The Synod of Dordt (7) Training Students for the Ministry

This blog submission is written by Prof. Douglas Kuiper. It is a republication of the article that appeared in Standard Bearer, February 15, 2019 (95.10.233).

The Synod of Dordt’s 180 sessions can be divided into four phases. During the first phase, from November 13 to December 5, 1618, Synod treated four matters: 1) Bible translation (sessions 6-13); 2) Heidelberg Catechism preaching (sessions 14-17, 20); 3) baptism of slaves and adopted children in the Dutch East Indies (sessions 18-19); and 4) training students for the ministry (sessions 18-20). The May 1, 2019 issue of the Standard Bearer (a special issue commemorating the Synod) will include articles that examine the first two of these matters in more depth.

The Dutch Reformed churches have historically understood the need for a trained ministry. They permit gifted men to enter the ministry without formal training (see Article 8 of the Church Order of Dordt). However, this is the exception; the rule is that men be trained, and that the churches do the training (Articles 8, 19).

An Overture from the Synod of Zeeland
The provincial Synod of Zeeland overtured the Synod of Dordt to adopt a uniform policy for the Dutch churches regarding how these students should be trained. At the eighteenth session (Friday, December 1, 1618), the delegates from Zeeland informed the Synod of their proposal. (Footnote 1)

First, they desired that wealthy parents finance the education of their sons who studied for the ministry, but that the national government finance the education of other promising men.

Second, the men who would be trained must be children of godly believers. The men must give evidence of godliness, modesty, and ability. They would be educated in a Dutch university for five or six years (which education included their theological training), then study for a time at a foreign university.

Regarding the duration of the training for the ministry, the delegates from Zeeland were consciously trying to avoid two extremes: on the one hand, having zealous men enter pastoral ministry with relatively little training; and on the other, having the churches support students so long that the churches benefit from their service for a relatively short time, or having the students become lifelong students.

To study awhile at a foreign university and visit foreign churches “would not be unprofitable,” said the overture. The profit would be that of broadening the student’s horizon; he ought remain there until he has learned what he can and observed how the foreign churches operate.

Third, the students must gain experience and become known to the churches by reading Scripture during the worship service and by exhorting. The students were to be judged both as to the content of their sermons and as to their delivery. They would also accompany pastors in visiting the sick and comforting the oppressed, thus learning how to do the pastoral work of the ministry. In addition, the students would attend classis, consistory, and diaconal meetings in order to understand the work of church government and care for the poor.

When examining prospective ministers, the practice to that point had been to ask only regarding their doctrinal convictions. The fourth point of the overture from Zeeland was that Synod mandate that the examinations include questions regarding practical matters, such as their own godliness and their ability to teach. For that matter, their university training must include instruction in practical theology.

Synod’s Treatment of this Overture
The various delegations spent Saturday afternoon preparing their individual judgments regarding this proposal. When these judgments were read Monday morning (session 19), many referred positively to the advice of the delegates from Zeeland. The delegates from Great Britain particularly emphasized the need for students to accompany pastors to observe them doing their labors. (Footnote 2)

Not every delegate favored every aspect of these decisions. Gomarus opposed the idea of students delivering a sermon. Others opposed the idea of students observing consistory, diaconal, and classical meetings. However, as a whole Synod saw the need to promote the concept of preparing students for the ministry by giving them hands-on experience.

On Tuesday, December 4, at its twentieth session, Synod decided not to make a rule for all the churches, but to encourage the various classes (plural of classis) to consider how best to prepare students for the ministry. One matter the Synod did not leave to the discretion of the classes: it insisted, contrary to the proposal from Zeeland, that students may not baptize; only ordained ministers were to administer the sacraments.

We appreciate and implement the essential aspects of this overture from Zeeland. We too insist on a trained ministry. Let us continue to pray for our seminary as it gives that instruction, and pray that God will continually provide students who are knowledgeable and faithful in doctrine as well as in life.

We do distinguish between those already in the office of minister and those training for the office. The seminary faculty licenses our students to speak a word of edification in the churches, and the consistories do evaluate them for the benefit of the faculty. However, these students are not yet ministers. Realizing that they are still learning, we can bear patiently with them if we recognize weaknesses.

And, how valuable we have found our internship program for seminary students to be. During it, the students gain valuable insights and experience. Let us continue to pray that by this program our students will be well prepared for the work to which God will call them.

Footnote 1: I glean this information from four sources: 1) J. H. Donner and S. A. Van Den Hoorn, eds, Acta of Handelingen der Nationale Synod te Dordrecht (Kampen: J. H. Bos), 44-46 [This is the Dutch translation of the Acts of the Synod]; 2) Theodore G. Van Raalte, “Summary,” in Donald Sinnema, Christian Moser and Herman J. Selderhuis, eds., Acta et Documenta Synodi Nationalis Dordrechtanae (1618-1619), vol. II/2: Early Sessions of the Synod of Dordt (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018), 168-169; 3) Gerard Brandt, The History of the Reformation and Other Ecclesiastical Transactions In and About the Low-Countries (London: T. Wood, 1722), 3:34-37; and 4) John Hales, Golden Remains of the Ever Memorable, Mr. John Hales (London: Theo. Newcomb, 1673), 17-18, 21-22.

Footnote 2: Anthony Milton, ed., The British Delegation and the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619), Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2005),144-145.