There is one characteristic (common to all great theologians and pastors throughout church history) that young ministers, especially those in seminary, must learn to cultivate–namely, the ability to think for themselves. It is far too easy for young men to slide into the intellectually lazy mode of simply parroting what some revered pastor or theologian has said or written, or to simply embrace a theological position because that is the acceptable thing to embrace within a particular theological or ecclesiastical camp.
The suggestion that ministers must labor to think for themselves does not mean that one should not read widely. In fact, the greatest thinkers are the most well read. In the immortal words of Charles Spurgeon:
Give yourself unto reading. The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. You need to read.
The challenge of learning to think for oneself does not mean that a man will not listen to the sermons and lectures of the great theologians and pastors of our day. When I was in seminary, I used to seek to encourage fellow seminarians to listen to Sinclair Ferguson, Eric Alexander, Ian Hamilton, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, et al. On one occasion, I did so with a fellow student who was scheduled to preach a sermon in chapel. It just so happened that I had listened to a sermon–that had greatly impacted me–on the particular passage on which this student was planning to preach. Much to my surprise, this individual responded to my suggestion by saying, “I don’t want to listen to anyone’s sermon because I don’t want to be influenced by someone else’s exposition. I want to think through the passage on my own.” This is not what we mean when we say that we must learn to think for yourself. If we took this individual’s illogical response to a logical conclusion, we would have to say that a man should read nothing, listen to nothing and have absolutely no conversations leading up to preaching on a particular passage of Scripture–in other words, to do sermon prep in the vacuum of your own imagined original ideas.
Additionally, the need for ministers to learn the rare trait of thinking for oneself does not mean that they should seek novelty–or should, in some way or another, try to purposefully push against the status quo regarding accepted Christian doctrine. In fact, a great thinker will take into account the history of interpretation of doctrine in the process of coming to a settled position. He will take the totality of the biblical data and the most widely accepted explanation of a particular doctrine or doctrines and seek to understand why such positions have been, more or less, uniformly agreed upon. He will not seek to innovate. He will seek to prove from the Scriptures the great received doctrines of Niceane Trinitarianism, Calcedonian Christology and the Reformed doctrine of Justification by faith alone. He will seek to refine rather than redefine. He will seek to be faithful to the totality of what the Scriptures teach without casting off the annals of church history; but he will do so by prayerfully relying on the Holy Spirit to teach him how to think through great truths in the Scriptures.
A minister who learns to think for himself will inevitably learn that there are some truths that are greater than others. He will learn to classify those truths of central importance from those of secondary importance in order to place proper pastoral and homiletical emphasis on them. In his profoundly instructive book, Thoughts on Preaching, J.W. Alexander explained this principle in the following manner:
No truth can be unimportant, or be without advantage if uttered. But the nearer a truth lies to the great centres, the more important is its utterance…To attain such truths, is one of the great objects of living. Prayerful thought, in moments deemed idle, is often fruitful of such. They come in many a moment of repose, and absence from books and papers; we are less masters of our own trains of thought, than we flatter ourselves.
Alexander also summarized what it means for ministers to learn to think for themselves when he wrote:
It is not enough to turn an inquisitive mind loose among an array of great authors. The error against which we would guard such a one, is that of mistaking a large and various erudition for wise and thorough culture of the faculties.
The knowledge of authors, however great and good, is an instrument, not an end; and an instrument which may be misdirected and abused. There is much to be attained from other sources than books; and all that is gained from these, must, in order to the highest advantage, be made to pass through a process of inward digestion, which may be disturbed or even precluded by discriminate reading. The attainment of truth demands more than what is termed erudition. One may have vast knowledge of the repositories of human opinion, of what other men, many men, have thought upon all subjects, what in modern phrase is known as the literature of science; one may have a bibliographical accuracy about the authors who have treated this or that topic in every age, about systems, and schools, and controversies; and yet be vacillating and undecided as to the positive truth in question…Such are they who amass libraries of their own, and flutter among great public collections; who dazzle by quotation after quotation in sermons and treatises; who deck the margin of their publications with a catena of references to volume, page, and edition of works often inaccessible to ordinary scholars; but who discover or settle no great principle. They are felicitous conversers, walking indexes to treasured lore, and sprightly essayists, but not investigators, in the true sense, not producers, not solid thinkers. Indeed it would seem as if, in the very proportion of such encyclopedic knowledge, there was an incapacity for the mental forces to work up the enormous mass of superincumbent information. All this we believe to be true, while we scorn the paltry self-conceit of those who would denounce learning as injurious to originality, or would contrast readers and thinkers as incompatible classes. Our position is only that care must be taken that the great reader be also a great thinker.1
So, let us seek to be erudite. Let us read broadly. Let us listen often and carefully to the preaching and teaching of those who excel. Let us have deep and frequent theological and spiritual conversations. But let us also seek to become great thinkers–especially in the cause of service of the great Savior (Titus 2:13).
1. J. W. Alexander Thoughts on Preaching (New York: Charles Scribner, 1861) pp. 178-180.