Who Will Train the Churches’ Ministers? (2) or The PRC Seminary: Door de kerk, Voor de kerk

This is the second half of the Convocation address delivered on September 10, 2014. Previous article in this series: November 15, 2014, p. 77.

“By these words, Paul means that the church is the faithful keeper of God’s truth in order that it may not perish in the world. For by its ministry and labor God willed to have the preaching of his word kept pure and to show himself the Father of a family while he feeds us with spiritual food and provides everything that makes for our salvation.” (Calvin’s Institutes). And, “In consequence, this commendation applies to the ministry of the Word; for if it is removed, God’s truth will fall.” (Calvin’s Commentaries). If this is true, “then training pastors and teachers belongs to the task of the church as the pillar and foundation of the truth and it is not properly the responsibility of an organization independent of the church.”

“As long as a university is founded on the basis of Holy Scripture, accepts the confession of a certain denomination, and this denomination has part control in the appointing of professors of theology, it cannot be disapproved of that future ministers of the Word should receive their education at such an institution.”

The two quotations above reflect fundamentally different views of seminary training. The first, very obviously, comes from a denomination that defended seminary training as strictly ecclesiastical. The second comes from our (the PRC) own Form for the Installation of Professors of Theology, and reflects what I pointed out in the last installment of this convocation message: documents in the PRC still have remnants of Kuyperian thinking that allow training of ministers to be separated from the church institute.

In the first half of the speech, I showed the history of these two views in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. The earlier Afscheiding tradition (1834 ff.) maintained and supported the ecclesiastical seminary. The later Doleantie tradition of Abraham Kuyper (1886 ff.) promoted seminary training by non-ecclesiastical schools (para-church organizations). I also pointed out a few places in PRC standards that lean toward the “Kuyperian Alternative,” as it was called. These remnants in our official documents ought to be removed some day. Nevertheless, if push came to shove among us over this, what has always been the PRC practice as well as what is found in our school’s constitutions could easily trump what inclinations there might be toward the “Kuyperian Alternative.”

It remains to show why our Afscheiding tradition, and not the “Kuyperian Alternative,” is the proper tradition.

The Basis for Ecclesiastical Seminaries

Three passages can be considered the classic texts that constituted for our Reformed fathers the exegetical basis for ecclesiastically established seminaries. Even before the Afscheiding the churches appealed to these texts to defend ecclesiastical seminaries, although it must be admitted that their practice was not always consistent with their teaching position.

First is Ephesians 4:11, 12:

When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men…. And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.

The church found especially three things to be significant in this text. First, the gifts Christ gave were gifts to the church and for the church. He gave gifts to the body of Christ for the edifying of the body of Christ. Second, what gifts Christ bestowed on the church are the offices and the men who occupy them—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Some of these offices, Reformed Christianity has maintained, passed away with the apostolic age. The offices of apostle, prophet, and evangelist were unique to that era. Among the offices listed in Ephesians 4, therefore, only the office of pastor/ teacher remains in the new dispensation. Third, since the pastor’s labor is teaching (the phrase: “some, pastors and teachers” refers to one and the same office), the professor of theology’s work is the work of a pastor. The fathers’ conclusion? Both the office of preacher and the training of preachers belong to the church, to the church as institute. The “teaching office” belongs to the church institute.

Second, the churches have long appealed to I Timothy 3:15, especially its last phrase, which I will italicize. “If I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of truth.”

If the church is the “pillar and ground of truth,” central to the task of the church, our fathers reasoned, is to maintain truth, uphold truth, support truth, and even develop her understanding of the truth. Second, God gave to the church one office whose responsibility is teaching the truth—the “prophetic office” of the ministry of the Word. Third, therefore, it is the church who sees to the training of her own servants who teach and preach the gospel.

About this passage Calvin observed: “By these words, Paul means that the church is the faithful keeper of God’s truth in order that it may not perish in the world. For by its ministry and labor God willed to have the preaching of his word kept pure and to show himself the Father of a family while he feeds us with spiritual food and provides everything that makes for our salvation.” And, “In consequence, this commendation applies to the ministry of the Word; for if it is removed, God’s truth will fall.” If this is true (the denomination recently defending the “ecclesiastical seminary” model so concluded), the training of pastors and teachers belongs to the task of the church as the pillar and ground of the truth, and it is not properly the responsibility of an organization independent of the church.

The central of the three classic texts, and most commonly used by our forefathers, is 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.”

When Rev. Foppe Ten Hoor argued for ecclesiastical seminary training over against his Afscheiding colleague Herman Bavinck who favored the “Kuyperian Alternative,” Ten Hoor said: “The words of II Tim. 2:2 clinch the case; here, the principle of official ecclesiastical training is clearly and literally taught.”1

What was it that was plain to Ten Hoor that Bavinck would not concede? Ten Hoor, with the Dutch churches that preceded him, exegeted the passage along these lines: First, the commission of II Timothy 2:2 is given to Timothy as an ordained pastor in the church institute. By the laying on of hands he was ordained into special office (I Tim. 4:14). In this position, Timothy was called to preach the gospel (Rom. 16:21; I Thess 3:2; I Tim. 4:6). Second, an important aspect of Paul’s mandate to Timothy was the safeguarding of the truth. One cannot miss this in the context (II Tim 1:13, 14; II Tim. 3:14-17). And the first way in which the church safeguards the truth is that this ordained pastor teach other men to be pastor-teachers-of-truth, so that these can teach yet others. Third, since no pastor labors in gospelteaching in behalf of the church apart from official oversight of the church, the commission to teach is given to the church. By the commission given to Timothy, the church is commissioned to train preachers. We may add a fourth (and not unimportant) element: since no one church is able to do this alone (and really no one church may do this alone) churches of like faith band together to establish a denominational, ecclesiastical seminary.

