The Privilege of Seminary Training: Personal Spiritual Development

Anyone who has talked to a seminary student or asked his pastor about his years in seminary will likely hear stories about the many great challenges of those years. The work is often difficult, and the amount of work that is placed before the students can be overwhelming for even the most gifted students. Seemingly every student of the seminary has some story to tell of a painful practice preaching session or a graded paper filled with a flood of red ink.

While those difficulties and challenges are real, they are only a small part of the story. It’s a shame that the “headline” about seminary training that most everyone sees or hears is “DIFFICULT.” And if that is the only thing that comes to mind regarding seminary, that is an incomplete, and therefore, an unfair perspective.

What’s missing from that perspective is the wonderful privilege of studying in the seminary. If the difficulties, challenges, and sacrifices of seminary are great, the privileges and benefits of studying in the seminary are far greater.

Here are just a few of the personal benefits of seminary training:

  • As with all education, there is much growth in knowledge, and the knowledge imparted in seminary is of the highest quality, a spiritual, life-giving quality. The words of instruction in seminary are the words of eternal life, imparting knowledge of the one true God. There are many people who have the privilege of being students, but not all have the privilege of giving themselves to the study of the very words of God.
  • Seminary humbles The doctrines of grace humble you, showing you your unworthiness. The amount of work humbles you, showing you your frailty and turning your attention to God. The correction of professors humbles you, showing you your errors and ignorance. The truths expounded in the scriptures also humble you, by showing you your sin and leading you to Christ. In these ways and more, the student is humbled, and in this he is prepared to be a servant of Christ and his church.
  • Seminary training is also a wonderful means of sanctification. Sanctification is God’s work of making us holy, and that work is performed by the Spirit through the means of grace. Sitting under the faithful instruction of professors is no different than sitting under the preaching of the word in church. There is the true privilege of seminary training: the daily practice of engaging in the means of grace and growing daily in the knowledge of God transforms the student’s heart. The men who walk through the seminary doors on that first fall morning are not the same as those who walk out four years later. God works powerfully in the hearts of seminary students through their training, transforming their hearts so that they are ready to serve in God’s house.
  • What about those difficulties? They have their benefits too. The student grows in his ability to read and write. He learns how to communicate effectively. He learns how many hours there are in a day (not enough), and how to be most productive in the time he is given. The difficulties and challenges of the work teach the student discipline, perseverance, patience, and trust. They force him to labor with a conscious dependence on the grace of God for the needs of both body and soul.

Prospective seminary students should not be discouraged from pursuing the gospel ministry by the stories of how difficult the training is. Seminary is challenging, but it is such a privilege as well. And while no man should enter seminary solely for the purpose of personal development, it’s only fair that the whole story is told.

The benefits will begin early on in the training. Taking pre-seminary Greek early in the morning isn’t easy for everyone, but as one emeritus professor told me, “The study of the original languages opens up grand vistas of the truths of the scriptures.” He was right, and those vistas are beautiful, even life-changing.

The benefits continued throughout the four years of seminary. Every day, the scriptures were expounded to us. Every day we were confronted by some truth concerning our majestic God and his wonderful works. Every day, we were humbled, corrected, instructed, and built up by truths of scripture and given the tools to do the same both for ourselves and others.

The calling of the ministry is weighty, and the challenges of seminary are significant and sometimes difficult to overcome. But ultimately, the most difficult obstacles are often the most beneficial, for they teach the student to labor with a dependence on the grace of God rather than his own strength. In the end, the seminary student receives four years of heart-shaping instruction. That instruction, the Lord willing, will benefit both the students personally and the churches they serve.

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This article was written by David Noorman who has been declared a candidate for the ministry in the Protestant Reformed Churches of America.

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The Final Stretch

As I alluded in my last post, it is sometimes suggested that the last semester of seminary is the most difficult semester. After soaring on the internship, the student must again clamp on the chains and manacles of practice preaching and formal class room instruction. I can understand and agree with this sentiment to a point. There is something about the internship—tasting and experiencing the real work that the seminary student anticipates he will soon be doing as an ordained servant of the Lord—which makes it difficult to return to the formality of seminary. The final semester of seminary can feel like a long and dark tunnel which the student must walk through knowing that a steam engine with the words “synodical exam” etched into its side is heading directly toward him at full speed. I think the seven fourth year students returned from the internship shrouded with a bit of gloom which was not helped by the reputation of this final semester.

However, now that I stand safely on the other side of the tunnel, I testify from my own experience that it was not nearly so difficult as I expected. I do not mean by this that the semester was any less rigorous or demanding than the previous semesters—every semester in seminary is accompanied with challenges and difficulties. I only mean to suggest that my experience of this final semester was not so gloomy—emotionally and mentally frustrating—as I had come to expect based on what I had heard or thought was true.

