Mid-America: An Academy with a Vocational Aim

The following is the text of Cornelis P. Venema’s inaugural address as the first president of Mid-America Reformed Seminary, September 27, 2001. The address will be printed, D.V., in three parts.

Rev. Blauw, members of the Board of Trustees, fellow faculty members, staff of the Seminary, students, distinguished guests and delegates, family and my good friends, I would to like to begin my comments this evening, as is customary on an occasion such as this, with a few expressions of personal gratitude. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, asks, “what do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7) All that we have is a free gift of God’s grace toward us in Christ. We are to give thanks to God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ for all things—including the opportunities He affords us to serve Him and His people. Tonight I am profoundly grateful for your presence here and the opportunity given me to address you regarding the special service of Mid-America Reformed Seminary to the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Allow me to express to you, members of the Board of Trustees, my gratitude for your trust in granting me the opportunity to serve as the first president of Mid-America Reformed Seminary. As you are aware, this was not a position to which I aspired or for which I readily made myself available. My greatest aspiration and privilege in life were to serve as a minister of the Word and sacrament in a Reformed church. I believe it was Archibald Alexander who once expressed what is the testimony of any true minister of the gospel— “Preaching Christ is the best, hardest, sweetest work, on this side of beholding him.” When Alexander first began to serve at Princeton Theological Seminary, he also remarked, “As I have been so accustomed to preach, it does not seem pleasant to be altogether silent.”1 My sentiments exactly! For this reason, when I was first approached to teach at Mid-America, I hesitated to do so because I enjoyed immensely the wonderful calling of serving as a pastor in a congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ. But I agreed to teach since it seemed at the time the next best thing to serving as a pastor.

But what of serving as president of a seminary? That might seem to be one step further removed from the pastoral ministry—a position fraught with the fearful prospect of endless committee meetings, administrative responsibilities, and promotional activities. Perhaps that’s why another seminary president greeted me recently with these words of congratulation— “you have my sympathy.” Apparently, he knows something that I do not yet know! I thank you, Board of Trustees, nonetheless, for giving me this opportunity, and especially for permitting me to be the kind of president whose duties include preaching and teaching, as well as others more peculiar to the office of president. If teaching at a seminary is the next best thing to being a pastor, perhaps serving as a president is the next best thing to being a full-time professor—at least I’m still involved in the all-important business of helping to prepare pastors for service in the churches.

Allow me also to express my gratitude to you, my faculty colleagues. Throughout the brief history of Mid-America, we have worked together, not only in teaching, but also in a wide range of administrative duties and responsibilities. The day-to-day working of Mid-America has been, quite literally, a team effort. We had a Dean of Faculty whom we elected to a two-year term. But we had no CEO, not even a primes inter pares (“first among equals”). We were jointly and corporately responsible for the administration of the Seminary. But now the Board, in its wisdom (or folly) has determined that we should have a president. That could produce a subtle anxiety regarding our future, particularly when you consider whom they have selected for this position! God forbid that I should become the kind of president faculty members have reason to fear! You, however, have been gracious in accepting and supporting the Board’s decision. For that too I am profoundly grateful. Let me assure you that I come to this position as someone who is first and foremost a member of the faculty, and who believes that our prosperity as an institution demands that we work together in a collegial manner, each one placing the interests of the other above his own (Phil. 2).

I have chosen to speak on this occasion on the topic, “An Academy with a Vocational Aim: Training Pastors for Service in the Church.”2 Though we are often tempted to play these off against each other—as though a seminary has to be either an academy or a vocational training school of the church—I would like to argue that what will best serve the church in our time is seminary training of her pastors that is rigorously and properly academic, yet not merely academic. Rather, a Reformed seminary like Mid-America needs to be a school, an academy, where the theological formation and learning that takes place has a governing focus, a particular telos or end that shapes and characterizes everything. If I understand the unique place and service of Mid-America, it is that it seeks by God’s grace to combine the best of the academy with a singular focus upon preparing her students for the pastoral or preaching ministry in the church. We are an academy in the proper sense of the term, but one that is responsive to the church in its aim to train students who aspire to the pastoral ministry.

