Seminary Series: What Is Seminary For?

(update:) Author’s note: This is the second post in a series dealing with my experiences teaching seminary on a volunteer basis over this past year. The thoughts and observations contained therein do not necessarily represent those of the Seminaries and Institutes program or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The introductory post can be found here.

I support and deeply value the seminary program and its role in the lives of LDS youth. That’s why I accepted the call. But as I began to contemplate the coming year, I struggled to come to terms with the difference between how I would teach the Old Testament in seminary and how I had been taught it in graduate school. I had many questions. How much should these students know? Should I tell them that Moses did not write the “Five Books of Moses?” Should I tell them that he did? Should I acquaint them with ancient literary concepts of fiction and satire, and point them out in the ahistorical books of Job, Jonah, Esther, and even Ruth? Can the Old Testament be properly understood without doing so?


Seminary is not about the Old Testament.

Then came the revelation: Seminary is not actually about teaching the Old Testament. I apologize to those who thought that scriptures were the primary purpose of seminary; disabuse yourself of the notion posthaste. Sure, the standard works are an important part, but they’re not really the focus. This should come as a surprise to neither the church’s most cynical critics nor its devout members. Rather seminary is about teaching the doctrines of the Gospel and building testimonies. The Old Testament is used as an aid to this goal, but it is not actually the goal. If it were, Seminary would be a very different class.

This is not my own estimation either. The Church itself makes this purpose very clear on all its released material both publicly and directly to educators. The new mission statement for seminaries and institutes, “The Teaching and Learning Emphasis,” reads thus:

Our purpose is to help youth and young adults understand and rely on the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ, qualify for the blessings of the temple, and prepare themselves, their families, and others for eternal life with their Father in Heaven.

So what is the role of the Old Testament for this year?

We teach students the doctrines and principles of the gospel as found in the scriptures and the words of the prophets. These doctrines and principles are taught in a way that leads to understanding and edification. We help students fulfill their role in the learning process and prepare them to teach the gospel to others.

Although published years earlier, the OT Seminary Teachers’ manual contains a statement from which this stated purpose appears to be drawn. I interpret it to mean that the scriptures are taught only insofar as they assist in teaching the doctrines of the Gospel.

At an inservice I attended, teachers were instructed that the principles of the Gospel were to occupy center stage and that historical details should take up only about 20% of the class time. I believe this is an extreme ratio, and not one I’ve taken in class. After all, one of the supplementary goals of the teaching and learning emphasis states that students are to “understand the context and content of the scriptures and the words of the prophets,” and I don’t think that can adequately be accomplished with so little time allotted. But it’s clear in what direction the Church wants to take S&I.

This is a good thing.

The separation of doctrine from text is liberating, focusing, and honest. But more importantly, it responds to the most pressing needs of the youth of the church. I’ll elaborate:

A) Prioritizing doctrine over text is intellectually honest. It would be far worse if we claimed, as do some other churches, that our doctrine is derived from a simple, unfiltered reading of the Bible and that our doctrine and the scriptures were one and the same. All scripture, in whatever tradition (even academe), is interpreted for that community, and teaching scripture from a devotional perspective must be self-consciously done.

B) Prioritizing doctrine over text provides focus. The Old Testament is an enormous body of literature; to do it all in one year is overly ambitious. We will cover some things well, or everything not-so-well. So if sacrifices must be made for the sake of time constraints alone, it is helpful to have a guiding curriculum which emphasizes those parts of the Old Testament most helpful in fulfilling the mission of Seminary.

C) Prioritizing doctrine over text is liberating. I know what you’re thinking, because I thought the same thing: How will I teach Judah and Tamar? Or Lot’s daughters? Or the (at least) two narratives in the flood story? Or second Isaiah? Or [fill in the blank with your own difficult OT passage/issue]? In my view, it’s not worth getting stressed out about. Your students do not need to exit seminary for the year having mastered the historical-critical method. They need to know about God’s covenants with his people, his prophetic witnesses, and the Great Plan of Happiness.