Perhaps one of the primary reasons for my positive evaluation of seminary’s final semester is the confidence I had gained coming off the internship. The Lord used the internship to strengthen my conviction that I was truly called to this work, and to strengthen my resolve going forward. Thus, coursework became less of a burden that I had to lift off my shoulders every day and every week, and more an opportunity to grow in my ability to perform in the calling I was certain the Lord had given me.

We entered back into the world of formal instruction with an interim course entitled “The Reformation of 1953,” taught by Professor Dykstra. Kindly, Prof. Dykstra later informed us that the church history portion of our synodical exam would cover the history of the PRC, about which the history of 1953 plays a central role. Thus, our interim class doubled as preparation for part of our exam.

The course load for the Spring semester consisted of Reformed Symbols (this time treating the Canons of Dort), New Testament Exegesis, Old Testament Exegesis, World Religions (or Foreign Missions), Old Testament History, and New Testament Isagogics. This final semester also included a couple of shorter new classes, each of which lasted a period of seven weeks—Advanced Hebrew and Advanced Homiletics. All of these classes I profess to have enjoyed thoroughly, but in this final semester I discovered a much deeper appreciation for the work of exegesis. Now that I had more experience writing sermons, especially in the context of a living, breathing congregation on the internship, my exegesis papers became much more “sermonic” in their structure and in their content (especially regarding applications). Under the guidance of our professors, the practical knowledge we students gained on our internships was solidified and developed during our final class hours.

Another reason for my positive evaluation of the final semester is simply the people with whom I was surrounded every day. Of course, my wife and son provide love and support every day no matter where I am, for which I am profoundly thankful to the Lord. But the people to whom I am especially referring at this juncture are the people at the seminary. I already mentioned in a previous post the camaraderie which developed among the students over the course of our years together—a camaraderie which continued through our final semester together. All of us gained from the internship experiences of the others as we reflected and shared insights together. I think our discussions in and out of the class room were livelier than ever before due to our mutually increased confidence and ability. Some of us even got together regularly to prepare for the synodical exam which was still looming over all of us. We also continued to profit from the quiet and faithful service of the seminary staff, Mrs. Judi Doezema and Mr. Chuck Terpstra. The cheerfulness and smoothness of seminary in my memory is in large part due to the contribution of these two saints, for whom we give thanks to the Lord.

But in this post, I especially want to highlight the relationship between us students and our professors. I hesitate only briefly to say this because I am not sure if it was only my individual perception that the relationship with our professors underwent a slight shift in the last semester, or if this sense was the experience of all the students. I think the shift is analogous to the change in a father’s behavior toward his children from the time of their childhood to the time of their teenage years. A father treats his young children with love, and in his love for his children he talks down to them, i.e. he does his best to speak on their level. He talks down to them with a view to being able to talk on the same level with them when they mature in their understanding. When his children reach their teen years, a father begins to speak to them as adults. The fact is, those teenagers are not adults—they are still children who still have a lot of growing to do—but they have also advanced beyond their childhood and have shown themselves capable of handling greater responsibility. The analogy is apt, because from a spiritual and vocational point of view these professors are the fathers of us students, and we their children. This is how the apostle Paul opened his second epistle to his student Timothy, with whom he had no blood relation: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, . . . To Timothy, my dearly beloved son. . .” (2 Tim. 1:1, 2). When my class first began our seminary instruction we were just little children—perhaps we did not know it, but it was true nonetheless. By the time we finished our internship we had matured significantly regarding our knowledge, experience, and ability, and the professors treated us accordingly. Now that we have graduated from seminary we have “left the nest.” By the grace of God, in the pastoral ministry the lessons afforded to us by our “fathers” will continue to bear fruit as we continue to grow. On behalf of the class of 2017 I would like to say thank you to our faithful professors, and thanks to the Lord for providing them. May the Lord continue to sustain you as you train our “siblings” for the ministry of the Word and sacraments.  

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This article was written by Rev. Joseph Holstege who was recently ordained into the gospel ministry and is now pastor of Zion Protestant Reformed Church, in Hudsonville, Michigan.

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The Internship

Once again, I walked out of Professor Dykstra’s office with mixed emotions. I had just been informed that the seminary faculty had granted me an internship, and that mine would take place in Hull, Iowa at Calvary Protestant Reformed Church. Mixed emotions. Of course, I was tremendously excited. For several months all the third years had ruminated, speculated, and discussed—would we be granted internships? And if so, where would they be? Now I knew definitely: the Lord had opened yet another door to the ministry. Now I could make definite plans. Now I could look forward to getting to know a concrete, real group of people and their pastor. I had heard all about the benefits of the internship, and I could hardly wait to get started.

On the other hand, the imminent prospect of something new in my seminary training conjured up the old fright and nerves I referred to in a previous post. I would argue that the internship is the ultimate test whether a man has the necessary gifts to be a pastor. On the internship, seminary students put the knowledge they have been gaining in the classroom into practice. What previously had remained mostly in the realm of theory turns into real faces, real consistory meetings, real problems. Furthermore, in my case, I knew I would be living in a completely new environment for half a year. I did not know a single soul who attended Calvary PR Church, and I knew very little of her pastor with whom I would be working closely.

