Defending a Federationally-Controlled Seminary
On the whole, talks towards full unification of the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) and the United Reformed Churches (URCNA) have moved forward at an acceptable rate. A couple of hurdles, however, have appeared on the road, one of them revolving around the training for the ministry.
The CanRC has a seminary (in Hamilton) operated and controlled by the churches (by a Board of Governors appointed by and responsible to synod). The URCNA, on the other hand, does not involve itself at the federational level with the training for the ministry, but receives its ministers from seminaries (predominately MARS in Chicago and Westminster West in Escondido) operated and controlled by (business) people who turn out to be active members of the URCNA or a sister church. The CanRC position has been that a united church should have a least one federationally-controlled seminary. To promote this position, a committee appointed to discuss the matter with URCNA counterparts produced a paper entitled, “Why Do the Canadian Reformed Churches Have Their Own Seminary?” This paper (available in the Acts of Synod Chatham, 2004, pages 224-234) documented why the CanRC insists on a church-controlled seminary – but its argument was rejected by the URCNA. Subsequent discussions in Christian Renewal and Clarion demonstrate that the arguments used in this paper have not been convincing to all.
I, too, have found the paper unconvincing. It’s not that I question the need for a federationally-controlled seminary. Rather, I do not think the paper proved its conclusion. Consider this quote from said paper:
2 Timothy 2:2 ... is ... the only Scripture that is specifically mentioned in the official account of the discussions that led to the decision of the 1891 Synod of the churches of the Secession, to maintain the principle that the church is called to maintain its own training for the ministry of the Word.
One would expect, then, that the paper’s study of 2 Timothy 2:2 would bring out clearly and indisputably that the Lord God indeed desires the churches to train future ministers through a church-controlled seminary. Yet when it comes to drawing out the instruction of 2 Timothy 2:2, the paper ends up saying nothing stronger than this:
It is also to be noted that the task of entrusting the gospel to others is given to a man like Timothy who had received the laying on of hands and held office in the church. The principle appears to be that those holding office in the church must train office bearers for the church. Office bearers ordained by the church work on behalf of the church.
This paragraph leads to this conclusion: “Here we have a key apostolic mandate for the transmitting of the gospel from one generation to the other ... Those who preach the Word must train others to do the same” (emphasis added, CB). My question: how can the word “appears” lead to “a key apostolic mandate” and hence the use of the normative word “must”? If the churches ought to have a federationally-controlled seminary (and again, I believe we should), we’ll need stronger arguments than this paper supplies.
What follows is an attempt to strengthen the argument for a church controlled seminary.
2 Timothy 2:2 reads as follows: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” Paul’s point is clear: future generations need to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ, for faith comes by hearing. Timothy, then, must in some way see to it that men be trained to preach the gospel.
It is striking that Paul does not stipulate how Timothy must go about entrusting the gospel to future preachers. Was Timothy to do that himself? Was he to organize others to do it? Was he to mobilize the elders of his church, or perhaps the elders of neighbouring churches? If yes, were the elders themselves to do the entrusting and training required by Paul’s instruction, or were the elders (or churches) to supervise others to do the training on their behalf? Alternatively, was Timothy to approach some godly businessmen who had the means to finance and supervise the training? The passage does not give detail.
Yet it seems to me noteworthy that Paul gave this instruction to Timothy. Timothy was a preacher of the gospel (cf. 2 Timothy 4:2), charged to do the work of an evangelist (2 Timothy 4:5). By God’s providence and calling, then, here was a man specifically commissioned to pass on the good news of Jesus Christ in the ongoing proclamation of the gospel to believers and unbelievers. This is the man who receives the charge to have the gospel entrusted to faithful men who could in turn teach others.
Were there options? Could the Holy Spirit have moved Paul to give this instruction to someone else? Undoubtedly He could; the Holy Spirit is free and sovereign. He could, for example, have moved Paul to give the instruction of 2 Timothy 2:2 to Philemon, arguably a man of means since he was rich enough to own slaves. Alternatively, the Spirit could have moved Paul to give the instruction of 2 Timothy 2:2 to Aquila and Priscilla, a business-savvy couple who used their means and gifts to spread the gospel as they had opportunity (and even had the wherewithal to correct Apollos theologically, see Acts 18:26). Yet the Holy Spirit did not have this instruction delivered to business people of the church (who may or may not have been elders), but to a preacher of the church. One wonders why.
Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul “developed his theology” (to use that unhappy phrase for the sake of brevity) through the study of the Old Testament. That is true not only of such “big” doctrinal matters as justification and atonement, but also of “lesser significant” matters as voluntary contributions – and training for the ministry. Given the identity of the intended readers of this article, I trust I need spend no further time drawing out that Paul’s words are rooted in Old Testament instruction. Is there, then, Old Testament instruction that would direct Paul to give the command of 2 Timothy 2:2 to a preacher?
