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Life Together: Community Life and Seminary Education

March 16, 2017

The WSC family believes that community and fellowship is an integral and necessary part of seminary. This community brings to heart what is being studied in the classrooms as our students, spouses, families, faculty and staff care, grow, and pray with and for one another as we live Life Together.

There is a myth about academic life that it is a solitary endeavor. Imagine lonely, stoic figures plodding single-file into a library to sit for hours, hidden behind walled study carrels, isolated and free from social distractions, a hushed silence strictly observed. The reality of the scholarly life is quite different, however. As Princeton historian Anthony Grafton has suggested, it is misleading to think of the history of scholarship as a “story” of mere individuals rather than, more accurately, the development of “common project[s] sustained by shared ideals, practices, and institutions.” There has always been, in other words, an intensely communal aspect to rigorous education and serious scholarship. This is no less true for the history of theological education in the Reformed tradition, from the Academy in Geneva during Calvin’s day to the great universities of Leiden, Franeker, Basel, Zurich, Heidelberg, and beyond, including the Puritan colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard College in the New World, and eventually “Old Princeton.” Throughout history, the best academic institutions have always celebrated a collective, communal model of education, learning and living together in shared and overlapping spaces.

As a test-case, consider what is usually thought of as one of the most subdued, potentially lonely places on any educational campus, namely the library. While no one doubts the sanctity of a seminary library as place for quiet study and reflection, the day-to-day realities of many famous libraries across Europe reveals an additional and much more social aspect. The Bodleian Library of Oxford University is an interesting example in this regard. Its founder, Thomas Bodley was among the first generation of students to attend John Calvin and Theodore Beza’s Genevan Academy during his time in exile from his native England. Returning from the continent during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, he reorganized the existing manuscript collection at Oxford from the late 1590s and ultimately founded the library that remains the center of that university to this day. Bodley and the first librarian, Thomas James, who was also a solid Calvinist, chose to designate their institution a “non-lending” library, meaning that readers would not be allowed to check out books (nor have they been since) and retreat to a private, off-site place for solitary study. One effect of this non-lending policy, then, and an intentional one according to Grafton, was the creation of “a new and delightful kind of academic community.” Large reading tables seating four to eight readers at a time meant that the best minds in England and Europe read and studied together in close proximity. Access to Bodley’s treasures could only be gained in the company of focused scholars, standing shoulder to shoulder, studying face to face. When they departed the library for the evening they took only their thoughts with them (never the books), and were not therefore able to spend the evening reading in private. On the contrary, they left the library to share meals at table and fellowship together in common rooms across the university. Grafton describes this academic community as a veritable “resort of learned men” with shared interests and habits of scholarship. According to one early visitor to Bodleian library, the community of scholars gave him as much pleasure as the collection of books.

Another library at the Reformed University of Leiden, one of the most famous in seventeenth-century Europe, virtually guaranteed that scholarship and communal life went in tandem. Fellow readers were forced to rub shoulders because the library was only open for a few hours each week according to a precise and well-publicized schedule. The result was that a crowd of scholars from around Europe would gather during narrow windows of time, all eager to discover the riches contained in the library, browse books together, socialize, discuss the latest titles and scholarly debates, and ultimately learn and grow together in knowledge and collective wisdom.

There are several famous images of the Leiden University library that were produced at that time, almost all of which feature in the foreground, quite clearly, students and scholars meeting, greeting, and conversing, some of whom even brought their dogs into the library to add to the conviviality of the scene. In the example below, the energy of the scholarly conversation in the foreground almost distracts from the collection of books that recede into the background. Filling the space in addition to the books, visitors to the library are in seen in pairs or groups, thus putting an end to the myth of the solitary scholar.

Leiden University Library, 1610 (Jan Cornelis Woudanus); from the collection at the Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs Paris.


