Old School in a New Age
It has been my pleasure to serve the church as a minister and, on loan, as a professor at Westminster Seminary California (WSC) for two decades. Many reasons come to mind when I consider why I feel so privileged to be a part of this institution. But one that stands out is its identity as an old school in a new age.
It might help to begin by saying what I don’t mean by “old school.” First, “old school” doesn’t mean that we’re actually that old as an institution. At first blush, it doesn't seem appropriate to call WSC “old school.” Founded in 1979, it hardly has the ivy-covered and time-worn stones or bricks of stately divinity schools that go back to the founding of our republic—and even earlier. Yet it really is a continuation of the best of that tradition. You can visit the old schools and discern rather quickly the recent vintage of their theology. The main ones we think of—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown—were founded as seminaries for orthodox Calvinist ministers. Gradually, they changed their mission, message, and curriculum in a pragmatic effort to be more attractive to a modern culture. Wedded to the spirit of the age, they have become widowers. By “old school,” therefore, I don’t have actual age in mind but the soul of the place—its mission and vision; curriculum; and the faculty, staff, and students who are so deliberately committed to the highest standards of preparation for the ministry.
Second, I don’t mean by “old school” that we’re committed merely to the past. No less than the present and the future, the church’s past is a mixed bag of valiant defense of the truth and feeble capitulation to popular and academic trends that distort God’s Word. What C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” cuts both ways: not only discounting anything that’s old, but clinging only to that which is old. We’re not antiquarians. We love the creeds and confessions not because they are old but because they have stood the test of time in summarizing the Bible. We want to say exactly today what is confessed in those summaries. The late John Webster, perhaps the greatest British theologian of the last several decades, once told me, “I think that Westminster Seminary California represents the irenic face of Reformed theology in America.” Kicking myself for not having brought my iPhone to record it, I suspected that not everyone in the U.S. would agree that our “old school” reputation is irenic. People often associate “old school” with being narrow-minded, mean-spirited, censorious, and arrogant. My colleague David VanDrunen is invited often to participate in academic colloquia with major Roman Catholic, mainline, and evangelical scholars. We all like to get out of our comfort zone and learn from others, as well as to make a case for classic Reformed faith and practice. We’re not nostalgic about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We don’t freeze the Reformed tradition into a timeless standard. But we have a deep connection to teachers of the past who give us deeply-needed wisdom for the present and the future.
“By 'old school,' therefore, I don’t have actual age in mind but the soul of the place—its mission and vision; curriculum; and the faculty, staff, and students who are so deliberately committed to the highest standards of preparation for the ministry."
I mean by “old school” that our commitment as a faculty is to question the veracity of the world’s wisdom rather than the Word of God. In addition to preserving the continuity of the apostolic teaching, “old school” refers to our resistance to educational trends toward disembodied and private methods. In an age of online education, we remain committed to a student body that says, “I’m all in,” committing to leave their nets for a few years to be molded by the sort of formation that only comes with residential education. Preparation for the ministry is not just about memorizing facts—data-dumps from one mind to another—but about living in community, both in the church and in the common life of professors and fellow students, as well as their families. For this, a seminary has to be small enough to offer easy access to faculty and large enough to offer expert faculty and a richly-diverse student body.
Pastor-scholars training pastor-scholars; that’s the “old school” idea. There is tremendous pressure to cut corners in theological education, to make it easier to obtain a degree without necessarily obtaining a sufficient education. It’s interesting how we think about this today. Many think that preparation for the ministry should be easy. Yet the ministry itself isn’t easy at all. Furthermore, in a life-threatening situation would we want a thoroughly-trained surgeon or someone who acquired his medical knowledge from YouTube videos? Don’t Christ’s sheep, for whom he died, deserve the very best that we can offer them in terms of preparation as doctors of the soul? After all, we are not in the business merely of extending life but of conveying life through the Word of God. Yes, it’s a commitment to come to a residential seminary for three years. But it is the kind of commitment that a lifetime of ministry requires. Much of today’s ministry seems preoccupied with secondary matters—like Martha, “anxious about many things,” when we should be tacking more closely to Mary, who “chose the better part” by sitting at Jesus’s feet to drink in all that he had to teach her about himself. All of this, along with on-campus housing, makes WSC “old school” not only in its doctrinal commitments but in its approach to seminary education. That is the WSC promise: an education worthy of your calling.
