Who Will Train the Churches’ Ministers? or The PRC Seminary: Door de kerk, voor de kerk

(An expanded version of this convocation address is being prepared for publication in our seminary’s Theological Journal.)

Who will train your and your children’s future ministers? Who will govern the institution where your pastors are trained? This question is more difficult and more important than you might realize—also for the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC), which might surprise you. Will you and your church train them, as you and your church band together with other churches of like precious faith, instituting a denominational, ecclesiastical seminary? Or will an organization, not from the church, and not governed by the church—a para-church organization—train them?

The PRC Seminary—your seminary, the churches’ seminary—is ecclesiastical. Mid- America Reformed Seminary is not. Calvin Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids, MI) and Western Theological Seminary (Holland, MI) are ecclesiastical. Westminster seminaries—both in Philadelphia and Escondido—are not. The Canadian Reformed Seminary (Hamilton, ON) is ecclesiastical. Heidelberg Seminary (Sioux Falls, SD) and City Seminary (Sacramento, CA), where Reformed Church in the U.S. pastors are trained, are not.

Our conviction is that the church must train the churches’ preachers. And not the church as organism, but the church as institute. The PRC Seminary is a seminary of the church and for the church. As our Dutch forefathers would say, Door de kerk, voor de kerk. We will not give our students to a nonecclesiastical institution, a parachurch organization, even if there are mostly ordained ministers who teach there, and even if its board listens to the will of the congregations or denominations that support it. We have, and we will continue to have, an ecclesiastical seminary.

This was not always the prevailing judgment in the true church of Jesus Christ, even in the years of its greatest strength. And it is my purpose to explain why it was not always so; how even some of the most respected heavyweights in Dutch Reformed history in the Netherlands came down on the wrong side of this issue; and why it is vital that we maintain, not only the existence of, but the keen consciousness of the reason for, an ecclesiastical seminary.

It was not always so…

In the early history of Reformed Christianity in the Netherlands (and other countries) preachers were trained in institutions that were partly under the control of the churches, but also under the supervision and control of the civil government. Civil government commonly had significant influence in the churches, determining whether synods could be held and where ministers would be stationed, providing salaries for the ministers, as well as establishing and funding universities where ministers would be trained. At some of these publicly-funded universities, one branch of study was “religious studies,” at which branch ministers were trained. Because the government officials were often Reformed Christians, the Reformed churches did not consider this an encroachment. For example, Prince William of Orange rewarded the city of Leiden for their faithfulness with a university, intended primarily to train ministers. The great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck prepared for the ministry in Leiden.

In the seventeenth century, even though Holland’s major ecclesiastical assemblies declared that professors of theology were to be subject to the church, these professors were nevertheless appointed by the government. And even though the great Synod of Dordt (1618-1619) determined that, from then on “the theological professors must appear at synod and there give an account of their teaching and submit themselves to the judgment of synod,” the Synod thought little of it that the “seminaries” themselves were not strictly ecclesiastical.

In the 200-year period between the great Synod and the Afscheiding (Secession) of 1834, matters did not improve. Ministerial training remained governed and supported by the civil government.

The Afscheiding and Doleantie

At the Afscheiding of 1834, matters changed.

When Hendrick DeCock and the others whom God raised up left the corrupt State church in 1834, they soon established an ecclesiastical seminary for the training of ministers. These fathers were determined that the civil government would no longer be involved in the training of ministers; they believed the work was the work of the church.

For the first twenty years when the churches were small and incapable of doing very much formally, the instruction was given by individual pastors. But in 1854 a seminary was officially established in Kampen with synod appointing four ministers as professors of theology. Reformed believers in the Netherlands finally had a seminary “of the church and for the church.” Door de kerk; voor de kerk. The Afscheiding’s tradition is an ecclesiastical seminary—a school that proceeds from the church as institute and is governed by the church as institute.

It was not so in the later Doleantie tradition of Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper was not a part of the Afscheiding tradition. Growing up in the State church, he was trained in and knew only the tradition of these universities under government control—most of which, in his day, were corrupt. Kuyper dreamed of a different university, a Reformed university independent of state control; that is, a “free university,” as it is still known today. Kuyper’s dream was brought to fruition in the 1880 establishment of the “Free University of Amsterdam.” Here, theological development could be carried out 1) free from State control (even though with his political clout Kuyper was able to gain state funding); 2) in organic unity with all the other sciences, among which Kuyper declared theology “queen”; and 3) free from ecclesiastical control; that is, it was not a university of the Hervormde Kerk, the State Church of the Netherlands.

Believing young men who aspired to the ministry again had the option of a university faithful to the Reformed tradition—Kuyper’s Free University. And, keep in mind, the establishment of “The Free” took place before the next reform movement of 1886. Six years after the university was founded, Kuyper was instrumental in leading many out of the State Church in a movement called the Doleantie—“The Grieving Ones.” Grieved over the corruption of the State Church, these believers formed a new denomination of churches rather than joining the churches of the Afscheiding.

Very soon, these two reform movements spoke of merging. But this proposed union faced a difficult obstacle. Would the newly-formed denomination train its ministers in Kampen—the ecclesiastically controlled seminary of the Afscheiding, or in Amsterdam—the Free University of the Doleantie? This question became an issue of sore contention.

The Afscheiding branch was convinced that the word of God required ministers be trained door de kerk en voor de kerk. Thus, in 1891 (one year before the merger was consummated) the Afscheiding churches declared it to be a principle for them (that is, non-negotiable) that the church is called to maintain her own institution for training ministers. Yet the 1892 merger forced them to compromise. Each side accepted the principle  that the Churches ought to have an institution for the training of their ministers, but they also upheld the principle of free study.

