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Our Church-Governed Seminary

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SignIntroduction

Both in Presbyterian and Reformed circles in the last three quarters of this century the tendency has been to establish independent seminaries which are governed by boards of directors who are in some instances answerable to societies of one sort or another, and who are, in other instances, answerable only to themselves. Most seminaries organized within the last seven decades or so are such independent seminaries.

The Seminary of the Protestant Reformed Churches has become something of an oddity in this respect.

In the beginning of the history of our Protestant Reformed Churches, now nearly 70 years ago, our fathers established a seminary which was governed by the churches. This was a conscious and deliberate decision which expressed their considered judgment that a seminary, if it was to be Reformed, had to be under the supervision and direction of the church. This conviction was embodied in the Constitution of the Theological School: "The supervision and administration of the institution belongs to Synod itself"; and in the Constitution of the Theological School Committee: "The Synod itself shall care for all matters that pertain to the proper administration of our theological school." Our seminary was established as and remains a church-governed seminary.

In a way it is understandable that the trend is towards independent seminaries. For one thing, it has often happened in the history of the church that heresy first appeared in the seminaries. There is a certain truth to the saying: "As goes the seminary, so goes the church." But these Seminaries have, as often as not, been under the supervision of ecclesiastical bodies; and it is thought, whether rightly or wrongly, that an independent seminary stands a better chance of remaining faithful to the historical faith of the church. Independent seminaries are expressions of disillusionment with denominations and church-controlled seminaries.

In other instances independent seminaries are formed by those who wish to stay within a denomination which they know has departed in significant respects from the historic Christian faith, which departure has involved the seminary as well. They wish to set up a rival seminary, therefore, which can be trusted to train orthodox preachers, perhaps in the hope that the sad apostasy in the denomination of which they are a part can be reversed.

Whatever the reasons, independent Seminaries are presently in vogue, and our seminary is something of an exception on the ecclesiastical scene.

This unusual character of our seminary brings us face to face with the question: Were our fathers right in establishing a church-governed seminary? In doing so, was it a mere arbitrary choice with them? Was it a decision made on purely pragmatic grounds? Ought we to follow today's trend and make our own seminary independent? Is this wise? Is this good? More importantly, is this Reformed?

It is the burden of what I have to say that, if we truly desire to maintain a Reformed seminary, the present status of our school as church-governed is the only option open to us. A Reformed seminary is a church-governed seminary; an independent Seminary, free of church control, is wrong, fundamentally wrong, so wrong that it cannot function as an institution for the training of Reformed pastors.

A Practical Consideration

We are interested tonight in establishing the fact that the only way in which a seminary can be truly Reformed is to be church-governed. But before this is demonstrated, it might be well to consider the fact that an independent seminary faces some real practical problems which make it difficult, if not ultimately impossible, to remain a truly Reformed seminary.

An independent seminary is answerable to no ecclesiastical body. This means, first of all, that it has not the support of any ecclesiastical body as far as finances are concerned. It depends for its very existence on a relatively large student body, a popular staff widely known, and the good graces of individuals who are willing to contribute to its support. Our seminary, on the other hand, can function just as well with two or three students as with two or three hundred students. The number makes no significant different. As long as the seminary serves the purpose for which the church has established it, its existence is guaranteed. An independent seminary must please a varied constituency to continue to function. This could pose, in itself, a significant threat.

More importantly, to separate a seminary from the church is all but to guarantee that it will in time cease to function in the way it ought to function, i.e., to prepare within its walls preachers and pastors for the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

A church-governed seminary is ecclesiastically related to the churches and derives its strength and power from the people of God who sit in the pews. God's people want and need pastors and teachers. They have established a seminary for this purpose. They demand of the seminary that the school accomplish this purpose. They want a seminary for no other reason than that pastors and preachers may bring the gospel of salvation to them and their children.

A seminary independent from the churches becomes often times a law unto itself in this respect. It does not hear the incessant cry for ministers of the gospel, for it has cut its ties with the church. And so, without being firmly anchored in the very life of the church, it can, and often does, become a citadel of learning and scholarly research, an institution to produce Ph.D.'s, Th.M.'s, Th.D.'s, and M.Div.'s.

I and my colleagues in the seminary would be the very last people to scorn academic training and to mock degrees. Nevertheless, the church of our Lord Jesus Christ does not want, in the first place, Ph.D.'s; it wants pastors and teachers. While the two need not necessarily be mutually exclusive, the fact remains that from some independent seminaries over half of the graduates never enter the pastoral ministry. Such a seminary has lost its reason for existence, for a Reformed seminary, in all the tradition of the church, has been a school for the preparation of ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A seminary loose from ecclesiastical moorings easily becomes wrapped up in studies, the pursuit of academic achievement and scholarship, degree-granting programs, and the churning out of learned professors to teach in colleges and universities. But this is not what seminaries are for. A seminary anchored firmly in the organic and institutional life of the church is a seminary which will be interested in preparing ministers for the gospel ministry, for this is what the people of God insist on. And this is a Reformed seminary.

