Seminary Convocation Address

The Seminary And the Preacher 

Brethren of the Theological School Committee, honored colleagues, students, and beloved people of God gathered with us at this occasion tonight: 

Sometimes I am afraid of my task as professor. When I look at you young men—as far as the ministry is concerned, naive, innocent, inexperienced, unspoiled, with your faces unlined by the cares of the ministry, but with a potential ministry ahead of you of probably thirty-five or forty years (which, by the way, will take you well into the twenty-first century, if the Lord tarries); and when I consider what that future may hold for you, what it may hold as far as temptations and trouble and pitfalls and errors and battles for the truth, right from within our own churches are concerned—and I know a little bit about that by experience by this time; and when I think of the fact that the signs of the times, and thus also the signs of the coming of the Antichrist and of the great tribulation, are multiplying in the church and in the world, I say that sometimes I become afraid, afraid of being one of the men who is responsible for preparing you young men for the ministry of the Word. And sometimes I am inclined to say, “No, Lord, let someone else take that responsibility. I don’t want it. Don’t lay it on me.” 

That is wrong, of course. We may not and we need not, in the light of God’s Word and of His sure and unfailing promises, shirk our calling and our responsibility. 

Hence, in the confidence of that calling and in the confidence that it is the Lord’s calling and that He will bless us and strengthen us unto that calling, I want to address you a little while at the beginning of this new term. I am going to address you tonight not with the direct exposition of a text—though I what I say is substantially based on a word such as that in II Timothy 2:2, “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.” (That was the text, by the way, on which my late father preached when I was installed as a Professor of Theology.) Nor will my remarks contain anything spectacularly new. I want to address you with a reiteration and a re-emphasis of certain old truths and facts, necessary for all concerned in the work of our seminary: professors, students, and churches and people of God in our churches. 

I call your attention to: 

The Seminary And the Preacher 

I.With a view to the purpose of the seminary 

II.With a view to the training of the seminary 

III.With a view to the students of the seminary

The Seminary And Its Purpose 

A couple of years ago in the seminary issue of ourStandard Bearer I mentioned that the name “seminary” comes from the Latin word seminarium, which is in turn related to the word semen, seed. That word seminarium means “a piece of ground where seed is sown for later transplantation of plants, a nursery, a seed plat.” From that it has come to have the figurative meaning of an institution for the training of candidates for the ministry of the gospel. In that connection our Dutch forefathers sometimes spoke of the seminary as a plantsoenhof

When we apply that idea to our seminary, then we may say that a seminary is a greenhouse, a seed plat, a school, where plants—in this case, ministers of the gospel—are prepared for later transplantation into our churches, where they may function as such ministers of the gospel. And our Protestant Reformed seminary specifically is such a place where ministers of the gospel are prepared to be transplanted into our churches, where they may function specifically as Protestant Reformed ministers, that is, as ministers of the gospel who preach the Word of God in all its truth, as that truth is specifically and systematically set forth in our Three Forms Of Unity, as those Three Forms Of Unity have been historically maintained in our Protestant Reformed churches ever since 1924. 

I want to emphasize that latter idea. 

You are in school, young men, not simply to be prepared as ministers of the gospel in the abstract, not simply to function as ministers of the gospel who might perhaps be preachers anywhere, quite in general, or who might perhaps be preachers in the broadly evangelical sense of the word. You are in seminary to be prepared as ‘preachers, not even to be ministers of the gospel in a generally Reformed sense, nor to be free, perhaps, to develop and later to preach as you personally might see fit. That is not why you are in school. And if you have any such ideas, let me dispel them right now; or else let me advise you to tell the School Committee tonight that you are quitting. 

I mean that! 

You are in school specifically to be prepared as Protestant Reformed ministers of the gospel. That is the purpose of our greenhouse, our seminary. That is also—let me say in parentheses—the basic reason why a seminary must be an ecclesiastical institution, a school that is specifically in the service of and under the control and direction and discipline of the communion of churches in which it serves. In the abstract, of course, it is quite possible to have a university and to have a university faculty which, among other faculties, is devoted to the science of theology and its development, and can confer degrees in theology. But that is quite different from the idea of a seminary. That fact, by the way, does not exclude by any means a seminary’s being scholarly, learned, and interested in the development of the truth. 

