The Education and Special Training of Ministers in Theological Schools

The following paper, “The Education and Special Training of Ministers in Theological Schools,” was delivered to the Œcumenical Methodist Conference in London in 1881 by Rev. William Burt Pope. A PDF is available here. If you identify any errors in the text, please email contact@holyjoys.org.

Although the subject assigned to me—“The Education and Special Training of Ministers in Theological Schools”—prescribes no limitation, my treatment of it must be, by the necessity and propriety of the present hour, restricted to the training of probationers in the theological colleges of Methodism, and especially their training in theology. This at once shuts out the ideal from our scope and confines us to the hard reality of our own position. It would be easy to sketch the discipline of a divinity school conducted under other and better conditions: one, namely, into which candidates are received after having passed through all the preliminary stages of elementary education. It need not be said that this has been the universal theory of the Universities of Christendom; first, the curriculum of literature, science and philosophy, including all that is general in mental discipline and equipment; and then, but not till then, the special studies belonging to a ministerial vocation; adequate grounding in the sacred languages, with its application to the study of the Bible; and the prosecution of a course of theology proper in all its departments. This is undoubtedly the right theory; the necessity which sets it aside is a hard necessity; and the nearer we can approach it the better. But the several communities of Methodism must resign the hope of reaching that consummation. It is one secret of our strength that men are sent to us by the Holy Ghost for the service of Christ generally, and our own particular service, who have not the preparatory education which would warrant our dealing with them as theological students only. We cannot have our divinity schools, pure and simple, waiting for these probationers, after they have spent some time in seminaries for preliminary discipline. They come to us, so to speak, as already ministers designate; and, in the great majority of cases, could not undergo the successive ordeals of school after school without losing their vigour, and the impetus of their original call. What then is the consequence? Our colleges are perforce seminaries for “the Education and Special Training of Ministers,” as my theme, whether designedly or undesignedly, words it. The same students are prosecuting their studies at the same time in almost every branch of knowledge; all their studies paying, it is true, a loyal homage to theology, which, however, must of necessity become only the first among equal claimants of time and thought. And all the work in all their departments must be done in two or three short years.

Let me say, before proceeding, that while we feel the rigour of this necessity on the one hand, we rejoice over it on the other. On the whole, the multifarious system works well throughout our institutions for ministerial training everywhere. Everywhere, I say; for although we may presently hear that some progress has been made by Western Methodism towards a realisation of the higher ideal, the general principle holds universally good, that the theological training of our colleges must submit to be thus fettered. And now arises the important question: What is the kind of theological training that may be arrived at under these restrictions, and how may the very restrictions themselves be turned to advantage?

The first object is to impress on the minds of students the clear and comprehensive outlines of systematic theology as such.

The first object, and one that may be attained even within the limits of our term of study, is to impress on the minds of students the clear and comprehensive outlines of systematic theology as such. The character of this assembly makes it superfluous to dilate on the supremacy of that science which gives its value to all other science. Suffice that His name is in it in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden. Nor is it needful to contend for its claims to be in reality a science—having all the attributes, and sustaining all the tests, and answering all the ends, of what may be truly called by that name. There is a unity and organic perfection in the sum of truth we term theology, which it is of the first importance to impress on the students; and whatever else we can do, we can send them out with its great systematic outlines engraven ineffaceably upon their minds, to be afterwards filled up by patient industry. This does not imply any particular system; for every tutor may be presumed to have his own. It only suggests the value to the student, at the outset of his studies, of a comprehensive view of the entire analysis of his great subject. And the more thoroughly that analysis descends from generals to particulars, the better for his future progress. Every doctrine has its relation to every other doctrine, and no one truth can be fully studied unless it is first located in its own place, and then viewed in its bearings on all the rest. Take any of them, from the least to the greatest,—if such words may be here used,—and a good system will assign its own position, its proper home, where it shines in its full brightness and gives out its full meaning. But it reappears, though with fainter light, in many other regions of the great analysis. Having its own place—let us say—among the privileges of the Christian believer, where its richest melody is heard, it vibrates also in the attributes of God, in the atonement of Christ, in the offices of the Spirit, in the covenant of grace, in the ethics of the Christian life, and in the heavenly world itself. It would be as easy to illustrate this as thus to generalise. Suffice that here is a worthy aim for a short course of discipline. The outlines cannot be filled in adequately; but the well-arranged scheme may be so wrought into the fabric of the student’s theological thought that it shall be part and parcel of his mental constitution abidingly. And if—which will not, however, be the case—he should leave the college with little more than this clear and full programme, his time will not have been lost. He will never again study theology as a mere series of unconnected topics, one following the other in the order of a dictionary. He will not give disproportionate place to any particular doctrine, forgetting the harmony of the whole. He will be saved from the great danger of taking a onesided view of any truth. More than that, if he abides faithful to his early principle, his theological system will be more and more the object of his reverence and delight, until, articulated in its great framework and reticulated down to its minutest fibre, it absorbs his whole soul and draws into itself by degrees all other knowledge. Everything he knows, or cares to know, will take its place in that sacred sphere of which God, in Christ, is both circumference and centre.