D) Doctrine should be the foundation for spiritual growth. I’m not saying the Documentary Hypothesis cannot or should not build one’s testimony. I am saying that a knowledge of a covenantal relationship with God is far more valuable to the average teenager today and that it should be the foundation upon which other, more peripheral things are built.

Resolving Concerns

I get that this approach will raise concerns with some, so I’ve tried to anticipate some of them:

Aren’t you basically agreeing with Elder Packer that “some things that are true are not always useful?”

In a limited sense, yes. I’ve long admired Elder Packer for admitting that facts are never just facts, nor truth just truth — that facts and truth communicate with reality in the way that people respond to them. But many who are not big fans of this quote criticize the church for its hiding of potentially embarrassing aspects of our history and doctrine. Let there be no doubt: prioritizing doctrine over text need not mean dissembling, avoidance of controversy, or irresponsible exegesis. I respect my students as young adults and I trust them to speak about difficult issues with maturity and intelligence (the success of this trust will be a topic of a later post). I have no intention of hiding the truth from them or answering their questions in ways that will hinder further spiritual and intellectual growth.

I guess this gets to the root of my contention: I think holding back certain uncomfortable aspects of the OT is wrong as a general policy, and I think S&I could definitely do a better job of teaching scripture. I hope this post is not read as a defense of the status quo. It would be unfortunate if my students are never again in their lives exposed to a more academic introduction to the Old Testament. They ought to have one. But now is not that time. I want to give students the clearest possible view of the Old Testament and church history, but I do not intend to let it displace doctrine in their spiritual formation, and I disagree with those who believe these are mutually exclusive goals.

Won’t the students leave with a distorted understanding of the contents, structure, and history of the Old Testament, i.e. is this not an irresponsible way to teach it?

Perhaps. It is quite likely that they will acquire a sense of the OT colored by an LDS perspective. We all have assumptions we bring to the text, and if we’re teaching seminary, those assumptions are even prescribed. There’s no escaping it . But the OT itself is not the subject of seminary; the Gospel is.

You do not regard your theological education very highly, do you?

On the contrary! The things I’ve learned about the OT have broadened my view of the scriptures and have changed my understanding of how God deals with his children. In fact, I hold my theological training in such high regard, that I think any approach to the OT that doesn’t follow that basic model is not really an approach to the OT at all. Rather its an approach to ourselves using the OT as a platform. And that’s what seminary is all about: the children of God trying to become more like him.

So what do you propose to do in the classroom?

Not every teacher has the following problem, but for those that do here’s what I did: whenever I was worried that my lessons were getting off track, or engaging in a level of intertextuality inappropriate for an exegesis class, or perhaps I was propagating an interpretation made by prophets and apostles but not necessarily relevant to Isaiah’s immediate context, I reoriented myself to what I was there to do: teach the Gospel.

Finally, I admit that this approach is not for everyone. Perhaps you disagree with me that the OT and the Doctrine of the restored Church are two separate, although related things. Or, on the other hand, perhaps you would present the scriptures, warts and all, to young minds as tabulae rasae, hoping that spiritual truth will independently descend on them “as the dew from heaven distilling” (Hymns 149). Whatever your approach, you must accept accountability for how you will manage the tension that often comes from a diligent study of the OT and a faithful celebration of the truths restored through the prophet Joseph Smith.

23 Replies to “Seminary Series: What Is Seminary For?”

  1. So you are saying that it is possible to fully understand the concepts and doctrines without comprehending the text in its fullness.

  2. I’m saying it’s possible to teach the concepts and doctrines without covering the text in its fullness in class.

  3. I don’t see how this improves on the status quo, which sets many up for jarring disillusionment upon encountering more academic approaches. If I was taught seminary by someone holding a graduate degree in Biblical studies, I would have all the more reason to assume that I was getting the straight dope; learning about difficulties later on would then leave me feeling confused and cheated.

