How Not To Train Pastors (Part 3)

I wrote this and “How Not To Train Pastors (Part 1)” and “How Not To Train Pastors (Part 2)” near the very beginning of the Heidelblog in 2007. This portion of the essay began as a response to a correspondent on the Puritanboard. When I wrote this series I was actively engaged with a group of (mostly) young men on the Puritanboard, a discussion board for people interested in English Reformed theology in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, in the interests of trying to help steer them away from some potholes and cul-de-sacs (e.g., theonomy, what became the Federal Vision, etc.). I think it might have been there that I first learned about this proposed seminary, which became the impetus for the series. I hoped to stimulate in some of them a desire to get a genuine education, as distinct from what often passes for education among American evangelicals. I hoped to inspire them to see beyond credential to actual learning, which is what real education is.

In the interests of time, I would like to focus on one question of principle rather than the particulars of the objecting proposal.

We have been around this pole more than a few times and I do not expect to convince you, but I hope that you will at least appreciate how it seems to me that your approach is a subtle sort of anti-intellectualism.

I think there is a difference between real, professional scholarship and that of the amateur variety. Frankly, most pastors are amateur scholars. By this, I do not mean to be demeaning, but it is a fact. We do train pastor-scholars and we do expect our students and graduates to be able to recognize and use real scholarship in their ministry, but we do not train them to do what we do. I realize that this is something of which seminaries are frequently charged (that we reproduce ourselves rather than creating pastors). Folk cannot have it both ways. They cannot say, “you’re reproducing yourselves,” and when we stop, they cannot say, “you’re not producing professional scholars.” Few folks with an MDiv are prepared to do professional scholarship when they leave. It is not possible in most cases and it is not desirable in most cases. What we do intend to do is to produce ministers who are well-trained, who are thoughtful and intelligent, but who are ministers.

As Alistair Begg reminded us this week, a minister is God’s servant. He is called to preach God’s Word. Nothing can get in the way of that. Scholarship has to facilitate that. Any genuinely educated person should be able to recognize their own limits. They can see what real scholarship looks like and they know that is not what they do.

Real scholarship involves the reading of primary and secondary texts. It involves the critical appreciation of both. This is part of what separates professional scholars from amateurs. The latter only know what they read from the professionals and, to a larger degree, must rely on the judgment of professionals, and they do not always know how to do that well. They tend to know what the last book they read told them. They lack judgment. For example, I am working on Olevianus’ Pauline commentaries. Hardly anyone knows anything about them. Certainly, pastors do not and are not in a position to. My students know what I tell them. Even if they could read Latin (a few of them can), they are not equipped to put into proper context what they are reading. Most of our grads probably should not be slogging through a 16th-century Latin text. It is nice if they read our stuff and if that informs them a little about the way to read Paul or the way to preach (that is one of the reasons I am doing this work), but they ought to be with their people—in the hospital, in the nursing home, in homes, at coffee, and most of all in the pulpit, doing the work of an evangelist.

I am not saying that ministers are not meant to study, far from it. They are meant to study well and deeply. That is what we train them to do. I am saying that they are not meant to be full-time vocational scholars and professors are not meant to be full-time vocational pastors (though our faculty are part-time pastors; we all preach, we all visit hospitals, we all serve our congregations, we all do counseling, etc., so we are not remote from the life of the church as some like to insinuate).

It seems to me that you are saying that we really do not need scholars (as I have defined them) to teach our students. You seem to be saying that it is OK for well-read pastors to teach other, younger pastors. In my view, that is a form of anti-intellectualism, because though it professes to value learning, it only values it as a credential or insofar as it is immediately practical to the life of the church.

As to the nature of seminaries, I do not have time to sketch the whole history of education, but a university education was the norm from the 12–13th centuries. Calvin’s lack of theological training was an anomaly and not entirely helpful. There may have been some benefits (some have contended), but arguably the Reformed after him had to clean up a bit because of his lack of training in some questions. There are things he did not anticipate. His humanism (which some have over-emphasized) did help him leave us with a sound hermeneutic, which makes his commentaries still remarkably useful, but you will notice that the Reformed did not quote him slavishly and even took issue with him not long after his death. Luther’s education was more typical.

