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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