What Is a Church-controlled Seminary?

Fundamentally, a Reformed seminary is a church-controlled seminary because such a seminary is demanded by the Scriptures.

It is clear that nowhere in all the Scriptures will one find an exhortation to the church to establish seminaries. That is not the point.

But the Scriptures do state clearly that the training of ministers is part of the ministry of the Word of God, and is, therefore, part of the work of the church as institute. That is, the training of ministers itself is part of the official preaching of the gospel. And only the church institute may, according to the command of Christ, the Head of the church, preach the gospel.

I know only too well that even Reformed churches are altogether too slovenly about the proper distinctions of Scripture with regard to the church institute. In spite of the fact that Scripture clearly assigns to the church institute alone the work of preaching (along with the administration of the sacraments and the exercise of discipline) all kinds of ecclesiastical organizations and para-church groups engage in and think they can perform that which belongs rightfully only to the church. Nothing else can, e.g., explain an "independent board of missions."

However that may be, we may not blur the lines. Only the church is commissioned to preach the gospel. Scripture clearly indicates that the training of ministers belongs to the preaching of the gospel. The seminary established for the training of ministers must be a function of the church, and therefore under her control.

Let us look briefly at the pertinent Scriptures.

The first text to note is Ephesians 4:11, 12: "And he (the ascended Christ) gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfection of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ."

The text is speaking of those offices in the church of Christ given by the ascended Lord which belong to the church and are the work of the church. These offices are for the perfection of the saints, the work of the ministry, and the edifying of the body of Christ.

Among those offices are "pastors and teachers."

The precise meaning of this expression has been disputed. Some have held to the idea that the expression refers to only one office and that those who hold this office are both pastors and teachers. Some, however, have disagreed. They have insisted that the words "pastors and teachers" refer to two distinct offices in the church, the office of pastors and the office of professors of theology, the latter of whom teach in schools established for the training of pastors. This latter interpretation was the interpretation of John Calvin and was followed by so notable an exegete as William Hendrickson. Calvin's distinction has found its way into our Church Order which, in Article 2, speaks of four offices, one of which is professor of theology.

It is not my intention to enter this dispute tonight. What is important for our purposes is the fact that no matter which of the two interpretations is adopted, the text clearly insists that teaching is a part of the official work of the church, an aspect of the work of pastors, that is, of the preaching of the gospel. And that is why this passage has always been referred to in Reformed churches as the basis for the idea that theological instruction is a part of the ministry of the church.

This idea is further proved by another passage in Scripture, II Timothy 2:2. Paul in writing to Timothy, his spiritual son, is telling him what matters belong to Timothy's work as a faithful pastor: "And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also."

Paul is speaking here of the fact that men must be prepared who can be preachers in the church. But the preparation of these men is firmly placed on the shoulders of Timothy. It is part of his work as a pastor and teacher to commit the things he himself has learned to others so that the church may continue to have preachers.

That settles the matter. Let it be clearly understood ¾ if it were not for the fact that I and my colleagues preach in the Seminary, none of us would be there. We are called to be preachers. If we were not persuaded by the Scriptures themselves that we are preaching, no power on earth could ever have brought us to the seminary.

It is preaching in a different form; preaching in the form of lectures, discussions, questions and answers, tests and exams; preaching in the form of instruction in Hebrew grammar and church history; but preaching for all that. It is an official function of the church.

No para-church organization may preach. No board or society may preach. The church is given the calling and responsibility to preach. In independent seminaries there is no preaching. And instruction which is not preaching is not preparation for the ministry of the gospel.

An anomaly exists in this respect in our own churches, an anomaly which ought to be corrected. The present set-up in our churches is this: a professor is called by the Synod. If he should accept the call, he becomes an emeritus minister of the congregation he last served, and, as far as his official work is concerned, he is under the direct supervision of that church. He is also, however, a member of a church near the seminary and his membership is in a different congregation than his ministerial credentials. I am an emeritus minister of Doon Protestant Reformed Church, but a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church.

This ought to be changed. Not Synod calls a minister; only the local church calls a minister. That minister, called to be a minister in training others for the ministry, ought to be called by a local church. And that church should hold both his ministerial credentials and his membership papers. I ought to be an associate pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church, called to serve as professor in the seminary.

It is to be hoped that this strange situation which now exists will be changed by the time our churches call another professor.

The truth of the matter is, however, that in spite of this anomaly our churches have insisted that professors be preachers of the gospel, and that they continue as preachers when their work is shifted from the pastoral ministry to the ministry of preparing pastors and teachers in Seminary. (See Article 5 of "The Constitution of the Theological School.")

Practical Implications

This principle position has many practical implications.

It has practical implications, first of all, for the churches and for the people of God within the churches.

