The Task of the PRC with Their Seminary
In a sermon on 2 Timothy 2:2, John Calvin remarked that our sons' sons must also hear the truth long after we are gone. Therefore, the church must always be training men in her seminary.
In this passage of Scripture, the aged apostle, who says of himself in 2 Timothy 4 that his course as a preacher of the gospel is finished, expresses his desire that the Word of God shall be taught after his departure. He commands the younger minister, Timothy, to intrust the sacred deposit of Truth to other men:
And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.
This is a mandate that calls for and undergirds our seminary.
It is a mandate to the church. Each congregation, represented by her consistory, is responsible for this. Because no consistory is able to fulfill the responsibility on its own, and because the unity of the denomination forbids a congregation's “going it alone” in the matter of seminary training, the churches discharge this mandate in a denominational seminary. But it is the church that is at work in the seminary. Our Reformed “Form for the Installation of Professors of Theology” (hereafter, FIPT) states that it is “the church (which has a) divine mission … to study theology … and further to advance what is in direct connection with this study,” with explicit reference to the seminary and its labor. Writing on the doctrine of the church in his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Hoeksema says, “to teach ministers belongs to the potestas docendi (power of teaching) of the church”
Our seminary is and ought to be a church-school, established, maintained, and governed by the churches. The reason is not so much to assure the orthodoxy of the school, for denominational seminaries can apostatize as well as independent seminaries, but because the authority and power to do the work of the seminary are not given by Christ to the professors, but to the church.
This involvement of the churches also tends to keep the seminary to its rightful task.
That task is the training of qualified men to be able Reformed ministers of the Word of God. The purpose of the PRC with their seminary is the preparation of men to be Reformed pastors in the congregations, or missionaries who bring the gospel to those without for the gathering of churches. The seminary has one, central, all controlling goal: producing men who can preach and who can take heed to the flock in counseling and in discipling. Since preaching is the sound exposition of the Word of God, and since counseling and disciplining are the wise application of the Word to the life of the congregation, the goal of the seminary is men of whom it is true, as the apostle puts it in 2 Timothy 2:15, that they “rightly divide the word of truth.”
The congregations must have “pastors and teachers.” This is the will of the ascended Christ Himself, as Ephesians 4:11 makes plain. This is also the will of our churches. The seminary exists because the PRC share the desire that moved the Scottish Reformer, John Knox, to utter as his dying prayer the petition, “Lord, give pastors to Thy Kirk.”
Everything in the seminary serves this goal. By regulation, the churches choose men to teach who have themselves been pastors. The churches would bypass the professional theologian – the man with a Th D from a prestigious university – who had never served a charge. The thinking of the churches is that the professional theologian would produce more professional theologians, which the church does not need, whereas men who have themselves served the churches as pastors will devote themselves to training men for the pastoral ministry, than which the churches have no greater need.
The entire curriculum is drawn up with the pastor in mind. Each subject has a place in the curriculum because it is useful for the work of the pastor or of the missionary.
The apostle charges Timothy, and in him the church, to commit what he had heard from Paul to men “who shall be able to teach others also,” that is, to train men to be pastors of the churches. “Teaching others” is simply the job-description of the minister of the Word of God. Based on this, the FIPT charges the professors “with the task of instructing and establishing in the knowledge of God's Word, the students who hope once to minister in His Church.”
This makes the seminary and its work important. I have never believed, and I do not now believe, that the position of professor of theology (the office that Article 2 of the Church Order of Dordt distinguishes as one of four offices in the Reformed Church) is the highest and worthiest office in the church, particularly in comparison with the office of pastor. No office is higher than that of the pastor! No work is more useful for great ends; “so great things are effected by it,” the Reformed Form of Ordination of the Ministers of God's Word' says, adding, “how highly necessary it is for man's salvation.”
Of faithful pastors the prophet says, “They that be teachers shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.Daniel 12:3
The apostle commends the pastoral (and missionary) office with his rhetorical questions in Romans 10:14 ff.:
How shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?
The office of pastor is necessary for the salvation of the elect church. And this is because the living Jesus Himself speaks by means of this office. The sheep hear the voice of the Great Shepherd when faithful under-shepherds “teach others also.”
No office is more difficult than that of the pastor. Paul refers to it in 2 Timothy 2 as a warfare. The pastor is a soldier in the trenches on the front line in the fiercest war of all, in which the souls of men and the glory of Jesus Christ are at stake. Commenting on 2 Corinthians 10:4, Calvin writes:
The life of a Christian, it is true, is a perpetual warfare, for whoever gives himself to the service of God will have no truce from Satan at any time, but will be harassed with incessant disquietude. It becomes, however, ministers of the word and pastors to be standard-bearers, going before the others; and, certainly, there are none that Satan harasses more, that are more severely assaulted, or that sustain more numerous or more dreadful onsets.
