Should we read less in seminary?

Jon Bloom posted a quote from John Piper today, which argued that seminaries produce bad, superficial readers because we’re simply requiring too much reading. Here’s the quote from Piper’s book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals:

I [do not] want to give the impression that I think there is virtue in reading many books. In fact one of my greatest complaints in seminary was that professors trained students in bad habits of superficial reading because they assigned too many books. I agree with Spurgeon: “A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books which he has merely skimmed, lapping at them.” God save us from the allurement of “keeping up with Pastor Jones” by superficial skimming. Forget about “keeping up.” It only feeds pride and breeds spiritual barrenness. Instead devote yourself to boring in and going deep. There is so much soul-refreshing, heart-deepening, mind-enlarging truth to be had from great books!

What do you think? Do you think that the amount of reading required in Bible schools and seminaries detracts from or contributes to quality learning?

I have been so helped by John Piper’s recommendation in his book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals:

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on November 2, 2010, in Misc and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Resonates with me because I simply don’t have the capacity to retain the majority of what I read quickly. I have to read carefully and at a moderate pace, something I am finding to be at odds with PhD work!

  2. It’s not reading, it’s the papers.

  3. I would have to agree, at least on a personal level. On the one hand, the broad scope of reading I have been forced to do in Seminary has exposed me to authors I certainly would never have picked up on my own. Some of those have been beneficial because I have learned new things from them, others beneficial because while I adamantly oppose their view, I have been pressed to provide a (hopefully) coherent argument on why I oppose them. Yet for all that I must say that my reading comprehension and retention has never been lower in my life. I had assumed that was a personal failing, desperately grasping at the excuse that it was simply a result of getting older, while fearing that perhaps I am just not as smart as I should be. I far prefer to master a book, but I do tend to read assignments quickly, especially when my options are to read a small portion and understand it well but be docked on my overall grade or read quickly, finish all the assigned reading, but be unable to give much more than a cursory explanation of what the author was trying to say, and get full credit for completing the reading assignment. 4 years ago I started a reading list of things I want to read after seminary, when I can actually slow down and read something until I understand it. Of course, with my thesis looming, I expect to do a lot of SLOW reading so that I can well understand what is being said in my sources, but at that point I have a lot less time pressure to get x done by next week.

  4. good quote and a good point. the problem is not just reading books but also not reading the book, seminary students often know more about the Bible when they leave but by no means know more of the Bible. that said you can learn alot by speed reading and many books aren’t worth more than a superficial skim anyway, you can always return to the good ones again for a more thorough read.

  5. In general I would agree, but it also depends upon the student. But the seminary student must also be stretched, and made to see many authors and books. But I also agree that reading the Holy Scripture, and even making a scripture memory/mind is a lost art today!

  6. I’m torn, though I’m 100% agreement. Let me try to explain.

    Yes. We read too much. I find myself reading through the book to get it finished in time to be able to say I read 100% of my reading and get the grade. Little sticks with me.

    But, at the same time, I now have many more books to go back and reference that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. As long as I remember that a book touches on this or that subject, I can pull it off my shelf when I want to study that subject again, or to use as a source in a sermon later on. At the same time, I can always go back and read these books again at a slower pace for more understanding later (and I sometimes do!)

    So while I don’t get to know the contents of a book like I wish I could during the semester, I’m thankful for the books I have when I want to come back to reread them or reference them.

  7. Tim (a3w275), you’re not alone and it’s that common experience that made pause when I saw the quote. I think every student wrestles with that reality to some degree.

    But, I also appreciated Jonathan’s comment about learning how (and when) to read quickly is important. I find that a lot of students get frustrated because they think they’re supposed to read everything for depth, and they quickly realize that they can’t. That’s a recipe for frustration. And, in response to Tim’s comment about reading everything for his thesis slowly and carefully, you can’t – and you don’t need to. Part of learning how to research well is learning to discriminate between what is and isn’t worth that kind of time.

    And, Bryan’s comment highlighted the problem that we face as professors. One the one hand, we want you to engage the material deeply. But, on the other hand, we want to expose you to a broad range of issues, ideas, questions, and perspectives. We know that you simply can’t master all of it, but most find it of value to expose you to the fact that they exist and offer some training in thinking through all of that, so that you’re better prepared with both resources and skills to engage ideas in the wild.

  8. Having said all of that, though, I wonder where you cross the line so that helping students develop breadth (good) turns into developing superficial readers and shallow thinkers (bad).

  9. For myself speaking as both an old teacher, and also a Royal Marine officer, we must build toward Christian character and virtue in those we teach and touch. This may be Idealist, but fully Christian.

