It is customary to say that the theological seminaries are training-schools for the ministry. Properly understood, that is the right thing to say. But it is not very difficult, and it is very common, seriously to exaggerate the function of the seminary under this definition. It is not the function of the seminary to give young men their entire training for the ministry. That is the concern of the presbytery; and no other organization can supersede the presbytery in this business. The seminary is only an instrument which the presbytery uses in training young men for the ministry. An instrument, not the instrument. The presbytery uses other instruments also in this work.
There is the academy, for example; and the university. It being once understood that the ministry is to be an educated ministry, the academy and the university become instruments which the Church uses in training young men for its ministry. And there is the local church. It is to the local church that the presbytery commits its candidates for the ministry, for moral and spiritual oversight and training. The seminary cannot properly undertake the work of these other instrumentalities. It is essential, if the ministry is to be an educated body, that the minister shall know his A B C’s. It does not follow that the seminary ought to teach young men their A B C’s. It is absolutely necessary, if the ministry is to be a religious body, that every minister should be a converted man. It is not therefore the function of the seminary to convert its students.
No one will suspect me of suggesting that the seminary need not be a “nursery of piety” – any more than that it need not be a “nursery of learning.” But no one ought to contend that the seminary ought to be either expected or permitted to begin with either piety or learning at the beginning. The illiterate and the ungodly have simply no place in the seminary. And if they actually are found there, the remedy is not that the seminary should enlarge its borders and take on the functions either of a primary school or of a confirmation class. The seminary has its own specific work to do, and that work presupposes in its pupils attainments both in literature and in piety. Young men go to it only after they have acquired the education which is common to all educated men, and have made such progress in piety as ranks them with the especially pious men of the community. Basing on this foundation, the seminary undertakes to give to candidates for the ministry the specific training which is peculiar to them as ministers; which fits them, in a word, for the worthy prosecution of the particular work of a minister. It is, in this sense, the finishing-school of the ministry; and it must give itself strictly to those things which the deeply pious man of liberal culture still requires, in order that he may fulfil the office of a minister with credit to himself and to the advantage of the Church.
What precisely must be taught in a theological seminary will be determined by our conception of the ministry for the exercise of the functions of which it offers preparation. And that will be determined ultimately by our conception of the Church. On the sacerdotal theory of the Church, the business of the minister is to perform certain rites, by the correct performance of which the effect sought is obtained. The seminary, in this view, becomes a training-school in the exact sense of that term. It is the place where the prospective minister is trained to perform these rites properly. On the rationalistic theory, the Church is simply a club for intellectual entertainment, or, at the best, a society for ethical culture, or a benevolent organization. The function of the preacher is to be the leader of the group which he serves in such activities; and his training ought to be such as will fit him for this. Great stress will naturally be laid on literary culture, and the masters of thought will take a large place in the theological curriculum. Or, perhaps, the best course in the seminary will be one in sociology – possibly a census of the inhabitants within a given radius of a country church.
None of these things are bad. Even the evangelical minister would do well to know how to conduct the services of the church acceptably. And it will not hurt him a bit to be on speaking terms with Plato and Emerson – and Galsworthy and H. G. Wells and Marie Corelli! Certainly it will be of advantage to him to be at least aware of the social unrest growling around him, and of the terrible distress which it may lie within his power to do something to mitigate or relieve. But all this will not make him a good minister of the gospel of Christ. Do not even the heathen the same? Christ has sent him not to baptize, but to preach the gospel; not to ameliorate the lot of men, but to carry to them salvation. On the evangelical view, the Church is the communion of saints, gathered out of a lost world; and the business of the minister is to apply the saving gospel to lost men for their salvation from sin – from its guilt and from its corruption and power. Palpably, what he needs for this is just the gospel; and if he is to perform his functions at all, he must know this gospel, know it thoroughly, know it in all its details, and in all its power. It is the business of the seminary to give him this knowledge of the gospel. That is the real purpose of the seminary.
