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Why Pastors Need a Seminary Education - Part 2

November 10, 2011

R. Scott Clark

The Scholar-Pastor

At WSC we are still old-fashioned enough to believe that a seminary education comes only one way: through hard work. Therefore, while many seminaries are now advertising (quite seductively it seems!) that one can earn a seminary degree without ever leaving home, at WSC we believe that self-sacrifice is a part of ministry. Ask yourself this question: Would you choose a heart surgeon who learned his skills via satellite and video tapes? Even with the assistance of a seasoned physician nearby, such training would clearly be inadequate. There is something about knowing how deep to cut which can only be learned through hands-on, tactile, face-to-face training. Your soul, as our Lord Jesus taught us, is infinitely more valuable than even your heart.

Notice that I keep saying "at WSC" instead of "through WSC." This is because seminary is not just a vehicle, a means to an end. While students are here, they are students. They are not just passing through seminary. Their vocation is to study and prepare for ministry in school, with pastors and scholars, to become pastor-scholars. By challenging students, praying with them, and lecturing to them, we believe that we are preparing them to serve in churches by providing them with the tools they will use every day for the rest of their lives in pastoral ministry.

WSC believes in raising up ministers who are not only scholars, and not only pastors, but both: scholar-pastors. This is based on the formation of the Reformed Church in the 16th century. Our commitment to developing scholar-pastors distinguishes WSC from much of the rest of American and Modern Christianity. Some might say, "That’s the problem."

I respectfully disagree and for one reason primarily. Preaching is the minister’s primary calling. He is called to preach from the Bible and the Bible is, to quote J. I. Packer, a "very big book." More than that, it was written in three languages in several cultures over a long period of time, so it takes a certain amount of learning to understand the history, theology, background, and proper application of God’s Word. The Bible is not to be read in a vacuum. The Church has been thinking about and interpreting the Bible for a long time. So we need pastors who are not only trained to read God’s Word in its original languages, but who are trained in the Christian tradition. This is not something done quickly, easily, or cheaply. It is also not something which is done well virtually, by distant electronic education to large groups who have no access to a seminary library or faculty. Thus, such distance-education is not adequate, at least not presently, for servants of God and his Word.

Quite understandably, most pastors (like most physicians, lawyers, and accountants) are far too busy to be able to keep up with the latest literature in any one field (e.g., New Testament studies) let alone all the fields required for seminary preparation. Staying abreast of academic developments is a full-time calling. Some years ago, one of our New Testament professors presented to the WSC faculty a highly technical, but most interesting paper on recent developments in the study of the grammar of the New Testament. Most of the faculty, even though they are full-time scholars, were unaware of these developments. If full-time scholars struggle to keep up with the changes in the various fields, how could even the most skilled and industrious pastor fulfill all his parish responsibilities and do the sort of reading which would prepare him to train men for ministry full-time? Clearly this is highly unlikely.

One might say, "Who cares if seminary professors know the latest scholarship? Is it not all a waste of time anyway?" No, it's not a waste of time. The real question is whether the church has any use for serious scholarship. To use the medical analogy again, do you care if your physician reads the New England Journal of Medicine? Certainly there is much foolishness in modern scholarship. Yet it will make its way into the Church and our pastors and elders must be adequately prepared to address it. More than that, there are benefits to keeping abreast of recent scholarship. For example, one of our professors has made use of some newer educational techniques to make his Greek instruction even more effective. Learning Greek is still hard work, but his students will leave seminary with the ability to continue to improve their language skills, instead of putting the Greek testament on the shelf. In my field (history) there is some very good scholarship being done which has revived much of our 16th and 17th century tradition through essays and translations. The church has and will continue to reap many rewards from these sorts of studies.

More next Thursday!

First published in Evangelium, Vol. 5, Issue 3.