To those who have complained about the time it takes to earn a seminary degree, well, since the 13th century anyway, it has always taken a certain number of years to earn a BA and then a BD (Bachelor of Divinity) or a Masters. These processes developed out of the practice and needs of the church before the Reformation and were revised but not fundamentally rejected by the Protestants. Were our primary education as strong as Calvin’s and our university training as strong as his (in classical education) we might be able to shorten things a bit, but even in the 16th century, when there was rather less to read, they still took their time.

One of Calvin’s great aims was to establish an Academy. He finally achieved it late in life. By the early 17th century, all the Reformed were university educated (with at least a BA, which in England matured to a Master of Arts) and many took a BD as well. Thus, the idea that a university-educated minister is a product of the Enlightenment is something I do not understand at all.

Here are a few more thoughts to consider in parting:

1. No one should think that a free chapter of a book here or there is a substitute for real learning.

2. Google can do a lot of things, but I do not think that Google Books can violate copyright. That limits what they can present. No matter the online resource, it is unlikely to match what is available in a seminary library.

3. I notice in my students that they tend to read online resources less carefully than printed resources. They tend not to pay close attention to online resources because they seem ephemeral. This is an inherent weakness in online resources. I encourage students to print out their online assignments so that they can mark them up and read them actively. Reading is not just scanning words. See Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book on this.

4. Even if all contemporary books become available online and even if everything between now and 1923 becomes available, and hard copy books are rendered obsolete, it is still necessary for students and teachers to be face to face. I can no more teach a man to be a minister by distance than a medical school professor can teach a med student to be a GP or a law school professor can teach one to be a lawyer by distance. It is not possible. There are too many intangibles that are not communicable by distance.

5. Technology is great, but it gives us the illusion that we can transcend time and space—and that is just it: it is an illusion. It is not real. Even with computers, we are still just creatures and we still have to live with limits. One of those limits is that we are meant to learn some things in community, not in splendid isolation. Online community is not the same as actual face-to-face, personal communication.

Since I wrote this, technology has moved on. Libronix has been replaced by Logos, which publishes contemporary scholarship (including my forthcoming commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism). It is an invaluable resource, but as rich as the resources are, they still do not replace a face-to-face education and a real, physical library. No one could reasonably accuse me of being a Luddite. I publish an online magazine and have been podcasting since 2009. When I first began to look for professional equipment, I had to explain to salesmen at Broadcast Supply Warehouse what podcasting was and how it worked. Today, they advertise podcasting supplies on the cover of their catalogue.

Nevertheless, there remains a real and unbridgeable chasm between face-to-face instruction and distance education. They are not the same and they can never be the same. As much as screens have improved, there remains a real difference between reading printed material and reading on screen. Our copyeditors have standing orders to print material in order to proofread it. On-screen proofing simply does not work as well as proofing on paper.

What this discussion really amounts to is this: nature is a thing. Education has a nature, a giveness to it that even the most industrious and entrepreneurial American cannot change because no one can change nature. As valuable as distance education is for popular education and even continuing education, surgeons will never learn by distance how to remove a spleen and Christians will very much come to regret shortchanging the church by training pastors by distance.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Part 1.

Part 2.


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  1. If only this were purely a debate about what methodology is better able to didactically train ministerial students. I suspect that at the root of the argument is not a question of methodology. The lay congregation is looking at seminaries and asking some questions that the seminaries seem to be either ignoring or incapable of addressing. The lay churchmen are asking why it is that with all these seminary trained teaching elders that year after year (at least in the PCA) these same seminary educated teaching elders seem incapable of upholding Biblical orthodoxy in the ruling of the Church. It has gotten to the point that there are campaigns to encourage more lay ruling elders to attend General Assembly to counter the effect of the influence of the teaching elders. If we were talking about deciding arcane points of organizational polity that would be one thing. But year after year overtures have to be introduced to try to compel supposedly Biblically trained men to uphold Biblical orthodoxy. If the proof of the pudding is in the tasting then the laity is increasingly being left with a bad taste in its mouth with regard to the quality of the judgment of their teaching elders. It is disingenuous for seminaries to deny responsibility. They are the thought leaders. They molded these men. They cannot now treat them as orphans and wash their hands of responsibility. Are the seminaries even interested in countering these non-confessional un-Biblical trends? If not, other educational paradigms will undoubtedly be the result.