The more thoroughly that analysis descends from generals to particulars, the better for his future progress.

The restrictions of our course of theological study suggest further the importance of a certain unity in the method of conducting it, so far as it must go beyond a mere analysis. The ideal—to return for a moment to that—would dictate distinct courses on the apologetics or evidences, which, if worth anything, must include almost the whole round of theology; on the dogmatic faith, running over much of the same ground in another interest; and then on the polemical or historical developments of truth: all this being followed by courses on the morals and institutions of Christianity. Now it seems to be our wisdom, pressed as we are, to combine, if possible, all these objects in one scheme. It is sound economy to treat every subject at once dogmatically, apologetically, and historically, the ethics of Christianity being bound up with its dogmas, and its institutions incorporated also into the same system. This means no less than that in one and the same course of lectures the truths of our common faith should be defined, defended, traced in their history, exhibited in their moral aspects, and connected with the institutions of the Church to which they have been committed for preservation. Nor can there be any valid objection to this. Some of the best theology of modern times has followed that method. It may be said, with regard to the evidences of Christianity in particular, that they should be studied apart and distinctly, especially in days when the Faith is assaulted as it never was before. But there is no possible defence of Christianity which is not bound up with the defence of its specific doctrines. What attacks upon our religion, what hypotheses of error, are conceivable which do not confront successively our doctrines of God, and the creation, and the Scriptural account of the fall and recovery of man? Nor can the evidences of revealed religion be more effectually taught than by letting every truth deliver its own credentials. If it is urged that the doctrines should be presented apart from all controversy, and in their dogmatic simplicity, the answer is obvious. There is no better way of establishing a dogma than by showing that no opposition can avail against it; and no better way of endearing it to the heart than by showing its past triumphs in the history of the Church’s conflicts. This is the New Testament method: witness the discourses and epistles of St. Paul. By this method modern theology purged itself from the corruption of ages. This was the method that gave us the best part of our own theological heritage. Here, again, it would be as easy to illustrate as to assert. But time admits only of the latter; and it is enough to say—first, that in the short space at our disposal, the wiser course is to stamp on the mind of the student the general outline of the science of his life; secondly, to make the whole sum of teaching one connected course, showing, as the scheme unfolds, that all the evidences, all the dogmatic decisions, all the ethics, and all the institutions of Christianity, are only aspects or modifications of doctrine, and are best taught as such.

There is no better way of establishing a dogma than by showing that no opposition can avail against it; and no better way of endearing it to the heart than by showing its past triumphs in the history of the Church’s conflicts.

In this presence it is appropriate to suggest, further, the importance of training our students in right views of the relation of our own theology to the Catholic theology of Christendom: first, regarding its fidelity to the Faith once delivered; and, secondly, those features that are distinctively its own. Whatever may be the progress of other studies, and however contracted the space allotted to theology, this must not be omitted.

Whatever else we do, we must vindicate our catholicity both in doctrine and constitution.

