Reflecting on my reading of CONFIDENT OF BETTER THINGS, the opening chapter concerns Paul Woolley, professor of church history at Westminster Seminary for some forty years. John Muether spends several pages in that article discussing Woolley as an author. In all his years at the institution, Woolley never wrote a full-length article for the WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL, thought he did author some ninety-five book reviews for the JOURNAL, and over fifty articles for the PRESBYTERIAN GUARDIAN. A few of his articles landed in unusual places. An overview of American Presbyterian history was serialized in the REFORMED PRESBYTERIAN ADVOCATE. And I’ve just come across another article, this one on ministerial training, that appeared in a small publication edited by William Stanford Reid in the early 1950’s. The PCA Historical Center was blessed a few years ago to receive the donation of a nearly complete run of Reid’s magazine REFORMATION TODAY, and this article by Woolley is drawn from that publication.
[If you don’t know of Stanford Reid, I strongly encourage you to locate and read a copy of A. Donald MacLeod’s biography, W. STANFORD REID: AN EVANGELICAL CALVINIST IN THE ACADEMY.
HOW IS A MINISTER TRAINED?
by Paul Woolley
[Reformation Today (Montreal, Quebec) 1.10 (July-August 1952): 3-5]
When Bill Smith first goes to kindergarten, his father and mother take the existing school as they find it. But it interests them, and they think about what is happening to Bill there. As a result, education becomes a very lively topic. Both in Canada and the United States the relation of state support of schools to religious instruction is constantly being discussed. If it is not the policy of the government of Ontario, it is the speech on the subject of President Conant of Harvard that is the subject for comment.
The principles which should guide education at the university level, undergraduate and graduate, have not been as widely considered as those concerned with Bill Smith’s kindergarten. But these principles, too, especially as they affect theological education, are of particular importance to Christians and the Church.
His Arts course
The theological student studies the liberal arts before he turns his attention specifically to theology. This is to acquaint him with the world in which he lives so that he may learn how to think and have materials, facts, with which to think. There is no use in trying to apply theology to an unknown world and to unintelligible people.
In order to be effective the arts course must consider the world and the points of view in it as broadly and as understanding^ as possible. One can never learn anything about communism and how to oppose it, for example, if one never sees the positive things which it has accomplished and by means of which it attracts people to support it. At the same time, there has to be a standard of judgment. For the Christian that basic standard ought to be the Bible.
Question of right and wrong
The greater knowledge of the Bible the arts student has, the greater wisdom he will show in thinking about the world in general. He needs to know as much about the Bible as possible when he enters the university and he ought to be constantly using the Bible as a touchstone. In the liberal arts course, however, the student will find that many of his studies concern subjects about which there is not an absolute right or wrong for all times and all places. To talk technically for a moment, they belong to the realm of the adiaphora. For example, no one form of government is always best everywhere on earth.
In Canada and the United States democracy is best, but it would be foolish to introduce full democracy overnight into Afghanistan. It requires preparation. So if the Canadian student became Emir of Afghanistan next Monday, he would not be sinning if he failed to introduce full democracy on Tuesday morning. If, however, he became Premier of the government of Canada on Monday and tried to introduce the governmental methods of Afghanistan on Tuesday, he would be sinning for the short period that the attempt would last.
Bible and theological training
As soon as the liberal arts student has finished that course and begins to study theology, he faces quite a different situation. Now he is studying the Bible itself or, at least, he should be. For the study of protestant theology should always be basically the study of the Bible. When one studies the Bible, one is always studying something about which there is a basic right and a basic wrong. The Bible is God’s Word and one understands it aright or else fails to understand it.
There is no real comparison between the study of theology and the study of any other subject, but the subject which comes closest to it is medicine. Medicine seeks primarily to teach methods of keeping the body healthy. Theology seeks primarily to teach methods of keeping the spirit healthy. A medical student therefore selects a school where a view of medicine is taught that he considers basically sound. He takes his full course there and then tries to study other systems in the light of what he has learned. A medical student who is not a Christian Scientist would not take his basic course at a school for Christian Science practitioners and then do graduate work at the School of Medicine at McGill. He would go first to a faculty such as McGill and then try to understand the healings of Christian Science in the light of what he had learned at McGill.
