Why Pastors Need a Seminary Education
The More Things Change
Over the years many things have changed at Westminster Seminary California (WSC). In the most important ways, however, the seminary has not changed. We still believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God. We still believe the historic Christian faith as summarized in the ecumenical creeds and the Reformed confessions and catechisms. We are still dedicated to training men for the Reformed, pastoral ministry.
Though WSC has not changed fundamentally, the seminary business has changed dramatically in recent years. Today seminaries are offering their service (education and preparation for ministry) at a distance through satellites, video, and the Internet. Like many folk, WSC is generally enthusiastic about these emerging technologies and is exploring efficient ways of using them to advance Christ's kingdom.
Other folk, however, see the Internet as a way not only to supplement a pastor’s seminary education and to strengthen his ministry (it surely can accomplish these things), but also as a way to replace seminaries altogether. This is a worrisome trend. The strongest argument that proponents of "home grown" pastors make is that the local congregation should have a more intimate role in the training of her ministers than it sometimes does now. Thus, they see the Internet as a way to harvest the best of scholarship while keeping candidates for the ministry in their local churches. This philosophy of pastoral training, though initially attractive, rests on some false assumptions.
Face to Face is Best
There are many benefits to be had through the Internet, but it can never replace the sort of community which exists between professors and students in the classroom, lunchroom, and the professor's office.
The word community is the right one, at least in WSC's context. Most students attend local Reformed churches in which WSC faculty preach and teach (many of which exist because God used the seminary faculty and students to plant new churches in this area). Some students live with faculty members. In addition, regular gatherings in faculty and student homes make school and church life a sort of seamless garment. These opportunities for interaction contribute to the formation of pastors. Because we regard the spiritual and theological development of students to be part of WSC's ministry, it is not true, as is sometimes implied in the discussion about the relative necessity of seminary: that men who go to seminary are somehow in the wilderness of academia.
At WSC we are still old-fashioned enough to believe that a seminary education comes only one way: through hard work. Therefore, while many seminaries are now advertising (quite seductively it seems!) that one can earn a seminary degree without ever leaving home, at WSC we believe that self-sacrifice is a part of ministry. Ask yourself this question: Would you choose a heart surgeon who learned his skills via satellite and video tapes? Even with the assistance of a seasoned physician nearby, such training would clearly be inadequate. There is something about knowing how deep to cut which can only be learned through hands-on, tactile, face-to-face training. Your soul, as our Lord Jesus taught us, is infinitely more valuable than even your heart.
Notice that I keep saying "at WSC" instead of "through WSC." This is because seminary is not just a vehicle, a means to an end. While students are here, they are students. They are not just passing through seminary. Their vocation is to study and prepare for ministry in school, with pastors and scholars, to become pastor-scholars. By challenging students, praying with them, and lecturing to them, we believe that we are preparing them to serve in churches by providing them with the tools they will use every day for the rest of their lives in pastoral ministry.
WSC believes in raising up ministers who are not only scholars, and not only pastors, but both: scholar-pastors. This is based on the formation of the Reformed Church in the 16th century. Our commitment to developing scholar-pastors distinguishes WSC from much of the rest of American and Modern Christianity. Some might say, "That’s the problem." I respectfully disagree and for one reason primarily. Preaching is the minister’s primary calling. He is called to preach from the Bible and the Bible is, to quote J. I. Packer, a "very big book." More than that, it was written in three languages in several cultures over a long period of time, so it takes a certain amount of learning to understand the history, theology, background, and proper application of God’s Word. The Bible is not to be read in a vacuum. The Church has been thinking about and interpreting the Bible for a long time. So we need pastors who are not only trained to read God’s Word in its original languages, but who are trained in the Christian tradition. This is not something done quickly, easily, or cheaply. It is also not something which is done well virtually, by distant electronic education to large groups who have no access to a seminary library or faculty. Thus, such distance-education is not adequate, at least not presently, for servants of God and his Word.
