One of the key issues in the discussions with the United Reformed Churches concerns the matter of theological training. The Canadian Reformed Churches defend and promote the principle that the training should be under the control of the churches. “By the churches and for the churches” was the motto of the Secession tradition, including the development of this tradition in the new world. The development of liberal trends at Calvin Seminary has led many in the United Reformed Churches to be less favourable to this principle, and to promote the use of nondenominational seminaries, with more of an arms-length approach to the teachers of theology.
This issue is also in discussion among the Reformed Churches of South Africa (the so-called Dopper kerk). There the theological school has a closer working relationship with the University of Potchefstroom. Recently discussions were held to fuse the faculty of the College into the university, and to put the entire educational institution (two schools at one location) under one administrative Board. The unique character of the theological school as a school of the churches has thereby come under threat. Commenting on the situation in the paper Truth and Error (Waarheid en Dwaling, October 2001), chief editor Dr. J.G. Meijer reviews some of the principles and history of this issue for us (my translation, JDJ):
In the 19th Century theological students were trained at the university. The Secession churches departed from this practice. They did not entrust the training of their future ministers to the universities, but took control of the training themselves.
This ecclesiastical training is structured on the basis of an old Reformed principle. The well-known synod of Dort said in Article 2: The offices are of four kinds: of the ministers of the Word, of the Doctors of Theology, of the Elders, and of the Deacons. The term “doctor” in Article 2 does not refer to a theological degree. “Doctor” in the Church Order of Dort is a minister that the church has set apart to train future ministers of the Word.
Reformed professors of theology at the university were to be ecclesiastical officers according to Article 2, C.O. The content of their office was described in Article 18 of the Church Order of Dort. The training of the ministers has been regarded for generations as an ecclesiastical matter, and it was always maintained as such. The Seceded churches returned to the Church Order of Dort. When the Reformed Churches of South Africa began, they also turned with their Dutch brothers back to the Church Order of Dort. On what is this principle based?
A Scriptural Principle
Many of the provisions in the Church Order are based on the Word of God and the confession of the church. The training of ministers by ecclesiastical officers is a principle rooted in Scripture as well.
In the old dispensation the Levites were responsible for the ministry of sacrifices and for training the people in the law of the LORD, Leviticus 10:11, Deuteronomy 33:10, cf. Malachi 2:6, 7. To be able to carry out this training, the Levite himself obviously had to be trained. Although we read nothing about this in the Old Testament, there were probably schools that equipped the Levites for their task. The Levite trained the Levite. Samuel, a Levite, received his training from the high priest Eli, 1 Samuel 2:11. The Levites who were thoroughly trained in the scriptures were known after the exile as teachers of the law. Ezra was a leader in their midst, Ezra 7:6, 11.
When the hearts of the people slackened in this calling to faith, the LORD sent his prophets. A generation of prophets began to work under Samuel at a time in which the word of the LORD was rare. The sons of the prophets appearing later were men who in a time of apostasy were trained by Elijah and Elisha. Different groups of prophets received training at different places. Elijah and Elisha had schools at Bethel, Jericho and Gilgal. The prophet Isaiah also had his school, Isaiah 8:16.
The training of the prophets by prophets is so ordinary in Israel that Amos notes how he is an exception to the rule. “I am not a prophet or a son of the prophet.” To speak in an anachronistic way, Amos was a prophet according to Article 8 of the Church Order, that is, a prophet without a formal ecclesiastical training.
The rule of ecclesiastical training also remains in force in the new dispensation. Our Saviour chose twelve disciples, twelve students. During his three year ministry he trained them to become apostles. They were trained and prepared so that after the ascension they could officially proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.
The apostles in turn took their place in this training. Paul trained Luke on his missionary journey so that this doctor was equipped to write two books of the New Testament: his gospel, and the book of Acts. The apostles speak of their students as their children or sons. Peter trained Mark, the writer of the gospel bearing his name. Paul is the spiritual father of Timothy and Titus.
The generation after the apostles? The principle of ecclesiastical training always remains in force. Paul called Timothy to train the following generations of preachers with the words: What you have heard from me before many witnesses, entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also, 2 Timothy 2:2.
We see in the official training of the ministers of the word both in the old and new covenant the gracious care of the Lord for his children. He at all times gave the men who proclaimed his word in purity. The LORD continues to this day to care for the spiritual nurture of his children.
He does not do this without engaging his church in the process. His people need to accept the full responsibility for the training. The LORD calls his children to entrust the proclamation of the gospel to men who are equipped to teach also from generation to generation. The office of “doctor” in Art. 2 C.O. rests on the Bible. Training of ministers by the church is a sound scriptural principle.
A Non-Negotiable Principle
Training by the church. About fifteen years after the secession a conflict emerged in the Netherlands concerning this principle which is based on scripture. In 1880 the Free University was called into existence in Amsterdam. Dr. A. Kuyper presented his inaugural lecture on “Sphere-Sovereignty.” He divided social life into several spheres and posited that each sphere had its own principle of sovereignty. According to him the church was not called to practice science, but must leave the practice of science to the universities. On the principle of sphere sovereignty the theological faculty of the university also took shape.
Some years later came the Doleantie, the second liberation of the Netherlands Reformed Church in 1886. Dr. A Kuyper took a leading position in the “dolerende” church. One of the differences between the seceded churches and the dolerende church concerned the training of ministers. The question was: can the training by the church make room for training at the university? Both federations discussed these differences at their respective synods after 1886. At the synod of Leeuwarden 1891 the seceded brothers decided concerning the training of ministers: this training shall take place at our own ecclesiastical institution.