    • Hi Bob,

      Because I teach in a seminary I have to be cautious here but let me add some conditions to your argument:

      1) Not all the seminaries are the same. Ironically, historically, it has been denominational seminaries that have been the problem children. Why this has been is an interesting question. One factor is that the denominational seminary becomes a sort of hub and those who want to change the theology, piety, & practice of denomination need only change the hub to begin to realize the changes they want to see in the denomination. That has happened repeatedly. It is certainly what happened at Princeton Seminary. The progressives were not content to control the other seminaries, they went after PTS too. Is it happening in the PCA? I have my opinions but it’s certainly something of which laity, REs, and TEs in any P&R denom must be aware.

      2) The laity & REs tend not to pay attention to these issues until it’s too late. That happened at Princeton. The faculty lost control of the direction of the seminary, Machen & co left and the rest is history. Who controls denominational seminaries? Who is on the board? What sort of president have they elected? What sort of faculty have they hired? Is anyone paying attention?

      Here’s a test: what are the churches like in the area around the seminary? When I was a student here in Escondido (’84-87) there were very few confessional P&R congregations. Now there are a bunch. There is a direct causal relationship between the foundation of the sem in ’80 and the growth in the number of P&R congregations in the area. Now, those congregations don’t always call our graduates but I think it’s objectively true to say that where they have there’s been a positive effect. Look at Escondido URC (2 wscal graduates pastoring). New Life PCA (multiple wscal graduates pastoring), Escondido OPC, North City PCA, Mission Vida Nueva, etc. We do not have Federal Visionists or Side B churches in our area because the seminary clearly and unequivocally opposes those things and the churches, REs and TEs oppose them.

      We teach our students confessional Reformed theology, piety, & practice. Do all the students buy what we’re selling? No, but the vast majority do and they leave here more confessional and faithful to the Scriptures than when they came.

      The laity and REs get the seminary and denomination they allow.

    • Dr. Clark: Within the last couple of years there has been at least one overture to the GA to dissolve the relationship between the PCA and its denominational seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. I don’t know if that will happen but many in the laity believe it is the root of many of our problems in the PCA.

    • I am just an RE, but I was on the Committee of Commissioners for Covenant Theological Seminary a few years ago. I did have some, uh, frank and candid discussion with Mark Dalbey about what I heard about Covenant Seminary. I’ll spare you the details, but we did talk productively about just how much we contextualize the gospel in order to reach people. The best example I know of is Paul in Athens–he mentions their gods quotes their poets, etc. BUT we always, always have to be clear about the gospel…but how do we get people’s attention in a way that leads to the gospel? That is a good question, and one I don’t really have an answer for to this day.

      • Hi Tom,

        I’m glad that you were able to talk with the leadership about your concerns. Thank you for getting involved.

        Contextualization is a two-edged sword. Some contextualization is unavoidable, e.g., a Dutch missionary to Native Americans who doesn’t learn the receiving language/culture, will not be very successful, will he? He will be speaking in tongues without a translator. OTOH, the moment we step on the contextualization train, the messenger is tempted to take charge of the message in the name of “contextualization,” so that the messenger is no longer serving the message but the message is serving the messenger.

  2. “[Aloysha] entered upon this path only because, at that time, it alone struck his imagination and presented itself to him as offering an ideal means of escape for his soul from darkness to light. Add to that that he was to some extent a youth of our last epoch- that is, honest in nature, desiring the truth, seeking for it and believing in it, and seeking to serve it at once with all the strength of his soul, seeking for immediate action, and ready to sacrifice everything, life itself, for it. Though these young men unhappily fail to understand that the sacrifice of life is, in many cases, the easiest of all sacrifices, and that to sacrifice, for instance, five or six years of their seething youth to hard and tedious study, if only to multiply tenfold their powers of serving the truth and the cause they have set before them as their goal such a sacrifice is utterly beyond the strength of many of them.”