To give you an idea of what seminary students face on their internships I will point out the various requirements—but keep in mind that each internship is unique, as each one takes place in a local congregation with her pastor and her council. The students have the duration of the six months to read and review ten books assigned by the professors. These books all treat some aspect of what we would call practical theology, but the content ranges from homiletics (i.e. sermon preparation and organization) to missions. As the internship puts theory into practice, so the books we were required to read on the internship were decidedly practical in nature. The students must also prepare and deliver a minimum of nine sermons (most pastor mentors actually require at least ten or eleven). Three of these sermons must take a Lord’s Day from the Heidelberg Catechism as the text, and two of the sermons must be developed for a special service. The student has more liberty with the rest of the sermons—he may preach a short series as I did, or he may simply pick several texts which strike him as significant and appropriate. The student must also teach catechism—preferably at least one bible history class and at least one doctrinal class. He must lead two bible societies, attend consistory and council meetings, and conduct pastoral visits.

In addition to the required labors, if there are any special opportunities that his internship affords him, the student does well to take advantage of them. For instance, as my internship took place in Northwest Iowa, I had the opportunity to attend some of the meetings of the Foreign Mission Committee (FMC) and thus become better acquainted with the work of that denominational committee and with missions in the Protestant Reformed Churches of America (PRCA). I also had the opportunity to attend and participate in the Young Adult’s retreat which was held in Northwest Iowa that summer. The other students had opportunities that were unique to the congregations in which they had their internships.

At the conclusion of the internship, the students must write reports on their labors to be evaluated by the professors. The mentor pastor and consistory also submit a report on the labors of their intern.

Now, having expressed the tick of fear that I initially experienced when I heard about my internship, I can confidently report that my internship went amazingly well. I think my six classmates would make the same confident assessment regarding their own internships. In fact, the Lord used my internship in a powerful way to confirm in my soul that he was indeed calling me to the ministry.

Calvary PR Church did an excellent job hosting me and my family. It was amazing to see the entire congregation stand up to support us not only financially for six months, but also spiritually with their prayers and encouragement. The saints at Calvary have a love for the Protestant Reformed seminary and for the pastoral ministry. Consequently, any fears I may have had in connection with moving to a new place for a time seem silly when I look back on the experience. My wife Lisa and I are thankful for the relationships we developed with the saints and with Rev. Griess and his family while in Calvary.

Furthermore, the fruit of having an internship in Northwest Iowa meant we had opportunity to get to know and love the church of Christ as she is manifested in Calvary PR Church, but also in the other four local congregations in the near vicinity. While at Calvary I had occasion to bring the Word to all those congregations. One of the advantages of being a seminary student is that one gets to see and meet many of the congregations in the PRC. The only other time I had been in the area was for a convention when I was 15 years old; now I have six months of experience there as an adult. Even if the Lord never calls me to serve a congregation in Northwest Iowa, I now have a better understanding of the people and churches which exist there, which knowledge I believe will serve me well going forward.

The only difficult aspect of the internship was the imminent prospect of returning to seminary for one final semester. Rumor had it that this return to seminary was difficult for students who had just tasted the joy and freedom of serving a local congregation. In addition, we were all painfully aware that at the end of this final semester would be what seemed the mightiest obstacle of all: the synodical examination.

More on this final semester of seminary next time, the Lord willing. 

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This article was written by Rev. Joseph Holstege who was recently ordained into the gospel ministry and is now pastor of Zion Protestant Reformed Church, in Hudsonville, Michigan.

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Third Year

In preparation for writing this post I sat back and tried to think about the things that made the third year of seminary distinct from the other years, and I have concluded that part of my challenge now relates to the fact that third year was very similar to second year. The first year of seminary is distinct in my mind as the time when everything was exciting because it was the beginning—everything was new. I distinguish second year as the proving grounds, when we were first introduced to practice preaching and began our regular, weekly cycle of writing exegesis papers. But from many points of view, third year was simply a continuation of second year, with the exception that now many of us were or would soon be licensed to speak a word of edification in the congregations (a significant landmark in our training upon which I reflected in my previous post). During our third year we continued practice preaching, we continued our regular coursework, and we continued to write exegesis papers regularly.

Our course work for third year consisted of the following:

In the Fall semester, we took classes on Poimenics, Old Testament History, New Testament History, Dogmatics (Christology), History of Dogma, and Old Testament Exegesis. The word “Poimenics” comes from the Greek verb “to shepherd; tend to the flock,” which provides a clue to the course material, which concerns such things as family visitation, pastoral counseling, conducting funerals and weddings, and so on.

