Training for the Ministry
The Churches shall maintain an institution for the training for the ministry. The task of the professors of theology is to instruct the students of theology in those disciplines which have been entrusted to them, so that the Churches may be provided with ministers of the Word who are able to fulfil the duties of their office as these have been described above.
In earlier versions of our Church Order we do not find a provision such as we have now, namely, that the churches shall maintain their own institution for the training for the ministry. In those earlier redactions our Church Order spoke of “doctors” or professors of theology and described their task.
We no longer include the office of “doctor” as an ecclesiastical office. In Art. 2 we recognize three offices only: that of the minister of the Word, of the elder, and of the deacon. Instead, we now have an article stating that the churches are to maintain their own institution for the training for the ministry. This does not mean that only of late the conviction has grown and ripened that the churches should have such an institution. On the contrary, what is expressed in the text of Art. 19 as we have it now is not essentially different from what was expressed in the old article about the task of the “doctors or professors of theology.”
From the very outset the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands were convinced of the need to train men aspiring to the office of minister of the Gospel. For various reasons they did not have an institution of their own until the year 1854. In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries the training for the ministry took place at the State Universities, but the churches did not have control over these institutions. When it comes to the point, they had no more guarantees for the purity of doctrine than what was stated in the provision that it was the office of the doctors or professors of theology to expound the Holy Scriptures and to defend the pure doctrine against all heresies and errors; and the provision that the professors of theology were to subscribe to the Confessions of the Reformed Churches.
The use of the expression “Doctors or Professors of Theology” is a result of the fact that in olden days one did not receive a doctor’s degree simply to indicate one’s scholarly standing, or to adorn him with a title, but he received this title as a confirmation of his incorporation into the body of teachers. Striving for and receiving the doctor’s degree meant that one was to teach at a university.
For example, Luther once wrote: “If we bear the name and title of Doctors of Holy Scripture, the very name should make it compulsory for us to teach Holy Scripture alone.” And he mentions a formula which was used when the doctor’s title was conferred: “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This is said to you that you may remember who,
what, how great He is who called you, and further to what task you have been called over against what sort of people, what kind of persons, however prominent they may be, so that you may be a leader, a messenger, an ambassador of God against the enemies of Him who sends you as I have been sent. May the Lord confirm you and be strong. Fear not, for the Lord is with you. Amen.”
Once declared a doctor, a teacher, one also had to take an oath, promising that he would be faithful in his teaching, especially faithful to the Holy Scriptures. This oath was a source of encouragement and strength to Luther in his battle against the heresies that had been introduced into the church. Oftentimes when doubt arose whether he did the right thing when opposing the high authorities in the church, he remembered his oath and was once again convinced that his primary allegiance was to the Word of God.
Even though the churches had no control over their teaching or appointment, entrusting the training for the ministry to doctors who were faithful to the Scriptures was not difficult. It became difficult when at the universities heresies and false doctrines were not confuted but, on the contrary, protected and even propagated.
It was not till after the Secession of 1834 that the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands finally succeeded in establishing their own training for the ministry. The various provincial efforts were combined in 1854, when a “Theological School” was founded. One hundred years later, in 1954, the Canadian Reformed Churches had their first General Synod. Already at this first synod it was decided to request four collections per year from the churches for the cause of the training for the ministry, and to appoint a committee to further this matter.
What prompted the churches to set up their own training for the ministry? The training of those aspiring to the office of minister of the Word is of utmost importance for the church. The proclamation of the Gospel must be continued, and safeguards are necessary to ensure that this proclamation remains pure and free from errors and heresies. The apostle Paul already commanded Timothy to teach men who, in turn, were to teach others. The “apostolic succession,” that is, the chain of the doctrine of the apostles, should continue unbroken until the appearing of the Saviour.
The apostle often called Timothy his “son.” There is no reason to assume that he gave this title because of a special love for Timothy, although he evidently did love him. It rather reminds us of the “sons of the prophets” mentioned in the Old Testament: they were the men who were taught by the prophets and were to be the leaders among the people. A pupil was oftentimes called the “son” of the teacher or “father.” At Elijah’s being taken up to heaven Elisha called out, “My father, my father!” And Amos stated specifically that he was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son; in other words, he had never been trained but was, so to speak, a prophet “according to Art. 8 C.O.”
It appears that the churches are completely in line with the Scriptural givens when they insist on having their own institution which is completely under the control of the churches. The work of a minister of the Word is so important that every possible precaution has to be taken to prevent error and
heresy. The universities were and still are often the places that bred dangerous trends and errors which found their way into the churches, to the great grief and harm of the latter.
The Theological College or Seminary is governed, on behalf of the churches, by a Board of Governors, appointed by General Synod. It consists of eleven members, six of whom are ministers of the Word. The latter form the Academic Committee, which is responsible for the supervision of the teaching done at the College. They visit the lectures unannounced and receive the reports from the Senate. It is the Board of Governors that comes to a General Synod with a nomination whenever a faculty member has to be appointed. The Board also reports to each General Synod about its activities during the preceding three years. Thus the churches themselves keep control over the training for the ministry.
Task of Professors
What is the task of the Professors of Theology? Their task is to instruct the students of theology and to guide these students to the completion of their courses. Once a student has completed the course of study as required, he will receive a certificate attesting to this accomplishment. With this certificate the graduate may present himself to a classis to be declared eligible for call, as laid down in Art. 4 C.O.
Although the College is completely under the control of the churches, it is an institution for higher learning in its own right. The churches do finance the College by means of an annual assessment per communicant member, but they do not meddle in the material taught at the College or the scholarly level of the instruction. The Board of Governors is the body that guards both the level and the Scriptural character of the instruction given.
The degrees that are granted by the College are, therefore, academic degrees, not ecclesiastical attestations. A degree from the College does not give access to the pulpit; it only permits the graduate to present himself to the relevant ecclesiastical assembly for examination and opens the way which ultimately may lead to the pulpit. Such an ecclesiastical examination is essentially different in character from the academic examinations at the College. We already mentioned this difference when dealing with Article 4.
Although the College has been established and is being maintained by the churches, this does not mean that only members of the churches would be allowed to study at it or obtain a degree from it. If the blessings, bestowed upon the churches by the Lord, are recognized by others, too, and when the College can be of benefit and blessing to others, too, it can only be a reason for humble gratitude that we may be instrumental in spreading these blessings to an even wider circle.
The fact that the College is an institution for higher learning and that the teaching at it is at the scholarly level does not mean that the ministry of the Gospel should be left out of the picture. On the contrary, it should be the dominating and guiding principle. The whole teaching as well as the subjects taught have to have as their goal that the students be trained for the office to which they are aspiring.
Ideally, the College should have at least five teachers, corresponding with the various disciplines. There is in the first place the department of Old Testament studies, followed by that of the New Testament discipline. The doctrine of the church is another field; then there is the history and polity of the church, while the fifth discipline covers all that belongs to the work of a minister in preaching, teaching, visiting, and so on. The last-mentioned discipline is called the diaconiology.
For admission to the College one has to be in possession of a qualified Bachelor of Arts degree. The course of study at the College itself covers four years. Upon successful completion of the study, the degree of Master of Divinity is conferred at the Convocation, which is usually held on the second Friday in September.