They must be taught that we have nothing in our system of teaching that does not go straight up to apostolic days, that we hold no error denounced by the apostles in their own time or foretold by them as to come. This must have its proof, and that will require a certain amount of study in the history of doctrine. We may not be able to go deeply or extensively into that study, but we shall at least be able step by step to point out the uncorrupted tradition of the faith we hold in common with the best in Christendom, and, what is of equal importance, to mark the beginnings of error which, like the best of Christendom, we reject. It is a great thing, brethren Œcumenical Methodism, that we should be able to make good our boast of being faithful to the Faith once delivered. Those who do not know us may say, or think when they do not say it, that we have built up our house upon a few truths which we exaggerate, and that after all we are at best little better than unconscious heretics. Whatever else we do, we must vindicate our catholicity both in doctrine and constitution. This is surely a legitimate glorying. Whether we can make the world believe it or not, we must see to it that our young ministers believe it; and that should be one great aim in the short theological curriculum. They must be fortified in the conviction that Methodism is, on the whole, true to the one truth. Perhaps we should be more anxious than we are to instruct their eyes to trace the great trunk-line of cardinal doctrines, with the exact points in the course of the past eighteen hundred years when this and that error branched off; and to make the evidence plain to them that our faith has made the whole journey from the apostles, and never had fellowship with the errors that have diverged to the right and to the left. Then they will pursue their ecclesiastical history, and history of dogma, with confidence. They will not be afraid of anything that the study of antiquity may reveal. They will feel the cathohc sentiment strong within them, and that will make them charitable: for catholicity and Christianity are one. They will see that with regard to some most vital truth—the Holy Trinity, the fall and redemption of man, the vicarious atonement, the eternal penalties of sin—there has been one steadfast and persistent belief that has survived all error, and is common to East and West, reformed and unreformed. At the same time they will see that East and West, reformed and unreformed, have alike, though not equally, added certain errors which, by the grace of God, their own creed has been enabled to avoid. Then they will come to perceive that the middle ages are not the utter chasm between the old and the new which it has been the fashion to think them. They will cherish deep respect, mingled indeed with sorrow, for the schoolmen who, while they gathered the materials for Trent, which we mourn over, laid also the foundations of modern systematic divinity in which we rejoice. And they will not absolutely despise the mystics, the better part of whose theology glows in the Methodist Hymn-book, and is the very unction that pervades its system of teaching. They will find out that what, in modern terms, are called Arminianism and Calvinism, have existed side by side, with their points of difference and their points of agreement, too, in almost all ages, represented severally by the stately forms of Chrysostom and Augustine, but only one of them going further back into antiquity. And they will discern a true doctrine of the sacraments, mediating between the extremes that make them either too much or too little, which has found its fine expression in the Westminster Confession, in the Apology of the Remonstrant Arminians, and in the works of the Wesleys. In fact, to sum up with an abrupt change of figure, they will rest in the sure conviction that Methodism is a branch of the great Tree, which is Christ the Truth; a branch which had its life in the stem before it lived as a branch; which has outgrown many of the earlier and lower branches, whether withering or not withering, and which, in the providence of God, is contributing much towards the consummation when all nations under the shadow of that tree will rejoice. Suffer me, brethren, at such a time as this, to urge the plea for clear teaching in our several communities as to the catholicity of our doctrine, and, in all essential respects, of our constitution and discipline. Thus only can we secure a succession of men whose whole mind and heart and soul will be ours, undisturbed and unweakened by secret doubts, and who will know how to give a good account of the faith they hold, and which then they will be little likely to forsake.

But at such a time as this we must not forget the deposit of truth committed, as it were, specially to us. By the charis, or grace of God, we are what we are in the common faith of the Church; but by the charisma, or gift of God, we have in trust the maintenance of some great principles of that faith.

Here it may be observed that, apart from any particular doctrine we may make prominent, there is a certain specific manner of unfolding certain fundamental doctrines which it may be asserted is characteristic of our teaching, in common with the best and most elect teaching of the Church of Christ. There are some great truths in which the evangelical bodies agree, but there is considerable difference among them as to the aspect under which they present and teach these truths. That difference gives what may be called the tone to their views and style of theology. Nothing is more important than that the right tone should be communicated to the students on some of these points. If limitation of time does not allow a deep and exhaustive discussion of them, it is possible to give a strong and determinate bias in the right direction. The teacher has here, in fact, his best function generally; it is rather the stamp he impresses than the knowledge he imparts which gives him his value to the taught, and is to himself the best fruit of his labours. But this is a subject which will not allow of mere generalisation; illustration, however brief, is imperative.

