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.
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.