Beyond the book stacks, of course, many scholars shared other educational spaces and even lived together in close proximity. Communal life of all sorts, academic, social, and residential, existed at these institutions both formally and informally. Formally, one thinks of the familiar routine of school-life: lectures, seminars, colloquies, chapels, conferences and activities that take up much of the day. But informal life together was almost as formative and important as the formal, existing alongside of and in support of the academic experience. At the time of the Reformation, countless students, aspiring Protestant pastors, and Reformed scholars exchanged personal letters, travelled extensively, and lived together in shared spaces, cultivating piety and the life of the mind. This served to enhance and supplement what was learned in the classroom and gleaned from books in myriad ways. Think, for example, of those who travelled to visit with Martin Luther and enjoy informal “table talk” at the monastery-turned-orphanage run by Katie Luther. The primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus, lived with Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s co-religionist, for more than five years while he was a student at the University of Wittenberg where Luther and Melanchthon were professors. The Italian Reformer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, spent time with the Reformer from Strasbourg, Martin Bucer, as he was coming to Reformed convictions and learning about the organization of Reformed churches in France and German-speaking lands. Vermigli offered a fascinating snippet of what life was like in the hustle and bustle of Bucer’s home.

For 17 days after my arrival I was entertained in Butzer’s home. It is like a hostel, receiving refugees for the cause of Christ. In his family during the entire time I saw not the least occasion for offense but only ground for edification. His table is not lavish nor sparse, but marked by a godly frugality. No distinction is made with respect to foods on particular days. Thanks is given to God in Christ for all. Before and after the meal a passage is read from Scripture, followed by comment. I never left the table without having learned something.

“I never left the table without having learned something,” Vermigli concluded. Such is the inestimable value of communal life and table fellowship for the education of a theologian and leader in the church.

In sum, examples abound of this kind of community life existing alongside pioneering academic institutions right down to our own Westminster tradition. In the early days of the seminary, students spent evenings socializing in “Murray Heights” (i.e. John Murray’s on-campus residence), as well as in J. Gresham Machen’s private apartment enjoying oranges, cigars, and good conversation. No doubt the students had questions of a spiritual and theological nature for their professor; but it is equally likely that Machen took every opportunity to enjoy more casual conversation. On occasion, Machen even expressed his concern about two deficiencies in seminary students: (1) that they didn’t always work hard enough; and (2) that they didn’t always have enough fun! Towards improving the latter, Machen personally paid for a tennis court to be built on the original campus and frequently took students to enjoy the theater and good restaurants in the city.

At present, Westminster Seminary California enjoys a vibrant community life, formally and informally, inside and outside of the classroom. Students, faculty, staff, pastors, elders, and families from local churches frequently study shoulder-to-shoulder and learn face-to-face. We share meals, discuss church and family matters of spiritual importance, pray together, play golf, tennis, and ultimate Frisbee together;  we surf, review Hebrew grammar, watch movies, visit parks with our children, and much, much more. Soon, the Seminary will have 64 residential units to provide on-campus housing. Together, God helping us, we look forward to discovering new and meaningful ways to learn and grow in the service of Christ, his gospel, and his church.

Quotations are from Anthony Grafton, Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Roland H. Bainton, Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1971); and D. G. Hart, “Machen’s Delights” (an unpublished paper delivered at the WSC Annual Conference).


Ryan Glomsrud has served as Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California since 2011. He earned his D.Phil. in Theology from the University of Oxford and spent time as a graduate in residence at Harvard Divinity School and postdoctoral student in the History Department at Harvard University. He is happily married to his wife, Elizabeth, and together they have three little Scandinavian children, Soren, Ingrid, and Gunnar. In addition to serving as an elder at Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, California, Dr. Glomsrud enjoys playing tennis, soccer, basketball, and golf with students, watching movies that relate to his seminars in historical theology, and agonizing over English football (especially Liverpool). He has a French bulldog named Gaspard and would like to bring him to visit the Westminster library someday, if only the librarian would allow it.