WSC: Preparing Specialists in the Bible
When J. Gresham Machen gave the opening address at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, he intimated that Westminster was not a school for generalists—it was not a school for Bible instruction for layman, as useful as such a school might be. Machen believed that a seminary was to be a place of the highest learning standards. With this dedication to excellence, Machen wanted Westminster to be a place that trained specialists in the Bible. Machen stated:
We are living in an age of specialization. There are specialists on eyes and specialists on noses, and throats, and stomachs, and feet, and skin; there are specialists on pulling teeth out—there are specialists on Shakespeare and specialists on electric wires; there are specialists on Plato and specialists on pipes. Amid all these specialties, we at Westminster Seminary have a specialty which we think, in comparison with these others, is not so very small. Our specialty is found in the Word of God. Specialists in the Bible—that is what Westminster Seminary will endeavor to produce.
This is the driving principle here at Westminster Seminary California—we are here to train specialists in the Bible. But what does it mean to be a specialist in the Bible? Why is it important?
We do believe that the Westminster Confession of Faith is correct in its affirmation regarding the perspicuity of Scripture, or its clarity: “Those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded . . . that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (1.7). Scripture is clear and simple enough that a child can comprehend its message. It was William Tyndale (1494-1536), early English Reformer, who once said that by translating the Scriptures into English that he would ensure that the ploughboy knew more Scripture than the clergy of the Church of England! However, this is not the only thing the Westminster Confession states about Scripture.
The Confession also states, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all” (1.7). In other words, there are challenging portions of Scripture. Serious students of the Bible, therefore, have to understand the history of the ancient near east in the fifteenth-century BC, for example, to understand the historical context and the world in which the Israelites were delivered from Egypt. Students need to be able to read the Scriptures in the original languages, Hebrew, Aramaic (for some portions of Daniel and Ezra), and Greek. Our theological forefathers knew the importance of the original languages, as they determined that “in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal unto them” (1.8). But at the same time, we are not the first ones to read our Bibles.
God has gifted the church through the work of Christ and the Spirit with great theological minds who have taught, preached, and defended the truth. This calls the serious student of the Bible to study what the greatest minds of the church have said about Scripture, not so that we would exalt tradition, but so we can learn about the Scriptures from other godly men and women of the past. This calls students to learn church history, systematic theology, and study the doctrines of Scripture, God, Man, Christ, Salvation, Church, and Last Things. Not only do we learn from the past, but we do so in tandem as we carefully engage and read the Scriptures.
To illustrate this point, in the Magnificat, Mary states: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1.46-47). By this statement is Mary saying that she has both a soul and a spirit? To answer this question correctly, one must draw upon a number of different disciplines: Old Testament, the doctrine of man, as well as church history. How do all of these disciplines converge on this one small verse?
First, Mary gives a poetic utterance, one common to the Old Testament—she employs what is frequently known as a synonymous parallelism—where the first portion of a statement is repeated in the second half using different words. Mary says the same thing using different words: My soul // spirit magnifies // rejoices in the Lord // God my Savior.
Second, according to Scripture and what it has to say about the doctrine of man, we are made of two parts: body and soul (or spirit). We are not made of three parts: body, soul, and spirit. When the Bible describes the components of our nature as human beings, it sometimes lists them as “body and soul” (Matthew 6:25; 10:28), but elsewhere it speaks of “body and spirit” (1 Cor. 5:3-5).
Third, when we check with church history, we find that it was the influence of Greek philosophy that led some heretical teachers to believe that before the fall and the entrance of sin in the world, God had given man a body and soul, but because of the inherent evil of created matter, God had to counterbalance the evil body with a second spiritual (that is, immaterial) part, the spirit. Hence the two immaterial portions (soul and spirit) counterbalanced the evil body.
A ploughboy can read Mary’s statement and understand that she gives praise to the Lord for the blessing of being chosen to give birth to the God-man; but it requires specialist to understand what specifically she is saying. Such training helps us not only to understand the truths of Scripture, but also to avoid false teaching.
This illustration is only the tip of the iceberg as to why Westminster Seminary California implements Machen’s original plan to train specialists in the Bible. Sunday School is important because it helps laypeople understand the Scriptures in a deeper way. But it is only through specialized training that a minister can become an expert in the Bible. As in every age, so also today the church is in desperate need of specialists in the Bible—those who teach others the wonderful truths of God’s Word. We are in dire need of godly pastors and preachers, specialists in the Bible, who herald the Gospel of Christ in service of his church—men valiant for truth.
For the past 30 years, Westminster Seminary California has endeavored to prepare specialists in the Bible through offering four degree programs: Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Biblical Studies, Master of Arts in Theological Studies, and Master of Arts in Historical Theology. All four of our programs require twenty semester hours of Greek and Hebrew instruction. Every student should graduate with knowledge of the historical situation and redemptive-historical context of the biblical text. We believe that with this foundation, students are adequately prepared to take the next step of their vocational callings, whether it be pursuing the pastorate, pursuing further graduate studies, teaching in their churches, serving on the mission field, raising their families, or working in Christian educational institutions.
In addition to our many graduates who faithfully pastor congregations, our alumni have also gone on to specialize in everything from law and medicine to Old and New Testament Studies. One alumnus, Brian J. Lee (M. A., 1998), after graduating from WSC, worked for the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. House of Representatives, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Department of Defense. He says, “No one in their right mind would get a seminary degree to prepare for work in the U.S. Government. But I have always found it to be the case that my training served me exceedingly well…Westminster taught me to think in a theologically rigorous fashion about the world, which means it taught me to think about the world. By focusing relentlessly on the Word of God, it enabled me to apply that word in a more responsible, informed way.” Brian has since planted Christ Reformed Church (URC) in Washington, D.C., and is serving full-time as a Minister of Word and Sacrament.
Our commitment to preparing specialists in the Bible is ultimately driven by our desire to serve Christ, his gospel, and his church. We seek to be faithful to Machen’s plan because in the end, it is a call to excellence, one that echoes the apostle Paul’s exhortation to do all things to the glory of God (1 Cor 10.31). Please pray that our faithful covenant Lord will continue to enable us to prepare and train specialists in the Bible.
This article originally appeared in Update (Summer 2011), a publication of Westminster Seminary California.
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