It Takes One To Know One
Quite understandably, most pastors (like most physicians, lawyers, and accountants) are far too busy to be able to keep up with the latest literature in any one field (e.g., New Testament studies) let alone all the fields required for seminary preparation. Staying abreast of academic developments is a full-time calling. Some years ago, one of our New Testament professors presented to the WSC faculty a highly technical, but most interesting paper on recent developments in the study of the grammar of the New Testament. Most of the faculty, even though they are full-time scholars, were unaware of these developments. If full-time scholars struggle to keep up with the changes in the various fields, how could even the most skilled and industrious pastor fulfill all his parish responsibilities and do the sort of reading which would prepare him to train men for ministry full-time? Clearly this is highly unlikely.
Why Seminary Indeed?
One might say, "Who cares if seminary professors know the latest scholarship? Is it not all a waste of time anyway?" No, it's not a waste of time. The real question is whether the church has any use for serious scholarship. To use the medical analogy again, do you care if your physician reads the New England Journal of Medicine? Certainly there is much foolishness in modern scholarship. Yet it will make its way into the Church and our pastors and elders must be adequately prepared to address it. More than that, there are benefits to keeping abreast of recent scholarship. For example, one of our professors has made use of some newer educational techniques to make his Greek instruction even more effective. Learning Greek is still hard work, but his students will leave seminary with the ability to continue to improve their language skills, instead of putting the Greek testament on the shelf. In my field (history) there is some very good scholarship being done which has revived much of our 16th and 17th century tradition through essays and translations. The church has and will continue to reap many rewards from these sorts of studies.
Seminary and the Church
There is a movement afoot to change the way seminary students are educated. Dissatisfied with the results produced by some schools, some congregations have begun their own in-house seminaries on the ground that sending students away to seminary take them out of the local church.” Yes, sending students to seminary does take them out of one local church, but sending them to Westminster Seminary California means that they will find themselves right back in another local church. It does not take them from "the" local church. Rather, sending them to seminary shifts students temporarily from one local congregation to another during their education.
Another objection asks, "Is not the local church the primary place for the training of ministers?" Of course the church has been given the primary responsibility in the calling and forming of ministers. The question is not whether, but how? Remember, seminary is a three-, and sometimes four-year commitment. The role of the local church in raising up future pastors is to prepare them well for the first two and one-half decades she has them.
If our local churches are really concerned about the welfare of their seminarian sons, they can do many things to help. First they can pray for them. She can also provide an invaluable service to the student and to the church by teaching her children the catechism. Many of our students now come to seminary with virtually no knowledge of the Westminster Shorter Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism. The education of seminary students would be enhanced greatly if students arrived on campus already having memorized the catechism.
Further, the local congregation can also support students financially. Think of those whom you know who have attended medical or law school. The demands of a WSC education are comparable to those of the best professional schools in the nation. It is a simple equation: the less time the student must spend working, the more time the student can spend studying. The more time the student spends studying, the better prepared he will be for ministry.
It is wrong to assume that a local congregation or even a Classis can replace a seminary. Which local congregation (or any combination of them) has the necessary time, money, human and capital resources to train men for ministry? The WSC library holds tens of thousands of books, dozens of journals, and thousands of back copies of magazines and journals. Few local congregations could or should spend funds needed to provide such resources. This list does not even include the computer hardware and software (which need constant upgrading) and the valuable experience constituted by a learned faculty, all gathered in one place.
Seminary: A Place for Reflection
The home-grown, do-it-yourself, learn-as-you-go model neglects another very important fact of education: time. Seminary is a time to come away from the typical schedule of ministry demands to think, learn, reflect on the Scriptures, and pray. Any pastor will tell you that if there is anything he misses from his days at seminary, it is the luxury of time away from the telephone (or email), time to read and access to the latest (or oldest) journals and books.