Test of theological school
The situation for a theological student is not entirely dissimilar. If he is a Protestant Christian, the wise procedure is to go to a seminary which accepts the basic authority of Protestantism, the Bible, as trustworthy. At such a seminary he will take the full basic theological course in order to have a sound foundation for his thinking and his practice. Later, as he meets other religions and other forms of theology, he may wish to study them intensively. But he will have a standard of comparison, the Bible and its system of thought. The system of doctrine taught in the Bible is not an adiaphoron, it is basic to Christianity. It is the form of theology with which all students should begin. Seminaries differ rather widely in multitudinous respects. Their usefulness can very largely be judged by an examination of these elements.
The basic point of view represented by the teaching in a seminary should be consistent, integrated and sound. The teaching of each department should fit in with that of the others to make a unit that taken together has logical consistency. It ought to cover the field adequately. It ought to be based on principles that flow from the source of final authority, the Bible. It should make a well-rounded whole. This does not mean, however, that points of view inconsistent with that presented are not considered. They should be considered and be considered fully. Only thus do error and truth fall properly apart.
The faculty of the Seminary is its most important asset. Its members need to be men of earnest sincerity, thoroughly informed concerning both the foundations and the latest developments of modern scholarship in their respective fields, and able to transmit knowledge and stimulate thinking by wise and appropriate teaching methods. They need to know what is going on in their fields whether they agree with the conclusions or not, they also need to be convinced of their own presuppositions. And they must know how a student can best be made acquainted with the field. Some modern pedagogy is silly, some is sound. Without curbing full freedom of discussion, it is the teacher’s opportunity to make clear the factors that result in a conviction concerning the truth. A theological teacher who has outgrown the conception of truth is largely useless.
The admission requirements of a theological institution reflect the level of its teaching. If they are proper, the students will be prepared intelligently to enter into the discussion of the work and to understand the presentation. Discussion by the group is an important element in theological teaching. For this reason, it is important that the student have adequate preparation in knowledge and also in the art of discussion.
The seminary prepares for the ministry. A minister must be a man who can intelligently deal with the spiritual problems of every walk of life. If his education in arts is narrow, he has no background upon which to develop his theology, he has little understanding of the ultimate problems of human beings, who are both rational and emotional. Nor, of course, can he understand why and how theology has developed as it has.
Another important element in this immediate connection is a diversified character of the student body. Discussion is more illuminating, more facts are available, if the students represent a wide range of national backgrounds, if they have attended many different colleges, if they represent varied types of childhood training. A minister ought to begin to meet his problems in the seminary, not only after he has become a pastor.
A seminary can never teach everything. What does its curriculum try to accomplish? If it hopes to include everything, it will be a failure. The seminary curriculum can only transmit the basic tools and skills which the minister needs. It should teach the original languages of Scripture and how to use them in ascertaining the meaning of the text. It should teach the basic principles upon which the text is approached; it should set forth the broad outlines of the system of truth which emerges from the study of the text. It will show the fundamental means of applying these truths to the needs of the people. And it will point out what has happened in the past when they have, and when they have not, been applied. Only after all this has been done is it important to master the latest techniques of propagation such as radio and television. The content must be in hand before it can be determined how best to present it.
The most important element of material equipment in a seminary is the books of the library. They are the basic tools. They must include the fundamental tools, many of them old but indispensable. They should also include the latest theological developments. They will need to be in many languages, and if the student is wise he will early acquaint himself with Latin, German, French and Dutch or as many of them as he can. The books must be accessible. If the student cannot see them on their shelves, he will miss many of them.
Other physical equipment in the way of classrooms, dormitories and a campus is useful but relatively much less important.
There is no ideal seminary in existence, but some approximate it much more closely than others. In every case, neither faculty nor students may rest on their oars. There is still ground ahead to be reached.