are some things in the book that one can set aside, Sertillanges approaches the subject of the intellectual life from the vantage point of a Christian called to academic studies. This is a wonderful book that provides serious food for thought. If you’re going to invest years of your life in formal academic training, at a university and then later at a seminary, then how much reflection have you given to your endeavor? Beyond life as a student, if you look at life as your classroom, then whether you’re formally enrolled in a class or not, Sertillanges’s advice can apply any time you want to learn something. But Sertillanges’s ideas, I believe, are especially important for anyone who wants to be a serious student of the Bible. I offer three important insights from Sertillanges’s book.
First, be focused in your approach. Sertillanges writes: “A vocation is not fulfilled by vague reading and a few scattered writings. It requires penetration and continuity and methodical effort, so as to attain a fullness of development which will correspond to the call of the Spirit, and to the resources that it has please Him to bestow on us” (3). As a future pastor, have you developed a one, five, ten, and twenty-year strategic plan for things you want to learn and study? This could be something as simple as listing the books of the Bible you want to learn, buying the relevant resources, and then executing your plan.
Second, you must recognize the rigorous nature of your discipline—the serious study of Scripture. Pierre Nicole, a seventeenth-century moralist, once observed: “You must not imagine that the life of study is an easy life . . . The reason is that there is nothing more against nature than uniformity and stillness, because nothing gives us more occasion to be alone with ourselves” (215-16). The purpose of the observation is to register the challenging nature of academic work—it requires focus, concentration, and stillness of mind. Martin Luther once observed that he believed academic work was harder than physical labor. Yes, digging ditches is hard work, but Luther challenged the ditch-digger to sit down at a desk, read all day, and intelligently recall what was read. I think most would decline such work and would rather dig ditches. If you want, therefore, to be a serious student of Scripture, you should recognize that it is a challenging task—it’s mentally and physically strenuous. But anything truly worth doing always presents challenges, so the strenuous nature of studying the Scriptures should not be intimidating.
Third, as you approach your subject, have the mindset of a warrior. Once again, Sertillanges observes: “A real thinker brings a very different spirit to his work; he is carried along by the instinct of a conqueror, by an urge, an enthusiasm, an inspiration, that are heroic. A hero does not stand still or set himself limits. A Guynemer [a famous French fighter pilot and ace from World War I] looks on one victory as a rehearsal for another; with unfailing vigor he makes flight after flight, closes with an adversary, turns round on another, and only death sees the end of his career” (126). Such an attitude may sound at odds with the life of a student, but such is the nature of the beast. With such an attitude you won’t ever think you’ve arrived, which would likely breed pride, but rather always stand ready to learn something new, thus implicitly acknowledging your ignorance and need to learn.
So, focus, rigor, and the warrior mindset, are just three things to consider in your life as a student. How many hours will you invest in your grand educational adventure? How many books will you read? How many classes will you attend? If you’re investing a large chunk of your life in this adventure, you should give serious thought to plotting a course, weighing the intellectual cost, and committing to doing it well. If Paul can say, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31), then be deliberate about being a good student of God’s word. Read Sertillanges’s book. While not everything in his book is true, he definitely offers much sage advice. Personally, this is one book I would put on a top-ten must-read book for any serious seminary student.