In between the two semesters we took a two-week Interim course on Reformed Covenantal Ethics, taught by Professor Gritters. Then we plunged into the Spring semester and the following classes: Reformed Symbols, Dogmatics (Soteriology), New Testament History, Missions, Old Testament Isagogics, and New Testament Exegesis. Reformed Symbols is the study of the Reformed confessions, this time focusing on the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession. The word “Isagogics” comes from the Greek that means “to lead into,” which again indicates the subject matter of the course, which introduces each book of the Old Testament especially by examining the main theme(s) of the books.

Each of these classes requires reading, most of them require writing, and all of them require diligence. The student who works hard in his courses is rewarded with greater knowledge and understanding in the scriptures, which is a tremendous blessing!

Though in many respects third year was similar to second year, it was in part the sameness and regularity of it that made third year such an enjoyable year of seminary. Along with the similarity, regularity, and development in our coursework came similarity, regularity, and development in our relationships.

I am very thankful to God for the opportunity I had to go through seminary with a large class. Of course, seminary work requires initiative, hard work, and growth of the individual student—he must face each text that he is required to exegete, he must take each test alone, he must do his own reading. If the student relies only on the insights of others, the danger necessarily arises that he sinfully fails to do his own work and violates his own conscience. Nevertheless, when several students regularly face the same texts together, take the same courses, and read the same material, they cannot help but discuss the various challenges they face and the insights the Spirit gives them. Far from being detrimental, I believe God used this interaction in powerful ways to shape each one of us for our calling. “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of a friend” (Prov. 27:17). So, on Friday noon when we fired up the grill for our weekly brat lunch (a long-standing seminary tradition), several of us would discuss some matter that came up in class that day, or the text we had all studied for exegesis that week, or any other matter that struck our interest at the time. Sometimes discussion would spring up spontaneously during the afternoons in the libraries—sometimes these discussions would go on for too long, with the unfortunate result that some of us were forced to forgo sleep in order to get our daily work finished. I have many fond memories of my classmates, and I thank God for the friendship and ability to cooperate with each other that we all now enjoy. May the Lord grant that these friendships continue long into the future now that we no longer spend regular time together in the same building.

In addition to my large class of third years, this particular year of seminary included the addition of three first year students. Three more students meant three more minds to contribute in our discussions and three more hands to hold three more ping pong paddles after lunch every day. Naturally as upper classmen we considered it our duty to inform the new students about the “horrors” of seminary, but we were easily seen through. Now these three students are in their third year, and I very much hope the experience is as wholesome and beneficial as it was for me.

One final incident that contributed to the uniqueness of third year was our January trip to southern California. Every so often the seminary makes a trip in order to attend a theological conference put on by Westminster Seminary California (or Westminster West) in Escondido, roughly twenty miles north of San Diego. All the seminarians with Professor Cammenga flew to California for an extended weekend stay which provided a nice opportunity for fellowship and interaction with our Hope PR Church in Redlands, CA. We spent some time sight-seeing in San Diego, attended the conference, and worshipped in Redlands on the Lord’s Day. In San Diego we could not resist attempting to “reproduce” an old picture we had seen of a previous seminary class—see the two pictures here for your evaluation regarding how well we did.

Next time, the Lord willing, I intend to reflect a bit on a tremendously important and beneficial aspect of seminary training, namely, the internship.

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This article was written by Rev. Joseph Holstege who was recently ordained into the gospel ministry and is now pastor of Zion Protestant Reformed Church, in Hudsonville, Michigan.

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Licensed to Speak a Word of Edification

On a May afternoon in 2015, I walked out of Professor Dykstra’s office with the same feeling of mixed emotions which was becoming familiar for me as a seminary student. On the one hand, I had just been granted license by the seminary faculty to speak a word of edification in the Protestant Reformed Churches! Being licensed was highly significant, as it indicated that the professors judged I had the necessary spiritual and intellectual gifts, and was far enough along in the development of those gifts, to stand before God’s people and lead them in worship. The Lord had opened another door as I continued to prepare for the gospel ministry.

On the other hand, the announcement of my licensure was also accompanied by another inescapable thought—a thought which continued to creep in the back of my mind until it eventually stretched over the forefront of my consciousness—a thought which became almost overpowering as I lay face up on the living room couch at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 14, listening to the steady ticking of the second hand coming from the mantel. I knew that in an hour and a half I would walk for the first time from the consistory room to the sanctuary, down the center aisle and up the steps to the pulpit, whereupon I would turn around and behold a sea of faces all expecting me to take charge of the proceedings for the next hour and a half.

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I begin this post drawing attention to my first experience leading the people of God in worship as a seminary student for two reasons.

In the first place, I think it is usually the case that young men who wonder whether they are being called to pursue the ministry are a bit frightened by the prospect of standing before God’s people in the worship service. I can testify that a good deal of fright and nervousness in anticipation of this work was my own experience. The fright is compounded by the fact known to every seminary student that preaching is the central work which a minister is called to do—if the student lacks the ability to preach, he is not called to the ministry.

