Mid-America: An Academy with a Vocational Aim (3)

(The following is the text of Cornelis P. Venema’s inaugural address as the first president of Mid-America Reformed Seminary, September 27, 2001. This part concludes the address. In the first and second parts of the address, Dr. Venema emphasized that Mid-America as a seminary is an academy that seeks to honor the Scriptures and the confessions.)

Mid-America is more than an academy. It is more than an academy that seeks, by God’s grace, to be biblical, confessional and catholic. It is a school that exists for the specific purpose of training its students for the pastoral ministry. No one familiar with the history of Mid-America should be surprised when I say that it is a school, yes, but one whose training and program have a vocational aim. As an institution, we recognize the legitimacy of the lament of John Leith regarding many seminaries—“The consequence is that theological seminaries are no longer seen as primarily institutions for the training of pastors, but as institutes for the discussion and study of religion.” The singular aim of this Seminary is train its students to be faithful, effective ministers of the Word and sacrament.

But what does that mean as a practical matter?

Focused on Preaching

For Mid-America it means that the focus of seminary education and training is the equipping of our students for the ministry of the Word. Not “ministry” in some vague and ill-defined sense, but the ministry of the Word and sacraments as that has been understood historically in the Reformed tradition. If I may use a spatial analogy, the preaching of the Word of God is to other aspects of the pastoral calling—pastoral care and counseling, church education, evangelism and missions, etc.—what a point at the center of the circle is to all the points on the circumference.

As a Reformed seminary that wants to live up to its name in practice, we are committed to the conviction that the principal means of grace is the official preaching of the Word of God by ordained ministers. We subscribe to Calvin’s conviction about preaching:

He [Christ] alone should rule and reign in the church as well as have authority or pre-eminence in it, and this authority should be exercised and administered by his Word alone. Nevertheless, because he does not dwell among us in visible presence, we have said that he uses the ministry of men to declare openly his will to us by mouth, as a sort of delegated work, not by transferring to them his right and honor, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work—just as a workmen uses a tool to do his work (IV.iii.1).

The Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 65, expresses succinctly this fundamental conviction of the Reformed churches: “Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, whence comes this faith? From the Holy Spirit, who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.”

One of the primary reasons, ironically, for the loss of a proper appreciation of the seminary as an academy is the loss of a proper respect for the unique calling of the minister of the Word. Where an anti-intellectual and especially anti-clerical spirit takes root, there the emphasis upon seminary training that prepares students to be faithful ministers and preachers tends to be diminished. When every form of Christian ministry is given equal billing with the ministry of the Word, the focus of the seminary is blurred and its academic quality diminished.

D. G. Hart, in an article entitled, “Overcoming the Schizophrenic Character of Theological Tradition,” argues that many seminaries, for this reason, though quite “successful” in terms of numbers of students, are at a loss regarding their peculiar identity and purpose. He maintains that “evangelical seminaries may be suffering from a state of schizophrenia where they encourage more and more students to enroll in their institutions and hire better and more widely published faculty, and yet all the while they are less certain about their reason for existence.” Though seminary education is a growth industry, at least in terms of numbers of students at evangelical institutions, this growth is often at the expense of a clear focus. Various degree programs are offered, student body numbers are artificially inflated, but the particular purpose of the seminary is uncertain.

Unified in its Curriculum

This kind of focus upon preaching as the pastor’s vocation has profound implications for a seminary’s curriculum or course of study. One of the courses I have taught in seminary through the years, “Theological Foundations,” addresses the questions of theological encyclopedia. Theological encyclopedia considers questions like, what is theology? What is its object of study? Is it a science? How are its various disciplines related? As you can tell, a tedious list of formal questions! One of the common complaints today, however, is that the theological curriculum in many seminaries is fragmented. The curriculum lacks unity, either in terms of its distinct subject matter or its aims.

One of the more important measures, however, of any seminary is its curriculum. A seminary curriculum is always shaped by convictions regarding the nature of the discipline of theology, and the purpose that theological education serves. If, for example, you have a low view of Scriptural authority, why bother to study the original languages of Scripture, the issues of biblical hermeneutics, or the steps required to move from biblical text to sermon? If you do not believe one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, which has been gifted with the Spirit’s presence and leading throughout its history now of some 20 centuries, why take the trouble to pore over ancient texts, to read the great books of the tradition of Christian theology? And if you are persuaded that system means artificial unity, why bother to see the unity and coherence of God’s revelation?

