Sophomore Syndrome

By Kenneth Berding Sep. 14, 2017 9:00 a.m. Christian Education, Ministry and Leadership, Spiritual Formation

About ten years ago, some of my fellow professors and I began to observe a trend among undergraduate Biblical & Theological Studies majors at Biola. We noticed that freshman students arrived on campus eager and ready to learn, but at some point during their sophomore year, these Biblical Studies majors became aware that on average they generally knew more theology than did the average Biola student. For some of these students, the realization of superior biblical knowledge fostered a sense of superiority; in the worst cases, this awareness spawned brashness and immodesty about their knowledge, especially as they interacted with other Biola students. Now, in many cases, by the time these students reached their junior or senior years, they became cognizant of their folly and began to pursue a more sober and humble assessment of their theological acumen.

We dubbed this phenomenon “the sophomore syndrome.” It seemed far better to name it than ignore it; a syndrome can only be treated if it is accurately diagnosed. In the intervening years, Biblical & Theological Studies professors have made it a central aim to emphasize—and hopefully model—the need for humility in handling the Word of God. We feared that all our labors to raise up a new generation of biblically-rooted and Christ-centered pastors, missionaries, and ministry leaders might go unrealized if students graduating from our program were deficient in submission to God and hadn’t learned to humble themselves under his mighty hand.

I am happy to announce that despite the ongoing challenges the sophomore syndrome presents each year (it is a diagnosable “syndrome” after all!) we are increasingly graduating majors in Biblical Studies who recognize the importance of humility toward God and grace toward others as they handle the Word of God. That’s a good thing; they will sorely need it in their future ministries.

Are any current Biblical Studies majors reading this? Is this the first time you’ve heard about the sophomore syndrome? Let me encourage you to “humbly receive the implanted word,” as James puts it so well (James 1:21) and grow in grace as you talk with others about all the wonderful things you are learning in your classes.


  • Mark Sep. 14, 2017 at 12:09 PM

    I think this is just a flavor of what I've heard called the "neophyte's conceit". It's human nature and we're all subject to it. I know something you don't. I know a secret you don't. I suspect it is perhaps the only pretext for anti-intellectualism that has any basis at all in truth. At first knowledge beyond what our perceived peers have can puff us up and often does, but on later reflection and/or further study it becomes apparent that it is folly and at that point the extra knowledge in comparison to peers tends to increase humility. Or that happens at least when we realize that for most of us our gained knowledge doesn't make us as exceptional at it first seemed. After going through this cycle a few times with different things tends to inoculate people from this. We should strive for knowledge that is rare in one form or another.

    So I don't think it has anything to do with the knowledge of theology, and I suspect (but don't really know) it's derived from 1 Tim 3:6 ( I see no translation that uses 'neophyte' and 'conceit' in the same passage, but it seems to me the elements of the phrase are clearly there even if no single translation landed on both.

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