Now permit me to enlarge a little bit on that idea of the seminary, and to spell out some of its implications. There are some similarities between a seminary and a greenhouse. But there are also some dissimilarities. 

In the first place, and negatively, neither a seminary nor a greenhouse in the proper sense of the wordproduces plants. It only raises them, nurtures them, prepares them, trains them. Spelled out in terms of the greenhouse being our Protestant Reformed seminary, and spelled out in terms of preachers, that means—and we must not forget this—that only God calls and makes a preacher. From that point of view you might say in a sense: preachers are born, and they are re-born, but they are not made. God calls preachers—a calling, by the way, which does not merely consist of the desire and the internal conviction of a man, but a calling which is not fully confirmed and consummated until a man is actually called by and through the church. Only God produces preachers. Only God furnishes them with the gifts, both natural and spiritual, which fit them for the work of the ministry. And in the deepest sense of the word, only God also cultivates those gifts by the work of His Spirit. If those gifts are lacking, no amount of training and no amount of instruction will make a man a preacher. And no amount of subjective desire and conviction, in such a case, means either that the man has been called to the ministry. It is no different with a seminary than with a greenhouse, you see. Just as if God does not furnish the seeds, the life-principles of plants, and just as if God does not cause those seeds to sprout, no amount of tender loving care by a gardener or a horticulturist will produce plants for transplantation, so it is also with the seminary. 

Positively, the seminary is an institution where ministers of the gospel are prepared, nurtured, trained. Just as a greenhouse with its proper soil, its air, its water, its light, its heat, its plant nutrition, is designed to foster the growth of healthy plants, so the seminary is designed to foster the growth and preparation of doctrinally and spiritually sound and capable Protestant Reformed ministers of the gospel. And by the same token, of course, it is designed to weed out the culls or the unhealthy plants, as the case may require. 

In the second place, I want to emphasize that the seminary is a greenhouse emphatically for the purpose of preparing preachers. A seed plat is designed for the purpose of preparing and growing a specific kind of plant—let us say: cabbage plants. If something else comes up in that plat, it is weeded out. If an unhealthy or a stunted plant comes up in that plat, it is pulled up because it will not produce in the future. Thus the seminary is designed to prepare preachers of the Word. To prepare pastors, yes; to prepare catechetes, yes; to prepare men who may give leadership in a-congregation and in a consistory, yes. But above all else, preachers! That can stand a tremendous amount of emphasis nowadays for students and for preachers. They must be preachers! They must be preachers because—and never forget this—the preaching of the Word of God is the primary means of grace. That means that the primary task of a minister is to preach the Word! Ministers must be preachers because, when all is said and done with respect to the ministry, if a man is not a preacher—I mean, a successful preacher—above all else, even though he may be a fairly good and likeable pastor, or a successful catechism teacher, or whatever else, he is a failure. He is a failure! And the seminary must prepare preachers also because a minister even as pastor or catechete or in any other capacity in which he has to labor, even then must always be a preacher. Essentially always he must bring the Word of God according to the Holy Scriptures!

And I want to emphasize again: a minister among us must be a Protestant Reformed preacher. In the seminary he must be prepared to be that. He must not be, and he must not be prepared to be, a generally evangelical preacher of the gospel, or even a Reformed preacher in the broad sense of that term. We do not need such men in our churches. And as the times become more difficult in the future, this will be more emphatically true. We need preachers of the gospel who are committed to and who proclaim clearly, unmistakably, sharply, antithetically, and with rejection of all heresies repugnant thereto, the faith of the gospel as maintained and professed in and by our Protestant Reformed Churches. Remember that! It is well to remember that in school. It is necessary for the faculty to remember that, as well as for the students. And it is well for ministers to remember that constantly, once they have graduated from school. 