As a good soldier of Jesus Christ, the pastor must “endure hardness” (2 Timothy 2:3). In the gospel, he is always exposed to suffering trouble, sometimes even as an evil doer. When Paul wrote 2 Timothy, he was a prisoner (2 Timothy 2:9), anticipating martyrdom, as he indicates in 2 Timothy 4:6: “I am now ready to be poured out as a drink offering.”
I may add, especially now that I am no longer a pastor, that no office is more honorable than that of the pastor, so that the saints should highly esteem their minister. The present shortage of seminarians is cause for fervent prayer, and rightly so. Potential lack of ministers is a grievous need; and it is God in Jesus Christ Who, as Lord of the harvest, sends forth laborers into His harvest. The shortage should also become the occasion for self-examination, whether Christ's withholding of aspirants for the ministry is due to some fault in ourselves. The self-examination should be conducted by the seminary itself, by the churches, by our homes, and by each of us personally.
One sin for which we do well to check is the refusal to honor our pastors. The calling of the congregation is “to esteem the ministers … very highly for their work's sake, and (to) be at peace with them without murmuring, strife or contention, as much as possible” (Belgic Confession, Article 31). A spirit of suspicion and the practice of harsh criticism and public, if prudently guarded, accusation without any regard for Scripture's warning, “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19), will not only make thoughtful young men (the kind of young men we want and need!) hesitate to seek the ministry, but will also provoke Him Who gives pastors and teachers to withhold this precious gift from such ungrateful people. Among the Dutch Reformed it has become a (tired) joke that the main course at Sunday dinner is “roast preacher.” The joke is not funny. How unfunny it really is will become evident if our sons' sons (and daughters' daughters) have no pastors and teachers!
The office of pastor is a glorious work! Just for this reason, the task of the churches with their seminary, to prepare such workmen for the churches, is an important task.
The importance of the task of the seminary derives from the importance of the office of the ministry of the gospel, inasmuch as the seminary prepares men for this work in the churches.
But is this task really necessary?
Does not the Holy Spirit qualify ministers? Is it not sometimes the case that men graduate from seminary who prove to be poor preachers and blundering overseers? Must a man spend four years in seminary learning Hebrew, Greek, dogmatics, church history, the theory of preaching, the principles and method of counseling, and many more subjects besides? Have not some of the most outstanding preachers been men who never had a day of seminary training?
I am struck by the fact that this question continually comes up in the church. Augustine had to answer this question in his day. He treats it in his work, on Christian Doctrine, 16.33:
Now if any one says that we need not direct men how or what they should teach, since the Holy Spirit makes them teachers, he may as well say that we need not pray, since our Lord says, Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask Him …
Pointing to Paul's instructions to Timothy and Titus what and how they are to preach, Augustine continues:
What then are we to think? Does the apostle in any way contradict himself, when, though he says that men are made teachers by the operation of the Holy Spirit, he yet himself gives them directions how and what they should teach?
The great African father then concludes with an apt comparison between seminary instruction and the use of medicine to heal:
For as the medicines which men apply to the bodies of their fellow-men are of no avail except God gives them virtue … and yet they are applied … so the aids of teaching, applied through the instrumentality of man, are of advantage to the soul, only when God works to make them of advantage …
Augustine answers those who question the necessity of seminary training by asserting that, although it is true that God alone gives teachers to the church and that although seminary training cannot produce a single, genuine pastor unless God gives this training “virtue,” still seminary training is necessary because it is the means that God ordinarily uses to give pastors to His church.
In the 19th century, the Presbyterian theologian, Robert L. Dabney, had to face this challenge to seminaries from the ranks of southern Presbyterianism. In 1883, he wrote “A Thoroughly Educated Ministry,” in which he argued for keeping the requirement of “a classically learned ministry.” This is necessary, he thought, because a trained and learned ministry is “a true source of increased efficiency” (cf. his Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, Vol. 2, pp. 656, 657).
The great champion of orthodox Presbyterianism in the 20th century, J. Gresham Machen, felt it necessary to justify the seminary training of Presbyterian pastors. In his address in 1929, “Westminster Theological Seminary: Its Purpose and Plan,” he insisted:
… we believe that a theological seminary is an institution of higher learning whose standards should not be inferior to the highest academic standards that anywhere prevail. What is Christianity?, p. 226
I would be surprised if some among us did not wonder whether all this time, all this effort, all this money, and all this manpower are really necessary.
We readily acknowledge that only Jesus Christ makes the Reformed pastor. Pastors and teachers are the gift to the church of the risen and exalted Christ. In recognition of this, the Reformed church has always allowed for the possibility that her Head might give a pastor apart from the man's pursuing the regular course of study in preparation for the ministry. Therefore, Article 8 appears in the Church Order of Dordt.
But the question is not whether Jesus or the seminary makes preachers. Rather, the question is, does the Lord give preachers – good, capable, effective preachers – with or without training by the churches in their seminary? Nor is the question whether Jesus is able to prepare a pastor apart from the seminary. Of course He can, just as His omnipotence enables Him to make a man a medical doctor without his going to medical school, or a woman a skilled secretary without her taking courses in typing and shorthand. But the question is whether Jesus prescribes as the rule for His church that we look for His preparation of pastors in the training of the seminary. In short, does Jesus use means to give pastors and teachers?
Scripture must answer this question. There are Biblical precedents. Jesus trained the apostles for some three years in the school in which He Himself was the professor. After the resurrection, there was yet a special, “crash” course in preaching the kingdom that lasted for forty days, as we read in Acts 1:1 ff. When Christ called Paul to the apostleship, He did not at once miraculously bestow on His servant the gifts he needed, particularly knowledge of the mystery of the gospel, but sent Paul to Arabia, where He Himself revealed the gospel to the apostle (cf. Galatians 1:11 ff.).
Even in the age of special revelation, therefore, men were trained for the ministry after a fashion corresponding to seminary training today.
These precedents are instructive. The mandate is obligatory: In order to have pastors who will teach the congregations the gospel, “the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” This is not the task of committing the Truth to the people of God, but the task of committing the Truth to certain men so that they can teach the saints. Since the church commits the Truth to these men – the future pastors – by instructing them, the mandate is the seminary. To prepare pastors, the church is not simply to pray over men, or to lay hands on them, but to commit by teaching.
The Reformed “Form for the Installation of Professors of Theology” speaks of “the necessity … of training youths and men for the holy ministry under the ordinary dispensation of the Spirit by the regular methods of education.”
The Reformed and Presbyterian churches, therefore, have always insisted on an educated, indeed a well-educated, ministry. Protestant Reformed pastors should have a full, solid liberal arts education – four years of learning after high school in an accredited, preferably a Reformed, college. This is especially urgent in our day and in our society. The seminary builds on this, giving a thorough theological education, every aspect of which will help aspiring preachers to teach the Word to others in the congregations. This theological education will include knowledge of the original languages of Scripture; knowledge of the content of Scripture; knowledge of the church's systematic and logical arrangement of the content of Scripture in her theology and dogmas; knowledge, how to interpret the Bible (hermeneutics and exegesis courses); knowledge, how to preach the Bible (homiletics); knowledge of the history of the church whose servants the men will be, which history is replete with warning, instruction, and encouragement; and knowledge of the government of the church. This is only a partial list.
The work of the Reformed pastor is demanding of all this training and knowledge! The ministry is not child's play! The Reformed pastor carries on a many-sided work; and every aspect is grave (in the sense now of the Latin gravitas, “weighty, serious”) with the solemnity of the glory of Christ in His church and of the salvation of the elect. He is responsible for many duties; he confronts hosts of problems and difficulties; he must answer many questions. Chiefly, he must rightly divide the Word of God, publicly and privately – on the pulpit and in the catechism room, but also in the consistory chambers where men and women are excommunicated from the kingdom of Christ, in the living room of the couple who are about to divorce, in his study with the young person for whose soul he is wrestling, and on the occasion of his presenting, not so much the Protestant Reformed Churches as the Reformed Faith, as held by the Protestant Reformed Churches to people who ought to know and embrace this Faith.
The worth, the difficulties, the demands of the Reformed pastor at the end of the 20th century are not inferior to those of medical doctors who, although they are used only to heal bodies, are rightly required to prepare by a long and rigorous education.
In this connection, I note that the Protestant Reformed ministry is worthy of the ablest sons of these churches. I speak now to you fathers and mothers of bright, gifted, godly boys and young men. The Lord has need of them! Not as though He cannot and will not use lesser talents, for in the ministry as in other vocations fidelity and industry count for much, often for more than superior ability. But the very best minds will not be wasted in the ministry, indeed cannot be put to better use. You may not keep them back because you prefer other, more prestigious or more lucrative occupations for them.
In any case, careful, thorough training is required.
