Jack Rabbits and Ping-Pong

 I’m surprised how many times I hear people speak negatively about a pastor’s seminary education – as if knowledge is deadly to the soul (or ignorance is bliss).  Of course, this sentiment is a common American one that goes way back to the early frontier days of circuit preachers.  Billy Sunday even said, “I don’t know any more about theology than a jack-rabbit knows about ping-pong, but I’m on my way to glory” (he was right, by the way!).  If you read a lot of Christian books and hear sermons on Christian radio and TV, you’ll notice there are quite a few Billy Sundays out there today. 

Puritan William Gurnall discusses this topic briefly in The Christian in Complete Armor (I’ve edited it a bit to make it shorter and easier to read).  I appreciate what he has to say here; I firmly believe a pastor should have a solid and vigorous seminary education (Greek and Hebrew included!).

“Knowledge is so fundamental to the work and calling of a minister, that he cannot be one without it (cf. Hos. 4:6).  The lack of knowledge in a minister is such a defect that it cannot be supplanted by anything else.  Even if he were ever so meek, patient, excellent, and blameless, if he doesn’t have the skill to rightly divide the word, he is not fit to be a minister.  Even if a knife has a handle made of diamonds, if it does not cut it is a worthless knife.  If a bell does not ring, it is a worthless bell.  The great work of a minister is to teach others, his lips are to preserve knowledge, he should be as conversant in the things of God as others in their particular trades.”

“I know these stars [ministers of the gospel] in Christ’s hands are not all of the same magnitude.  There is a greater glory of gifts and graces shining in some than in others; yet so much light is necessary to every minister, as was in the star the wise men saw at Christ’s birth, to be able out of the word to direct sinners the safe and true way to Christ and salvation.”

Here’s a great analogy worth remembering (Gurnall ends the section with it): “He is a cruel man to the poor passengers, who will undertake to be captain, when he never so much as learned his compass.”  J. G. Machen would have agreed: “The Church is perishing today through the lack of thinking, not through an excess of it.” 

Dear pastors, missionaries, elders, and seminary students: study hard, train well, learn the doctrines of grace – for the glory of God and the good of his church!

shane lems

sunnyside wa

6 Replies to “Jack Rabbits and Ping-Pong”

  1. Reminds me of an aspiring youth pastor who brashly told me that ‘seminary is where passion goes to die.’ I asked him if that meant that his ministry would be where ignorance comes to live.

    Too many people in churches today have hearts which are full of the Spirit, but have heads that are theologically void.


  2. Hi Shane,
    The Gurnall quotes reminds me of John Bolt’s little book “Stewards of the Word: Challenges in Reformed Theological Education Today.”

    Whenever someone gets on the topic of ministerial education, etc., I can’t help but think of the first few lines of chapter 2:

    “Though it was never simple or easy, theological education in the Protestant tradition used to be a relatively straightforward matter. The Reformation slogan sola scriptura meant that the text of the Bible–God’s word to humanity–was the foundation of preaching, teaching, and pastoral care in the church. The minister was first and foremost a minister of the Word–verbum dei minister–and ministerial training, including exegesis, hermeneutics, historical and dogmatic theology, pastoral care, was intended above all to provide the essential equipment to be a servant and steward of that Word.” (25)


  3. The more I think about it, Billy Sunday was wrong… A person *does* need a working knowledge of theology for salvation. Here’s a basic list of theological presuppositions that saving faith depends on:

    – A knowledge of God; that He’s the creator of the universe, and that men are created in His image. God desires to re-establish the relationship He had with man prior to the fall, but His character requires that man perfectly conforms to His law to stay in relationship with Him.
    – A knowledge of man; That man is fallen by nature and has earned God’s wrath and condemnation and desperately needs salvation.
    – A knowledge of Christ; That Christ fulfilled man’s obligation for perfect obedience, paid the penalty for man’s sin, and has been raised victorious over death.
    – A knowledge of salvation; In order to claim salvation, man must confess with his mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in his heart that God raised him from the dead.

    The reason Billy Sunday could make his jack rabbit joke is that in the 19th century just about everyone in western society including the jack rabbits knew these facts because it was so culturally ingrained. This is no longer the case, making the other quotes you referenced even more relevant and important.

    Theology is not an option that churches can bypass, it’s absolutely critical step in communicating salvation!


    1. When I commented, “He (Sunday) was right, by the way,” I was being sarcastic: I meant he was right in that he really didn’t know any more about theology than a jack rabbit knows about ping-pong.


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