A third item of comparison has to do with the fact that both a greenhouse and a seminary are sheltered places. Plants may safely grow in a greenhouse without being exposed to all kinds of adverse influences and all kinds of rigors of the outside world, until they are, strong enough and mature enough to cope. That is true of a seminary, too. Seminary students as Christian young men, as Protestant Reformed young men, are, of course, grown and mature and confessing members; and as such, they are already ready to cope. I am not talking about that. I am talking about ministers. Seminary students are not yet ministers. They are not yet able to cope with those peculiar demands and those peculiar struggles and those peculiar rigors with which a minister of the gospel, and particularly a Protestant Reformed minister of the gospel, must cope. The seminary is designed to prepare for that. I know that, to an extent, already when you are a second or third year seminary student, you go out and you catechize and you preach a little bit. And that is nice, and that is good for you, too. But do not forget: that is secondary, and even that is preparatory. The idea is that only when you have been equipped and prepared and are ready as much as possible to face the rigors of the pastorate do you leave the comparative shelter of the seminary and go out into the churches and face the life and the demands of the ministry. And I dare say that any recent graduate will also admit that that is soon enough, too. 

In the fourth place, both a greenhouse and a seminary are designed to induce forced and rapid growth. A greenhouse is not designed to be a permanent place for plants. Neither is the seminary,—except for professors. The greenhouse has one goal: to get plants ready to be set out in the field or in the garden, and there to serve their purpose. And with respect to that goal everything else is set aside. The same is true of a seminary. Sometimes that seminary training may seem to be a long process to you young men. It is going to be four years for three of you. And if you count pre-seminary training, the entire process now entails eight years. That is not really so long. But my point is that the purpose of those years is all concentrated in preparing you as rapidly as possible for the time when you are ready to be transplanted into the churches’ pulpits and the churches’ pastorates.

The Seminary And Its Training 

That brings me to my second main point: the training of the seminary. 

And then I want to emphasize, first of all, what really distinguishes a seminary from any other school. The nature of the seminary preparation is such that it is official teaching and training by the church as institute. That is, it is principally, essentially, preaching of the Word. That is really implied in a word such as that of II Timothy 2:2, which speaks of the transmission of the truth by men to other men, who will be able to teach others also. That is implied, too, in the very fact that Scripture itself recognizes no fourth office, only the three: pastor, elder, and deacon. That is also the stand of our Reformed churches. While they recognize four functions, or tasks, in our Church Order, nevertheless they recognize only three offices: and the place of professors of theology is only an extension of the office of minister of the Word. Professors of theology are preachers of the Word. This does not mean that day after day and class after class they do nothing but preach sermons. That is not the idea. But it does mean that they study and teach authoritatively, with the authority of Christ. It does mean that their teaching is bound to the Word of God, no less than that of a preacher in the pulpit ministry. We must understand that. It is in that light that we have to understand Article 18 of the Church Order also: the task of professors of theology is to expound the Holy Scriptures and to vindicate sound doctrine against heresies and errors. 

Now that obviously has implications for those who are called to teach. It has implications for their diligence and for their application to their work. It I has implications for the content of their instruction. They must not come with their own wisdom, their own opinions, their own cunningly devised theories. But they must principally always come with the Word of God. And that means, of course, the Word of God according to the Scriptures. That means the Word of God according to the Scriptures, again as set forth in our Confessions and as maintained historically here in this Christian church. Moreover, they must do that antithetically, that is, they must vindicate sound doctrine against heresies and errors. 

But that has implications also for our students. It means, young men, that you are under authority, under the authority of the Word, under the authority of Christ, in your seminary training. Make no mistake about that! You may go to any other college or any other kind of school, and your professors may say something, and you can say to yourself, “Well, he can talk all he wants to; when I get out of school, I’m not going to do it that way.” You cannot do that here in seminary! Do not ever try that either! The instruction—oh, I know that there are, of course, always matters of mere opinion in the class situation; but I am talking about the essence of the instruction—the instruction is not a matter of opinion, which leaves you with the option of differing. Nor is it a matter of the authority of a superior knowledge or intellect, or the superior experience of the instructor. Then it is still a take-it-or-leave-it matter. The instruction is a matter of the authority of the Word, the authority of Christ Himself. By that I am bound; by that you are bound. 

