Seminary Education: Its Necessity and Importance
Alan D. Strange
The Form of Government (FG) of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church requires seminary training for men who would be licensed or ordained to preach.
FG XXI:3 puts it this way: It is highly reproachful to religion and dangerous to the church to entrust the preaching of the gospel to weak and ignorant men. The presbytery shall therefore license a candidate only if he has received a bachelor of arts degree, or its academic equivalent, from a college or university of reputable academic standing, and has completed an adequate course of study lasting at least one year and a half in a theological seminary.
FG XXIII:3 further requires for ordination an adequate course of study in a theological seminary equivalent to that required for a regular three-year theological degree.
Is the OPC justified in requiring seminary training for its ministers? After all, where does the Bible say that a preacher needs to go to seminary?
It is true that the Word of God emphasizes the moral and spiritual qualifications for a minister more than it does the natural and intellectual qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1: 5–9). These verses do require, though, that a man be able to teach and that he hold fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.
Furthermore, Paul admonished Timothy to be a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15), and to guard what was committed to your trust (1 Tim. 6:20). A minister of the Word, then, must be thoroughly trained in the exposition and defense of the Word of God.
Our Form of Government reflects an understanding that the necessary skills for preaching the whole counsel of God are ordinarily developed and honed at seminary. Seminary education alone qualifies no one to preach the gospel. But it does serve as the training ground for those who are called to preach and are recognized as such by the church.
Note that these skills are ordinarily attained at seminary. The Form of Government does recognize, both in licensing and in ordaining men, that exceptions may be made to the educational requirements (XXI:6 and XXIII:3)—that is, to where his education is obtained. But even then, no exception is to be made to the knowledge required. A candidate may have gained that knowledge, for example, while serving in the pastorate of another denomination. In other words, the presbytery may never license a man who is weak and ignorant.
So even if a man does not have a seminary education, he must have everything that seminary is calculated to give him. He must still pass all of the required examinations. Exams in Hebrew and/or Greek may be temporarily suspended, but the applicant must agree to make a continuing endeavor … to attain competency in those languages until the presbytery is satisfied (XXIII:3).
The Seminary’s Role
So is the OPC’s requirement of seminary training for its ministers scripturally justified? I would answer yes. A seminary provides an education in the Bible in its original tongues (in the Old and New Testament departments), in the historical outworking of the Bible (in the church history department), in the topical expression and defense of the teaching of the Bible (in the systematic theology and apologetics department), and in the application of the Bible to the lives of the people of God (in the ministerial or practical theology department). The whole seminary curriculum is designed to educate men who will be faithful and able preachers of God’s Word and ministers of his sacraments—men who will give their lives to the equipping and edifying of the saints.
I would readily admit that this task does not belong solely to the seminary. In fact, the seminary is but a servant of the church and is to assist her in equipping men for ministerial service whom the church deems suitable for sacred office.
The seminary as we know it today did not come into existence in this country until the founding of Princeton Seminary in 1812. The first two professors at Princeton—Archibald Alexander and Samuel Miller—were ministers with pastoral experience. From the beginning, the ideal at Princeton was to have prospective pastors taught by men who were themselves pastors. With Charles Hodge, Princeton began to employ men without pastoral experience, though they required all of their professors to be ministers. When the Continental Reformed churches started seminaries, such as Calvin Theological Seminary, they consistently required all of their professors to have some pastoral experience.
Before the rise of the seminary, men were trained for the ministry at the university. Harvard was founded in 1636 and Yale in 1701 primarily to train men for the gospel ministry. While a Cotton Mather or a Jonathan Edwards may have gone at twelve or fourteen to university, most of the young men went by the age of sixteen and were already schooled in the classics, the humanities, and the sciences. Even the Log College of William Tennent and the classical academies started by his students (which led to the founding of Princeton University in 1746) offered an education comparable to the New England universities: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, divinity (theology), rhetoric, logic, ethics, metaphysics, mathematics, and natural philosophy (science).
All this is to say that before the advent of the seminary, the necessary education was attained in the university or in the classical academy. What is important is that it be attained. While seminaries themselves may be a more recent innovation, what is today taught in the seminary (and no longer in the university) is what Presbyterians (and, before that, the Roman Catholic Church, at least in its better days) have always recognized as essential for ministers.
Our present Form of Government reflects the Form of Presbyterial Church-Government, which was adopted in 1645 by the Westminster Assembly of Divines. It required a minister upon examination to declare what degrees he hath taken in the university. It required examination not only in the biblical languages and Latin, but also in the liberal arts (especially logic and philosophy).
The Need for an Educated Ministry
It’s this simple: the church has understood the Scriptures to require that ministers be able to handle the Word of God effectively, to teach the truth with all of its implications, and to refute errors of all kinds. Those who have been called to such ministry—such as pastors and seminary professors—can well testify that one cannot have too much knowledge to carry out their calling.
Generally, men in the pastorate bemoan their lack of time for study. I have never heard anyone complain that he has spent too much time studying the Bible, theology, missions and evangelism, or the history of the church. If you really understand the pastoral calling, you know that you need all the theological education that you can possibly get.
Seminary affords men the opportunity to acquire the foundational understanding upon which they will build throughout their pastoral lives. If a man never goes to seminary, he may have to spend much time catching up with his better-informed ministerial colleagues. Most men would not even know what the important issues are and how to address them, apart from seminary training. If men who have a seminary education sense their insufficiency for pastoral ministry, how much more so those who have never attended seminary.
Since seminary is the ordinary route, only an extraordinary man can dispense with it. And who is that? Or, rather, who thinks that he is that?
As noted above, seminary is not calculated to provide all that a man needs to serve in the gospel ministry. A man also needs good practical field experience. Both denominations and seminaries have come to recognize this, and thus require various forms of ministerial apprenticeships and internships. In the days of the Log College, after university or the classical academy, a ministerial candidate would live for several years with a pastor and gain in that way many of the counseling, visitation, administrative, and other pastoral skills that can only be gained in the field and that the best of seminary programs can only begin to provide.
There is, in other words, only so much that can be done in the seminary classroom. No matter how many counseling courses a man may take, for instance, he will never learn what can only be learned by actually counseling people.
This is not to say, though, that seminaries cannot do a better job in teaching denominational history, worship, and polity (government), for example. At seminary, students should study the history of the various Reformed and Presbyterian bodies, as well as their polity and worship. The OPC has expressed concern about the lack of such practical instruction in the seminaries, particularly in OPC distinctives, and has established the Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC to remedy, in part, those shortcomings.
But Which Seminary?
While it is not inconceivable that ministers could receive their training in the Bible somewhere other than at seminary, I do not know where comprehensive, thorough training in all the theological departments goes on other than at seminaries and similar theological schools.
However, not any seminary will do. Since all ministers are called upon to guard what was committed to your trust, a ministerial candidate should be an active part of a Reformed, confessional church that regards him as fit for the ministry and can commend him to a seminary that is thoroughly confessional—that is, that guards the theological trust that Christ has given to his church.
No man should attend a seminary that does not confess Christ in all his fullness, manifested in part by its fidelity to the Reformed and Presbyterian confessions. The seminary should be dedicated to training men for the gospel ministry.
Finally, as John Donne said, No man is an island. Men preparing for the ministry need to learn collegiality in the seminary, so as to prepare them to work in church courts.
Thus we see that a seminary education is a necessary and important part of pastoral training today.
Mr. Strange, an OP minister, teaches at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Ind. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 1999.