The seminary belongs to God's people. It is not the seminary of a board of trustees or an executive committee. It is the seminary of the people of God. The building belongs to them, and the professors are their servants sent to minister to the needs of the sheep. The students are their students who have come from their homes, their families, their congregations. The seminary is established by God's people to accomplish the one great and all-important work in which all God's people have a crucial part: providing the church with pastors and teachers.

God's people support the seminary. They support the seminary financially and they support the seminary in their prayers. It is a source of great encouragement to us to discover in the churches an eager interest in the seminary. Wherever we go, God's people bombard us with questions about the seminary. This is exactly as it ought to be. The seminary has and must have the spiritual support, the interest, the concern, the trust, the love of God's people.

But God's people must also continue to see to it and to demand of the seminary that it provide them with pastors and teachers, competent to do the work and faithful to the heritage of the truth. God's people ought to visit the seminary, ought to read avidly the annual report of the Theological School Committee sent to Synod, ought to listen carefully to the students when they bring a word of edification in the churches, ought to visit the catechism classes taught by the students. They want to know and need to know whether the seminary is still doing its work well. The seminary is entrusted with the work of providing them and their families with preachers and instructors of their children. Is the seminary doing this? Whatever must be done to maintain a Reformed seminary, God's people must do.

The principles I have set forth have implications for the students. The students are not only attending an institution of higher learning to do post-grad work. They are placing themselves under the official preaching of the Word of Christ. That is, they are sitting at the feet of Christ Himself, who is pleased to instruct them in the calling to which presently He will call them.

It may not always be clear to students that a Hebrew grammar quiz is official preaching, and taking notes in principles of missions is listening to preaching. But such it is. And students must recognize and accept their instruction as such.

The work of the seminary is the God-ordained way of saving their souls. This does not mean that students do not need the preaching of the Word on the Lord's Day as well. But the means of grace for the salvation of the students in their work of preparation for preaching comes to them in the way of their theological instruction in seminary. Paul tells Timothy that through his faithful labors he shall save both himself and those who hear him.

Students are, therefore, in subjection to their professors as to Christ.

This does not preclude discussion, questions, even debate, argumentation and perhaps disagreement in the classroom. But the fact is that students must submit themselves to the authority of their professors, and in such submission, to submit to Christ. They must submit to the instruction too which is given them. They must heed the injunction of James which comes to all who put themselves under the preaching: "Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak" (1:19).

Criticism of their practice preaching, correction of their moral conduct, instruction in the truth -- all these the students must receive as from Christ. Questions must not be for purposes of challenging the professors, but for purposes of learning more fully the truth. Debate must be carried on with respect. Attentiveness must characterize classroom conduct.

God is giving them, through this form of preaching, that special grace necessary to be faithful ministers of the gospel.

Finally, these truths have implications for professors.

Professors preach the Word.

It is well that professors remind themselves of this. It is altogether too common in today's seminaries that professors call the attention of the students to the views of innumerable theologians, but never express their own opinion on these theories because, so it is said, the student must make up his own mind. It is like a preacher who reads on the pulpit from eleven different commentaries with eleven different interpretations, and then tells the people to take the interpretation they like.

Professors preach. They say: "Thus saith the Lord." They say: "This is the truth, the very truth of God." It is not a matter of "take it or leave it." Believe this and be saved; reject this and only eternal desolation awaits you.

They preach in Homiletics, in Hermeneutics, in Exegesis, In History of Dogma. Because they preach, their instruction must not be only academic, but it must be geared to the spiritual nurture of the students. It must be practical as well as academic. It must be spiritual in addition to intellectual. It must be geared to prepare men of God for the ministry who are truly men of God, men of integrity, men of spiritual courage, men of personal piety and devotion to God and His cause, men of prayer.

And finally, professors must themselves profit from their own instruction and studies. They must profit spiritually.

They must, of course, profit intellectually. They must continue to study, to read, to grow, to advance in learning and in the understanding of God's Word. It will not do for a professor to do what some ministers do -- turn over the pile every ten years or so. They must not teach from notes yellow with age, never changed, never developed, never with anything new and fresh. They must grow or their students will die.

But Paul speaks also of the fact that such growth must be spiritual. "But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection; lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway" (I Cor. 9:27). What is true of preachers is also true of professors who are, after all, preachers training preachers.

B. B. Warfield, in commenting of this very verse and how it applies to Seminary instruction says: "You can go through the motions of the work, and I shall not say that your work will be in vain -- for God is good and who knows by what instruments he may work his will of good for men?" But then he goes on to describe a professor who himself derives no spiritual profit from his own teaching: "I starve with hunger treading out the corn, I die of travail while their souls are born." Rather, says Warfield, it should be said of a professor:

"O teacher, then I said, thy years,
Are they not joy? each word that issueth
From thy lips, doth it return to bless
Thine own heart manyfold?"

A church-governed seminary is a genuinely Reformed seminary.

May, by God's grace, our seminary remain a church-governed seminary.

Last modified on 31 August 2013
Hanko, Herman

Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)

Ordained: October 1955

Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965

Emeritus: 2001

Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof._Herman_Hanko

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