Then take, for instance, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and the relation of the Sacred Persons in the Godhead. Now two men may agree to hold the Eternal Sonship, and in a Scriptural sense the eternal subordination of the Son, both being alike far from Arianism. But, I venture to say, the effect and influence of the doctrine on the theology of the one may be very different from its effect on the theology of the other. Methodism has done much for the definition of the Eternal Sonship; and the tone of its teaching on the intercommunion of the Father and the Son, which rendered it possible that the One should send and the Other be sent, and which underlies the mystery of the Incarnation, is more true, both to the Bible and to the best antiquity, than that of many otherwise orthodox. Then take the Person of the Son incarnate; and only one aspect of it, though many might be taken. Two men may think themselves equally opposed to Nestorianism and Eutychianism. Yet the one may shrink from maintaining the absolute impossibility of sin in the tempted Son of man; the other glories in that truth as giving its eternal steadfastness to the doctrine of redemption. They agree, be it observed, in behoving that “in Him is no sin;” but the tone of the theology which holds that the Deliverer from sin could not sin, being always and everywhere, in earth and in heaven, in the wilderness and on the Mount, on the cross and in the bosom of the Father, no other, no less, than the Son of God, is unspeakably affected by that belief. The theological training, however scanty in other respects on this inexhaustible doctrine, which impresses the right stamp or strikes the right note as to this phase of it, has done its work well. Again, take the doctrine of the atonement. Two men, equally orthodox as to the virtue of the sacrifice offered for all, may differ widely as to the emphasis laid on the word For. Here we must not dilate, as the two men might soon multiply into ten. Suffice it to say that holding as we do a doctrine which mediates between extremes—Calvinistic and latitudinarian extremes that need not be described—much depends here also on the tone of our theology on the subject. If it is a sound one it will have a blessed effect on our preaching of the cross, and of union with Christ in His death and His life, and of the efficacy of the atonement on our death to sin and life in holiness. The teacher may give that right note also—whatever it is—though the entire theology of the atonement may overtask his short term. Similar observations might be made with respect to the person and offices of the Holy Spirit; the tone here makes much of the difference which divides the Churches, and I humbly think is the secret that must unite them if they are ever united. Union with Christ, again—a term or a doctrine or a privilege, to which Methodist Theology owes some amends for neglect— as the source of our righteousness and sanctification and the new life that unites those two, is deeply affected by the character given to it in our teaching. A certain almost undefinable tone may be such as to wither the energy of man; or it may be such as to make him too confident in his own powers as united to his Lord’s; or, and this is what we must aim at, it may be such as to keep clear of both errors; teaching that through the Spirit common to Him and us “in Him we are made full,” but giving Him the glory as “the Head of all principality and power.”

The specialty of our Methodist doctrine is that it is a “doctrine according to love.”

Further illustration would at once lead me to the second point—our own special deposit of truth; not, indeed, of new truth, but of truths which have been committed to us as revivalists, not merely of a failing religion, but of a failing truth also. What these are the programme of our proceedings scarcely allows to be stated, and certainly not to be discussed. But no controversy will be excited by the simple assertion that the specialty of our Methodist doctrine is that it is a “doctrine according to love.” Love was from the beginning its keynote; and is still, so far as it is perfect, “the bond of its perfectness.” This is a broad generalisation which particulars will justify. First, our theology proclaimed the universal love of God to man declared in the provision of the Atonement, and in the free gift of the Son, with His righteousness, to the race: not indeed as a new truth, but the same which we had from the beginning; yet with a new accent, and with great boldness, and with all its effects on original sin and the estate of mankind, and human freedom of will, and the internal light of the Spirit given by the Light of the world, clearly maintained and pursued to their consequences. Secondly, our theology of love brings that universal charity of God home to the individual, telling him that he may and that he must have it shed abroad in his own heart, and say always what St. Paul never said but once, “He loved me, and gave Himself for me;” having his sure warrant in the direct witness of the Holy Spirit Himself. Neither was this a new truth; it also is the same which we had from the beginning; and yet it was to countless multitudes a new thing to hear that all the treasures of the love of God in Christ Jesus might converge upon each poor human heart and make it rich with this abiding inheritance of righteousness, sonship, and sanctification. Thirdly, it gave a new aspect to the doctrine of love, as the love of the brethren: knitting soul to soul, not only as a moral obligation, but in the bonds of a doctrine of fellowship. The Methodist theology of love had here its social triumph; and it may be said that the whole economy of its special communion (with the Lord’s Table in the centre), maintained in ways well known to all of us, sprang from its doctrine rather than from any organisation of genius, and that its doctrine must maintain it if it is to be maintained at all. Neither was this a new thing; though we had it not, indeed, from the beginning uninterruptedly, yet it was in the beginning, and we only renewed the youth of Christian fellowship. Fourthly, our theology of love has set a peculiar seal upon the doctrine of Christian perfection, in all the branches of that doctrine: as the love that fulfils the law, conforms the regenerate to the image of the Son, and, set on God and man supremely, is the power which the Holy Ghost uses to cast out all sin from the nature. No truth was proclaimed earlier by the founders of Methodism than this; none was more firmly maintained to their end; perhaps none has been subject to more misconception—let it not be said that none is in more danger. We cannot now do more than include this among our special deposits, as we were raised up for a testimony to the Churches. It was not a new doctrine; it shines through the ages, though only with an occasional light. But in some respects it was almost new to later ages; perhaps in its bold maintenance of the possible and necessary destruction of inbred sin in this life, and by another and an earlier Hand than the hand of death, it was altogether new in the modern Church. Be that as it may, this department is by all acknowledged as our own: whether our glory or our rebuke. Fifthly and lastly, the entire system of Methodism in all its branches is and has always been kept in vigour by such a doctrine of the Church as makes it simply and almost solely an organ which love to Christ alone could keep in motion, for the conversion of the nations and the preparation of the final kingdom of our Lord. Remembering this, the Methodist societies and churches throughout the world regard themselves as so many organisations for the salvation of mankind wherever mankind is found without Christ. Thus our theology is throughout and consistently the theology of love. It will not be thought presumptuous to insist in this Œcumenical Conference that in all our colleges our rising ministry must be trained to glory in these truths, to study them, to preach them, to defend them, to live by them, and, if needs be, to die for them. Whatever else is taught, these elementary principles of our common Methodism should have a foremost place. Our young men must become thoroughly versed in these our special characteristics; for these after all are the pith and marrow of their ministry.

A good sermon must be the work of a good artist.

The mention of preaching, however, suggests another consideration which must not be passed over. Our ministers are always preachers, and according to their ability as preachers is, on the whole, their value. Their early training, therefore, must include some instruction in this art. No one here will be offended by the word. It means only what is undeniably true, that a good sermon must be the work of a good artist; and that the higher his standard is, and the better the principles are by which he works, the more perfect and efficient will be the result. The day is past when it was thought best to leave a young preacher to the zeal kindled by the Holy Ghost and the rough inspiration of his own instinct. Appeal has been sometimes made to our own earlier preachers, who without training reached results which none of our methods of discipline seem able to attain. But there is a fallacy in this: those mighty preachers were consummate artists as well as elect organs of the Holy Ghost. Their sermons were the product of their utmost skill, working, indeed, often on principles of their own devising, but always with a high ideal before them. Now, some of the little time of a college course ought to be spent in the application of a few sound laws of Homiletics. The student should be taught to regard the finished sermon as, generally speaking, the crown and masterpiece of the labour of his mind. And such good laws should be given to him to work by as will ensure him against the common faults of bad preaching and help him greatly in doing the chief work of his life well.

The student should be taught to regard the finished sermon as, generally speaking, the crown and masterpiece of the labour of his mind.

The question is, how to carry on this homiletic course in connection with theological teaching proper. Certain it is that it must be done, and that wherever it is neglected the result appears in the disappointment of the people; and, what is more, in a ministry below the highest standard of efficiency. But this is not the occasion to discuss the subject fully. For myself I have great faith in a very simple method. Instead of the course of lectures on the elaborate homiletic textbook, let the tutor lay down and constantly iterate his own cardinal principles of sermon-making; not letting a week pass without showing their practical application to the students’ own sermons, or to sermons prepared in the class. In two or three years the effect of this will be great. But here I am obviously transgressing the limits of my theme and becoming too practical.

