Some people say you should only attend a school if you have a great deal of agreement with them. Certainly, if I were to further pursue post-graduate studies, I would seek a school of the Reformed tradition. There are many perks to doing so, not the least of which is being thoroughly grounded and reinforced in what you will be teaching at the local church level. However, my undergrad experience at a school with which I had major areas of disagreement was not all bad.
Know What You Believe
“For a man to come shuffling into a College, pretending that he holds his mind open to any form of truth, and that he is eminently receptive, but has not settled in his mind such things as whether God has an election of grace, or whether he loves his people to the end, seems to me to be a perfect monstrosity. ‘Not a novice,’ says the apostle; yet a man who has not made up his mind on such points as these, is confessedly and egregiously ‘a novice,’ and ought to be relegated to the catechism-class until he has learned the first truths of the gospel,” (C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students. Zondervan, Grand Rapids. 1954, pg. 39).
Before I started going to The College at Southwestern, I had already come to hold some pretty solid convictions in my theology. I grew up in church but, only in 2007, I came to be convinced of both Covenant Theology and Amillennialism. I also began hearing about a doctrine of salvation that was comparable to what I was already reading in Scripture, namely that regeneration necessarily precedes faith in the conversion of sinners.
Then, in early 2008, I was deployed to Kuwait where I met a group of young men who called themselves Calvinists. When they explained to me the Doctrines of Grace (the Five Points of Calvinism or T.U.L.I.P.), I immediately recognized these doctrines as lining up with what I was already seeing in Scripture. Finally, after returning home in 2009 and joining a Calvinistic Baptist church, I was introduced to Cornelius Van Til and his transcendental approach to defending the faith (apologetics).
As such, Calvinism had come to take shape in my understanding of the faith in a very holistic way. I understood Calvinism as more than just a soteriology, but rather as a holistic, thoroughly biblical worldview. These were matters on which I was settled. Thus, I determined that I would not budge on these issues as, in late 2009, I began acquiring a higher education at The College at Southwestern, which providentially teaches against all of these positions.
Grow in What You Believe
As I continued on in college, I took every instance of disagreement, between my professors and me and between my fellow students and me, as an opportunity to learn more about my own tradition. I began to research the earliest Calvinistic Baptists, a group of men in England who called themselves Particular Baptists. I was delighted to discover that they saw themselves as being in the same theological vein as the British Reformers and Puritans, a group from which I had already derived great spiritual benefit.
As I studied these men, I discovered that they had written a confession (The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1677 / 1689), and I also discovered that their confession was part of a much larger confessional heritage in the Reformed tradition. I began to study this confession and the others within the Reformed tradition. In studying these confessions, I came to realize that Reformed theology was much larger even than what I already knew. It spanned far beyond a Calvinist soteriology, Covenant Theology, Transcendental apologetics, and Amillennialism. Reformed Baptist theology also extends into ecclesiology, worship, Christian liberty, and other matters.
I also discovered that the early Particular Baptists and Reformed Baptists had written several catechisms, including some of the earliest catechisms for children. In the Calvinistic Baptist tradition (I was not yet confessional), one often hears about catechisms such as The Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms and The Heidelberg Catechism. It was truly delightful to learn that Hubmaier, Luther, and Calvin all had developed catechisms in the early days of the Reformation and, following the British Reformers, Particular Baptists such as Hercules Collins, William Collins, and Benjamin Keach had also developed catechisms for the Baptist tradition.
So it was that, as I was challenged in my views at Southwestern, I was forced to research my own tradition. The more I became familiar with my own tradition and was forced to defend it, the more Reformed I became. So I entered this Dispensational, Traditionalist Baptist seminary as a Calvinistic Baptist, but I left as a thoroughly confessional Reformed Baptist.
Grow in Your Knowledge of What Others Believe
Lest anyone be mistaken, I must take a moment to explain that I did not merely shrink back into my own theological bubble. I am sure that, at times, it may have seemed that way to some of my classmates. I was unapologetic about my beliefs, and would openly question some of the assertions made about Reformed theology in class.
I recall staying after class one afternoon to talk with one of my professors. I apologized to him for pushing back as hard as I sometimes do. He told me not to apologize, but that he actually found my interactions in class to be a breath of fresh air. He lamented the fact that many Millennials are too reserved about their opinions preferring to float through their college years without ever participating much in classroom discussions. I did notice that the Gen Xrs in my classes did express their opinions a lot more freely while Millennials often tended to sit toward the back of the class and treat the classes as just a grade. This is not an indictment on all Millennials. For all the cons one might highlight about any given generation, there are many pros to make up for it.
On my part, I made the most use I could out of my professors. In fact, the more I disagreed with a professor, the more likely I was to stick around after class and talk with him. I learned a lot in this season of my life about Christians who think differently than me. For instance, I am less inclined to call someone who is not a Calvinist an Arminian. Rather than simply assigning someone a title on the basis of what they are not, I am now more inclined to find out from them what they prefer to be called on the basis of what they affirm.
Also, having sat through lecture after lecture where terms like “Replacement Theology” were used without apology and the Doctrines of Grace were grossly misrepresented, I learned the value of honest representation. If Reformed Baptists desire for others to represent us fairly, it is important that we do the same in representing others. This is not to say that we cannot represent those with whom we disagree in a negative light. However, if we do, we need to be prepared to back up our conclusions with facts.
Grow in Areas Where You Are Wrong
One area where I was surprised to find that I had changed by the time I left school was in the area of ecclesiology. Going in to Southwestern, I was a staunch proponent of elder-rule ecclesiology. However, as I read up on the issue and talked with my professors about it, I soon discovered that my ecclesiology was just as reactionary as the worst arguments from the other side. I would hear people complain about the abuses of elders in an elder rule system, and I would counter with experiences I had seeing people use and abuse the congregational system.
Once I honestly stopped and looked at all of the arguments from Scripture for elder-led congregationalism (or, as I’ve heard it put, elder-rule congregationalism), I found this take on congregational ecclesiology to be thoroughly biblical. I had formulated a doctrine of church government on the basis of personal preference and pragmatic arguments, and I was unwilling to hear arguments from Scripture. Were it not for my education, I might still hold to the other view. I certainly never would have desired to have changed on the view were I not convinced otherwise.
Develop Friendships with People with Whom You Disagree
Now, I was a bit of an outcast among my classmates in college. I gather that some of the more Calvinistic students did look up to me a bit. I was a cofounder of an apologetics club, I started a Bible study with several students off campus, and I still talk with some of my fellow students from time to time. However, for the most part, I did not primarily hang with my fellow students. I preferred to talk offline with my professors.
Sometimes I would stay after class for over an hour to talk with my professors. Though we disagreed on a great deal of theology, I found that we were able to get past that and focus on the areas where we found agreement. Sometimes, after more than an hour of conversation, I would look at my watch and realize that I had missed chapel. Sometimes, that would happen even on days when the chapel speaker was someone I was really looking forward to hearing. Overall, I left school with a great love and admiration for—though still a great deal of disagreement with—my professors.
Really, the only reason I gravitated to professors with whom I disagreed rather than fellow students with whom I disagreed was generational. Generationally speaking, I did not feel I had as much in common with my fellow students. This was quite a learning experience for me. There are probably no two back-to-back generations that are more different in temperament and life experiences than Gen Xrs and Millennials. Somehow, though, I was able to forge a handful of friendships with Millennials as well.
Well, these were the five things I found most beneficial about going to a school with which I harbored great disagreement. I would not say it is for everyone, especially if you are not settled in your theology. What are some of the perks that perhaps I missed? I would be interested to hear the positive aspects of your experience attending a school with which you had great disagreement.