What is a strong seminary?
Books are written on this subject. But for a seminary to be strong, three features, intimately interrelated, stand out:
1. It must be true to the Bible. It needs to interpret Scripture accurately and incorporate its truths into every aspect of seminary learning and life.
2. It must be true to its Christian heritage. Seminaries appear by the will of a Christian community. A Reformed seminary reflects the will, the conviction, and the sacrifice of generous supporters and pastoral interpreters going back to John Calvin and indeed to the whole Great Tradition rooted in the apostles, prophets, and Christ himself whose words the Bible sets forth.
3. It must be true to the needs of the hour—like the tumultuous times in which we find ourselves. A strong seminary is not an ivory tower preserving a status quo of olden days but a living sanctuary for the ongoing preservation of the sound knowledge of God.
Why is a strong seminary so crucial?
Seminaries serve the body of Christ in many different ways. Here are four that are crucial.
1. A seminary has a very strategic role since its graduates often go out into leadership roles that have impact and influence well beyond them as individuals. The purpose of a seminary is thus to safeguard the truth, train leaders to handle and proclaim this truth, and in so doing feed the body of Christ with God’s truth. As a result, churches are able to equip their members so that individuals, families, and communities are impacted by the gospel. In short, faithful churches require faithful leaders; a seminary helps prepare leaders to lead faithfully.
2. Directly related to the above, the seminary provides initial grounding and equipping of those leading and working in the church. Some who come to seminary lack basic Bible knowledge. The seminary years are an occasion to address that deficit. Many are hazy on points of Christian doctrine. Seminary classes ground them in the Bible’s teaching and the church’s mission. Many students are weak in their understanding of the history of the church. At seminary, sometimes for the first time, they begin to see the presence of the kingdom of God through the church in all times and many places.
3. It is not enough, however, simply to grow in knowledge to be an effective leader. A seminary needs to be a training ground for one’s whole life: heart, mind, soul, body. Stated differently, seminary training should be transformational not just transactional, resulting in a changed heart in addition to growth in biblical knowledge. Covenant’s focus is therefore on training the whole person for ministry, in a context of community, to meet the whole person needs of the church. And at the heart of that transformation is one’s relationship to Christ. As we often say, a seminary graduate should love Christ more deeply when they graduate than when they came—and thus desire all the more to share him with others.
4. The seminary sustains a learning community in the form of a faculty that provides valuable written or spoken preaching/teaching resources for the church both global and national. For example, many pastors and ministry leaders make heavy use of biblical commentaries; Covenant professors have had the privilege of writing and editing commentaries in leading Evangelical series used across the globe. Similarly, Christians of all sorts make use of books addressing a wide range of issues related to the Christian life, and Covenant faculty have again had the privilege of serving the church through books on counseling, education, leadership, and other topics.
What does it take for a seminary to be strong?
While there are many factors needed for a seminary to be strong (including financial health, a steady stream of students, etc.), there are two foundational elements required.
First, there must be strong guardrails for maintaining theological orthodoxy. This is where Covenant enjoys the strong privilege of being the PCA’s denominational seminary. This connection to the PCA helps in at least three ways:
1. Full-time faculty are required to have the same doctrinal alignment with the PCA as PCA pastors do.
2. Faculty are hired by the board, who are in turn appointed by the General Assembly, thus providing denominational oversight to the school.
3. Every year faculty are required to sign a statement affirming their ongoing doctrinal alignment with the PCA (something not even PCA pastors are required to do).
Taken together, these establish an incredibly strong set of guardrails for maintaining theological orthodoxy.
The second foundational element is a strong team of professors who share three things in common. First, they must have a deep love for the Lord. The goal of the Christian life is to love the Lord with our entire self; we cannot train students to do that if it does not characterize our own lives.
We see our colleagues’ love for the Lord show up in dozens of ways but a shining example occurs every week during our faculty meetings. Our meetings always begin with a devotional, the sharing of prayer requests, and then prayer together. As we listen to our colleagues share and pray—the needs they express, the care they show for one another and our students, the way they cry out to the Lord—what we see is a group of people who deeply love the Lord, who deeply recognize their need of the Lord’s help in their own lives and in the lives of our students, and who deeply desire for his kingdom to flourish.
Second, the faculty must have ministry experience. Covenant puts a premium on this simply because we are preparing students for various ministries in Christ’s Church. To put this differently: with an ever-increasing number of PhD graduates available to teach, it is relatively easy to find someone who can be a scholar in the classroom. But students need to know more than simply how to study God’s Word; they need help knowing how to minister God’s Word to his people. As a result, Covenant hires those who have spent a lot of time doing this very thing and who therefore always keep one eye on the person in the pew while they are teaching their students.
