In the May/June 2012 issue of The Outlook, Henry Gysen introduced our readers to Divine Hope Reformed Bible Seminary. The seminary is within the walls of the Danville Correctional Center in Danville, Illinois. The seminary’s professor, a United Reformed Church minister, Nathan Brummel, began teaching the first class in March 2012. We feature here Myron Rau’s interview with Professor Brummel two years later to further familiarize us with this unique ministry and to provide an update on his work. Rev. Brummel is administrator of Divine Hope Reformed Bible Seminary.
The Lord is doing some exciting things through Divine Hope Seminary. For further information, visit the seminary’s website at www.divinehopeseminary.org.
MR: Why a prison seminary?
NB: Prisons are isolated communities that are a world to themselves. The men in prison might as well live on an isolated island in the Pacific. They are isolated from and often forgotten by family and friends. Maximum security prisons experience extended lockdowns when neither visitors nor volunteers can visit. Many men spend long portions of their lives or even most of their lives in these alternate communities. Confessing Christians in these closed communities who are isolated from the towns and communities around them are to be built up in the faith for a number of reasons. They need to be equipped to defend the faith and promote orthodox theology. The life of the Christian mind needs to flourish in these communities as well. If the men in these isolated communities are not equipped to defend the faith, they will be prey to false teachers. Confessing Christians need to be equipped to evangelize their lost neighbors with whom they live in such close proximity. Older Christian men should be equipped to teach younger men.
The impact of seminary graduates on a closed prison environment has become evident at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. Gang leaders have become gifted Christian leaders. The entire 5,500 maximum security prison has been affected by confessing Christians who are equipped to be salt and light and witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If one goal of corrections is rehabilitation, then true rehabilitation and transformation is found in what Christ does by his Spirit in the hearts and lives of his people. It is important that confessing Christians show leadership within their communities—leadership in celebrating the doctrines of grace, leadership in teaching men to obey Christ’s commandments, and leadership in evangelizing the lost. Christians behind bars need to be equipped to defend the faith, evangelize the lost, and model godly lives so that they are not dependent on the whims or weaknesses of religious volunteers. Just like on a mission field where the goal is to develop indigenous Christians who can defend the faith and show spiritual leadership within their own community—behind bars the confessing Christians need to take ownership and leadership in seeking first the kingdom of God within their closed communities.
MR: How long do the students study at Divine Hope, and do the graduates receive a degree?
NB: We offer three four-year programs. Students can also receive a certificate after completing their first years of studies and an associate degree after two years of study. We are unaccredited—like some Reformed or Presbyterian seminaries on the outside. We offer three bachelor degrees. The first, the Bachelors in Christian Studies, is a four-year program. We say that this is for “every Christian man” who wants to understand the length and breadth of the Christian tradition and wants to study the sacred Scriptures so that he can be equipped to be a spiritual leader in his family. This program is nonministerial. The students do not study the biblical languages and do not take ministerial courses. The second degree is the Bachelors of Theological Studies. Students in this program are gifted enough to learn the biblical languages—although they do not feel a call to stand up and publicly deliver sermons. They do not take ministerial courses. The third degree is the Bachelor of Arts in Divinity. Students in this four-year program study Greek and Hebrew as well as the ministerial courses. These men are being prepared to deliver sermons as exhorters under the oversight of the faculty and chaplain. They are men who must have a good reputation within their prison community and who show spiritual maturity and academic ability.
MR: Are the graduates eligible for ordination when they complete the courses?
NB: The graduates are not eligible for ordination behind bars. In most correctional facilities, ordination is not allowed. The reason for this is that inmates are not allowed to be in positions of authority over others. In the past gang leaders would mask themselves as religious leaders and use religious services as an opportunity for gang meetings. Ordination is what Christ has given the church the authority to do. Therefore, no seminary is in a position to ordain men. If graduates of the seminary get out of prison, it would be the calling of local churches or classes or presbyteries to decide on matters of ordination through the ordinary means of evaluating a man’s seminary education as well as his knowledge and piety.
MR: How is the training of the students and the graduates used?
NB: First, the students are using their training to be good witnesses to their families. This is where their witness properly should begin. The men are beginning to show spiritual leadership with their wives and children. Second, the men are beginning to use what they have learned in their cellblocks. They are witnesses to others about the great doctrines of the Christian faith. You should hear the eloquent defense of the doctrine of the Trinity from the seminary students. They are talking to their cellmates about sin and grace. Third, the men are being equipped to lead Bible studies and teach Sunday school. Fourth, in the future, qualified students in the Bachelors of Divinity program will begin to deliver sermons as exhorters under the oversight of the faculty and chaplain. Fifth, gifted students will begin to function as tutors and peer educators in the seminary program. For example, I have gifted Greek students who are in a position to be teaching assistants.
MR: In what way is the training beneficial to the prison system, and how does the prison system view this ministry?
NB: From the very start, Warden Keith Anglin at Danville Prison has been very supportive of this work. A theological education is beneficial for the prison environment because sanctified Christians are not security threats. Also, seminary students are not idle, but are busy in constructive work, redeeming the time. The goal is for the seminary students to show the type of spiritual leadership that seeks the welfare and security of the incarcerated men.
MR: Has the seminary made a noticeable difference at the Danville prison?
NB: Since our program is only one-and-a-half years old, it is hard to evaluate any impact of thirty students on a community of nineteen hundred men. But the students are growing in grace and knowledge. The seminary recently held a two-day prayer conference where the seminary and Reformed ministers were able to have an impact beyond the seminary students. I hear talk of increased discussion between incarcerated men on the decks about biblical and theological matters. The seminary students and others are initiating discussions about the Bible and theology.
MR: What are some of the plans for the future of the seminary?
NB: The board of the seminary has laid out a five-year strategic plan. This plan of action includes developing our seminary campus at Danville Prison. The goal is to add resident, full-time faculty by adding three additional full-time faculty within the next five years. The goal is to first add a professor of Hebrew and Old Testament as our second full-time faculty. Following this the hope is to add professors of ecclesiastical studies and ministerial studies within a five-year period, if the Lord so wills. Another goal is to utilize adjunct faculty within a seminary campus. Rev. Todd Joling is our first adjunct faculty. While on a sabbatical from Faith URC in Beecher, Illinois, he plans to teach two courses on counseling during the fall 2013 semester. We also hope to develop a research library of eight thousand theological and biblical books—and the Lord has given us large donations recently that have increased our holdings of commentaries, Greek and Hebrew helps, as well as works of Puritan and Reformed theology.
In order to extend the reach of Reformed theological education to prisons where we cannot have a residential campus similar to a seminary campus on the outside, we are introducing the idea of study centers. The Lord is about to open the door for us to begin theological education at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana. The Indiana Department of Corrections has invited the seminary to begin providing instruction at this maximum security prison in the fall of 2013. So the Lord continues to open doors in astonishing ways. Apparently the Lord Jesus wants to be glorified more in Illinois and Indiana prisons. Christ wants his doctrines to be celebrated by more men in these isolated communities.
Mr. Myron Rau
is the chairman of the board of Reformed Fellowship. He is a member of the Covenant United Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan.