A Church-Controlled Seminary

Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

It is a well-known fact that most seminaries that have been established in the last forty or fifty years have been independent seminaries under the control of some board of trustees and supported by tuition and private donors. This trend began with the organization of Westminster East in Philadelphia and has continued until the present. 

Further, seminaries that were once church-governed have in many instances loosed their ties with the denomination to which they once belonged and have become almost, if not completely, independent. 

The biblical basis for a church-governed seminary is strong and is found especially in two passages of Holy Scripture. 
Ephesians 4:11, while identifying pastors and teachers as gifts God has given to the church, nevertheless speaks of but one office, which includes both pastors and teachers. Historically this has been interpreted in Reformed churches as referring to ministers of the gospel and professors of theology. This interpretation has followed Calvin's exegesis of this passage, although Calvin viewed the office of the ministry and the office of professor of theology as two distinct offices. 

The second passage is found in 
II Timothy 2:2, where Paul commits the task of training future ministers of the gospel to Timothy, who himself held that office. The training of ministers is therefore a part of the official work of the church. 

Some Reformed and Presbyterian churches have taken this so literally that they have entrusted the training of future ministers to individual ministers in the denomination, but where a strong emphasis is placed on federative unity of like-minded congregations, the churches have banded together to labor in the cause of seminary instruction in mutual trust. 

I wish briefly to mention a few of the dangers of independent seminaries and a few of the implications of church-governed seminaries. 

A few of the dangers of independent seminaries are these. 

First of all, the greatest danger is, quite obviously, that the seminary is answerable to no ecclesiastical body. It is, along with its board of trustees, a law unto itself. Now I am opposed in principle to ecclesiastical work done by way of individual activity and initiative, or by means of para-ecclesiastical organizations. The work of the church must be done by the church and not by individuals or organizations acting independently from the church. Such individuals and organizations are answerable to no one and are frequently detrimental to the work of the church rather than helpful. 

Second, when a seminary is supported by individual contributions, it must placate its generous supporters in order to remain financially sound, and is, consequently, not free to teach and develop the truth as it ought to be developed and taught. 

Third, the professors are not answerable to a church, nor governed by a church, and are, therefore, freer to teach what they wish, without any accountability. They are not even required to sign the Formula of Subscription as professors. 

Finally, and most importantly, their teaching, freed from the official work of the church, loses its official character, and thus is fundamentally flawed in its ability to train ministers for the gospel ministry. 

With that, we turn to the advantages of a church-controlled seminary. 

The first advantage is that the seminary is answerable to the church and must give an account of its instruction to the church. It is not a para-church institution and free to operate on its own, but is regulated by an official church or group of churches through its ecclesiastical assemblies. This is important. Every one of us is prone to stray in doctrine and life. We need the church to control and regulate our life. This is especially true in instruction, for every minister and professor is prone to teach false doctrine or test new ideas in the pulpit or classroom. The restraints of colleagues, consistories, and ecclesiastical assemblies prevent him from proclaiming as truth his own theories. This does not mean that there is no room for development of ideas, but this development is within the sphere of the checks of ecclesiastical assemblies. 

It is sometimes said that as goes the seminary, so go the churches. That is not entirely true. It could equally be said, As go the churches, so goes the seminary. The relation is mutual, and it is only in closest cooperation with the churches that the seminary can and will remain faithful—only as long as the churches remain faithful. 

The second advantage is that the instruction in the seminary is a form of the official preaching ministry of the church. This has many implications, all important for a seminary and for the churches which operate it. 

First of all, the implication of the preaching ministry of the churches is that the seminary does not become a purely intellectual institution where mere knowledge is exalted. Many seminaries have fallen into this grievous error. When a seminary is for intellectual purposes only, scholarship becomes an end in itself, and scholarship demands innovation, new ideas, seminaries that are on the cutting edge of research, etc. Such an approach to the truth of Scripture leads to heresy, in today's world seen in every area of theological studies. 

A seminary that preaches is a seminary that is practical in the good sense of the word. Such a seminary is interested in preparing the students who come to it spiritually as well as intellectually. It is interested in forming and fitting a man to labor as s spiritual and pious man in the church of Christ; and it is interested in preparing a man to preach the gospel with all its application to the life and calling of the saints in their walk in the world. 

I am persuaded that only the preaching can do this, for the preaching is Christ's means of grace. Those who operate in independent seminaries are not preaching, though they be preachers. And, because they are not preaching, their instruction lacks a sp
iritual dimension that is effective in this spiritual preparation necessary to prepare men of God.

This is a subtle point, but our failure to appreciate this point fully is perhaps in large measure due to our failure to appreciate the centrality of the preaching in the lives of the people of God. 

When seminary instruction is part of the official work of the church, such instruction is authoritative preaching, and in that respect no different from preaching in the church of Christ on the Lord's Day. It may be formal lecturing on a given subject. It may have room for questions from the students. The classroom may be a forum for discussion and debate. There may be little eye contact between professor and students, because of the furious writing of notes or the soft clackety-clack of a computer keyboard. But the instruction is preaching. The professor does not lead the student to explore various proposed options in the field of theology and leave it to the students to decide which best suits him—an almost universal way of teaching in post-graduate schools. He says, in his lecturing, "Thus saith the Lord." 

That puts the student under the obligation to believe what the professor says and to receive it as his own faith, but also as the one body of doctrine that he must bring to Christ's sheep. 

This same authority of the official proclamation of the Word regulates the life and conduct of the students in their studies, and so gives the professors a pastoral role in the spiritual and intellectual development of those who bring the gospel. This is important.

At the beginning of the history of our Protestant Reformed Churches, our fathers saw the need for a seminary. Within weeks of their expulsion from the Christian Reformed Church a seminary was established. It was established as a church-governed seminary in the firm conviction that Scripture required this, for instruction of future ministers is part of the official preaching of the Word. Our seminary has maintained this principle-beginning. That is one way in which God has kept our seminary faithful to the truth.

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