In the Old Testament, the Lord God ordained that the gospel of Jesus Christ was graphically portrayed for Israel in the sacrifices and ceremonies of the tabernacle (and later the temple). The people of Israel outside the tabernacle were reconciled to the God who dwelt in the Holy of Holies within the tabernacle through the sacrifices offered on the altar in front of the tabernacle. The Israelite – sinner that he was – would bring a goat from his flock to the tabernacle, lay his hands on the head of the goat, confess his sins – and his sins would be transferred to the goat, which would die in his place. Here was gospel!
By God’s instruction a man of the tribe of Levi was to officiate at this ceremony. This Levite (primarily a priest) was also to explain to the Israelite the significance of what happened. That is to say: this priest (or Levite) was the preacher of the gospel God gave to his Old Testament church. At the opening of the tabernacle “the Lord said to Aaron, ‘You and your sons ... must teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses’” (Leviticus 10:11) – and the word “decrees” refers in first instance to the ceremonies of the tabernacle wherein the gospel of redemption was spelled out. Moses reiterated the task of the Levites as he blessed the tribes before his death; “about Levi he said ... he teaches your precepts to Jacob and your law to Israel. He offers incense before you and whole burnt offerings on your altar” (Deuteronomy 33:10; cf. Deuteronomy 24:8; Malachi 2:7). Here, now, is the vital question: how was the priest (or Levite) to know the ceremonies of the tabernacle and how did he learn the explanation he was to say to the people? How was he trained to preach the gospel to the people who came to the tabernacle?
The books of Moses do not speak of any formal training institute in theology. Yet it cannot be without significance that after the Lord God renewed his covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, He instructed Moses to come up to Him on the mountain together with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu (Exodus 24:1). Though Aaron and his sons were not yet set aside for priestly duties, God in his providence had them already come to Him on the mountain to see the God of Israel and eat with Him (Exodus 24:10f). Aaron and his two sons saw the greatness and majesty of God, the same majesty and holiness that prompted the angels of Isaiah’s vision to keep on saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty” (Isaiah 6:3). When Moses later came down the mountain and gave Israel instruction about how the tabernacle was to be built (Exodus 25-31) and then added instruction about how the priest was to be dressed (Exodus 28) and ordained to office (Exodus 29), Aaron as priest (and his sons with him) were undoubtedly duly impressed with the majesty of the God they served. My point: here was theological training from the mouth of God Himself.
In the same vein, when the Lord Himself moved into the completed tabernacle in his cloud of glory (Exodus 40), his subsequent instruction about how the sacrifices were to be performed had distinct weight for Israel and the priests within Israel. That priests should minister to the people in the presence of such a God – behold his glory in the cloud! – was a responsible and awesome privilege, one obviously performed only with fear and trembling. The books of Leviticus and Numbers are replete with the refrain, “the Lord said to Moses,” and there followed instruction for Israel that the Aaron and his sons had to know well (cf. Leviticus 1:1f; 4:1; 5:14; 6:1; etc). In fact, time and again we read instruction specific to the priests: “the Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to Aaron and his sons...’” (cf. Leviticus 6:8; 6:24; etc). You see, God Himself saw to it that a generation of teachers and preachers was raised who could set forth to his covenant people the wealth of the gospel.
Two more things need to be said before we move on. The first is that we need not assume that every item of instruction the Lord gave Moses, Aaron, and Israel is preserved in the Bible. We for our part read the Old Testament in the light of the New and so understand that the lamb slaughtered in the tabernacle foreshadowed the promised Saviour. Though Aaron and his sons never read the New Testament, they will through God’s revelation have understood that the lamb of the tabernacle did not itself take away sins but foreshadowed the Lamb of God who was to come. By making this point I want to make clear that not the entirety of the theological training God gave them is verbatim recorded in Scripture.
Secondly, when Nadab and Abihu died on the day the tabernacle was opened (Leviticus 10:2), Aaron’s remaining two sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, were installed as priests in place of their brothers. Yet we cannot assume that Eleazar and Ithamar were, at their moment of installation, totally unschooled in their understanding of God and his service in the tabernacle. In other words, Aaron prepared the next generation for the work of priesthood. In similar vein, the Levites will have trained their children to take up their Levitical task in the tabernacle once they were of age. This follows from God’s instruction through Moses to the parents of Israel:
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road...Deuteronomy 6:6f
Priests and Levites had more to teach their children in relation to the details of the tabernacle than persons of, say, the tribe of Gad.