    I agree that seminary doesn’t require the same rigor as a collegiate Hebrew Bible course, but it seems that an important and oft-neglected part of building faith and testimony is preventing eventual faith crisis via inoculation of some kind. At the very least, actively include *some* surprising facts and ambiguity in your lessons so that astute students get a feel for the complexity at work in the text, and then maybe offer handouts with suggested further reading. But please don’t wait for the students to ask the hard questions before you answer at least a few of them.

  4. Great post and something I’ve long thought. Although I still wish BYU’s scripture classes were more like scripture classes and less like seminary.

  5. These are some hard truths, and I’ve often struggled to strike a proper balance with my institute classes. Good exposition of the pedagogical issues involved.

  6. Arius, thank you for your comment. However, I believe that faith crises do and will happen without any help from seminary teachers. Even with the firmest foundation rooted in truth, many students with excellent seminary teachers still develop doubts, and many students with poor teachers weather the resulting storm and do just fine. In the end, each of us are responsible for our own faith. And isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? At least that’s the way I read Ether 12:6.

    Nevertheless, this is no reason to be unnecessarily negligent in how we teach our youth, and it’s nonsense to withhold information during their education just to make their spiritual trials harder later in life. I don’t think it’s objectionable at all to do a you suggest and introduce some hard passages to make students really think. Indeed, I’ll describe some occasions when I’ve done so in later posts. You may be surprised by the reception from the class.

  7. Clark and Ben S, I think my opinion would be different on this subject were I teaching institute or a religion class at BYU. I know that some of the goals are the same, but at the post-high school level, young adults are theoretically supposed to be developing critical thinking skills and attaining sufficient maturity that they are more comfortable with cognitive dissonance. Many teenagers, on the other hand, have a strong sense of black and white and are still coming to terms with the basic teachings of the church, like tithing, prayer, chastity, etc.

  8. This is really interesting. The problem with the Church’s approach to seminary is that it can be misleading (or even dishonest) without the proper disclosure. It is not problematic to use the scriptures as a base for teaching Mormon values and doctrines as long as we clearly disclose that we are not going to dwell on, or even necessarily point out, textual inconsistencies with current doctrine/internal scriptural ambiguity and inconsistency/historical accuracy etc because study of the text *is not our primary purpose*. If students come to class thinking that they’re going to learn scriptural exegesis and instead get a Sunday school lesson in disguise, then that’s being dishonest. I think whether the OP’s approach to teaching seminary is dishonest depends a lot on the individuals in the class and their expectations about what seminary is. The OP may be taking a dangerously sophist approach to seminary instruction if he has not disclosed very clearly what he/she is doing and why.

    1. Brian D, your point is well taken, but it may be more applicable to institute or college religion classes than seminary. My students are 15-17 years old, and most do not really know the difference yet between a Sunday School lesson and scriptural exegesis. Even if all teenage children at your house know what “exegesis” even means, I don’t know any that do. In order to help them understand the difference, I’d have to end up teaching quite a bit of this class. A preferable approach is the one Arius suggested, to introduce them to some problematic passages to get them used to seeing them and teach them personal approaches for dealing with them.

      The mission statement I linked to above is publicly available from the church. Furthermore, I believe many prophets and apostles have made similar statements, though not specifically about seminary. FWIW, I spent the second day of class teaching my students about the OT’s removal from us in time, culture, and language. We talked about how the Old Testament contains many different points of view and why. On the other hand, we also talked about how some things in the Old Testament were fundamentally analogous to our day and that we should also expect to see commonality between our faith and theirs. I think this kind of disclosure combined with the above mentioned church-wide public statements are sufficient disclosure of how class is to be run.

  9. How often will you be posting? I just finished my first year of seminary teaching today, and am already starting to think about next year. I imagine you will have some good insights for the novice teachers such as myself.

  10. John, thanks for reading. I hope to post at least once a week. I don’t have any more experience than you, and despite my best intentions I fail a lot. Moreover, there are things I’m definitely not so good at, which will become abundantly clear in later posts. So we all need help, and I hope readers liberally comment on what has and has not worked for them in addition to any concerns they may have. Furthermore, I believe that different classes have different needs. That’s why I wanted to give as much detail as appropriate on what my class is like in the last post. I can definitely see how my experience may have been different in some instances if I had taught, say, somewhere along the Wasatch Front.