But what makes WSC “old school” more than anything else is its commitment not only to a high view of Scripture but to the integration of biblical exegesis throughout every course. J. Gresham Machen’s vision for Westminster Seminary was to make “experts in the Bible.” This was a time when the mainline seminaries were preparing critics of the Bible who turned to modern disciplines not only to supplement but to challenge the basic teachings of historic Christianity.
“To know God’s Word and to proclaim and teach it faithfully, whether in the U.S. or abroad, in cities or in small towns, to young or old, is what the church really needs."
There are solidly faithful evangelical and Reformed seminaries today. I have had the pleasure of teaching short courses at a few of them. Yet I’m impressed with the focus of WSC on the “meat-and-potatoes” of a curriculum that has proved itself over many decades. It’s an “old school” curriculum—literally, even, in the sense that much of it is a continuation of the program at Old Princeton in its heyday as a bastion of Reformed orthodoxy. We are not distracted by a variety of programs in youth ministry, sports ministry, business ministry, children’s education, and spiritual formation. We don’t even have a lot of courses in missions. It’s not that we do not take these concerns seriously. We take them so seriously that we believe that whatever the Lord calls our graduates to do, they will need the same knowledge, skills, and wisdom to apply to fields that they may know better than we do. To know God’s Word and to proclaim and teach it faithfully, whether in the U.S. or abroad, in cities or in small towns, to young or old, is what the church really needs. That mission never changes, even though the context does.
Despite being “old school,” we’re hardly unaware that we live in the twenty-first century. Of course, we see it as a challenge. There are all sorts of obstacles to the gospel ministry in the world and in our cultural moment in particular. But we’re not hand-wringing conservatives. There are also tremendous opportunities. Sure, orthodox Christians are seen increasingly as “outsiders”—by some, even a threat—to liberal democratic societies. But after a long time of confusing Christ with culture, it may be a severe mercy that the church is now revealed as what it has in truth always been, even in America: “a little flock” to whom the Father has nevertheless “been pleased to give [us] a kingdom” (Lk. 12:32). That kingdom, growing in breadth and depth in the power of the Spirit through the Word and sacraments, “cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12:28).
Confident in God’s Word, as summarized by our confessions, believers can strike out into the turbulent waters of our contemporary cultures with a degree of calmness, “prepar[ing] to give to everyone an answer for the hope that we have, but with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). At WSC, we realize the importance of knowing our context—the questions, history, criticisms, and arguments of people we meet every day.
No one has to be reminded that we live in a global village. But there’s nothing like an actual village—a new student village—where this reality is experienced in person. As confessional Reformed faith and practice become the standard, with Christ as the magnet, the growing changes in color and cultures aren’t threats but joyful opportunities. This is an exciting time!
Our faculty speaks not only in a variety of churches and conferences across the U.S. but around the world, with books translated into more than 13 languages. Strategically located at the gateway to the Global South, our student body reflects the growing diversity of America and our own churches. In addition, every year nearly 140 students come from 6 of the world’s 7 continents to study at WSC, at great personal sacrifice in many cases. Just think of the impact as they return to be used by the Lord to plant, water, and harvest even in parts of his vineyard that are threatened by serious persecution. The diversity of our student body is one of the greatest encouragements to me personally. Many have just been introduced to Reformed theology and eagerly devour and discuss what they’re learning, commiserating about how they’ll be able to proclaim, teach, and apply it in future ministry.
We know we’re not alone among seminaries. We have sister institutions that are “old school in a new age” as well. But I remain convinced that WSC is the best place to discover what this means.
MICHAEL S. HORTON is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He and his wife, Lisa, live in Escondido with their four children.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of UPDATE Magazine
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