The Seminary as an Academy

It might seem strange to begin by emphasizing that the seminary is an academy. On the one hand, it seems too obvious to require emphasis. A seminary is, if anything, a school, an academy. But on the other hand, it might seem somewhat problematic, even an emphasis strangely at odds with Mid-America’s particular history and distinctive focus upon preaching. You do not have to read long or listen much to the kinds of criticisms that are registered against seminaries and seminary training to find that many of them are aimed at the academy model. These criticisms are of two distinct kinds: first, there is the concern that the seminary as academy works at cross purposes with the interests of the church; and second, there is the concern that an academic training is ill-suited to the practical demands of the gospel ministry.

John H. Leith, for example, in his recent searching criticism of theological education in the main-line churches of North America, expresses well the first criticism:

Seminaries … were established by the church to prepare pastors for the church. Contemporary faculties coming out of graduate schools tend to pressure the seminaries in another direction; namely, that of an academic institution. Seminary faculties increasingly like to think of themselves as centers for thought, for research, for the writing of articles and books and creative theological enterprises.3
The academy model for seminary training, as this comment of Leith intimates, threatens to divorce the seminary from the life and ministry of the church. It represents the loss of what was once known as the “study of divinity” in which students were formed theologically and spiritually for the sacred ministry.

The idea of the seminary as an academy has come for many to be associated with the illegitimate separation between seminary and church, theology and piety, theory and practice. Seminaries as academies, especially when their faculties labor under the influence of post-Enlightenment modernism, are, in the judgment of many, the last thing we need. Consequently, when Lester De Koster wrote a pamphlet in support of the founding of Mid-America Reformed Seminary some years ago, he argued that a theological school, in distinction from a seminary, exists for the express purpose of calling into question “for purposes of rational examination the affirmations which underlie a seminary.”4 In this view, there is great gulf fixed between the seminary as an academy on the one hand, and the seminary as a school of the church on the other.5

This criticism no doubt expresses a legitimate concern, and therefore we will return to it at a later point. Indeed, one of the chief notes sounded by the founders and supporters of Mid-America from the beginning was the theme of the seminary’s intimate relationship with and service on behalf of the church. Nonetheless, the concern to emphasize the seminary’s close relationship to the church ought not to be used to deny the obvious— that it is an academy, a school.

However, there is another, equally pressing and perhaps even more influential, challenge to the idea of the seminary as an academy. The trend in seminary education in North America, which is especially pronounced among many evangelical institutions, is to reduce theological training to the mastery of pastoral techniques or mechanics. Richard Muller, in his The Study of Theology, tells the story of his discomfort at a graduation ceremony at Fuller Theological Seminary, when a D.Min. graduate was asked to say a few words:

Dressed in his new robe and elegant doctoral hood, he mounted the podium with words of praise for the seminary, words that, by his own admission, were as much a surprise to himself as to anyone else. He had always frowned on seminaries and seminary education. He had warned dozens of young people about the ‘ivory tower’ of academic study and its irrelevance to the ‘real work’ of ministry. … Why, then, was he graduating from a seminary? He was there because of the practical, ‘how-to’ approach of the Doctor of Ministry degree. He was there because this degree was different—it demanded no theological speculation, no academic, ivory-tower critical thinking, no retreat from the nitty-gritty reality of daily ministry. In fact, the ivory-tower courses—courses dealing with critical exegesis, the history of Christian doctrine, and philosophical and systematic theology—had not been a part of his program of education. He had studied only useful, relevant subjects.6

This incident reflects a long history of anti-intellectualism and anti-clericalism in North American culture, which has profoundly influenced the shape of theological education at many seminaries.7 The titles of several recent diagnoses of the evangelical church and the state of theological education in North America amply confirm the consequences of this history: Fit Bodies Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to do About It,8 by Os Guinness; No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?9 by David Wells; and The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,10 by Mark A. Noll. The common theme of these studies is captured well by the memorable opening line of Noll’s book: “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”11