The training given at seminary should not be only academic. It must also be spiritual. Over a period of four years, experienced pastors can caution young men to avoid the pitfalls that attend the ministry. 2 Timothy 2 refers to some of these threats.
The would-be pastor must not be lazy. A pastor is a workman (2 Timothy 2:15). Since his work is a lifelong interpreting and applying of the Word, he must also be a student all his life both of Scripture and of theology. The minister may not stop reading and studying upon graduation from seminary. Who would want to intrust his 1980 model car to a mechanic who stopped learning in 1950?
Ministers may not entangle themselves in various matters of earthly life that are interesting, pleasurable, or financially rewarding, but that detract from the work of the ministry (2 Timothy 2:4). Like the prospect of hanging, war (and the pastor, we remember, is a soldier) has a way of wonderfully concentrating the mind. So is the pastor to devote himself single-mindedly to the ministry.
Seminary will warn the men against crippling their ministry by the rashness, headiness, and eagerness to fight that is a typical weakness of the young preacher. These are the “youthful lusts” of 2 Timothy 2:22.
Often these lusts to mix it up in the ecclesiastical arena are due to pride and carnal ambition: the young minister likes to be somebody in the church world – a Martin Luther or a Herman Hoeksema. But the servant of the Lord must not strive (2 Timothy 2:24) must not strive about words to no profit (2 Timothy 2:14). Pastors must exert themselves to show themselves approved unto God (2 Timothy 2:15), rather than to seek the religious limelight.
This kind of instruction too prepares men for the pastorate and is the task of the churches in their seminary.
It is not the primary task of the Seminary to develop the science of theology. “Doing theology” is not even a purpose of the Seminary alongside the training of pastors and teachers. I say this even though I love theology, find the study of theology meat and drink, and take huge delight in the fact that the Reformed “Form for the Installation of Professors of Theology” calls theology, “Queen of Sciences.”
Sharp warning must be sounded against viewing the Seminary as a laboratory for “doing theology,” or as a think-tank for theological reflection. This is a plague in the churches today. Professors use the classroom for theological speculation that has not the remotest relation to the students' future work as preachers. Seminaries make the students aware of all the competing and conflicting doctrines of our age, without teaching them the sound doctrine of Scripture and the confessions that they must preach to the people. Seminarians are trained to be experts in discovering who the authors of the books of the Bible were, when the books were written, how many parts each book has, and often how human, contradictory, and prone to error the books of the Bible are; but they are not trained rightly to interpret the content and message of the Bible so that they can carry out the eminently practical task of instructing the congregation in the Word of God.
What is going on in the seminaries today, and has been going on for a long time now, was indicated by the notorious, 19th century higher critic of Scripture, Julius Wellhausen, when he explained why he resigned his position as professor of theology in Greifswald:
I became a theologian because I was interested in the scientific treatment of the Bible; it has only gradually dawned upon me that a professor of theology likewise has the practical task of preparing students for service in the Evangelical Church, and that I was not fulfilling this practical task, but rather, in spite of all reserve on my part, was incapacitating my hearers for their office. Quoted in Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?, New York: Summit Books, 1987, p. 165
If ever a liberal did the honest thing, Wellhausen did: He resigned his position as professor.
This is not to say that a Reformed seminary has no theological task whatever. It certainly does. A Reformed seminary must study, maintain, and develop theology. Better said, the church herself has a theological task, which she undertakes in part in her seminary. Our Reformed “FIPT” states that the church has a calling to “study theology,” which calling she pursues in her “theological school.” In his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Hoeksema writes that the church's work in her seminary is “the cultivation of theology, that the truth may be maintained and become ever richer in the consciousness of the church” (p. 630).
The apostle makes the study of theology the church's task in the very passage that mandates the seminary, 2 Timothy 2:2. For he requires that Timothy teach aspiring pastors by handing over to them a definite body of truth, a body of truth made up of the doctrines which Timothy had heard from Paul. This body of truth (“theology”) the seminary intrusts to the students, so that they will teach it to the churches. And the seminary does this – “commits” it to the future pastors, to use the language of the King James Bible – by teaching this body of truth to the seminarians. This necessarily involves the study, the maintenance, and the development of the truth, i.e., “doing theology.”
But the crucially important truth about this theological task of the church with her seminary is that the study of theology is not the main task. It is not even a task alongside, and therefore somewhat independent of, the main task of the seminary. Rather, the study of theology is a necessary part of the main task. It stands in the service of that main task. The seminary studies theology in the activity of handing over the sacred deposit of truth to men who will be pastors and teachers to the people of God. The seminary's labor in the “Queen of Sciences” is part and parcel of its one, great task: preparing preachers for preaching.