  11. >>My students are 15-17 years old, and most do not really know the difference yet between a Sunday School lesson and scriptural exegesis.<<

    I have had 14 to 18 year olds for the five years (so far) I've taught early morning seminary and they all know the difference between a topical lesson (like Sunday School and AP and YW, e.g., 'the journal lesson,' 'the chastity lesson,' 'the repentance lesson,' etc.) and a scriptural lesson and could distinguish them from across the room, with one eye closed. That is not a very difficult concept to grasp.

    Perhaps I have substituted my own agenda for the church's agenda and, if so, they need to release me. But I've tried very hard to make seminary scriptural lessons as opposed to church topic lessons. I almost never leave the text we are studying. I've never had a student who couldn't follow the scriptural narrative and conspire with my prompts to wrestle gospel meaning from at least some of the assigned daily readings. They even like it. Who doesn't love a good story? I also don't think we need to hammer them with fairly obvious things like similarities between the Israelite dietary laws and the Word of Wisdom. And that maybe David stumbled there….

    My (admitted) prejudice is that if I've heard the same predictable topical lessons 10,000 times, they've heard them a 1,000 times and they need something more—something meatier, something that embraces the ambiguity and complexity of daily life, which they are surprisingly cognizant of even at 14. The 'resource' material all seem very juvenile and condescending to me. I try to treat them as if they were adults and see if they don't rise to the level of my expectation. And they always do.

    Perhaps I am delusional, or there is something in the water here (inner city Denver), or I've hit the genetic jackpot repeatedly, and I certainly wouldn't doubt your experiences, but mine have been different.

  12. Aliquis
    What is Seminary for? What are the benefits? I’m asking myself that a lot recently since one of my children will be the age to begin seminary this September. A member of my close family has in the past taught daily early morning Seminary for 4 years, and their assessment was that Seminary takes away at least as much as it gives. I had graduated Seminary prior to their call to teach. I really don’t want to send my child to Seminary, and your post only confirms my concerns. Let me explain why.
    The approach you describe CES emphasizing now sounds much like the approach taken in Primary, where the children (ages 8-11) study the books of scripture for the doctrinal points as laid out in the Valiant manuals. I’ll echo Jim Donaldson that our youth get plenty of topical lessons in their Young Men and Young Women classes. In addition to this, those age 14-18, (in my ward all the youth 12+, there is only one youth Sunday School class) get to study the scripture based Gospel Doctrine course every Sunday. Now, you are telling me Seminary offers nothing extra, nothing different.
    Just a year or so ago I was released after a two year stint as youth Sunday School teacher. Those students who attended Seminary were my very worst students. They didn’t want to engage with the lesson material, because, hey, they had done it in Seminary already, or they were going to be doing it in Seminary shortly anyway. They really spoilt things for those students who didn’t attend Seminary, who really were interested. Now I’m quite prepared to admit that some of that may be down to my own failings as a teacher, but I don’t think all of it was (nor was the then CES coordinator, also at the time a HC who attended my class unannounced occasionally, critical of the way in which I was trying to present the material, rather the reverse). The ward had had problems in retaining a teacher for that class for longer than a few weeks at a time, so I certainly stuck it out the longest. This experience did nothing to endear me to Seminary. They were clearly bored with the whole approach, and yet at the same time, appeared to have learnt very little about the scriptures in Seminary, judging from the way they were unable to answer even basic questions..
    The whole DAILY seminary approach seems to me to be a tick box exercise in graduating as many students as possible, without any measure of what they’ve actually learnt, or how they might have benefited. They can just turn up, zone out, and get the credit anyway. Back when I was a Seminary student, and the Sunday School curriculum totally different, I did the first 3 years home study (and started at 13 not 14). It was great. I loved the reading, filling in the work booklets (along with scribbling in lots of additional comments and questions for my long-suffering teacher) in my own time, class was only once a week and didn’t intrude on family life too much. In my final year, it had been decided that there would be no home study class. I had to get up at the crack of dawn or earlier, cycle to church, sit exhausted in a class, listening to a teacher, and leave before the end to make it to college on time. I learnt very little that year. And college suffered too, because I’d be drooping with exhaustion by early afternoon. I did graduate, but several years later, threw away the certificate because meant nothing to me.
    Daily Seminary is a massive intrusion on family life. We have raised our children with family prayer and family scripture study absolutely every morning from the very start. The church encourages these practices. Yet now, CES want to stomp all over that with their big boots.
    A recent issue of the New Era magazine was dedicated to Seminary. My youngest child was horrified by the story of a girl who gave up learning ice skating in order to be able to attend early morning seminary. I thought the church encouraged us to develop our talents. Our youth make many sacrifices to keep the Sabbath day holy. The message is that CES requires them to do this for rest of the week too? For what benefit? I see none.
    Then there is the way CES love to brandish statistics (I taught Institute for a year, a a while ago now, but have had a little experience of this from the position of teacher) to justify their existence. I would strongly take issue with both their use and interpretation – correlation is not causation.
    CES is not the Church, it is not the Gospel.
    Okay, rant over. Aliquis, I’ll just acknowledge that volunteer Daily Seminary teacher is the hardest, most demanding calling the church has, and I like that you make efforts to bring in some historical context to your classes. It’s a lack I sorely feel in my own scriptural education. I also attended Institute, but I find the Institute manuals to be big on GA opinion, and sadly lacking in history.