It was a great disappointment for the Afscheiding fathers that their most capable and promising minister, Herman Bavinck, left his position at their ecclesiastical seminary at Kampen and in 1902 joined the faculty at Kuyper’s Free University. For many in his tradition Bavinck betrayed them regarding their commitment to a seminary door de kerk, voor de kerk. It became worse when one of his colleagues debated this with him, and Bavinck responded, “The office of doctor of theology (Bavinck was referring to seminary professors)…cannot be shown to be an ecclesiastical office.” Bavinck concluded that, because there cannot be ecclesiastical office apart from the consistory, his own professorship at “The Free” was not connected to the church in any official way.

Bavinck’s opinion notwithstanding, the Afscheiding fathers did not give up. In 1909, at a celebration of Kampen’s work, a Rev. J. Kok took direct aim at his Doleantie colleagues, and spoke on the subject, “The Training for the Ministry of the Word: For the Church, By the Church.” In the Dutch, door de kerk, voor de kerk.

The struggle in America

When our forefathers settled in this country and established the Christian Reformed Church, their practice was the Afscheiding practice—an ecclesiastical seminary.

Keep in mind the dates. The CRC began in 1857, only three years after the Afscheiding fathers established their seminary in Kampen. It was not a question for most of these Reformed Hollanders that the church must train the churches’ preachers. Thus, after their first few years of training ministers in various pastors’ studies (just as the Secession fathers did, only twenty years before) they established a seminary door de kerk, voor de kerk. They practiced the Afscheiding’s commitment.

But the question of principle was not so decisively answered in the CRC. And not all were so certain that their seminary would remain door de kerk, voor de kerk. Kuyperian influences were appearing.

Therefore, when the Rev. Foppe Ten Hoor—Herman Bavinck’s colleague, who crossed swords with him in the Netherlands over this issue—was appointed in 1900 to teach in the CRC Seminary, he was determined to carry on the fight to maintain ecclesiastical training of ministers as a principle. The church as church must train her own pastors.

As Ten Hoor observed the members of the Theological School committee—at that time called the Curatorium—he saw leanings towards the “Kuyperian Alternative,” as the view was labeled. He was convinced that, if something were not done quickly, a majority of them would soon favor it. That this “Kuyperian Alternative” would be so quickly transplanted in this country dismayed Ten Hoor. And it did not help matters that the Curatorium soon appointed as one of his colleagues a non-ordained professor. This was only further evidence to him that his denomination was departing from the principle: Door de kerk, voor de kerk.

The end of the story for Ten Hoor was that he and some of his colleagues asked Synod 1908 to declare the seminary to be an ecclesiastical institution as a matter of principle. Synod’s study committee could not come to an agreement on the matter, and the next Synod (1910) concluded: “We will not make a declaration on this, lest the troubles that plagued the Netherlands also bother us; but Professor Ten Hoor ought to rest content in the reality that our seminary is an ecclesiastical institution.”

For our mother church, this statement of 1910 was the end of the matter; and thus they maintained the reality of an ecclesiastical institution—Calvin Seminary—but without official declaration that this was required of them.

The application today

And this explains two very interesting matters—one perhaps only interesting, the other of some importance for the PRC.

Of interest to us is a serious struggle in the merger process between the Canadian (and American) Reformed Churches and the United Reformed Churches—the very question of where their ministers will be trained. The Canadian Reformed stand strongly in the tradition of the Afscheiding; the United Reformed has primarily used Mid-American Reformed Seminary—a “Kuyperian Alternative” school, as we might call it. And though, after much discussion and debate, the official decision (in 2007) was to allow both schools for the future united denomination, still today there are strong voices of dissatisfaction with that decision.

What is more than “of interest” to the PRC, and what may surprise most in the PRC, is that the “Kuyperian Alternative” also influenced us. Not in actual practice, for we clearly practice the Afscheiding tradition. But in some of our official documents relating to the life and government of our seminary this “Kuyperian Alternative” is still clearly evident.

First, there is not one word in the Church Order itself that requires ministers to be trained in an ecclesiastical seminary.

Second, what the Church Order does say is weak, if not questionable. Article 18—the only article that speaks directly about training pastors—only says what is the task of the professors of theology, and nothing about where these professors labor or about the relationship between seminary and churches. And Article 3 has the curious statement, explainable only by this Dutch history of ministerial training outside the church institute, that “not even professors of theology” may enter the ministry of the gospel without a lawful call. That is, the Church Order assumes the, to us, strange reality of seminary professors who are not ordained ministers.

Third, our “Form for the Installation of Professors of Theology” most clearly reflects this “Kuyperian Alternative” when it blatantly states that “it cannot be disapproved of that future ministers of the Word should receive their training at” another university, as long as that 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.” Amazing!

But a couple considerations should relieve any discomfort a PRC member may have at this point.

First, very happily, our practice is inconsistent with these few statements that hint of the “Kuyperian Alternative.” We have a seminary under direct control and supervision of the churches through their synod. Professors are appointed by, supervised by, and always answerable to synod. We have an ecclesiastical seminary—through the church and for the church. We reject the “Kuyperian Alternative.”

We also reject that “Kuyperian Alternative” officially. More than the 1910 Synod gave Prof. Ten Hoor, we have confidence for our seminary because the constitutions, both of our school itself and of the board that governs it, now make clear that this institution is an ecclesiastical institution.

Thus, there is no breach in our walls that may, some day, allow a non-ecclesiastical school for our churches’ future ministers.

(Next time: the biblical basis and the practical benefits of an ecclesiastical seminary.)