To this theological task of the PRC with their Seminary belong the following.
First, there is a body of truth possessed by the Churches which is to be passed on to future ministers by means of the seminary. This body of truth is well-known and well-defined: the things that we have learned from Paul and the other apostles in the inspired Scripture. It is the gospel concerning Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified and risen. It is the apostolic doctrine as systematized and authoritatively defined in the ecumenical and Reformed creeds. Even for Timothy, during the lifetime of the apostle, there had to be a standard of the truth that he was to teach: the many witnesses among whom Timothy heard the apostle's doctrine (2 Timothy 2:2). These witnesses are now the church's creeds.
We call this body of truth the Reformed faith.
To this, the PR Seminary is committed.
This, the professors have bound themselves with an oath before God to teach the students.
Second, the Seminary defends the Reformed faith against all attacks by the lie; and in the light of the Reformed faith it exposes errors. This too is part of the theological task of the PRC with their Seminary. The Seminary cautions the would-be castors with regard to heresies; and it vindicates sound doctrine against the heresies, as both the “FIPT” and Article 18 of the Church Order of Dordt require.
Especially must the Seminary warn the students concerning errors of “the new day” – a happy phrase in the “FIPT.”
The Seminary must not live, and wage war, in the past, whether 1953, or 1924, or the 16th century. There are contemporary threats to the faith and to the faithful. There is the attack on Scripture by cunning theories of “hermeneutics” (theories of the interpretation of Scripture), all of which begin with the fatal assumption that the Bible is a human word, at least in part. There is the attack on creation and providence by theistic evolution. There is the attack on redemption by liberation theology and the “gospel” of self-esteem. There is the attack on predestination by universalism. There is the attack on the truth of the Christian life and experience both by the charismatic movement and by the advocacy of sheer lawlessness – revolution; divorce and remarriage; feminism; and homosexuality.
The PR Seminary must, and does, cast down all these high things that exalt themselves against the knowledge of God at the end of the 20th century (2 Corinthians 10:5).
This does not imply that the past struggles of the PRC are of no interest or value any longer, any more than this is implied about the great Protestant struggle for the faith in the 16th century. Like Protestantism in the 16th century, the PRC have contended for the gospel of the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ. This is the struggle of the ages. Besides, our own particular struggles on behalf of particular grace, an unconditional covenant, and the antithesis have put us in a position of strength for fighting the good fight today against modern errors that are destroying Protestant churches on every hand, e.g., universalism as regards salvation and the worldliness of the church in the realm of life and conduct.
Contending for the faith in the course of teaching men to be pastors, the Seminary trains these men to be defenders of the faith in their ministries, for the welfare – the salvation! – of the believers and their children who will be their charge. Although young men may not strive foolishly, to get a name for themselves, strive they must against heresy; as Paul himself does in 2 Timothy 2 against the denial of the resurrection. This striving is necessary, for the errors eat as does a cancer (2 Timothy 2:17).
Third, exactly in this way the Churches maintain the truth in their Seminary. The Seminary is an important factor in the Churches being pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15).
The Reformed faith is maintained in the PR Seminary. It is maintained there solely by the grace of God, but it is maintained. The Seminary does not spurn the creedal Reformed faith as outdated scholasticism, but regards the Reformed faith as God's own truth, to be passed on to the children and grandchildren of the present generation, undiminished and uncorrupted.
Because the Seminary studies, maintains, and defends Reformed theology, as it commits this faith to future preachers by teaching, there is also development of theology. Suffice it now to say that there has been development of the Reformed faith in the PRC through her theologians and preachers. I need only mention the particularity and sovereignty of grace; the nature of the gracious covenant of friendship; church government; and the antithetical Christian life.
As the Seminary studies the faith, as it explores the faith, as it compares each aspect of the faith with the other aspects, as it defends the faith against error, and especially as it always goes back to divine Scripture (all in the course of urgent, practical teaching), there will be development of Reformed theology.
This is an important task of the Churches.
For theology is the knowledge of God.
Whether “Queen of Sciences” or not, theology – Reformed theology – is essential knowledge, without which all the sciences are monumental ignorance, deceit, and folly. And in theology – Reformed theology – is the peace, the power for living, the hope in dying, and the chief end of believers and their children.
For those who teach in the Seminary, a solemn responsibility is implied.
Fulfilling that responsibility “in dependence on the Lord's help and the light of the Holy Spirit,” they may expect the cooperation (the working together!) of the people of God, as described by the “FIPT”:
that our Seminary may continue to enjoy the respect, the support, the appreciation, the love and the prayer of the Church.