    1. Jim, thanks for your input, and I’m glad your students are so mature. But the distinction between a “topical lesson” and a “scriptural lesson” is not what I’m talking about here. Sure, I’ve done some topical lessons some mornings, at what I’ve felt to be the behest of the spirit. But most of the time we’ve stuck to the readings for the day. There is a difference between a scriptural lesson like the ones I try to teach and an exegesis class. In an exegesis class, no assumptions are made that cannot be accepted by all interpreters irrespective of creed or conviction. Therefore, you cannot assume there are modern prophets or Joseph Smith’s restoration or even that Jesus Christ is the Son of God or that the biblical text has any bearing on the modern reader’s life. You can’t even trust the text you’re reading, but rather must approach it from perspective of suspicion. This is the way to teach the text and nothing but; otherwise, you are not being honest about the other authorities you bring to the class. It is an extremely valuable way to approach the OT, but it must responsibly take the text as a whole and address issues that have little if any bearing upon the basic message of the restored Gospel, despite their potential to build faith in some. If faith is built for some students from this perspective, it is necessarily an independent endeavor, for an exegesis class is (or ought to be) uninterested in the spiritual formation of its students. Likewise, if faith is killed or extinguished, it is not (and should not be) of particular importance.

      I value this intellectual rigor and exercise in critical thinking, but I won’t take this kind of laissez-faire teaching style in seminary for two reasons: a) because I understand my role as a seminary teacher is different. I guess some teachers might resent this difference, but I’ve chosen to embrace it out of my regard for the seminary program, and b) while I admit it might be a worthwhile approach to the spiritual formation of some teenagers, I believe it to be naive if unilaterally applied.

      I maintain that one can teach a lesson focused on the scriptural text with an eye cast to its broader doctrinal implications. Indeed, it is an approach by which some of the most respected theologians in the scholarly world have made careers. But in doing so, I must admit, and I hope you would too, the assumptions made that God of the OT is the God that speaks to us today, that Jesus is our Savior and Redeemer, that God restored his covenant through Joseph Smith, and that God speaks to prophets today just as he did in OT (albeit in some dramatically different ways). But however focused we may be on the scriptures in such an enterprise, it is, by definition, a class on doctrine and not history or literature, because we are essentially looking at ourselves through the lens of the text. As such, it is appropriate to welcome voices from modern scripture and apostles and prophets. This is my envisioned middle ground between what you dismiss as a Sunday School lesson and the rigorous college-level course I describe above. I reject any dichotomy restricted to one extreme or the other.

