To every rule there is an exception!
And to the exception there is a rule!
This is what we find in the eighth article of our Church Order. We have the rule governing the exception. The exception is the admission of certain persons into the ministry in a way different from the usual course prescribed in Art. 4. The rule governing this is set forth in the article. Permit us to quote it in full.
“Art. 8—Persons who have not pursued the regular course of study in preparation for the ministry of the word, and have, therefore, not been declared eligible according to Article 4, shall not be admitted to the ministry unless there is assurance of their exceptional gifts, godliness, humility, modesty, common sense and discretion, as also gifts of public address. When such persons present themselves for the ministry, the classis (if the (particular) synod approve) shall first examine them, and further deal with them as it shall deem edifying, according to the general regulations of the churches.”
The historical origin and usage of this article makes clear that the provision made therein was never intended as a general practice in Reformed Churches. The Reformed position has always been favorable toward a thoroughly trained and educated clergy which is the product of the theological seminary. This position is substantiated by Scripture as well as sound reason which we will make clear presently. However, this does not preclude the possibility of one specially gifted being admitted into the ministry without the usual course of study and preparation.
This practice began in Reformed Churches in the postreformation period when there was a great dearth of ministers. Furthermore, it must be borne in mind that in the Netherlands at least there were no seminaries and the few that were educated in Geneva and Heidelberg were not sufficient to fill the great demand of many churches. It became a matter of necessity to ordain some without academic training. Even then the Reformers were careful so that the Convent of Wezel in 1568 and the Synod of Emden in 1571 ruled that unschooled persons, seeking admittance to the office should be required to engage for a season in sermonizing in private under the supervision of ordained ministers. In 1574 the Synod of Dordrecht added that only such persons should be admitted who possessed the qualifications of godliness, humility, modesty, intelligence, discretion and gifts of public address.
The Synods from 1574 to 1619 were silent on this matter. This is explained from the fact that this practice more and more fell into disuse as the school at Leiden provided trained men. However, when the influence of Jacobus Harmsen took root in Leiden and the school became contaminated with Arminianism, the practice of ordaining the unschooled revived with the result that many who were unqualified were put into office. Consequently the Synods of South Holland and Gelderland requested the Synod of Dordrecht in 1619 to make the rules for admittance of these men more rigid. This Synod complied with the following rule:
“School-teachers, craftsmen and others who in the schools have not pursued courses in languages, arts, and theology, shall not be promoted to the ministry of the Word, unless we have undoubted knowledge respecting their exceptional gifts: piety, humility, modesty, superior natural capacity, prudence, and eloquence. As often as such persons seek admittance to the office the Classis in the event the Synod approves shall examine them. In case of successful issue they shall for a set length of time train themselves in the making and in the delivering of sermons. Thereupon Classis shall deal with them as can best redound to the edification of the churches.”
This did not rule out the possibility of untrained men entering upon the ministry but it did make such entrance more difficult. Following the Synod of 1619 several theological schools came into existence providing many candidates so that for more than two hundred years the provision of Article 8 became virtually a dead letter. It was at the time of the Secession of 1836 that it again revived though only for a short time as the establishment of a school at Kampen became the solution to the problem. Once more this history repeated itself when following the Doleantie in 1886 there was a scarcity of trained ministers.
Two things became quite evident from all this. The first is that the Reformed position always was favorable toward the trained ministry. The second is that provisions allowing others to enter were honored only during special and abnormal times. Article 8 is, therefore, an emergency measure or exception to the rule and should be used only as circumstances warrant it although it may also be admitted that sometimes God may raise up a man of exceptional ability to serve the churches even though the times are normal.
When such an aspirant to the office presents himself he is to be treated according to the general regulations of the churches. To the knowledge of the undersigned there has never been an instance of this nature in the brief history of our churches and neither have our churches formulated any rules for procedure in the event such a case should arise. In 1922, however, the Christian Reformed Churches drew up and adopted the following set of regulations which we quote from Stuart and Hoeksema’s “Rules of Order”:
“The examination of candidates for the ministry under this Article differs from the regular examinations only by the omission of the Hebrew and the Greek.
“Rules for Admission to the Ministry according to Art. 8:
“(1) If anyone desires to be admitted to the Ministry of the Word according to Article VIII, he must apply to his Consistory and after that to his Classis. This Classis, in conjunction with the Delegates for Examination of three adjacent Classes; first examines the written credentials of the Consistory concerning the required qualifications as stated in Article VIII, and subsequently itself investigates in this respect. If the preliminary judgment is favorable, he be given the right to speak a word of edification for a limited time in the vacant churches of his Classis. He must also speak a few times in non-vacant churches in the presence of the respective ministers of these churches. Classis shall regulate these appointments in conjunction with the Consistories of those churches. Classis determines the length of this period of probation.
“(2) At the close of the period of probation the Classis, in conjunction with the said Delegates for Examination, takes a final decision regarding the presence of exceptional gifts. If the decision is in the affirmative, then the Classis shall take peremptory examination in the following branches: (a) Exegesis of the Old and New Testaments: (b) Bible History: (c) Dogmatics: (d) General and American Church History.
“(3) In case of favorable issue, he is declared eligible to a call.
“(4) The examination for ordination follows later according to existing rules, except the classical languages.”
These rules in themselves are commendable in that they prescribe a rigid course for the candidate who would aspire to the office of the ministry without the usual course of training. They would discourage rather than encourage this practice. However, in spite of the rules, there remains in this article an implication which is undesirable. The article leans toward leaving the impression that the Theological School is only for those of average or below average ability while those who are exceptional or above average have no need of the school as a medium to the ministry. This implication can be removed, it seems to us, by adding a provision to the article which would state that no candidate is to be admitted to the ministry under Article VIII unless he is able to advance very preponderant reasons for which he does not attend the Theological School and seek admittance in the usual way. Then the matter would indeed become an exceptional case or an emergency measure as it was intended.
Only when Article 8 is kept within its proper confines can the position of the Reformed that a thoroughly trained ministry is essential be held with force. And this it should be for the position is a correct one. For this we may briefly cite various reasons.
First, and above all it is Scriptural. In addition to many examples in Scripture of men who were trained for their ministerial labor we may cite II Timothy 2:2 where the apostle Paul exhorts Timothy “to commit the things he had heard of him among many witnesses to faithful men who shall be able to teach others also.” The apostle here points to what he had himself done and what he required of his disciple Timothy. The same thing applies today. Surely the many passages of holy writ that exhort to “study” and “meditation” may be said to support the view of theological training.
Secondly, the training itself is to be desired. No honest practitioner in the professional fields (medicine, dentistry, science) would care to indulge in such labor without adequate training. Much less would he who seeks to “rightly divide the word of truth” do so without being trained by competent, spiritual and experienced teachers. Even as our young men need military training to fit them for the battle field, so our ministers need special training to go forth as leaders of the church in the battle of faith and truth.
Thirdly, we may conclude with a quotation from the writing of Thomas M. Nichols: “We contend for an educated ministry. Illiteracy in the pulpit will not do. Cheap books, free libraries, abundant school facilities, have combined to lift the masses out of the dense ignorance of earlier times. To meet the demands of the modern congregation, therefore, the preacher must be in touch with the significant intellectual movements of the day; conversant with the progress of thought. The terminology of the last century is already out of date. Moss-grown arguments, and baldheaded illustrations, will not satisfy the present generation. We are dealing with men, and with women, too, whose expanded minds are stored with all the rich results of the latest scientific research. We must meet them on the same footing.”
G. Vanden Berg