The “Greenhouse” on Seminary Hill
Officially the name of our seminary is the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches. But often we simply refer to it as “the seminary” or “our seminary.” This issue of our Standard Bearer is designed to tell you something about our school, to tell you not only who are there, but also what is accomplished there and what the purpose and goal of our seminary is.
If you consult our Church Order you will’ find no mention of any mandate to establish and operate a seminary, nor any mention of its purpose. You will find mention, however, of the office of professor of theology and mention of the task of such a professor. The latter, of course, presupposes the existence of a seminary, or school, in which such a professor teaches. Hence, our Protestant Reformed Churches have from their beginning insisted upon establishing and operating a Theological School, and they have insisted that the operation of such a school is the calling and task not of any private organization, nor of a society of parents (as is the case with our Christian day schools), but of the church institutionally. Essentially, it belongs with the calling to preach the Word. The establishment, operation, and supervision of a seminary is part of the official work of the church. And no church or group of churches can long exist and maintain its identity as church, i.e., continue to manifest the mark of the pure preaching of the Word, unless it can turn to a seminary for ministers trained to preach in faithfulness to the Word of God and the confessions of said church.
All of which brings us to the subject of the nature and purpose of a seminary.
If you consult a good dictionary, you will discover that the word seminary comes from the Latin nounseminarium, which in turn is related to the Latin’ wordsemen, seed. And the primary meaning of the word, now obsolete, is “a piece of ground where a seed is sown for producing plants for transplantation; a nursery; a seed plat.” From thence it has come to have its meaning of “an institution for the training of candidates for priesthood or ministry.” Our Dutch forbears recognized this idea of a seminary already as long ago as the time of the Arminian controversy, prior to the Synod of Dordrecht, when they expressed concern about the “plantsoenhof” of the Dutch churches being corrupted by a teacher such as Arminius.
So that is the idea of a seminary. It is a greenhouse, or seed plat, where plants are produced for later transplantation into the churches.
One could, of course, expand on that idea and stress several elements in the figure of speech implied in the name “seminary.” For example, it is a sheltered place, where the plants (students) can safely grow without being exposed to the adverse influences of the elements until they are strong enough to withstand them. It is a place with a salutary atmosphere, designed as to soil and air and water and light and heat to produce healthy plants, that is, doctrinally and spiritually sound and capable preachers. Then again, a greenhouse is a place designed to induce forced and rapid growth, so that plants for transplantation, will be produced quickly and on a timely basis, as they are needed. And thus, one could go on and point out several similarities between a greenhouse for plants and the “greenhouse” of the churches.
But rather than enter into detail in this fashion, having pointed out the idea of a seminary, let me quote from our official Bulletin/Catalogue as to the description, the basis of instruction, and, the curriculum of our Theological School:
THE SEMINARY…in brief…
At the very beginning of the Protestant Reformed Churches, the need was recognized for a theological school in which men could be prepared for the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Although the need was obviously recognized and met because the Protestant Reformed Churches believed it to be their solemn calling to prepare men for the ministry, nevertheless, the establishment of a separate seminary was also closely connected with, the reasons for the organization of the Protestant Reformed Churches as a separate denomination. This denomination was formed to maintain the truth of Scripture against the errors of Arminianism particularly, which have for many years vitiated the ministry of the Church. The seminary is therefore dedicated to preserve and develop the truth of the Word of God and to provide an education in this truth in all branches of theology. More specifically, the seminary maintains this truth as it has been historically maintained since the time of the great Protestant Reformation, especially the Reformation of John Calvin. There is no need therefore for apology in pointing out that these principles and truths of the Calvin Reformation form the heart of all the instruction offered.
Basis of Instruction
The truths upon which this seminary therefore stands are briefly:
1) The infallible inspiration of the Holy Scriptures and their absolute authority in doctrine and life.
2) The five points of Calvinism:
a) The sovereign and unconditional election of God.
b) The total depravity of man.
c) The particular and complete atonement of Christ made only for the elect.
d) The irresistible power of the grace of God in the work of salvation.
e) The preservation of the saints.
3) The everlasting and unconditional covenant of grace established by God with His elect people and their elect seed in Jesus Christ.
Further, the Three Forms of Unity historically maintained in the Reformed Churches (The Heidelberg Catechism, The Belgic Confession and The Canons of Dordt) are the confessional basis of the Protestant Reformed Churches and of the Seminary.
It is apparent that, while these truths are the great truths of the Protestant Reformation and subsequent Reformed theology, they are, at the same time, most generally ignored and denied in this day. In this the Church has been unfaithful to her Reformation heritage.
It is further apparent that the sturdy defense of these truths is the urgent calling of the Church—a calling which comes with increased force in these troubled times.
The Seminary of the Protestant Reformed Churches stands firmly committed to these truths of God’s Word seeks diligently to defend them and develop them further, and founds all the instruction offered in the school upon them. In this way can the Seminary serve the preservation of the truth in the midst of the Church and be an instrument, under the blessing of Almighty God, to prepare men for the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
A complete course in all the branches of theology is offered. As appears from the catalogue, the emphasis in the curriculum is on Dogmatics and Exegesis. This is not without good reason. Dogmatics is important inasmuch as all the life of the Church flows out of sound doctrine and a clear and concise understanding of the faith “once delivered to the saints.” Sound and effective preaching is preaching of the truth. But Exegesis is no less important inasmuch as there can be no true Dogmatics except the truth be gleaned from Holy Writ. The strength of the Church of Christ is her preaching; and the strength of her preaching is exegesis since the Word of God alone must form the content of all the preaching of the gospel.