  10. 1) You could also take fewer classes. I did my two year degree over five years and I found I had plenty of time to digest my reading, usually.

    2) Here’s a list of the books that Piper has put out since 1991. Seems like if he slowed down a little we wouldn’t have so many books to read:

    * Love Your Enemies: Jesus’ Love Command in the Synoptic Gospels and the Early Christian Paraenesis (Cambridge University Press, 1980; Baker, 1991).
    * The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23 (Baker, 1983; 2nd edition 1993).
    * Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Multnomah, 1986; 2nd edition, 1996, 3rd edition, 2003).
    * The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Baker, 1990, 2nd edition, 2003).
    * The Pleasures of God (Multnomah, 1991; Expanded edition, 2000).
    * Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Co-editor) (Crossway, 1991). Online copy.
    * Let the Nations Be Glad! The Supremacy of God in Missions (Baker, 1993, 2nd Edition 2003).
    * ‘The Purifying Power of Living By Faith In Future Grace (Multnomah, 1995).
    * A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer (Crossway, 1997).
    * A Godward Life: Savoring the Supremacy of God in All of Life (Multnomah, 1997).
    * God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Crossway, 1998).
    * The Innkeeper (Crossway, 1998).
    * A Godward Life, Book Two: Savoring the Supremacy of God in All of Life (Multnomah, 1999).
    * The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin (Crossway, 2000).
    * The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd (Crossway, 2001).
    * Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2001, 2nd edition, 2004).
    * The Dangerous Duty of Delight: Daring to Make God the Object of Your Desire (Multnomah, 2001).
    * What’s the Difference?: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible (Crossway, 2001, reprint 2008).
    * The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God (Crossway, 2002).
    * Brothers, We Are not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002).
    * The Roots of Endurance: Invincible Perseverance in the Lives of John Newton, Charles Simeon, and William Wilberforce (Crossway, 2002).
    * Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? (Crossway, 2002). Several chapters are available online for free.
    * Beyond the Bounds (co-editor) (Crossway, 2003).
    * Don’t Waste Your Life (Crossway, 2003).
    * Pierced By the Word: Thirty-One Meditations for Your Soul (Multnomah, 2003).
    * The Prodigal’s Sister (Crossway, 2003).
    * The Passion of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2004). Also released under title “50 Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die”
    * When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy (Crossway, 2004).
    * Life As a Vapor (Multnomah, 2004).
    * A God Entranced Vision of All Things (Co-editor; Crossway, 2004).
    * Sex and the Supremacy of Christ (w/ Justin Taylor, Crossway, 2005).
    * Taste and See: Savoring the Supremacy of God in All of Life (Multnomah, 2005).
    * God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself (Crossway, 2005).
    * Contending for Our All: Defending Truth and Treasuring Christ in the Lives of Athanasius, John Owen, and J. Gresham Machen (Crossway, 2006).
    * Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die (Crossway, 2006).
    * Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Crossway, 2006).
    * What Jesus Demands from the World (Crossway, 2006).
    * When the Darkness Will Not Lift: Doing What We Can While We Wait for God—and Joy (Crossway, 2007)
    * Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce (Crossway, 2007).
    * The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World (co-editor w/ Justin Taylor, Crossway, 2007)
    * Battling Unbelief: Defeating Sin with Superior Pleasure (Multnomah, 2007)
    * The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Crossway 2007).
    * Spectacular Sins: And Their Global Purpose in the Glory of Christ (Crossway, 2008).
    * John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God (Crossway, 2008).
    * The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd (Crossway, 2008).
    * Finally Alive (Christian Focus, 2009).
    * This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence (Crossway, 2009)
    * Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ: The Cost of Bringing the Gospel to the Nations in the Lives of William Tyndale, Adoniram Judson, and John Paton (Crossway, 2009).
    * A Sweet and Bitter Providence: Sex, Race, and the Sovereignty of God (Crossway 2010).
    * Jesus: The Only Way to God: Must You Hear the Gospel to be Saved? (Baker, 2010).
    * Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God (Crossway, 2010).
    * “The Gadarene” (Desiring God, 2010)

    • Um, I’m going to hope that you found this list somewhere and that this isn’t an indication that you’re a secret Piper-stalker. Is this a cry for help?

      Seriously, that’s an unbelievably long list. I’m not sure that I’ve read that many books since 1991, let alone written that many.

  11. Well, I think if students read even 80% of the material rquired them in seminary that would be miraculous – most barely touch the reading and figure how to write the papers and such anyways – how do I know? I watched it happen.

    That said, one of my favorite classes was essentially a reading course where we did a TON of reading regarding one particular topic – it was a good class.

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