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