That is reflected in the entire course of study in our school. I cannot take much time to talk about that in detail tonight. You can distinguish, of course, between peripheral subjects and core subjects, between formal courses and material courses, methods courses and substantive studies; between very practical courses, such as Practice Preaching (That is the most practical course in the seminary, you know.) and theoretical subjects, such as your Homiletics course. You can distinguish, too, between those which are more directly related to the preaching of the gospel and those which are more distantly related. But the course of study, in the first place, concentrates on Dogmatics and Exegesis. Why is that? Because the former is concerned with sound doctrine and with a clear understanding of the faith once delivered to the saints; and because the latter is concerned with the ability to expound the Scriptures, to glean the truth from Holy Writ, and because the Word of God alone must constitute the content of all the preaching of the gospel. All the other subjects are derived from those two which I just mentioned, or they stand related to those two in such a way that they contribute to them. But the curriculum is unified, and the unity of that curriculum lies in its purpose to prepare Protestant Reformed ministers of the gospel.

The Seminary And The Students 

Now students, of course, are—or at least they ought to be—different from cabbage plants. You are conscious, rational, moral, vocal, participating beings. And as such, you respond. And that response is fundamentally—and do not forget that—a spiritual one: the response of faith. That is your first calling. You are under the authority of the Word in your training, and your response must be “I believe!” Further, because faith is always paired with this, your response must be: “I obey! I will walk in the way of the truth; I will walk in the way of that instruction according to the truth of the gospel.” 

But I want to mention just three things of a practical nature, in conclusion. 

With respect to your calling as students, that fundamental calling which I just mentioned implies, in the first place, that it is your calling to be diligent. I have been a student once upon a time myself, and I have worked with students now for a good many years; and I know that it is the easiest thing in the world for a student to be lazy. And a lazy student will be a lazy preacher. And as I have told some of you in Homiletics class in the past, God hates lazy preachers. Don’t give your work a lick and a promise! Don’t work with the idea in your head, “Well, I can get by tomorrow morning; he is not going to ask me about that.” Apply yourself to your work faithfully, regularly, as before the face of God. 

In the second place, and in close connection with this,capitalize on the opportunity that you have right now. You will never have another opportunity like this. I know that you young men never want to believe me when I try to tell you that your years in school are the best years of your life. It is in the nature of the case that you are always looking forward to the time when you will have achieved, when you will have entered the ministry. I can understand that. Nevertheless, these are the best years of your life. You will never have another opportunity like this to be students. It is the only opportunity for uninterrupted study that you will have all your life. And after a while, when you are in the pulpit ministry and the work crowds in on you, you will be saying to yourself, “Oh, if I only had a little more time to study!” Not only that, but now when you can study, you have the opportunity to form good study habits for the future. If you are not a student now, you are not going to be a student when you get out into the ministry in Doon or Isabel or Edmonton, or some other place. You will not even know how to study! And then you will be a poor preacher! 

In the third place, beloved young men, consider yourselves expendable. Don’t be easy on yourselves! Let me put that positively: be ruthlessly hard on yourself! You won’t die! And when it gets to be 11 o’clock at night, and you have been studying all day, don’t be tempted to say, “Well, I have had enough; now I’m going to cozy up to my wife.” Stay up till 2 o’clock. That won’t hurt you! Don’t pity yourself too much! I have a lot of sympathy for a minister or a student who is busy. But I have no sympathy for one who complainsthat he is busy. Your calling as students and our calling as professors is one of self-denial and self-sacrifice

That is the end of my speech, except that I want to conclude with this: “Our help is in the Name of Jehovah, Who made heaven and earth.”