But it is in this connection that I want to assure every young man who considers the call to the ministry: fright and nervousness regarding the prospect of standing before God’s people in the worship service is not only normal and to be expected, it is healthy and proper. The response of the prophet Isaiah when he was called by God to be a prophet is well-known: “Then said I, Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). The prophet Jeremiah responded to his calling in a similar way: “Then said I, Ah, Lord God! Behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child” (Jeremiah 1:6). I imagine if one were to ask just about any minister, candidate, or seminary student in the Protestant Reformed Churches, these would all testify that they experienced some fright and nervousness when they began to pursue the ministry. In fact, I imagine that it is the case for most ministers that they still experience nerves and fright on Sunday morning in anticipation of their work for the day. The experience of fright and nerves is normal for those who pursue the ministry.

It is also healthy and proper. I was instructed in seminary that if I did not experience the sensation of butterflies fluttering in my belly before going up to the pulpit, something is likely wrong. From a purely physical and mental point of view, nerves and fright bring about an adrenaline burst which heightens the focus and recall of the mind. But much more important is the spiritual dimension—for fear regarding my own lack of ability (in Jeremiah’s words, “I am a child!”), and fear regarding my own sin and unworthiness (in Isaiah’s words, “I am a man of unclean lips!”) is the means the Holy Spirit uses to destroy any sense of self-reliance one might have before ascending the pulpit. In this way, the Spirit drives a man to prayer. Instead of seeing his work as his own, he sees himself only as a means by which God effects his work in the hearts of his people. It is exactly this sense of reliance on God alone that the minister of the gospel must have if he is to do his work properly.

Nevertheless, I would also point out that the life of a seminarian (and I expect the life of a minister as well) is not a life of constant nervousness and fear. When Christ calls a man to the ministry, he also leads him and strengthens him along the way. Early on the young seminarian is afraid that he will not be able to complete the full volume of assignments he is given—but as the pressure increases, so the Lord gives him strength to continue. Eventually the growing seminarian is faced with the reality of standing before catechism students and he wonders whether he is able to keep a classroom under control—but the Lord opens this door for him as well. Now he is confronted with the heart of his future work, proclaiming the Word of God during Sunday worship services, and his heart palpitates at the thought—but the Lord stands on his right hand and on his left through this as well. When Jesus Christ truly calls a man to labor among his sheep, he prepares that man. Then, nerves and fright become servants which make a man ready for the work and press him forward, and continue to press him forward by the grace of God until he hears those sweet words from the Lord himself: “Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matt. 25:23).

I said at the beginning that I have two reasons for drawing attention to my first experience leading the people of God in worship. The second reason is that regularly leading God’s people in worship is a central aspect in the lives of third and fourth year seminarians. In my next post, if the Lord wills, I intend to reflect a bit on the third year of seminary.

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This article was written by Rev. Joseph Holstege who was recently ordained into the gospel ministry and is now pastor of Zion Protestant Reformed Church, in Hudsonville, Michigan.

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The Second Year of Seminary

As the three seminary students who have finished their second year of seminary can attest, second year is probably the toughest year of seminary, but also a year of rich blessings. These go together and there are a couple of reasons for this. First, second year brings a sizable increase in the seminary workload. The biggest part of this increased workload is beginning Exegesis classes. Along with Dogmatics, Exegesis forms the heart of the seminary curriculum. Exegesis is the hard work of studying, interpreting, and expositing a text of scripture. It is the task of bringing out the meaning of a text by developing its concepts, explaining them, and applying them. It is the prayerful labor with the biblical text that produces the material for a sermon. In Exegesis class the students are assigned a passage of scripture to study, explain, and apply. This is done by writing an exegesis paper, an eight to ten page paper that expounds the meaning of the assigned text. Each week (roughly) one student presents his written exegesis in class for discussion, development, and correction by the professor. Suffice to say, Exegesis is some of the most difficult and time-consuming work of the seminary curriculum, yet it is some the most important, formative, and rewarding. By delving into the word of God week after week under the skilled instruction of seasoned professors, the seminarian learns rightly to divide the word of truth. The emphasis placed on exegesis is one of the outstanding characteristics of our seminary’s curriculum. Everything aims at training students to be able exegetes and preachers of the word.

A second addition to the seminarian’s workload in the second year is the beginning of practice preaching. There are many amusing—perhaps a bit exaggerated—stories about the “horrors” of practice preaching that circulate among our people. True it is that practice preaching is often a painful process for the seminary student. Yet it is also a crucial process through which the student grows and develops in his abilities to prepare and deliver sermons. The good fruit of this necessary process is tremendous. Practice preaching is a regular part of the seminary schedule. At the beginning of the semester each student is assigned texts for two sermons they are to write and deliver throughout the semester. On Monday mornings the seminary meets in the sanctuary to hear one or two students deliver the sermons they have prepared. After the sermon is finished, brief criticism is offered by one or two other students who are assigned to evaluate certain aspects of the sermon. Next the main faculty critic presents a thorough evaluation of the sermon in all of its aspects: composition, delivery, exegesis, arrangement and logic, and overall faithfulness to the Reformed faith. Following the comments of the main critic the other professors make additional comments as they deem necessary. The student must then revise the sermon and present it to the faculty for approval. These practice preaching sermons that have been revised and approved by the professors are the sermons that seminary students eventually use in the churches once they are licensed to speak a word of edification.