Third, the faculty must have top-quality scholars. Covenant is training students to think well about the Bible and the Christian life and thus seeks those who can model good thinking for its students. Covenant’s faculty have earned their PhDs in some of the top programs in the world and regularly contribute to the mission of the church through writing and speaking. In terms of writing in particular, their books appear in monograph series that are regularly used by those in scholarship and in commentary series that are regularly used by those in pastoral ministry. Their articles appear in some of the top peer-reviewed journals for their discipline as well as in more popular level journals, magazines, and of course, in blogposts.
What motivates those who teach in seminaries?
Jay: While there are a dozen different things that motivate me to teach at a seminary, two in particular rise to the top.
1. The students in front of me—and those they will one day minister to. Throughout the years, I have seen again and again how the Lord uses students’ experiences at seminary to transform their lives. I see this not only in the classroom but also outside of it, as when students learn how to be brutally open and honest in closely-knit cohort groups about the deepest sins they struggle with. The Church benefits profoundly when those leading it have experienced the Lord’s own work of grace in the deepest parts of their lives. I see this benefit with my own eyes when I visit our graduates’ churches and see the ways the Lord is using them to faithfully minister his word, teach and shepherd his people, and lead them into Christian maturity. Even now, it makes me pause to thank God for these men and women, their faithful service to his church, and the way he is using them all across the world to equip his people to be faithful followers of Jesus.
2. My colleagues: countless times over the years I have been so grateful to God for allowing me to be a part of the teaching team at Covenant. My colleagues have modelled humility to me in the way they serve one another, whether it is taking on a more challenging semester of teaching in order to lessen the burden for someone else in their department or simply by helping to clean up the dishes after a faculty meeting. They have modelled academic rigor to me in the way they stay up on the latest trends in their fields and do the mind-numbing labor of writing in-depth scholarly work. They have modelled a profound understanding of grace to me in the way they joyfully maintain the work of God in Christ as the foundation, the cornerstone, of the Christian life, helping me to remember that I do not serve God in order to gain his love: I serve him with reverent joy and thankfulness because of the rich love he has shown me in Christ.
Bob: Even in my thirty-fourth year of teaching, the joy and challenge of seminary teaching gets me up most mornings even before my alarm sounds at 4 AM. What are some of those joys and challenges?
1. The privilege: what is more fascinating, engrossing, convicting, liberating, and constraining than close attention to Holy Scripture with a view to helping others glimpse what is there, too? A daily walk with God expressed in the study of Scripture and explaining it to others is a privilege to be treasured (though I confess I do not do it justice).
2. The need: my seminary study, now and over the years, has positioned me to speak into the lives of several thousand students in the US and many hundreds of students and pastors in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia. People everywhere, like me, are sinners. We desperately need the healing touch of God’s grace that God’s Word in Christ conveys. The church everywhere needs encouragement and instruction so its leaders can more effectively deliver the Word and be a redemptive presence in the world. The call to assist in that mandate is a strong motivator.
3. The camaraderie: Google tells me that word means “mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together.” That describes my ties with Covenant faculty and wonderful professors, pastors, missionaries, and other church workers that I have served with elsewhere since I began teaching in 1985. There have been highs, like publishing projects completed or seeing graduates move into effective ministries. There have been lows, like death and sickness and institutional setbacks that are unavoidable in this fallen world. Still, to be part of a faculty team serving in this domain of the body of Christ is energizing. Covenant faculty, staff, and administration constitute a collection of people with whom it is a joy to rub shoulders, worship, and co-labor.
4. The cause: Christ said he would build his church. The church international has grown to an unprecedented extent in recent generations. Christ’s promise, never lacking in fulfillment, is bearing fruit in our world today at levels that are almost dizzying to contemplate. At the same time, some 90,000 Christians a year are dying of persecution. About 250 daily! What could be more dramatic than to play even a tiny role in the spread of the gospel and in the resistance to its enemies human and demonic at such a crucial, eschatological hour?
Jesus taught us to say, even when we do all we are commanded (which, I’m afraid, I have yet to ever accomplish), these words: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10). Yet he calls us, cleanses us daily (John 13:8), and makes use of our fitful sacrifices of service. For those who know God in Christ, there is no greater reason for whatever enterprise the Lord assigns us. Sacred duty stirred by God’s grace is its own unspeakably gratifying reward.
Dr. Jay Sklar is Professor of Old Testament and Vice President of Academics at Covenant Theological Seminary.
Dr. Bob Yarbrough is Professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary.