Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Teaching Theology for 140 Years - I.

One of the questions that has exercised the Church for the last two thousand years is the training of the ministry. The LOrd Jesus Christ chose men who had for the most part no more than the usual level of education for their day, and most of the early leaders of the Church were of average education, although as Jewish men they were trilingual (knowing Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic) and literate, having to read the Scriptures.

So should there be any special training for the ministry? There are some who answer in the negative forcefully, and say that all a minister needs is a call from God. Others treat the ministry like a profession. Three years in a semionary, they think, gives anyone all that is needed to be a minister. In fact we think things are not so clear cut. An ignorant ministry was the sacandal of the Middle Ages, when many priests knew little of the Bible, but an unspiritual minstry was the scandal of the eighteenth century, when many university-trained ministers were utter strangers to the new birth, just as Nicodemus was.

We begin with the assumption that there must be a divine call for any man to minister the Gospel. But when that call is recognised, is it enough? Historically the Reformed Churches have said that it is not. There must be some preparation, some sort of teaching. This existed in the early Church, as 2 Timothy 2.2 shows us:
"And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also."
But how to do this teaching? On that the Churches have differed, and will differ. In this series, God willingg, we shall trace the history of answers to that question in what would become the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, from 1736 to 1876.

In 1736 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland cast out of her some of the finest and most evangelical ministers of the period. Among them were the Erskine brothers. These men were cast out simply for refusing to tolerate unconstitutional actions by the Assembly in its riding rough-shod (almost literally) over the rights of the lower courts. At once they found themselves faced with the question of how to train the future ministers of their infant church. The Church of Scotland demanded a learned ministry; ministers were expected to be graduates of a university, preferably one of the four Scottish ones (counting as we do today, though in 1736 the university of Aberdeen was in fact two universities, leading to the quip that Aberdeen had as many universities as the whole of England), and then had to pass through the Church's theological curriculum, taught in Divinity Halls that were part of the universities, though faculty were appointed by the General Assembly.

These halls were of course shut to the Seceders, and even if they had not been, it is doubtful that the infant denomination would have sent its students to them. The theology professors, where not actually suspected of heresy, were on the whole dry and unspiritual, and the tone in the universities was low. The Seceders had to find another way.

This was the age of Methodism, and it is entirely within the realm of possibility that the Seceders could have acted as Wesley did and waived the need for a university education, supplying their ministers with a sort of distance learning course majoring on solid Reformed literature. They did not follow this course, however. Instead they resolved to set up their own Divinity Hall and to appoint one of their number as Theological Professor. Yes, just one professor was to teach all the students. The session of the Hall was timed during the summer vacation of the schools, as most students supported themselves by teaching.

God willing, having seen the plan, we shall see how it actually worked, at least in part, next time.



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