There are times that the professors have to give severe criticism of sermon and the student must thoroughly rewrite his sermon. It’s a humbling process of the student but also one that builds him up. Practice preaching quickly strips away any notion the student might have that he is “something special.” It teaches him to accept constructive criticism in a healthy way. Reflecting on my own experience I am amazed how much I learned and grew through three years of practice preaching. I dare say every one of my classmates will heartily affirm that going through practice preaching was a tremendous blessing that we are thankful for. We are very thankful for faithful professors who taught and instructed us, who did not hesitate to rebuke and correct us in love, and who committed to us the precious heritage of our most holy faith, that we might be able to teach others also.

Second year is a tough year. But second year is an incredibly enjoyable year, too. “Tough” does not mean “bad” or “undesirable.” There is much excitement in regularly delving into exegesis and writing your own sermons for the first time. As frantically busy as it sometimes made me, I enjoyed second year very much. For the young man pondering the possibility of seminary, I hope you will not let the challenges of seminary discourage you from prayerfully considering and pursuing it. The first year of seminary is good preparation for the second. You will be ready for that work when you get to it. Going through second year will also furnish you with a new level of confidence in your calling. Those whom God calls he qualifies and equips for these challenges. Don’t forget that! As God qualifies and equips you to complete the work one semester at a time, you will receive tangible confirmation of call that you feel. Each year of seminary studies brings much to look forward to.

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For the month of September we will be posting a few mini blog series from some of the new candidates for the ministry in the Protestant Reformed Churches, each of which were asked by the RFPA to guest write for the RFPA blog. This article was written by Minister-elect Justin Smidstra. 

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The First Year of Seminary

Last time we took a brief look at some of what is involved in pre-seminary studies. Today we move on to the first year of study at the Protestant Reformed seminary. At our Theological School we have a four year long course of study (though it was not always so). A lot can be covered in four years, yet it seems like barely enough time to scratch the surface of some subjects. Nevertheless, as a recent graduate from the seminary I can attest to the excellence of the training which our seminary provides. Our seminary thoroughly trains and prepares men for the ministry. Our churches are immeasurably blessed to have such a good, faithful seminary with such good, faithful professors. For that let us give thanks!

What is the first year of study at the seminary like? Drawing from my experience I could describe it with many words. But for our purposes here I will stick with three adjectives: exciting, foundational, and challenging. Why I would call it exciting should be pretty obvious. After four years of college and pre-seminary preparation finally you have arrived at the place to which you have felt called to study. You’ve prayed about it fervently, you’ve mulled over it frequently, and you’ve set your heart upon it. And now the Lord has brought you to seminary. What an exciting time! I remember vividly my first day walking through the seminary doors and going to my first class (Hebrew 101 with Prof. Cammenga). However the greatest excitement of the first year belonged to the spiritual nature of the work we had the privilege of beginning. Having gone through four years of study in college (quite enjoyable study depending on which of us you ask), we were well acquainted with academics and studying. But seminary studies are noticeably different from our college studies. In the first year of seminary you get the exhilarating experience of delving into the Word of God, into theology, and into the blessed things of God and his church! Seminary is a uniquely spiritual labor of love. Already in my first year I was impressed with the immense privilege it was to study at the seminary, and that was a sense that I never lost through the subsequent years. With this in mind I heartily encourage those who are interested to audit the classes that the seminary advertises as open to visitors. Some of the spiritual enrichment that we received for four years is available to members of our churches who desire to visit and sit in on classes.

The first year of seminary can also be well described as foundational. Much of the instruction we received in the first year of seminary laid the foundations that would be built upon in the subsequent years of seminary. First year students begin the core classes such as Dogmatics and Church History which continue through the first two or three years of their seminary career. Thorough instruction in Dogmatics is at the heart of the seminary curriculum. First year students continue their study of Greek and add to it the study of Hebrew. Though these languages are quite different form each other, the study of them both is mutually reinforcing and profitable. First year students also take some more specialized classes that aim to lay the foundations for exegesis and preaching. These classes are Hermeneutics, Homiletics, and Liturgics. Hermeneutics is the study of rules and methodology of interpreting and explaining scripture. In this course the first year student learns about the nature of scripture as the God-breathed and infallible written revelation of God. The class focuses on how to deal with the language of scripture, how to interpret different literary forms and devices (e.g. parables, symbols, types, etc.), and how to let scripture shed light on its own meaning. The basic rules and principles covered in Hermeneutics are foundational for the exegesis classes that begin in the second year of seminary. Homiletics is the foundational class that gives instruction in the art of sermon preparation and delivery. In this class first year students are instructed in the basics of sermon making, how logically and coherently to arrange material under a theme and divisions, how to apply the sermon’s exposition of the biblical text to the lives of the saints, and how to communicate effectively from the pulpit. Homiletics also provides students with thorough instruction in Heidelberg Catechism preaching. This class lays the foundation for practice preaching. Finally, Liturgics is a course that focuses on the liturgy or public worship of the church. In Liturgics the professor goes through each element of the divine service, explaining the logic behind its inclusion in the service, its meaning, and its importance for the worship of God. This class provides the student with valuable instruction in how to lead a public worship service. A point of special emphasis is the place of preaching in the worship of the church. Preaching is not a lecture or merely the communication of information. Preaching is worship of God! It is worship on the part of the preacher who preaches and worship upon the part of the congregation that listens. As you can see, the first year of seminary is a rich mixture of classes all of which are indispensible.

