Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Puritan Reformed Thelogical Seminary: Our First Year

Written by Jack Shoeman
June 1998 was a historic year for our small denomination. At that time, the Synod of the Free Reformed Churches made two important decisions which would have far-reaching consequences for the future of our denomination. The first was the decision to have our theological students trained at the newly-established Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, the seminary of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregations in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The second was the appointment of Gerald Bilkes (eldest son of Dr. L.W. Bilkes) as theological instructor for both the Old and New Testaments. In making these decisions, Synod took a giant leap forward towards the realization of a long-held goal: direct involvement in the training of our own students for the ministry. In the past, due to our small size and shortage of ministers, we have had to rely on institutions belonging to other denominations: Calvin Seminary, the Protestant Reformed Seminary, and, until recently, the Canadian Reformed Seminary. Now, for the first time since our denomination was established some fifty years ago, we were able to undertake part of this responsibility ourselves.

How did all of this happen? And what has been the result? What is the extent of our involvement with "Puritan" and what observations can we make as we approach the end of our first year? These are some of the questions which I hope to answer in this article.

The history of our involvement with Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary began early in 1998. At that time several members of the Theological Education Committee suggested that the Committee investigate the possibility of sending our students to Puritan. It was felt that Puritan was more in tune with our way of thinking. The seminary seemed to share our appreciation for the Puritans, experiential and discriminatory preaching, and the emphasis of the work of the Holy Spirit in the application of redemption. Dr. Beeke, the president of the seminary and its principal instructor, was also known to many within our denomination. Was there a possibility of working together? After some discussion, it was agreed to send a delegation to meet with Dr. Beeke and conduct a more thorough investigation.

As a result of this meeting and several subsequent meetings with the HNRC, the Theological Education Committee unanimously decided to recommend to Synod to send Eric Moerdyk who had just completed his first year at the Canadian Reformed Seminary in Hamilton, and myself, to Puritan. As already noted, this recommendation was approved as was the appointment of Prof. Bilkes as theological instructor. Synod then decided to ask the Classis of the Heritage NRC if they would agree to have Prof. Bilkes teach at Puritan starting in January, 1999. After interviewing Prof. Bilkes, the HNRC Classis granted this request. They also agreed to have some of our ministers teach certain courses from time to time. With each passing month, it appeared as though our goal of being involved in the training of our own students would become a reality.

While all of this was unfolding, Eric and I commenced our studies in August, 1998. Like every new student, we entered the seminary with some uncertainty. What would the other students be like? What about the academic standards? Would we receive the proper training? Would we agree with what was being taught? Much to our surprise, after only a few weeks, most of these questions were answered--all favourably!

What we discovered was a seminary environment which sought to be biblical and doctrinal, but also practical and experiential. After only a few short weeks the stated aim of the seminary became immediately apparent to both of us: to train us to become edifying and pastorally sensitive preachers of the Gospel. This became apparent not only in the instruction we received but also in the readings which we were assigned. Our reading list consisted of some of the greatest writers in the Puritan and Reformed tradition: Spurgeon, Bridges, Baxter, Owen, Murray, Brakel, and many others. What a blessing to be assigned such wholesome and edifying literature!

But a seminary is more than books. It is also students. We are privileged to be able to study with a group of men who not only have a high view of the ministry, but also a deep sense of their calling. Each of the students at the seminary takes the study of theology very seriously. There is a genuine desire on the part of each one to be thoroughly biblical in all aspects relating to the ministry. Customs, traditions, and beliefs are all held up under the scrutiny of the light of Scripture--not out of a crass desire to achieve change for its own sake, but rather to conform the church more and more to the standard of God's Word.

Currently Puritan has 11 full-time students: 8 HNRC, 2 FRC, 2 who attend the HNRC but are not students of that denomination (1 is a former "Bonder" from the Netherlands), and several part-time students (1 Baptist and 1 Independent). The backgrounds of the students are quite diverse. Five were teachers (two of whom were principals), one was a former baker, another a dairy farmer, a group home manager, and yes, even a professional baseball player (Mark Dewey)! In spite of our diverse backgrounds, we get along very well--perhaps a little too well. But when things get out of hand we can usually count on one of the former principals to restore order.

As far as courses are concerned, most are taken at Puritan. Courses that are not offered at Puritan are usually taken at the Protestant Reformed Seminary (about 25 minutes away). The PR Seminary has some excellent and experienced faculty (some of whom taught Rev. VanderMeyden and Rev. Schouls when they were in seminary)! . Since Prof. Bilkes has joined the faculty, however, the number of students taking courses there has been greatly reduced.

The course load at Puritan is divided up as follows: Dr. Beeke teaches all of the Homiletics (preaching) courses as well as Dogmatics (doctrine); Prof. Bilkes teaches all of the Old and New Testament subjects; and Brian Webster, a Professor from a Baptist College across the street from the seminary, teaches Greek and Hebrew. In addition, this past semester we had three module (intensive 1 week) courses taught by some of the leading Reformed ministers in the U.K. Rev. Maurice Roberts, Rev. Geoffrey Thomas, and Dr. Hywel Jones. In January, Derek Thomas from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss. taught a course on worship and recently we had a special lecture on the use of Sunday Schools as tools for evangelism by Dr. Peter Masters, the current pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London ("Spurgeon's church"). Recently we were gladdened by the news that Dr. Sinclair

Ferguson may be able to teach a course for us next year. It is wonderful to sit at the feet of those who have such a deep love for the Scriptures and the Reformed faith.

In addition to the above, our own Rev. VanderMeyden taught a course on Ecclesiology, assisted by Rev. Procee who taught a unit on baptism. This involved quite a lot of extra work on their part, but the results were well worth it. Especially helpful were the discussions before and after class. Many of the men at the seminary are wrestling with the same issues Free Reformed people have been wrestling with for years: what is the meaning of Baptism? Who may attend the Lord's Supper? How do we pastor those who lack assurance? How must we address the congregation? What is the relationship between confession of faith and the Lord's Supper? What standard must the church require for membership: confession of faith or confession of truth? These and other questions have been and continue to be vigorously discussed among us, but always in a context of respect for those who have gone before us.

Looking back at this past year, we must express our thankfulness of God for all He has given to us. To be sure, like any young and growing seminary, Puritan has a few bumps to smooth over, but compared to other seminaries that I am aware of, I have no hesitation in stating that the education we are receiving there is second to none. I may say without hesitation that it is a great privilege and blessing to be able to study at a seminary like Puritan. May the Lord bless and prosper it to the extension of His kingdom and the glory of His Name!

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