Year one of four is over. (Not that I’m scraping tally marks onto the wall of my Study). It’s been an enjoyable year. It’s been a good year. It’s been a busy year. It’s been a challenging year. It’s been a productive year. So here are some reflections – in no particular order.
Part-Time Study/Part-time ministry
Two modules per academic year, along with pastoral responsibilities is probably just the right balance. Of course, everything takes longer this way, but it is manageable. Of course, there is often more than the two modules – there are preaching classes; Presbyterian practice module; and presbytery exams – but in a two-module year, these are still doable.
I remember listening to a Mark Driscoll lecture on ministry (before he crashed, burned and re-emerged). He argued that the best way to train for ministry is to be in ministry whilst studying theology. His argument was that the practice enables you to test out your learning in real ministry situations. I have to say, I think I agree. My first degree is a BD (Hons) in pastoral studies and theology. I was a full-time student, and whilst I was involved in local church leadership at the time, I wasn’t in pastoral ministry to the extent that I am now. Studying theology, whilst having responsibility for a church really changes the way you approach your studies – and I think it changes the way you approach ministry.
Studying in a Reformed Seminary
I often get asked “Why do you have to study theology formally at undergraduate level again.” If I’m honest, I’ve asked myself that question several times this year. I’m grateful for my under-grad in theology from the Scottish Baptist College. It was there I developed a respect for “exegesis”; “hermeneutics” and “theological reflection”. The Scottish Baptist College was as theologically diverse as it was robust – that after all is the beauty (and bane?) of Baptist ecclesiology. However, ETS is a Seminary with clear Confessional commitments. This meant we had rich resources to mine, but there were also boundaries to be respected. So whilst I’m studying theology a second time, it is beneficial to view the theological landscape from a reformed perspective. Further, it’s not only good from a personal perspective, but it’s good from a denominational perspective. It’s one thing for denominations to require their ministers to have a theology degree, it’s another thing entirely to ensure that ministers are grounded in good, biblical theology.
I know some folks who see the Reformed Seminaries as being too rigid, and too conservative – yet that’s not really what I experienced. There is a rich diversity even within Confessional denominations. The Calvinistic stereo-type is nonsense. It doesn’t exist. Every student, lecturer, and staff member brings their own unique gifts, character and experience into the life of the Seminary.
Yet having said all that there are some beautiful unifying themes that weave the whole thing together. A vison for God’s glory; the gospel message; the authority and sufficiency of scripture; and a heart for mission is the beating pulse of ETS. It’s alive.
Studying as a Ministry Candidate
It’s one thing studying theology as an independent student (I did that at SBC); it’s another thing studying as a ministry candidate. For me, I’m constantly aware of the weighty responsibility and privilege that this is. I am grateful to the Free Church for recognising the gifts and call of God. I’m grateful for their support, and the opportunity to study at a world-class Seminary.
When the challenging times come, your commitments are challenged. You can find yourself asking why you are doing what you are doing. You can doubt your calling. You can wonder if you are doing the right thing. And as you go through those times, the fact that you are not where you are solely because of an independent choice that you made, is a strengthening thing. The fact that your Kirk Session; Presbytery and the Board of Ministry sought the Lord about this and believed it to be the right thing – that is a rock in the storm.
The other good thing about difficult periods, is not only do they challenge your commitments and motivations, but they also strengthen them. You are brought back to core foundations. For example, last night as I sat through the Awards ceremony, I was rejuvenated and re-envisioned. Iver Martin’s Word was top-class. For me, it reminded me why I’m in the Free Church. At the core of the denomination is an unwavering commitment to God, His Word and His world. It was the same when John McIntosh spoke. His retiring comments did not miss the mark. He challenged us not to abandon biblical truth for contemporary innovations. As a seasoned historian he warned us that if we did it would take decades for the church to recover. And he knows. He speaks as one who knows the history of the church. He sees the dangers. Do we?
Professor John McIntosh at ETS Awards Ceremony 2017
There are many more things I could say. I could write about what I’ve gained from studying Systematic Theology with Bob Akroyd; New Testament and Greek with John Angus MacLeod; and the staff and students I’ve had the joy of meeting, but this will do for now. Overall, I’m grateful to the Lord for ETS, the Free Church and the staff and students I’ve got to know this year.
To God be the Glory.