The remainder of the curriculum is not decorated with subjects which can be called “frills”; nor are subjects included which are only indirectly related to the preparation of men for the ministry; the subjects themselves and the material offered are conducive to study and research, are composed of solid material able to qualify one intellectually and spiritually for the work of the ministry.
A student graduating from the school and receiving his diploma may expect that the diploma indicates a full seminary training which will equip him to labor with the rich heritage of Calvinistic and Reformed thought.
Further, the desire to offer our potential ministers as much distinctively Protestant Reformed education as possible, along with the continuing spiritual decay evidenced in existing public and private postsecondary educational institutions, has prompted the Protestant Reformed Churches to expand its offerings in the Theological School to include pre-seminary, college-level, work.
Our Pre-Seminary Department
Almost from the beginning of its history our Theological School has included a pre-seminary department, at least a partial one. Besides, more than once in our history our churches decided, either at the General Classis or later at Synod, that our school should include such a department. During the 1950’s and early 1960’s, for various reasons, among them the fact that most of the students came to seminary with a college degree, the pre-seminary division died out. But through a combination of circumstances, as well as out of the conviction that it was necessary for the welfare of school and churches, the pre-seminary division of the school was revived and expanded.
What we now require of entrants into our seminary is the equivalent of a complete college course, or 125 credit hours. But among these required hours there is a large number of hours of required subjects, subjects which we deem important as basis and background for seminary training. These include Latin (which a student must obtain elsewhere), Greek (taught by Prof. Hanko), Dutch (Prof. Hoeksema’s department, though it is currently being taught by Rev. C. Hanko), Philosophy (shared by the three professors), Logic, English Grammar and Literature (both of the latter must be obtained elsewhere), Public Speaking (taught, by Prof. Decker), Psychology (taught by Prof. Hanko), World History (taught by Prof. Decker), and first-year Hebrew (taught by Prof. Hoeksema).
Just a few words about this aspect of our school.
In the first place, why do we maintain a pre-sem department? The basic reasons are given above in the section quoted from our catalogue. And we do not hesitate to say that the quality of our pre-sem department by way of comparison with other schools is high; this alone justifies its existence. Besides, there is the intangible benefit that students are under our guidance and training and in the atmosphere of our own seminary for three or four years before they ever begin seminary.
In the second place, you probably ask the question how our small faculty manages to teach these subjects in addition to an already crowded seminary curriculum. There are various answers. One is that we think the goal is worth the additional work. Another is that we schedule pre-sem subjects in alternate years, so that no professor teaches more than two pre-sem subjects at a time. A third is—and this gives me the opportunity to introduce him—that for the last few years we have had assistance from Rev. C. Hanko, who has been appointed by the faculty and School Committee to give instruction in Dutch, thus relieving Prof. Hoeksema of this task. This year Rev. Hanko is teaching both Dutch Grammar and Dutch Reading, which means that he is at school every morning. Let me assure you that he is there promptly at 8 o’clock in the morning, too. How’s that for a retiree! We enjoy his assistance and his fellowship very much. Usually he stays around for coffee time and chats a bit with faculty and students. He also takes his turns leading our weekly chapel service. Besides, he admits that this contact helps to keep him young!
In the third place, a few years ago we moved first-year Hebrew from the seminary to the pre-seminary curriculum. Traditionally, for some reason, Hebrew has always been taught at the seminary level, though Greek was taught at pre-sem level. The result was that there was considerable delay in the ability of students to handle the Old Testament in the original language. This was a handicap for both professor and students. Hence, senior pre-seminarians now have a year of Hebrew, and this is followed by a second year at seminary level. The change has been for the better. Perhaps some day we can move all Hebrew instruction to the pre-seminary division.
In the fourth place, in recent years our students have been able to obtain credit toward their B.A. degree for the courses which they take at our school. This is an added incentive for our students to get their degree, and we encourage them to do so.
For many years our school just seemed to run by itself. There was no office. There were no records, except in the files of the Theological School Committee or of Synod. The school didn’t even own a typewriter.
All that has changed within the past ten to fifteen years, and it changed even more when we moved to our present building on Ivanrest. It changed partly because life at the seminary simply became busier and more complicated; and it changed partly, too, because of licensing requirements by the State of Michigan, and the consequent necessity of record-keeping.
Hence, at school we have a couple office assistants of the kind that are virtually indispensable but nevertheless seldom mentioned, nor appreciated the way they ought to be.
I refer, first of all, to Mrs. R.H. Meyer, our office secretary. But she is more than a secretary. When occasionally she cannot be at school, things don’t seem to run normally. Mrs. Meyer is our secretary, our bookstore manager, our book-keeper, and sometimes, I suspect, a kind of mother-confessor to some of the students. She began working for us before we had an office; she typed in Prof. Hoeksema’s home office when he was at school. Now she works every morning when school is open, and sometimes when it is not. In addition to all the usual office chores and correspondence, she acts as secretary to all three faculty members. They are furnished with Dictaphones and bring their material to her to be typed. There is many a lecture that has passed through her typewriter, and almost all our syllabi have been prepared by her. I venture to say, too, that incidentally to her work she has gotten a bit of theological education.
Our other little known helper is Mr. Don Doezema. One of the several hats he wears is that of registrar at our seminary. He takes care of all our academic records, keeps them up to date, issues grade reports and transcripts, and performs many other chores which serve to take the pressure off the faculty.
Our thanks and appreciation to both!