    (F. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book 1 Chapter 5 “Elders”)

  3. Dr. Clark: You wrote: “The laity and REs get the seminary and denomination they allow.” If you really believe that the denominational seminary and the TEs in the PCA deserves no blame and that the blame should rest solely on the the laity and REs then you might not like the kind of change you will ultimately see in the education of the clergy. I predict a day when the laity will control the seminaries and its standards. Ultimately the ministerial candidates may be examined by boards of lay examiners. If this is not what you would like to see, then seminary faculty like yourself might want to advocate the necessary corrections that should be instituted in all Reformed seminaries and not be worried about naming names. Seminary faculty should clean up its own house before blaming the laity.

    • Bob,

      When a denominational seminary declines, in any given case (e.g., Princeton in the 1920s-30s) I don’t think that the laity are entirely to blame but if things don’t improve, it will fall to the feet of the laity and the REs. The laity elect REs the the laity consent to the calling of pastors and they pay tithes that go to support institutions.

      I’m not calling for congregational polity or radical democratization. I’m calling the laity and the REs to get involved, pay attention to what is and isn’t being taught in their denominational seminaries, to the educational and practical products of their seminaries.

      God has not called the laity to examine candidates but that’s too far down the line to fix the problem. Laity and REs need to look farther toward the beginning of the process.

  4. Dr. Clark, I could not agree with you more on the importance of the laity being aware of what is going on within any given denomination’s institutional structures. Being a now former member of the Mainline Presbyterian denomination, it was not until 2019 that I realized exactly how far to the left (from what it already was) that the denomination had lurched, particularly under the current Stated Clerk. (With the subsequent events of the past few years, though, the institutional structures of that denomination has only gone further to the left.)

    Prior to then, it wasn’t that I did not care or was uninterested, but with everything that I had going on personally and professionally (new job and spouse and in-law with significant medical issues, resulting in the death of the latter), I just didn’t really pay attention. It was perhaps early-to-mid-2019 that I decided that I really needed to pay closer attention as I was fully settled into my career and certain aspects of personal life settled down. Of course, what also led to being in such a position was that both of the church’s in which I was members were generally moderate, one on the more conservative side than the other.

    Once I started following just the new page of the denomination’s official website I was appalled. On one matter, I complained to my presbytery, another presbytery (formal complaint), the national administrative agency, the Stated Clerk’s office, and the appropriate GA office about something that was a clear error of eisegesis passing as exegesis of Matthew 15 that resulted in a denial of one of the most essential areas of doctrine – the nature, deity, and work of Jesus – with obvious ramifications of other doctrines. The reply from all was essentially there is no issue here with using (specifically from the Stated Clerk and President/Executive Director’s offices) polity allows “diversity of thought” as an excuse to ignore the issue. Furthermore, I was also left with the feeling that I was the problem for not being open-minded and allowing my “thinking to be challenged”, i.e. refusing to conform to the “truthfulness” (my words) of the theological error that was published in an official periodical.

    Since that incident happened in 2020-21, I don’t think I need to say more about how my eyes were further opened to how terminal the cancer of what I call the Progressive Christian Hersey and the Social Justice Gospel Heresy is within the Mainline Presbyterian denomination as various local, national, and international events unfolded. (Of course, I also make a clear the observation that even within that denomination, God still has outposts of faithful, though imperfect, witnesses from individual congregations, much as he did with those 7,000 prophets that he preserved in Israel under the rule of Ahab and Jezebel. While I can no longer in good conscience be a member of that denomination, I pray that when all is done that a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit will leave refined gold, while the dross slowly rots or burns away.)

    Another quick observation from the end of this article. I very much agree with this statement: “On-screen proofing simply does not work as well as proofing on paper.” I work for a financial regulatory agency and must review reports submitted by our field examiners of supervised institutions. I have found that I do much better reviewing and editing, when I can print out, at least for the initial pass, sometimes the second pass, those reports submitted to me. Same goes for my own work, when I am preparing lengthy correspondence or analysis of matters for which I am responsible for initially drafting for my manager to review.

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