Robert D. Decker is professor of New Testament and Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Seminaries and Your Grandchildren’s Pastor

This is the title of William S. Barker’s editorial in the January 22, 1986 issue of The Presbyterian Journal. In this editorial Barker makes some points well worth pondering. Writes Mr. Barker:

But the challenge for the church is how to keep our seminaries sound—not only doctrinally, but spiritually and practically. For the historical trend has generally been for the educational institutions to fall away from fidelity to the Lord. And then as the products of the seminaries fill the pulpits, the seminaries become the usual source of apostasy in the church.

Barker is O so right! This has happened repeatedly also in the history of Presbyterian and Reformed churches. Witness the decline of mainline Presbyterianism as a direct result of the apostasy rampant at Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1920’s and 30’s. The same phenomenon occurred in the Netherlands in the 19th century and, again, after the Second World War. Let us never say it cannot happen in our Protestant Reformed Seminary and Churches. That danger is real and ever present.

What is the answer to this problem? Barker has some worthwhile suggestions:

I would suggest that the answer to this problem lies not so much in charters, doctrinal statements, pledges, and organizational structures. Valuable as these may be, they cannot guarantee the ongoing soundness of an institution. The main safeguard lies in keeping the seminary in close contact with the life of the church. It is his church which, Jesus said, he would build, and the gates of hell would not prevail against it.

This means that the seminary professors must be churchmen and the students must be active in the life of the church while studying. It is most encouraging to see that the sound seminaries are orienting their instruction increasingly to the practical demands of preaching the gospel and ministering pastorally to the needs of people in contemporary society.

But close contact between seminary and church means also that the church must be involved with the seminaries in the preparation of future ministers. How long has it been since you have heard a sermon on Jesus’ words of

Matthew 9:37, 38.

‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field’?

Have you been praying that prayer? Churches that make such prayer a priority see more of their young people called into Christian service. Does your church have a seminarian as a pastoral assistant, at least during the summer? Not only will such an arrangement provide the practical experience that a candidate for the ministry needs, but it can also bring a fresh perspective to the church, stimulus to your young people, and genuine assistance to your pastor.

As one who has pastored two of our Protestant Reformed churches and who has completed twelve years of teaching in our seminary I can attest to the truth of what Mr. Barker writes. Recognizing the need for students to gain practical experience, the Theological School Committee and faculty added, with Synod’s approval, a fourth year to the seminary curriculum. This gives the students more opportunity to explore under faculty guidance some of the more practical aspects of the calling and duties of the minister of the gospel. It also affords the student more time to be engaged in some of the ‘actual work of the ministry. All of our students preach rather frequently in the pulpits of the churches of the Grand Rapids area. All too are engaged in teaching catechism classes. Some are leaders of Bible study societies in local churches. Many of our students spend their summers and, in some instances, Christmas and Spring breaks, in preaching and teaching and caring for congregations without pastors. In the recent past one of the classes in Missions worked on one of the home mission fields of our churches. This is all to the good of both students and churches. These opportunities and perhaps more ought to be made available to the students in future years as well.

We must remember too that Jesus’ word, “the fields are white with harvest, but the laborers are few,” is as true today as when our Lord spoke them. Always God’s people must be praying that the Lord will send out laborers. Might it not also be the case that the reason why we have so few students in the seminary at present is precisely because we are not fervently praying this prayer? We ought at least consider this possibility.

It has been said so often that it has almost become a tired old cliché, but it remains true: “as the seminary goes, so go the churches.” If false doctrine is taught in the seminary it will inevitably filter down into the pulpits and classrooms of the churches. The seminary, therefore, needs the fervent prayers and support of the people in the pew. Professors must indeed be churchmen. Professors must not live in isolation from the life of the churches. “Seminary hill” on Ivanrest Avenue must never become an ivory tower. Professors who do not preach or have no opportunity or little opportunity to preach and teach in the congregations must not be expected to teach others how to preach. Professors who do not have some part in “shepherding the flock of God” must not be expected to teach others how to shepherd God’s flock. Some of the greatest teachers in the seminaries of the church were preachers. Our own Herman Hoeksema never gave up his pulpit. George M. Ophoff pastored a church until the mid-forties and most Sundays found him in the pulpit of one of the area churches. J. Gresham Machan, though gravely ill, kept a preaching and lecture assignment during a Christmas break and died in Bismarck, North Dakota. These men and others like them were churchmen. They were excellent teachers in large part because they were involved in the life of the church.

Toward a Redeemed Language

Charles Turner, also writing in the Presbyterian Journal (January 29, 1986), makes a point we need to take to heart:

If we desire to communicate that which is true, we should watch our words and phrases. We can’t afford diction that is weak, disabled, ineffective. We don’t want the message we send to go limp in the mind of the hearer. If our words and phrases are to prosper, we must prune from our terminology the slack expressions that dull and obscure.

This is especially important for those of us who desire to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ. Our every utterance reflects our Lord in one way or another—or is a reflection upon him . . . our most serious and most common pitfall in this area is our tendency to be nonchalant about meanings.

Carelessness with our language can result in carelessness with the faith. If we deal loosely in the periphery, we’ll hardly notice when we stumble and deal loosely at the center . . . . While it’s saddening to realize that fuzzy thinking engenders fuzzy language, it’s downright scary to realize that fuzzy language perpetuates its fuzziness in the mind of the speaker and guarantees it in the mind of the hearer. At what point does fuzziness become distortion? At what point does blur become error? Distortion can mislead, and error can do worse than that. So, for the Christian who wishes to be both evangelical and orthodox, the matter is not merely academic.

A couple of examples serve to bring it down to where we live and converse. The use of the term ‘sharing’ as a substitute for ‘witnessing’ is so widespread that both words have lost vitality. According to its root connections, ‘to share’ means ‘to cut and divide.’ If even a hint of that connotation lingers in the current evangelical usage, wrong is done to the idea of bearing witness to the reality of the Risen Christ. The danger, however, appears to be in the other direction, toward an innocuous concept of personal ministry. Also regrettable is the prevalent use of ‘quiet time’ as the equation for ‘private worship’ or any form of one person devotional practice. Any mystic of any Eastern religion has a ‘quiet time’ and knows the general benefits therein, and advocates a like discipline . . . . If we Christians must have jargon, it should at least have enough edge to it to separate that which is Christian from that which is not.

These examples seem quite harmless, and, compared to heresy, indeed they are. But they are harmless in the way that bows without arrows are harmless. They do not accomplish their missions. They—and all the lame phrases they represent—are excess baggage . . . . My remarks are not meant to beg for a campaign opposing such terms already in use. They are too deeply ingrained, the project would call for an effort beyond human ability. The tongue, as we all know, is balky, as difficult to purify as it is to tame. The less-than-excellent phrases will go in God’s own time. They will go when the chaff goes. My point is that we should begin to require of ourselves a clarity of expression in all things, and especially in matters pertaining to the faith. We would do well to think of the mission of our words, and to avoid in the future, as much as possible, the clutter of the merely catchy. We can’t clean up our language behind us, but we can make an attempt to do better on the road ahead. I hereby remind myself, and ask all Christians, to be selective from now on and cull out weak language before it becomes habit . . . .

To this we simply say, AMEN!