Follow the Money
In the discussion over the question, "Why seminary?" a frequent objection is that seminary is too expensive. The assumption here seems to be that professional training for our ministers could be done less expensively by frugal pastors who know what they are doing. Well, the administrative overhead at WSC is quite low. Some of our staff have given up lucrative careers in order to advance God’s kingdom serving at the seminary. The cost of seminary at WSC is ranked almost exactly in the middle of seminaries in the USA. Given the quality of the education at WSC, we think that the tuition is quite reasonable. Costs do rise, but some of them are uncontrollable, such as the cost of books which have risen considerably over the years. What should the seminarian-pastor do? Go without books? Would you visit a mechanic who had no tools?
One should not assume that the proposed electronic alternative is cheaper. Electronic, distance education does not promise to be any less expensive, in the long-run. Darryl Hart, in the October 1997 issue of New Horizons, noted that there are hidden costs to distance education.
Then we must consider the seminary facilities. Each distance-learning student must have a suitable computer and the associated software, which will need regular up-grading. More than that, the long-distance seminarian will need his own seminary library, since the equivalent does not yet exist online. A decent library for such an enterprise could easily cost thousands of dollars even with use of free, online, resources such as Google books or archive.org which usually offer only older books on which the copyright has lapsed.
Thus, even in the distance-education scheme, one has made a substantial investment, but there are less tangible costs as well. When, in this scenario, will the stay-at-home seminarian study his Greek and Hebrew? Who will evaluate his sermons? With whom will he compare notes? Will he really memorize his Greek and Hebrew vocabulary or will that also be too much bother? Will he really spend the late hours necessary to do the reading and writing for class? A computer terminal or video screen is wonderful, but it is not the kind of human fellowship or genuine community that is so vital to the adequate preparation of pastors.
No Easy Way
All this is to point out that there is no easy route to the ministry and we delude ourselves if we say that there is. It is the Church’s obligation to make certain that the seminaries to which she sends her young (and older!) men are worthy. What constitutes a worthy place? One which continues to confess the historic Reformed faith, one that not only keeps up with the questions and criticisms offered by the culture, but also offers biblical and intelligent answers to those criticisms. That is, a worthy seminary is one which understands the times in which we minister and who equips her students to face those times and to stand in the pulpit week after week and tell the truth, all of it, regardless of the consequences. WSC, was, is, and shall, by God’s grace, remain such a worthy place.
The Old Fashioned Way: They Earn It
WSC is old-fashioned in other ways as well. Unlike many seminaries, we still require students to learn to read God's Word in the original languages. This was the vision of our founder, J. Gresham Machen, that Westminster would produce men who are expert in the Bible. For this reason, students spend much of their first year learning Greek and Hebrew. They're expected to attend their other classes in Systematic, Practical, and Historical Theology with their Greek and Hebrew Bibles open as well. They also attend more advanced courses in exegesis—that is, the explanation of the biblical text. More than just biblical study, they learn what to do with the Bible in the Church. They learn the biblical theology of the Church, her offices, and the theology and practice of pastoral ministry.
The Proper Role of Distance Education
The new technologies cannot and should not replace face-to-face seminary education. What they can do, however, is extend the seminary's ability to help pastors continue their education. Just as lawyers and physicians are required to continue their education, so congregations should give prayerful consideration to sending their pastor(s) back to seminary for a time of study and renewal. This small step might reduce ministerial “burnout” significantly. Having laid the foundation of life-long learning in the classroom, we can help pastors keep up with theological, intellectual, and academic trends via email discussion lists, web pages, interactive seminars, and the like.
Our seminary has been entrusted with a tremendous responsibility. At WSC the faculty takes this responsibility with utmost seriousness. No seminary (or any human institution) is perfect, and we are profoundly aware of this fact. Nevertheless, the Lord has given us this ministry of training men for ministry. Our slogan (as expressed in the Greek text on our school seal) declares, "The whole counsel of God." That is the mark we aim to hit: to train men to preach all of God’s Word. It is no easy task, but it is a joyous one. Please pray for us as we pray for you and the prosperity of Christ’s church.
First published in Evangelium, Vol. 5, Issue 3.
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