One of the fundamental laws of good preaching is perfect fidelity to the exposition of text and context.

One thing, however, of a practical nature must be added. We all know the value of what is technically called Biblical Theology, which lives and moves and has its being strictly within the limits of the Scriptures themselves. One branch of this is occupied with Exegesis, or the principles of exposition. Now, if the overweighted tutor and the patient pupils can compass a complete, however brief, system of Hermeneutics, so much the better. If not, this branch of Biblical Theology, which is specifically the preacher’s theology, may be advantageously blended with the homiletics. One of the fundamental laws of good preaching is perfect fidelity to the exposition of text and context: whether the text be literal or figurative, and whatever the context may be. Here then Hermeneutics and Homiletics meet; and a few sound principles will be found as useful as a long and elaborate course; much more useful, considering the pressure on the time. And they may be made to meet also in the application of the principles of both. The teacher may find in Scripture a certain number of leading passages, classical texts or paragraphs from both Testaments, which contain in themselves jointly and severally all the great truths of revelation and all the great topics of preaching. Now, let one hour of each week be devoted to the searching exposition of one of these half-hundred salient passages, and to the study of the original text, to a close theological and expository analysis of it, and then to a consideration of what and what kind of sermon-subjects it presents. If another hour could be found in the same week for the scrutiny of the students’ exercises as the result of that former hour, a great point would be gained. But, leaving details to the tutor himself, it may be safely affirmed that in three years such a series of these cardinal passages of God’s Word might be traversed as would amount to a large sum of dogmatic, expository, and homiletic discipline. This, indeed, only suggests what is in some form or other done already, and perhaps in a way much better. But there are some to whom these remarks may be useful. And in any case they belong essentially to the present subject. But to return. The representation of universal Methodism will certainly be of one mind, that our rising ministry must if possible be so trained as not only to keep unimpaired our ancient theology, but also to keep up the high tradition of our preaching power. We need not ask the question whether it has or has not declined of late years, or since this century began. Indeed, it is doubtful whether any comparisons between our present ministry and the ministry of the past can serve any really good purpose. We have to do with the present; its lawful needs and its glorious opportunities. It is a solemn thought that to our various communities is committed the charge of educating and training so large a proportion of the men who have in the next generation to do the work of Christ in the world. It is a solemn thought that so large a part of the world’s myriads is at our feet as preachers. What unspeakable issues depend under God on the fidelity of our rising ministry to our doctrine and their power of preaching it to the world: how earnestly should we send up our united prayer—united representatively as it never was and never could be before— that the Holy Spirit would baptise our young men all over the earth with the unction, and the zeal, and the power that revived the languishing religion of the last century. Without that, in vain shall we strive to train our candidates to the standard of the requirements of the age. But if He hear our prayer, and bless our efforts, Methodism may still be one of the formal agencies for the conversion of the world.

These too hasty words must not come to an end without a last suggestion. The colleges in which the ministers of God are trained are sacred places, and everything connected with them must be hallowed. Well for us if in all our arrangements and places we remember this. My theme calls them “Theological schools.” Such they are, though much is taught in them besides theology. For every hour of instruction, be the subject what it may, is directly or indirectly tributary to the one great end of making each man “meet for the Master’s use.” We would give Him, for His highest service, the very best that we have; and present every man whom He puts into our hands for training finished and complete, lacking nothing that human education can do. But all that is profitable to Him or fit for His use must be “sanctified” and our supreme, never-forgotten aim, should be to hallow this entire ministerial training in every part of it, so that our colleges should tend to the education of our young men in the religious life as well as in the arts that prepare for the ministry. Over our colleges, our class-rooms, and every study, there should be written invisibly, but not less really than if we saw the handwriting, that inscription which God Himself has given us, and which runs through the Bible, written as it were in larger than St. Paul’s “large letters,” as the watchword of all consecration to Him—“Holiness unto the Lord.” Over this institution, and all our institutions organised for His glory and used in His service, may His glory rest as a defence for ever.