The dolerende brothers reacted to this at the Synod of De Hague. They said that the united churches would need to judge concerning this issue and the regulation of it. This synod made the whole issue a negotiable one. But the seceded churches did not agree with this position. The training of ministers by the churches was for them a principal issue. The churches were not prepared to negotiate on this issue. The synod of De Hague accepted the principle of ecclesiastical training to which the seceded churches held. The seceded and dolerende churches put the integral place of an ecclesiastical institution for the training for the ministry in the so-called “condition” adopted in 1892 as part of the union process. Thus the principle of ecclesiastical training remained non-negotiable.
Ten years later the Reformed churches met in the Synod of Arnhem. This synod of trouble determined – completely against the agreement of 1892 – that the school in Kampen would be united with the theological faculty of the Free University. This decision threatened the unity of the new federation, since the seceded brothers were not prepared to sacrifice their non-negotiable principle of a separate institution for the training for the ministry. To prevent a schism the same synod decided not to carry out its own decision concerning the unification of the school with the faculty at the Free University.
Training by the church and for the church is and remains a non-negotiable principle for the churches stemming from the secession in 1834. To this date the Liberated churches maintain a seminary in Kampen and the Christelijke Gereformeerde churches have a ‘school of the churches’ in Apeldoorn. This is a training where the churches have all the say over the program, a school with subsidy from the state.
Does it make any difference if our ministers are trained at a university or at an ecclesiastical institution? Is the question concerning who is responsible for the training strictly a formal one? Let’s give a global view of the differences.
Professors at the Theological School stand in the service of the churches. They are called to the office of doctor and are confirmed by ecclesiastical appointment. The instructors at a university do not stand in the service of the churches. They are not called in an ecclesiastical way nor are they ordained to an ecclesiastical office. The board of the university appoints them. A minister who accepts the appointment at a university leaves the service of the church, fills a position at the university and so goes over to another state of life, (see article 12 of the Church Order). Professors at the Theological school occupy an ecclesiastical office with all the consequences that are connected with this. Theological professors at the university fill an academic position in their capacity as instructors.
The difference in position is also reflected in their work. Ecclesiastical professors, called and ordained by the churches, are called to train ministers of the Word that properly explain the Holy Scriptures and defend the pure doctrine against heresy and apostasy.
Called by the church, they also work for the churches. Instructors at a university are appointed to carry on academic work. This work is directed towards purely academic goals. Professors at the Theological School also engage in academic work, but consistently for the sake of the training, and for all the churches. The ecclesiastical goals do not exist at the university.
Another significant difference is the supervision and oversight of the instructors. Professors at the Theological School as ecclesiastical officers fall under the supervision of the churches. The churches appoint governors who carefully monitor the training that is given. Instructors at a university stand under the supervision of a senate and the Board of the university. Direct ecclesiastical supervision is not present. Error can creep in much easier in a university setting than in the churches that faithfully fulfil their “watchman’s role.”
Finally, there is a difference in the payment of the professors. The churches take care of the support of their officers. Ecclesiastical officers receive an honorarium, also during the years of emeritation. The churches do not receive or accept state subsidy. They warded off any meddling from the side of the government in order to retain absolute authority over the training. Instructors at a university receive a salary that they earn. In most cases these salaries are subsidized by the government.
In short, “doctors” are called by the churches and ordained to their office. They work for the churches, stand under the supervision of the churches, and receive an honorarium from the churches. Theology professors at a university are appointed to their positions. They work for an academic institution, stand under the supervision of its governing bodies and receive a salary from the university which in essence is subsidised by the government.
We need to go back to the pattern of Dort with regard to the training for the ministry for and by the churches. That principle is rooted in Scripture. That principle led our fathers in the Netherlands and South Africa in the ecclesiastical training of the ministers of the word.
Maintaining this principle also concerns the wellbeing of the churches of the future generations. The LORD sets high standards for the administration of his word. This is the means through which the Holy Spirit works and strengthens faith. A sound Reformed and academic training of our future ministers is of the highest importance for the growth in faith and the future expansion of the church.
A Sound Defence
Dr. Meijer’s article gives a sound defence of the tradition maintained by our churches. To be sure, the federational seminary does not imply an absolute guarantee for confessional faithfulness. But it is much easier to maintain discipline and sound teaching when the churches retain control over the training than if they sacrificed it to others over whom they have no direct supervision.
Dr. Meijer says that the “doctors” mentioned in Article 2 of Dort’s Church order were ministers. But I believe they were for the most part the professors at the universities such as Leiden, Franeker and Groningen. At that time, the training for the ministry was indeed a part of the training at the universities, which were for the most part Reformed. It was only during the Arminian conflict that the churches began to build in stronger safeguards against error. However, at the time, the appointments at the university were made by the civil authorities, with the churches only demanding that their wishes be acknowledged. In later generations the churches began to see their calling more clearly in this regard.
The office of “doctor” in the church order does not refer to a biblical office per se, but strictly a function in the churches as they existed at the time of the Synod of Dort. The Synod of Dort did not mean to suggest that the office of “doctor” was found in Scripture, or that it had a permanent character. It only sought to give a description of the order of ministries as they were instituted at that time. At the same time, there was no question of a professor being ordained to the task to which he was called. Perhaps some were formerly ministers, but others were not. The churches simply sought to have their wishes acknowledged in the teaching at the universities and higher level schools.
In our own situation the professors also do not occupy a ministerial office. They retain the honour and title of the minister of the Word, but are not engaged in any active ministries. The synod of Orangeville (1968) used Article 6 of the Church Order to qualify their position, but this, too, is not an ideal solution, only a makeshift one. However, through this vehicle, the churches not only retain control over the training at the school, but also over the work that a professor does when he administers the Word or fulfils some other ministerial function at the request of a consistory. And that is the essential point! The gains from the Secession should not be lost as we discuss the issues of church unity, but should be exploited to their fullest. That gives more certainty with regard to future!