Finally, the first year of seminary was challenging. It is challenging first of all on an academic level. Part of seminary training is learning how to work and to work hard. Seminary students learn the truth of that right from the beginning. Even though seminary can only give a small taste of what the ministry often is like, seminary is intended to prepare the students for the heavy workload of the ministry. It is certainly up a few notches from college. The heaviest part of the first year workload is the reading and writing. Classes such as Dogmatics, Church History, and Homiletics all involve a goodly amount of reading. First year students do not yet write exegesis papers or practice preaching sermons, but there are a number papers they write throughout the semester. The big one is the dogmatics research paper, a paper of journal article length that critically engages an important doctrine or doctrinal controversy.

The first year of seminary is also challenging spiritually because of the spiritual nature of the work. While it true that we are called to work faithfully and to the best of our abilities in whatever we set our hands to, there is added weight upon the seminarian due to the fact that he working with things holy and divine. The seminary student has an acute sense of the fact that he stands before God as he does his coursework in preparation for the ministry. It is good to keep this in the forefront of one’s consciousness. In the busyness of the semester it can be easy to lose sight of that. As the seminarian goes through his first year of studies he continues to wrestle with the sense of calling. In my experience my sense of calling was strengthened. Nevertheless there are times when the work gets tough or when you didn’t do as good a job on an assignment as you know you should have, and you begin to question your sense of calling. Everybody’s experience is slightly different. But my first year was marked both by times of increased confidence and discouragement. I think that is common to most seminary students. It is part of the process.

For the young man considering seminary I hope this little description of the first year of seminary piques your interest. The first year is a wonderful year of learning, growing, and spiritual enrichment. It’s a lot of work, but it is a blessed work, and it is not too much to handle. The seminary curriculum is structured in such a way that students are eased into the work load. It is when you get to second year that things ratchet up quite a bit. We will look at second year next time.

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For the month of September we will be posting a few mini blog series from some of the new candidates for the ministry in the Protestant Reformed Churches, each of which were asked by the RFPA to guest write for the RFPA blog. This article was written by Minister-elect Justin Smidstra. 

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Pre-Seminary Studies

For the month of September we will be posting a few mini blog series from some of the new candidates for the ministry in the Protestant Reformed Churches, each of which were asked by the RFPA to guest write for the RFPA blog. This first article and mini series is written by Candidate Justin Smidstra.

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In this post and the next my intention is to describe the early years of a seminary student’s course of study and relate a few of my experiences along the way. My hope is that these posts will be useful in a couple of ways. First, I hope that they will give an interesting look into “seminary hill” to readers who have not had a chance to visit the seminary. But more importantly, I hope that these posts encourage and pique the interest of young men who may be contemplating the possibility of entering seminary and preparing for the ministry of the Word in our churches.

In fact, I’d like to say a couple things to the young man wrestling with the idea of pursuing the ministry who might be reading this blog post. Considering the possibility of pursuing seminary studies can be difficult. You experience a sense of calling and a desire to go to seminary. You can’t always describe it, but you feel it. Yet, quite likely, there are also some fears, some uncertainties, some of seeming obstacles that you are facing. I know that was my experience. I was where you are not that long ago. I want to encourage you, prospective seminarian, to keep thinking and praying about pursuing studies at our seminary. Our churches need more faithful ministers of the gospel! The ministry is a high and holy calling. But the Lord is pleased to use weak means so that all the glory might be his. I often had to be reminded of this important truth: whomever the Lord calls he also qualifies and equips. When we look at ourselves, riddled as we are with all our sins, faults, and weaknesses we see how insufficient we are for these things. This is good because it keeps us humble. But be assured, if God is calling you to study at the seminary he will surely qualify and equip you for the work of the seminary. He will strengthen you and give you the necessary grace to do things for which none of us are sufficient. His strength is made perfect in weakness.

Now to the topic at hand: pre-seminary studies. When a man aspires to study in preparation for the ministry of Word in our churches he does not straightaway plunge into seminary. There is important academic and spiritual preparation to be done before beginning seminary studies proper. The first part of this pre-seminary work is obtaining an under-graduate degree. For pre-seminary students graduating from high school this means four years of college. For others who have worked in another vocation for some time or who have not attended college, it means going back to school either to obtain a bachelor’s degree for the first time or to take care of unfulfilled pre-seminary requirements.

