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A Theological Seminary-Why?

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Archives / 1972 / April



A Theological Seminary-Why?

Ervin K. Thomsen
-Pastor, Michigan Conference


ALMOST half a decade has passed since the General Conference Committee for ministerial training recommended two years of theological study beyond college for ministers-to-be in North America. There are, however, still some individuals who harbor doubts about the value of this training. Some feel that the Seminary steals from the young man two years that would have been better spent in actual soul-winning ministry. Others consider it their duty to remind the young minister that it is not knowledge but dedication and hard work that really count. It is, therefore, not out of order to ask the question, What is the purpose of a theological seminary?

The purpose of a seminary is not to turn out fully-trained pastors, teachers, or evangelists. Rather, a seminary attempts to equip the man with certain tools which will enable him to better do the work of the ministry. Upon graduation from a seminary the young man can do one of two things with these tools, he can either put them to work or put them out for display. A knowledge of Biblical languages is only a tool to aid one in the understanding of the Bible and is not something to be displayed in the pulpit to impress one's hearers. An acquaintance with trends in contemporary theology should not make one's sermons unintelligible, but should enable the pastor to sharpen the cutting edge of his gospel to some of the subtle heresies of modern thought.

It is still common to hear the God-is-dead theology being denounced from some pulpits with such cliches as "Our God is not dead; sorry about yours." Such a presentation might satisfy some listeners, but in the open court of inquiry it would not suffice as a refutation. A minister hope fully should be so acquainted with the methods of both the philosopher and the theologian that he may meet such heresies on their own ground and by their own methods. Ellen G. White spoke about Wycliffe having acquired such training:

Wycliffe received a liberal education, and with him the fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom. ... In his thirst for knowledge he sought to become acquainted with every branch of learning. ... In his after labors the value of this early training was apparent. A thorough acquaintance with the speculative philosophy of his time enabled him to expose its errors. . . . While he could wield the weapons drawn from the word of God, he had acquired the intellectual discipline of the schools, and he understood the tactics of the school men. . . . His adherents saw with satisfaction that their champion stood foremost among the leading minds of the nation; and his enemies were prevented from casting contempt upon the cause of reform by exposing the ignorance or weakness of its supporter. . . . His knowledge of the Scriptures, the force of his reasoning, the purity of his life, and his unbending courage and integrity won for him general esteem and confidence. --The Great Controversy, pp. 80, 81.

Hence it is not the primary purpose of a seminary to provide the budding minister with apologetic ammunition with which to wage warfare on any point of view that may differ from his own. Rather, a semi nary seeks to help the student to build, by experience and by close study of the Word of God, a theology that can stand up under the closest scrutiny.

Facing Reality

Sometimes a student may feel that the faculty of a seminary has conspired in an unholy plot to tear down his faith. A semi nary, however, does not exist to shield the students from disturbing or even alleged facts. A seminary cannot pretend that certain ways of thinking, such as Biblical higher criticism, do not exist. Here the function of Christian teachers is to guide the student in his study by helping him to look at all the data in some perspective and to guide him in the second step of thinking about the known facts in light of all he knows including the best he knows. Occasionally some students may feel that the pillars of the faith are being unduly attacked, but if the pillars of our faith are indeed pillars they will certainly be able to bear all the weight of investigation that is placed upon them. If our message cannot be publicly investigated, then it should not be publicly proclaimed. Whenever our doctrines result in a reluctance to learn, they become the enemies of truth. Piety, zeal, and dedication are not substitutes for truth, and neither is truth their enemy. A seminary exists then not only to investigate and confirm the pillars of present truth, but also to discover new truths that never cancel old truths but amplify them.

The moment the Church loses interest in working the mines of the Word because it thinks it has seen all there is to see, that moment the Church also loses its power and its credibility in the world. When the Church thinks it knows all there is to know, the opportunity for surprising discovery is closed. The Church then becomes old without perspective, and without light and labor of fruitfulness. Everything depends on whether the Church keeps on being the listening Church, whether it can find itself in the image of the young Samuel, who said: "Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth." G. C. Berkouwer, "Understanding Scripture," --Christianity Today, May 22, 1970, p. 40.

Not Just Facts

The purpose of a seminary is not merely to provide the students with a mass of facts about ancient history or Greek verbs, but to lead the student in his decision-making processes. The function of lectures is not to guide the student through some text book but to help the student analyze and interpret this information. The function of a seminary teacher, therefore, is not to re quire and reward parroting of his ways of thinking, but to lead the student to develop his own methods of thinking and evaluating, that will enable the student to continue the quest for truth even after he has completed his seminary training. Above all, a seminary teacher must not only teach; he must also minister. It is his responsibility to seek to establish a teacher-student relationship of concern and helpfulness that will provide for optimum growth of the student, both spiritually and mentally.

In the field of applied theology a seminary does not attempt to supply the student with an inexhaustible storehouse of homiletical material. Rather it seeks to provide the students with tools of Bible study, tools that must daily be used and sharpened by excavations in the mines of the Word of God. Even with the passing of years a minister who consistently uses these tools will always have something fresh from the Bible to present to his congregation. Tools that aid one in an understanding of the processes of the human mind and behavior must not be neglected. "He who seeks to transform humanity must himself understand humanity." --Education, p. 78. Moreover, a seminary does not attempt to have its students delve fully into every aspect of parish life. Upon graduation, hopefully under the guidance of an experienced pastor, the student will spend some years in an internship that will provide ample opportunity to develop more fully skills of church leadership and personal evangelism. We must remember that the basic purpose of seminary training is not merely the absorption of knowledge by its students, but the utilization of such knowledge for successful soul winning.

The Ultimate Objective

Finally, a seminary does not make a preacher; only God does. While a seminary may do all in its power to provide its students with tools, it is only the anointing of the Holy Spirit of God that will enable the intern to wisely put these tools to work for the glory of God and the extension of His kingdom. A seminary should realize that Christianity must not only be studied; it must also be lived. After all, the best argument in favor of Christianity is still a genuine Christian. However, in order for the Christian minister to obtain a hearing among all men in a society that is daily becoming more pagan, nothing less than excellence must prevail. Shoddiness is not canceled by holiness. One cannot pay much attention to a person who claims to be devout but still does not know the difference between the past and present tenses though this is not part of the ordination vows. A seminary then exists for the purpose of uplifting Jesus Christ, who alone can inspire men with a redemptive concern for the world, without which academic excellence is of no real importance. A seminary recognizes the legitimacy of all branches of learning that can aid the pas tor in his Christian ministry, but it insists that its chief concern is with the roots of learning, namely, the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.

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