The benefit of a clear institutional focus is evident in the way it undergirds and unifies the seminary’s curriculum. Biblical studies are foundational and indispensable since they provide the “stuff” of biblical preaching. Ecclesiastical or historical studies are necessary since they acquaint the aspiring pastor with the wealth of the church’s historic understanding of the Scriptures. Doctrinal studies are essential since they acquaint the would-be minister with the system of biblical teaching in all of its depth and breadth. And ministerial studies are, building upon the other divisions, indispensable to equipping the student with the tools to minister the Word of God in worship and preaching, pastoral care and counseling, evangelism and missions.

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield expressed it this way in his article, “Our Seminary Curriculum”:

But, if the minister is the mouth-piece of the Most High, charged with a message to deliver, to expound and enforce; standing in the name of God before men, to make known to them who and what this God is, and what his purposes of grace are, and what his will for his people — then, the whole aspect of things is changed. Then, it is the prime duty of the minister to know his message; to know the instructions which have been committed to him for the people, and to know them thoroughly; to be prepared to declare them with confidence and exactness, to commend them with wisdom, and to urge them with force and defend them with skill, and to build men up by means of them into a true knowledge of God and of his will, which will be unassailable in the face of the fiercest assault. No second-hand knowledge of the revelation of God and the salvation of a ruined world can suffice the needs of a ministry whose function it is to convey this revelation to men, commend it to their acceptance and apply it in detail to their needs …. Nothing will suffice for it but to know; to know the Book; to know it first hand; and to know it through and through.

Professors as Pastor/ Preachers

One further feature of a seminary course of training which, though academically rigorous, aims to prepare the student for the pastoral ministry, is the kind of instructor needed.

In John Leith’s exposé of what’s wrong with theological education at many seminaries, one of the most serious problems that he identifies is the graduate school ethos that prevails. Professors are hired and ranked according to strictly academic criteria—have they gone to the best graduate schools? Are they published in their discipline? What is their reputation academically among their peers and peer institutions. Little or no attention is given to their affiliation with the church the seminaries ostensibly serve.

Since its beginning, Mid-America’s Board has insisted that its full-time professors be, without exception, ordained pastors who have served the church for a period of years. This is not something altogether unique, of course. Many seminaries appoint professors in the area of practical theology, who have a reputation for excellence and effectiveness in their particular fields. What is rather unusual, however, is our insistence that this is as important a qualification for teaching biblical studies in a seminary setting, as it is for teaching historical studies or doctrinal studies. Consistent with the desire to have a unified focus throughout our course of instruction, and to arrange for a seminary curriculum that supports this focus, Mid-America believes that a seminary instructor ought himself to be an ordained minister of the gospel.

It is rather interesting, if you reflect on the question of the seminary’s relationship to the church, that many seminaries, including seminaries that are established, owned and administered by the churches, do not have such a requirement. Or, if they have the requirement, they are rather quick to make exceptions to it. Though such denominational seminaries might appear to be more legitimately seminaries of the church—and judge a school like Mid-America to be an “independent” seminary—they do not insist that those who are directly engaged in the preparation of the students for the ordained ministry be themselves ministers of the gospel. But what better way to insure the seminary’s intimate association with and service to the churches, than to insist that its instructors be ministers of the Word themselves?

Conclusion

Having said what I wished to say about the kind of seminary Mid-America claims and seeks to be, let me close on a little different note — with a simple prayer, really. And that is, “may God bless Mid-America.”

In response to the events of recent days, the horrific attacks by terrorists upon the World Trade Center and Washington, D.C., you have no doubt noticed that the landscape is dotted with signs and posters that say, “God bless America.” Now admittedly, those words are often used in a trivial way, tossed off unthinkingly the way people conclude a conversation, saying, “I am praying for you.” But used properly, they are three of the most profound words. When used properly by individuals, nations or institutions, they are a heartfelt confession of complete dependence upon and need for the Triune God’s favor and blessing.

Mid-America is not a seminary that can “rest on its laurels.” We have few if any laurels on which to rest. Nor is it a seminary that can boast a long and proud history of extraordinary accomplishment and achievement. Measured by some standards, it is a little and weak thing.

But there is an advantage in that. It reminds us of something we may never forget—that our future is in entirely in God’s fatherly hand. That “little is much when God is in it.” That our service to the church will be only as He pleases. And surely He doesn’t need Mid-America to accomplish his purposes! And so we need to make it our prayer that God would bless this school to the benefit of His church, for the glory of His name. As the Psalmist puts it, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; do confirm for us the work of our hands; yes, confirm the work of our hands” (Ps. 90:17).

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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