William Ames' Exhortation to Students of Theology
Since theological seminaries have recently held graduations and a new class of students will soon enter, I thought it would be a fun exercise to write a post on "the learned Doctor" William Ames' advice to theological students. William Ames (1576–1633) was an Englishman who was "exiled" to the Netherlands for the end of his life and ministry. If any of you know much about the Dutch, you'll understand the great blessing Ames had in teaching at the University of Franeker in the province of Friesland (laugh if you get the tongue-in-cheek joke). On May 23, 1622, the independent-minded, some would say stubborn, Frieslanders installed Ames at their small but "gracious academy of Friesland." A little over year later he gave a lecture entitled, Parenesis ad studios theologiae, habita Franekerae, Aug. 22, anno 1623, "An Exhortation to the Students of Theology, Dwelling in Franeker, August 22, the Year 1623." This lecture was translated in 1958 by Douglas Horton and is available through Inter-Library Loan or through sending me a few guilders.
Ames begins by defining the nature of theology as he did in his Medulla theologica, also published in 1623, in which Ames said so famously, "Theology is the doctrine or teaching of living to God." In his exhortation, Ames said it was necessary for the University to "call theology away from questions and controversies, obscure, confused, and not very essential, and introduce it to life and practice so that students would begin to think seriously of conscience and its concerns." No doubt Ames' definition and populist concern reflects his relationship towards Johannes Maccovius, whom he considered too speculative.
First among Ames' concerns was to counter what he perceived as a lack of understanding by students of "the proper end of theology." He discussed this using 1 Timothy 4:16 as his text, which says the minister must be aware of his teaching since it saves himself and his hearers. This meant that students need to know that they were to be devoted to the glory of God and the edification of the church. Contrary to this concern for the proper end of theology were those who entered the ministry for financial gain or just like they would enter
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a business. God help us from this attitude in ourselves and for us so privileged, in purging this attitude from those we are shepherding towards the ministry as seminary students. While these were "useless weights to the church," Ames said "the greater marvel is the grace and providence of God, by which it has come about that up till now the church has lived on, although burdened to an unhappy degree by men of this hireling kind." Amen! Ames also linked his concern for the proper end of theology with the conscience, saying, "The mirror in which the image of eternal truth is reflected must be pure and clean. As far as possible there ought to be no stains of vice or flaws of selfishness in that heart in which the divine wisdom is to tabernacle." How important a godly character is to the preparation for the ministry! Cleanse your mind, seminary students, of greed, pride, arrogance, anger, envy, and contentiousness, to name a few areas. I remember those seminary days well.
Ames' second concern was to impress upon his students the high calling of the ministry: "What can be thought more important or useful than the profession of the ministry? Here one does not treat of lands and estates and similar earthly matters, as in civil law, but of the supremest good and the highest heaven, not of temporal bodily health, as in medicine, but of salvation and eternal life. Not here, as elsewhere, do they enquire into the sentiments, orders, decisions, and rulings of men, but into the eternal wisdom of God and His perfect will." I don't know if I've ever read it better than this.
Ames' third concern was to show that the ministry concerned not only doctrine, but method and practice, using the illustration of physicians of old who divided their discipline into these three areas. This was important, because, as Ames said, "Our ministers, however, think themselves to be quite prepared for all the parts of their office if they know only the doctrines—and would they knew them!" It is for this reason that the Scriptures were to be studied for doctrine and for the practice of godliness. What does this mean for us? It means that just because you like to read, just because you like theology, and just because you are able to cite a few passages of Scripture, from Calvin, or from the Confessions to make a point does not mean you are being called into the ministry.
In conclusion, like a good Ramist, Ames ended his exhortation with the use of his word concerning the end of theology, the high calling of the ministry, and the need to study for purposes of doctrine and godliness. Here Ames spoke to his students about "theological exercises," which were the ways the things they learned were sharpened and put into practice. Ames' exhortation to his students was that they participated in disputations, that is, formal theological debate. They needed to engage in rehearsing their sermons so that they would benefit their hearers; they need to pray; they needed to engage in holy meditation; and as fellow students, they needed to exhort, admonish, and console each other as brothers in the Lord. May God help us to do so.