In this tradition of Scripture understanding stands the Protestant Reformed Theological School. For this ecclesiastical seminary we may be profoundly grateful.

Reasons to be grateful for our seminary: door de kerk, voor de kerk

The reader may forgive me for beginning with finances, but as one who takes his turn as rector of our seminary, I start expressing gratitude for reasons financial.

An ecclesiastical seminary does not need to promote itself in order to raise its own financial support, as the independent seminaries do, often through their president or a hired director of “financial development.” In our case, it may well fall to the rector. Regularly I receive in the mail, sometimes from seminaries in dire financial straits, pleas for support lest they be unable to pay their bills—three requests just this month, and two in the last week. Although we are aware of the need to be frugal—good stewards of God’s gifts to us—we professors do not have to bother our heads with finances. At each annual synod, the churches commit to supply what is needed to finance our work. Indeed, over and above this budgeted amount, generous donors often provide extra so that the seminary is able to do more than what is necessary. We are very grateful for this, too. But the basic needs of the seminary come from the churches and all her members working together.

Of course, cautions are in order. We at seminary may not take for granted the denominational support. And as PRC members we must not write our “general fund checks” unaware that a large portion of synodical assessments goes to the running of the seminary. But cautions aside, now, what a beautiful reality it is: our seminary does not depend on promotional campaigns or fundraisers. Every member of the denomination plays his or her part in the financial provisions for the seminary. Even our students are fully supported by the churches, according to Article 19 of the Church Order, so that they pay nothing for tuition and even, if need be, are given living expenses so that they may devote their attention fully to preparing to be faithful and able pastors. I am thankful.

Second, we may be thankful because an ecclesiastical seminary best enables students to be trained as servants. The calling of the pastor is to be a servant. Every church office is an office of serving, just as Christ served His people even unto death. Especially important is it to emphasize this with this lofty office of the ministry, where the temptations are so great for ministers to make themselves lords!

And only other servants can train servants. One who himself is not a servant cannot train others to be servants. This is what so disturbed Ten Hoor early last century with the appointment of Dr. Janssen—a nonordained man—to Calvin Seminary.

Third, in an ecclesiastical seminary the churches are best able to judge the qualifications of these future ministers. Even the orthodox proponents of non-ecclesiastical seminaries agree that in the end the church institute must judge the qualifications of graduates who desire candidacy for the ministry; and that the church institute must (graciously but boldly) put aside those without proper qualifications.

However, the task of making these judgments must be taken up throughout a man’s seminary career, and not merely in the weeks after he has graduated. For the sake of the student, the judgment that he is not qualified must be expressed to him as early as possible. For the sake of the churches, these judgments must be made as carefully and as thoroughly as possible.

So we may express our gratitude for a seminary that has officebearers as the judges. From beginning to end of the students’ careers, ordained ministers from the churches that these students will serve judge their qualifications. On the Theological School Committee to participate in this evaluation are ministers and elders of the churches. Officebearers judge officebearers. In an ecclesiastical seminary, the churches do as much as the churches possibly can do to present to the churches men in whom they have strongest confidence—they will serve the churches well.

By the way, this matter of evaluating students is reason for me often to be thankful for the present building we have. In my seminary days we came to class for the few hours of the morning and went straight back home, as did the professors. There were no facilities to study at seminary, no places to relax and mingle. Now, we have a large, beautiful, and comfortable facility where faculty and students can eat together, and be near one another all afternoon in our offices or study carrels. From 6 a.m. when the professors often arrive, until 5 p.m. when many of the students leave, opportunity exists for the churches—through us professors—to get to know and judge the qualifications of these, your future ministers. For four years. For every day of the school term.

Our seminary is door de kerken, voor de kerken. By the churches, for the churches.

A reminder is in order for us at the seminary

Our work here is the official work of you, people of God, and your consistories, as you band together to train preachers for the coming generation of your children. In a very real way, you are doing this work. You and your elders have called us professors to our work; and you and your elders are asking the students to prepare to serve you. We at the seminary may never lose that sense.

Remembering this helps us in our attitude toward our work. It is so much more than merely academic! It is a spiritual work that requires a careful attitude, an attitude not unlike that required of those who receive the elders at family visitation, and of catechism students who receive their pastor.

And a final caution

People of God, I urge and beseech you, never allow your seminary to degenerate to the point that the people of God lose trust in it. It is striking to me that, when I study the emergence of the para-church institutions in the history of the church—the mission organizations and the seminaries especially—they almost always arose in reaction to the weaknesses and errors in these ecclesiastical institutions. Do not allow that to happen to our seminary.

Our Form for the Installation of Professors ends with a beautiful exhortation to the newly installed professor. The exhortation is anchored with what must be one of the deepest motivations for the professor to be faithful: that “our Seminary may continue to enjoy the respect, the support, the appreciation, the love and the prayer of the church….” Therefore, people of God, remember that this seminary is your institution— it is the churches’ seminary, established and maintained by you as members of the churches. Do not allow it to become corrupt, or weak, or compromised in any way. Know what takes place there. Visit us. Talk to the students. Read the Acts of Synod as it reports on all the activities of our school. Call us to our responsibilities, both officially and privately. We thank God for this work. We thank you for your support. It is your seminary.

Door de kerk, voor the kerk.

1 Quoted in H. deMoor, Equipping the Saints: A Church Political Study of the Controversies Concerning Ecclesiastical Office in the Christian Reformed Church in North America: 1857-1982 (unpublished doctoral dissertation, 1992), 139.