The conclusions arising from the above are two. First, initial preachers of the gospel in the Old Testament tabernacle received their training from none less than God Himself, through revelation He gave through his servant Moses. Second, these preachers of the gospel were themselves charged with the responsibility to entrust the good news to reliable men who would be qualified to teach others; those “reliable men” were the sons God in his providence had entrusted to their care. This was the norm for the training to the ministry surrounding the tabernacle in the Old Testament: one generation of “preachers” was to train the next generation.
In the course of years, the priests and Levites of Israel neglected their responsibilities. Eli the high priest was negligent in training his sons for the work of the priesthood. They in turn, obviously, did not teach the people the way of the Lord – nor train their own sons to be effective preachers of the gospel of grace in Israel. In the resulting vacuum, Samuel the Levite (1 Chronicles 6:28) took on a prophetic role. In fact, in the years following Samuel the Lord gave more prophets to Israel – men charged by God to teach the people the way of the Lord. Had the priests and Levites been faithful to their calling, there would have been much less place for prophets in Israel than the reality turned out to be. Had the priests and Levites of Israel been diligent in training the next generation of preachers for God’s people, Israel would not have seen the rise of the “sons of the prophets” (cf. 1 Samuel 10:5; 1 Kings 20:35; 2 Kings 2:3, etc). As it is, negligence amongst those called by God to proclaim the gospel appears to have triggered the rise of prophets and the “sons of the prophets” – schools assembled (dare I say it?) by godly men of means within Israel.
However this may have been, it is evident that the background to Paul’s instruction to Timothy is to be sought in God’s instruction to the priests and not in Israel’s habits in relation to the prophets.
Summary of Biblical Data
We have enough information now to draw some conclusions.
- The ordinance of God in the Old Testament was that his people receive instruction about the gospel of redemption through the labours of the Levites and priests.
- The initial generation of priests and Levites received their theological training from the Lord Himself (through Moses). In subsequent generations the older priests and Levites, following the pattern of parental responsibility, passed on what they heard from their fathers and entrusted it to their sons so that they might be qualified to teach others.
- With the completion of his work on the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled the service of the tabernacle, including the privileged position given to the tribe of Levi. At the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the office of preacher was opened to persons of any tribe.
- As Paul roots his thinking in God’s Old Testament revelation, the force of his instruction to Timothy becomes clear: Timothy as preacher, as one to whom the mysteries of the gospel have been entrusted, must himself train the next generation to preach the gospel. It is no accident that Paul gave his instruction to Timothy and not to Philemon or the likes of Priscilla and Aquila.
This is the New Testament norm built upon God’s Old Testament revelation. The active voice of the verb “entrust” in 2 Timothy 2:2 is relevant; Paul’s instruction to Timothy is not that Timothy the preacher organize the training of the next generation, but that Timothy the preacher do the training.
How is all of this to be applied in today’s church life? Two questions arise.
The first: if the preacher is to train the next generation of preachers, is he to do so in isolation from his church or in conjunction with the church? God did not intend ministers of the Word to be lone rangers, acting in isolation from the people of God.
Preachers are given to the church and fall under the supervision of the church (i.e., the elders). As a matter of fact, the church has a vested interest in ensuring that young men are trained to preach, for today’s youth are tomorrow’s parents – and tomorrow’s parents shall need to hear the gospel (again) in the challenges of tomorrow. That the minister (under the supervision of the elders) has the charge to entrust the gospel to the next generation, then, gives a responsibility also to the church. Specifically, the people of God need to work together to ensure that the preacher of the gospel receives the wherewithal to fulfill his obligations to the next generation of preachers.
The second question is this: if the preacher is to train the next generation of preachers, is he to do so by himself or with the assistance of other preachers? Each preacher has his own particular strengths and weaknesses. In the providence of God, the Lord gives many preachers to his churches. With the communion of saints, a pooling of resources and strengths is both the privilege and the responsibility of God’s people. This is true too when it comes to something as important as training tomorrow’s preachers. Ministers with their churches, working together in a training arising from the churches and controlled by the churches, turns out to be a responsible way of applying the principle of 2 Timothy 2:2.
Two models of theological training exist in the CanRC and URCNA. The CanRC with its federationally-controlled seminary follows the line of 2 Timothy 2:2 as seen in the light of God’s ordinance concerning the education of the Old Testament priesthood. The URCNA model, where faithful (business) men are given space to organize and control the training, is an understandable response to the failure of their historic federationally-controlled seminary – and parallels the rise of the “schools of the prophets” in the Old Testament. The Lord God gave space for these prophets to function, even as He chastised the priests and Levites for their failures. One need not condemn the existence of non-church-controlled seminaries, but we ought to recognize that the federationally-controlled model does much more justice to the revealed will of the Lord – and hence move together in that direction.