What should a pre-seminarian study in college? The place to start is talking to the seminary registrar. He will be able to give good direction as to the courses to take. There is a fair amount of leeway. The seminary has certain prerequisites—classes in various fields of learning such as Latin, English, and philosophy to name a few—that a prospective student needs to take before entering the seminary. A full list of these prerequisites can be found in the seminary catalog. But apart from fulfilling those requirements, a pre-seminarian can pretty well choose his own course of study. I remember having some unrealistic expectations about what I had to get done in college. I began college as a theology major thinking I needed to be thoroughly trained in theology before entering seminary. Of course a pre-seminarian should have a fairly good grasp of reformed doctrine. He should be a man who reads the Bible and reads good Reformed books. He should be a man who loves the church and is active in the life of the church. But don’t think you have to be an expert in everything right from the get go. After all, you will get that thorough theological training in seminary! And the training you will get is the best to be found! The course of study that a pre-seminarian will choose to take in college is one that will give him a good foundation once he gets to seminary. Surveying the college majors represented in my seminary student class there were a variety. A few of us majored in the Classics (the study of Greco-Roman history, literature, religion, philosophy and language), a few in history, and a couple more in philosophy. All of these fields of learning were profitable preparation for seminary.

That brings me to one of the most important parts of pre-seminary studies: the two-year introductory course in Greek grammar that is taught at the seminary. The two years prior to entering seminary, pre-seminary students ordinarily make their first foray into New Testament Greek under the able instruction of one of the professors. Pre-seminary students who live in other states are not always able to take this class at the seminary. For this reason the seminary will accept Greek credits from college. The first year of pre-seminary Greek is spent acquiring a basic grasp of Greek grammar by working through Machen’s New Testament Greek for Beginners. The second year is dedicated to increasing fluency in reading and translation by working through some of the simpler passages of the Greek New Testament. In my own experience these two years of elementary Greek instruction were very valuable and enjoyable. Not only was I learning how to read Greek and growing in my knowledge of God’s Word, I was also getting to know my classmates, my future professors, and the whole life of the seminary a little bit better. During those years my sense of calling to pursue seminary studies was reinforced. These pre-seminary years really do serve to prepare a man to enter the rigors of seminary proper. When I began college I was quite nervous about entering seminary. By the time I was finished with pre-seminary studies I was as eager as ever to begin.

The thought of trying to master the biblical languages can be an intimidating prospect for the young man considering seminary. After all English is hard enough, isn’t it? Then add two ancient languages on top of that? I encourage the young man considering seminary not to look at the languages as an insurmountable obstacle. True, they can be tough. But the difficulty of learning Greek is sometimes exaggerated. With hard work and dedication a good grasp of the Greek is very attainable, even if you don’t consider yourself a language guru. More than that, it is enjoyable! Learning to read the Scriptures in the original tongues, to delve into their unsearchable depths, and to bring out the richness of God’s Word is both exhilarating and spiritually edifying. There are a lot of blessings that come along with the hard work of study. The same goes for Hebrew when you get to it later in seminary.

The completion of these two years of pre-seminary Greek brings pre-seminary studies to a close. The last step of the pre-seminary track is applying for entrance into the seminary. This requires getting a letter of recommendation from one’s consistory and submitting it to the Theological School Committee (TSC). The applicant must also make a personal appearance before the TSC. At this “interview” of sorts the applicant is asked a variety of important questions ranging from his motives for seeking admission into seminary to his commitment to the distinctive doctrinal positions of the Protestant Reformed Churches. I remember being quite nervous about this interview. The thought of going before the TCS and answering questions was an intimidating prospect. While some nervousness is to be expected, the interview is not something to be overly anxious about. The men on the TSC are servants of the Lord Jesus Christ who love his church and are interested in maintaining the ministry of the gospel in our churches. Their goal in the interview is not to stump the applicant. It’s about ascertaining a man’s spiritual character and ensuring that his motives are pure. And that is a good thing! We ought to be thankful that our seminary has the faithful oversight of the TSC and for the important work that this committee does on behalf of our churches.

To bring things to a close, I’d like again to say something to you young men thinking about seminary. The years of pre-seminary studies are good years. They are a time for you to get acquainted with the seminary and get a taste of the work you will do in seminary. They are also a time for you to grow spiritually and grow in your sense of calling. Conviction of the call you feel is something that grows progressively throughout your years of study. As time goes by that sense of calling and desire to do the work will increase and be strengthened. It doesn’t always all come at once. That was my experience, at any rate. I hope that this may be of some encouragement to you seriously and prayerfully to consider pursuing seminary studies.

God will guide and make his good will clear.

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Justin Smidstra has been declared a candidate for the ministry in the Protestant Reformed Churches of America.

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