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Why Are We Afraid to Be Reformed and Presbyterian?

Why are we afraid to be Reformed and Presbyterian when we teach church government and pastoral theology in our seminaries? I realize that not all seminaries that self-identify as Reformed and Presbyterian are negligent or derelict in their duty to fully train men for pastoral ministry in churches committed to the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity. But some are. I also think I know why some schools fall down on the job in this regard. In a desire to have a wider sphere of influence and a larger student body, schools have diluted their strong Reformed convictions. One area that this typically happens in is the so-called “practical theology” department (as if none of the other departments were practical). Years ago I heard it quipped about a certain prominent seminary on the west coast somewhat near a well-known amusement park that the only thing that connected its schools of theology, missions, and counseling was the plumbing. Why has this disintegrated perspective seeped into otherwise solid seminaries?

First, I would recommend that we get rid of the designation “practical theology.” As I already noted this suggests that the other theological disciplines of the encyclopedia are impractical at best and perhaps a waste of time and money and talent at worst. Such a perspective, if true, is unbiblical and unworthy of Presbyterian and Reformed ministers and professors. All the branches of theology are practical if we allow the Bible and the nature of theology itself to determine what practical is. I am afraid that many practical theology departments really ought to be designated pragmatic “theology” departments. We go with what works and if dumbing down the curriculum and watering down pastoral practice to watery gruel is what works, so be it.

Second, regardless of whether non-Reformed and Presbyterian students attend our seminaries (and I hope they do since we should be graciously sharing with others what God has revealed in his Word about church government and pastoral theology), we should not be apologetic about teaching these disciplines from the biblical point of view. We do not have to be obnoxious and nasty, but we should be forthright and firm about our commitment to what we believe is the biblical form of church government and the biblical and Reformed pattern of pastoral ministry. This means we teach Presbyterian polity and pastoral ministry that involves graded courts, ruling elders, and deacons as well as ministers. Assign students to read James Bannerman, Samuel Miller, and Guy Prentiss Waters on church government. Non-Reformed students should not be offended by or scared off our campuses because we actually believe in and are convinced of our Reformed and Presbyterian principles.

Third, we should be unfazed in our advocacy of Presbyterian and Reformed forms of liturgy and worship format. Of course there is a spectrum of views and this can be recognized. But professors should be expected to be able to affirm, defend, and articulate the historic Reformed approach to worship (the regulative principle, the dialogical principle, and the fourfold covenant renewal format of our worship) and interact with non-Reformed approaches and they should be able to show the weaknesses of other approaches all the while being able to learn from other traditions. Have the students read Hughes Oliphant Old and others continuing in that vein.

Fourth, we should inculcate and train men in the art of lectio continua and expositional and catechetical preaching. We should not be afraid to teach and model these commitments from history and contemporary practice. We should not be afraid to read, preach, and teach through long and wide swaths of biblical material. Our people will learn and be affected by Scripture in just this way. John Calvin and other practitioners of the consecutive exposition of Scripture can be called upon to illustrate how God’s Word is best preached with the blessing of Christ and his Spirit. Sermon building and delivery workshops should abandon with the common practice of making greenhorn students watch and listen to each other and then hearing the professor dissecting the sermons. If you want men to learn how to preach faithfully and rightly, have them attend services where men who are proven effective preachers can be seen and heard. Have students listen to great preachers on the web (Lloyd-Jones and Stott from the past and Ferguson, Tipton, and Goligher in the present, for instance). Have students read the great preachers of the past. And then have these men preach to real congregations outside the very artificial context of the seminary classroom. Perhaps the sermons can be digitally recorded with video and audio formats for evaluation purposes. Or the professor can attend the service when a student is preaching. However the logistics would be worked out, it can be done.

Fifth, teach and model a solid prayer life so that it does not look like an afterthought. Prayer ought to permeate and suffuse the whole theological encyclopedia but especially the pastoral theology department. Model prayer in the home in personal worship, family worship, and most especially public corporate worship. And we should not feel sorry that we Reformed folk believe in the primacy of corporate worship.

Sixth, allow the other theological disciplines to undergird the pastoral ministry. Allow exegetical, biblical, historical, and apologetical theology to play their respective roles. These branches of theological learning do not exist for themselves but for the glory of God, the salvation of sinners, and the edification of the saints.

Seventh, train men in the specific case-wise application of pastoral work. That is, the minister is to know his people and be at home with them in all their various environments. He is to sit at their bedsides in the hospital. He is to visit in the home. Visit at work and out and about in the world we inhabit. This cannot be achieved in the classroom alone but must be taught and caught on the job in the midst of a particular local congregation. The pastor is to cry with the sorrowing and laugh with the light-hearted. He is to be somber and sober when he needs to be serious. Pastoral care has a long and distinguished history. Perhaps Thomas Oden’s Classical Pastoral Care series would be worth consulting (and please note that he is a Methodist). And we need to veer away from therapeutic approaches to soul care. The feel good approach to life found throughout our culture unfortunately predominates in the church as well. It does not belong. The seminary ought to work hand in glove with local congregations so that the seminary students get experience.

All of these and more should be taught and caught within a thoroughly Reformed and Presbyterian environment. We should be apologists for the Reformed faith in all its richness and beauty without being apologetic in the common usage of that word. Why be shy or embarrassed about being Presbyterian and Reformed? I don’t mean to suggest that the practical theology departments at most Reformed seminaries aren’t working hard to train men for the ministry. Far from that. But I think we can improve things in those schools where there is a grave disjunction between the practical theology department and the other disciplines. There is no good reason in any of the departments of the Reformed seminary nor in the church she is called to serve as she seeks to serve the Lord of the church.


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