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.
_______________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.