The Church, The Seminary, & Theological Education
Published by Calvin Seminary
Jean and Kenneth Baker Professor of Systematic Theology, Emeritus
The church needs leaders but do its leaders need to go to seminary? And if they do, is it important for them to study theology? After all, Jesus’ disciples didn’t attend a seminary. Can’t leaders simply rely on the Holy Spirit’s guidance as the apostles did?
Quick answers: Yes, yes, and no. Not only were the apostles directly taught by Jesus, some of them were even specially inspired by the Holy Spirit to write our New Testament. They had a unique office that was not repeatable. What they taught and wrote is forever the bedrock foundation of our undoubted, universal Christian faith. Authentic Christianity is apostolic.
And here’s what’s at stake in the seminary and theology issue: the authenticity of our teaching and preaching. Seminaries are places where practical skills such as preaching and pastoral care are learned but they are much more than that. God’s people need to be confident that God is speaking to them when they hear a sermon. Troubled persons who come to pastors for soul care deserve nothing but the best spiritual guidance. The church therefore requires certificates of authenticity of its candidates for ministry and a good seminary education is an essential part of the training such candidates receive.
Here’s why. In this new millennium, a multitude of voices clamor for our attention, all claiming to represent true Christianity. God’s people hear conflicting interpretations of Scripture on crucial issues, not to mention the plethora of Bible translation, some with a definite agenda. How should we live as disciples of Christ today when there is such serious disagreement among those who claim the name of Jesus?
There is no escape from the messiness I have just described and I am not suggesting that seminaries are simple cures to the uncertainties of our age. I am only saying that seminaries play a vital role in helping the Church stay faithful to its Lord. Here’s how: Good seminaries teach pastors how to use the original languages of the Bible, thus giving them a facility to assess translations. Seminaries teach church history and especially the history of the church’s interpretation of the Bible and forming doctrines from the Bible. Seminaries nurture students into becoming practicing theologians who work with the wisdom of the church of all ages and places and apply that wisdom to their own ministry contexts.
Conceivably such training could be accomplished by means other than by seminary education and it has so been done in the past, including the first 20 years of the Christian Reformed Church’s existence. In those years, students were taught by gifted pastors. But, the church decided in 1876 that a wise and stewardly use of gifts and resources meant establishing a theological school. In establishing seminaries and appointing professors with specialized gifts and training, churches exercise stewardship of their resources. And in turn, a seminary’s first responsibility is to be a steward of the apostolic tradition, of the word of God, of the gospel.
That is why the Christian Reformed Church today has its own theological seminary named after John Calvin. For over 140 years, this denomination has generously supported its seminary with significant financial resources as well as faithful prayers and perspectives from across North America and beyond. The faculty of the seminary, in turn, serves the denomination with biblical and theological reflection and advice regarding doctrine, ethical issues, and church life and practice.
It’s a solid relationship of mutuality and accountability, all in the cause of Christ’s Kingdom coming in grace and truth.
By John Bolt
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