Accordingly, many seminaries in North America have increasingly shifted their curricular focus to what is called “practical” theology. More practical courses mean fewer courses in biblical exegesis, history, systematic theology, and the like. Furthermore, students are presented in seminary with a smorgasbord of options, depending upon their career and vocational interests. Gone are the days when you could assume that a seminary student was preparing for the gospel ministry, or that he would be taking courses in the biblical languages, exegesis, theology, and history. Is it any wonder, then, that we have succeeded in preparing a generation of ministers whose sermons, as I believe Os Guinness once quipped, are a mile wide and 1/16th of an inch deep? Nowhere more, he suggests, than in America are the churches fuller and the sermons emptier. Or that Eugene Peterson, somewhat with tongue in cheek, has observed that he “could take a person with a high school education, give him or her a six-month trade school training, and provide a pastor who would be satisfactory to any discriminating American congregation”? In this trade-school, exclusively practical approach to seminary training, the traditional four-fold division of the curriculum could be replaced, Peterson adds, with four courses: “Creative Plagiarism, Voice Control for Prayer and Counseling, Efficient Office Management, and Image Projection.”12 When you add to this mix the new approaches to seminary education—distance education, the virtual classroom, off-campus teaching, and the like—the pressure to diminish the academic character of seminary training is intensified.

However necessary it is for a seminary to serve the church, and however important it may be to equip students with the practical tools necessary to be effective in the ministry—a seminary must be, if anything, a place of teaching and of learning. Careful, rigorous scholarship must mark the work of a theological school. The study and mastery of languages, particularly the biblical languages; the study of texts, biblical, confessional, and theological; the sympathetic and sensitive listening to the history of the church in her reflection upon the teaching of the Word of God; critical engagement with the intellectual currents and fashions of the present day—these are the “stuff” of which a seminary education is made. Though this is not the place to present the full curriculum of a good seminary education, suffice it to say that it must be “classical” in the sense that it works with the intellectual resources and tools inherited from the great tradition of Christian theological scholarship. Reformed seminaries ought to understand this as well as any. If the ministry is primarily a ministry of the Word, then the “stock in trade” of the minister is the study of the Word.

My point is one that J. Gresham Machen made in his address, on the occasion of the opening of Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929: “We are not conducting a school for lay workers at Westminster Seminary, useful though such a school would be, but a theological seminary; and we believe that a theological seminary is an institution of higher learning whose standards should not be inferior to the highest academic standards that anywhere prevail.”13

NOTES

1. Quoted from David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, vol. 1: Faith and Learning, 1812-1868 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1994), 59.

2. Cf. Richard J. Mouw, “The Seminary, the Church, and the Academy,” Calvin Theological Journal 33 (1998): 457-68.

3. Crisis in the Church: The Plight of Theological Education (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 17.

4. Lester De Koster, Crossroads: Seminary Or Theological School (Blue Island, IL: Marden Marketing, Inc., 1981), 12.

5. In the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, a vigorous debate whether the seminary is an academy or an institution of the church took place at the end of the nineteenth century. Abraham Kuyper and the reformatory movement known as the “Doleantie” advocated the view that the seminary belonged in a university setting, as an academic institution distinct from the sphere of the church. The churches stemming from the secession of 1834, however, argued that the seminary belonged to the church and was not, strictly speaking, an academic enterprise. For a recent treatment of this history and its significance, see Richard J. Mouw, “The Seminary, the Church, and the Academy,” Calvin Theological Journal 33 (1998): 457–468.

6. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991, vii.

7. For a documentation of this anti-intellectual and anti-clerical spirit in American Christianity prior to the Civil War, see Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

8. Os Guinness, Fit Bodies Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994).

9. David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).

10. Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

11. I am reminded, in this connection, of the first book I was asked to read as a college student in an introductory course on Christian philosophy— Harry Blamires’ The Christian Mind (London: SPCK, 1966). Blamires’ thesis was a simple one (and note: he offered it long before the books mentioned a moment ago): “Except over a very narrow field of thinking, chiefly touching questions of strictly personal conduct, we Christians in the modern world accept, for the purpose of mental activity, a frame of reference constructed by the secular mind and a set of criteria reflecting secular evaluations. There is no Christian mind; there is no shared field of discourse in which we can move at ease as thinking Christians by trodden ways and past established landmarks.” Blamires was prophetic. Sadly, seminaries today are often as much a part of the problem as its solution.

12. Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 5. 13J. Gresham Machen, “Westminster Theological Seminary: Its Purpose and Plan,” in What is Christianity?, 226.

Dr. Cornel Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies. Dr. Venema is a contributing editor to The Outlook.

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