      Let me reaffirm that my prioritization of doctrine over text does not mean that I feed my students Sunday School lessons. I encourage independent thinking in my students and I’ll outline the ways in which I do it with later posts. But you’ll nevertheless indulge me my religious conviction and my desire to communicate my testimony to the youth of my ward. You’ll also forgive me for feeling that this goal can be accomplished even in the current CES/S&I environment.

    2. Kai, I’m sorry to hear about your experiences with the seminary program, and can sympathize with so many of your concerns. Your point about how the church tracks and measures its students’ progress is well taken. The grading system has significantly limited what I’ve tried to do with my class, and I’ll post more about it in the future. And you’ll find nothing but agreement from me about the church’s Institute manuals. I generally ignore suggestions from my seminary manual that I refer to the Institute manual. Though both manuals are outdated, the institute manuals are sorely so. Instead, upon accepting the calling to teach seminary. I personally invested in a copy of Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament, an excellent resource by Latter-day Saints, and a copy of The Jewish Study Bible, which I’d owned previously. Both were valuable supplements in lesson preparation.

      I can see your frustration with the sacrifice required by seminary. Indeed, some of the youth in my ward decided it was just not for them. Perhaps for this reason precisely I appreciate the sacrifices of the students who do come all the more. And I’ll add that these students are also excelling scholastically in spite of their waking up every morning before the Holy Ghost to come to seminary. They maintain internships, star in school plays, and keep up in their classes, not to mention combat personal illnesses and deal with little familial support. A non-early-morning arrangement just wouldn’t work with these kids because their schedules wouldn’t allow for another time. I understand seminary commitments require much sacrifice, but any church program is worth just about as much as you invest in it. Some students come to my class ready to learn, contribute, and participate despite my lack of teaching skill, and others come and check out, literally dragging their feet across the floor at any request to open up their scriptures. This is not the fault of S&I. This is not to say it can’t be better managed, but rather that it is still quite possible for YM and YW to have a valuable, positive experience with seminary.

  13. My oldest will be going to early morning seminary next year. It is interesting to read about what might go on there.
    For my daughter, one of the things that seminary is “for” is peer interaction with other LDS members. She will be going to high school and it is likely she will not see any Mormon kids all day long if it wasn’t for seminary. On Sundays she has very, very small church classes and participates vigorously much to the delight of all her teachers over the years. Seminary will give her a chance to engage in interesting gospel discussions in a classroom setting and influence different set of Mormon kids (due to high school and ward boundaries). My daughter is a 4.0 student who spends a lot of time on homework and without any young women her age in the ward there is little chance for appropriate bonding outside of church sponsored activities (you don’t let your daughter hang out with male friends who are 3 years older for instance).

    1. An important point indeed, jks, and it’s something I’m not sure I understood very well as a teacher. Having grown up in Utah, I took it for granted that students have plenty of opportunities to associate with their church friends outside of seminary. This is of course not the case, and as a result, I didn’t properly understand the need to socialize; I was much too concerned with accomplishing the lesson. Good luck to your daughter, and may she have a wonderful experience.

  14. Kudos to you and all those that teach early morning seminary. There should be a special place in heaven carved out just for you. I was one of those troubled kids that attended early morning seminary in California. I don’t know that I learned much from it but looking back now I sure have a better appreciation for those that magnify their callings. Great job!
    The OT can be a tough read even for the most advanced students, follow the Spirit and you can’t go wrong.

  15. I have never heard this explained better, thank you. I think about it as teaching with faith or faith in the gospel. That doesn’t mean we need to hide anything but it more about what should be emphasized or even what lens we are going to teach through and help people see through especially the age you are dealing with. You can read the scriptures through many different lenses and many are valuable but reading with an emphasis on faith in the gospel has personal brought me more revelation than any other way.

  16. I know several Jewish converts who complain privately that we are doing something dishonest in how we teach the Old Testament: we either remove or ignore virtually everything that is Jewish.

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