Final thoughts (from me anyway)

Posted by
A couple of thoughts on Sean's helpful clarification:

First, in his first post, it is important to note that Sean was not simply speaking positively of Covenant.  My concern was that he passed a general judgment on all seminaries with a doctoral program.  As I quoted, "Even when seminary faculty view the PhD program as an extension of ministerial training, because the PhD is oriented toward the academic guild, the overarching ethos of the seminary tends to move away from ministerial training toward professional knowledge."  That would seem to be a serious indictment of numerous seminaries, including not just WTS but Southern,TEDS and others as well.

Second, I certainly do not wish to argue that seminaries should not be involved in spiritual formation.   But again two things need to be at the centre of discussion here:

First, what is the nature of the relationship between church and seminary and their respective roles?  I agree with Sean that seminaries exist to train ministers and those who work with them in the church; and that makes it vital that churches and seminaries reflect long and hard on issues such as the definition of the church, the nature of ministry, the qualifications for ministry, the means of grace etc.   I am not wanting to prejudge any of these things but simply to point out that there is a discussion to be had here which does not seem to be taking place.

Second, we need to ask ourselves what exactly spiritual formation and piety are.   I suspect that some of the disagreement between Michael, Sean and myself may relate to precisely this point.    Indeed, to ask whether we should promote spiritual formation is surely a bit like asking if we should oppose injustice.  The answer is obviously yes; but whether we agree on what exactly constitutes injustice and how it is to be opposed is another matter.

Take, for example, the notion of compulsory attendance at seminary chapel, fellowship groups or prayer meetings.  Sounds like a plan, as they say in America.  But imagine the student who works all night as a security guard and then comes straight from the night shift to an 8.30 am class.  Should he be made to stay for chapel at 10.30?  Would it not be better for him to go home, to rest up, to be with his wife and children?   I would say that that would an act of biblical piety and represent precisely the kind of character trait which Paul sees as a sign of spiritual maturity and qualification for ministerial office in 1 Timothy, esp. chapters 3 and 4.

Or take another student who is very committed to serving in the local church and thus finds that his free time in the evenings and at weekends is at a premium.  Should he have to go to chapel or a prayer meeting at seminary when he could use that time to study and thus to free up a little space in the evenings and weekends to be a good father or husband, to be there to read his kids a bedtime story or take his wife out for a nice meal and make her feel a little special? Or perhaps his wife is working to put him through seminary; then maybe his working through chapel and fellowship group times is what enables him to get a passing grade and to honour her sacrifice on his behalf. Again, these actions all look very much like biblical piety and signs of spiritual maturity to me.

And what about me?  Am I sinning or showing spiritual immaturity or neglecting my responsibilities to the students when I am absent from seminary chapel, as I very frequently am?   What if I use that time to read and to study so that my classes will be more competently taught?  Or to meet one-on-one with students, and that not to talk about how they are 'feeling' about their spiritual 'journey' but to discuss the arguments of their academic papers?  What if I simply want to sit down and have a cup of coffee after an intense two hour class rather than go to a fellowship group?  Are my choices necessarily unspiritual ones?  Might they not actually help to make me a more, not less, competent professor and minister?  And, if I choose simply to rest or catch up on paperwork, does this not mean that I have more time in the evenings to be a father and husband?

Of course, I consider spiritual formation to be a good thing -- self-evidently so, just like rugby union, fine cognac and all and every satirical parody written by Craig Brown.   But I refuse to accept any necessary dichotomy between book learning and spirituality.  As Warfield did, so I too believe that study can and should be done with passionate spiritual devotion.  Like Luther, I repudiate the medieval notion of a hierarchy of spiritual and unspiritual callings, even when refracted through the lens of Protestant evangelicalism.  And I see the first and most important way I help 'spiritually form' my students to be telling them that they need to study hard and be passionately committed to their local churches and, if they have them, to their wives and children.  And I also agree with Jesus: when confronted by the Pharisees, his answer to their defective piety was often not  to tell them to attend more fellowship meetings but an urgent encouragement to them to study books not less but more: 'Have you not read....?'

This discussion is important.  But let us not assume at the outset that even the terms of debate are matters of agreement.  We need first of all to define exactly what is the role of seminaries relative to the church; and, perhaps just as fundamentally, in what exactly biblical piety and spiritual maturity consist.  Only then can any constructive thinking about spiritual formation really take place.
Posted August 10, 2012 @ 12:28 PM by Carl Trueman

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