It is important that we think worthily of the minister, and understand exactly what the great task which is laid upon him involves. The ministry is not a handicraft, a certain skill in the performance of which may be acquired simply by practice. It is a “learned profession”: one of the three, or at the most four, learned professions which divide between them the expert care of man in his several relations. Man is a composite being, with body and soul, set in a social organism, dependent on a physical environment. He needs expert guidance in every sphere of his existence. Science mediates between him and nature. It is the lawyer who advises him in his social relations. The physician cares for his body. The minister is his guide in spiritual things.
It is possible to argue that we can do very well without any of these guides. It is easier to argue it than to practise it. The Lord has not intended his people to hobble along in their religious living. He has appointed ministers in the churches, and given them the task of shepherding the flock. And no minister is fitted for the position he occupies, unless he is prepared to act as spiritual adviser of the community which he serves. We may talk of “the simple gospel” being enough; and we may thank God that the gospel is simple, and that it is enough. But it is no simple matter rightly to apply this simple gospel in all the varied relations of life, in the multiform emergencies which arise in the tangled business of living. Read but the Epistle to the Romans. Was the right exposition of the gospel in the conditions then obtaining at Rome, given us in the first eleven chapters of this Epistle, so simple a matter that Paul might just as well have left it to the Romans themselves to work it out? Was the application of this gospel to life at Rome in the first Christian century, added in the remaining chapters, so simple a matter that it did not need a Paul to make it rightly? Perhaps we nowhere see the minister more plainly at work than in the First Epistle to the Corinthians. These questions which the Corinthians put to Paul, and he answered with so much care – did they really not need to be asked of him or answered by him? The minister in his place, as Paul in his, is the spiritual guide and adviser of his people.
For this, we say, he needs to know the gospel: to know it at first hand, and to know it through and through. All the work of the seminary must be directed just to this end. For one thing, the minister must learn the code in which the gospel message is written. He must be able to de-code it; to de-code it for himself. No trusting the de-coding to another! This is the message of salvation, and he is the channel by which it is conveyed to men. He cannot take it at second-hand. He must get it for himself, and convey it first-handed to those entrusted to his care. He must, in other words, know the languages in which the gospel is written; and he must be skilled in drawing out from the documents the exact meaning. And, then, he must know the message, thus drawn out, thoroughly, and all its compass, and in all its details, in its right perspective, and in its just proportions. Otherwise he cannot use it aright. Of course, he must also be skilled in winningly presenting this message, thus thoroughly known, and in helpfully applying it, point by point, to emerging needs. These things constitute the core of the seminary’s teaching. There are others that stand very close to them; so close that they cannot be dispensed with as props and stays. The minister must know how to defend the gospel he preaches. And he should know something of the history this gospel has wrought for itself in the world. These things not for themselves, but for the aid they bring him for understanding the gospel better for himself, and for commending it more powerfully to others.
Without this much equipment, the evangelical minister is robbed of his dignity and shorn of his strength. He cannot be the spiritual guide and adviser of the community, as the lawyer is the legal guide and the physician the medical adviser. He sinks into a mere handicraftsman plying a manual trade, learned by rote; or into a mere lecturer to a club or leader in benevolent activities. Of course, “the simple preaching” of the “simple gospel” will not fail of its effect. The loving lisping of the name of Jesus by the lips of a child may carry far. But that is no reason why we should man our pulpits with children lisping the name of Jesus. The foolishness of preaching is one thing: foolish preaching is another. Let us not deceive ourselves: in religion as in everything else knowledge is power. That is a platitude. But platitudes have this to be said for them – they are true. Nothing – not fervor, not devotion, not zeal – can supersede the necessity of knowledge. If knowledge without zeal is useless; zeal without knowledge is worse than useless – it is positively destructive. This is Reformation year: let us ask ourselves why was William Farel, consumed with zeal, burning with evangelical fervor, proclaiming the pure gospel, helpless at Geneva – until “with dreadful imprecations” he brought to his aid John Calvin: John Calvin, scholar become saint, scholar-saint become preacher of God’s grace? What we need in our pulpits is scholar-saints become preachers. And it is the one business of the theological seminaries to make them.
Taken from The Collected Shorter Writings of B.B.Warfield, Volume One, pp 374-378, published by Presbyterian & Reformed (Phillipsburg, NJ). It first appeared as an article in The Presbyterian, Nov. 22, 1917, pp. 8-9.