Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Interview: Theological Instructor Gerald M. Bilkes

Written by Ray Pennings
This is the first of an occasional series of interviews that we intend to publish in The Messenger. Our purpose is not to highlight the work of man, but to provide church members with a greater understanding of aspects of church life. Developing an appreciation for the various functions that take place within the body of Christ can be of use in encouraging prayer and the necessary support among church members. This first interview is with our Theological Instructor, Gerald M. Bilkes, who teaches at the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (PRTS) in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
RP (Ray Pennings): Another academic year is about to start. How many students will be attending the seminary this semester?

GMB (Gerald M. Bilkes): I donÕt have the exact figures. In the past two years, there have been about 12 to16 full-time and part-time students, and I expect the number to be about the same this coming year.

RP: What kind of student body does the seminary have?

GMB: Until recently, the bulk of the students were sponsored by the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregations. It has been now three years since we have begun to send our students. In the meantime, students from other denominations, such as the United Reformed Church, have also enrolled at the seminary. Increasingly, there are students who choose to come to PRTS for the MA degree, that is, the non-ordination degree track. These students may pursue teaching ministries, or later join the ordination track students.

RP: How does an average day at the seminary go?

GMB: Usually, the students have a few hours of classes in the morning or afternoon, sometimes both. Each class begins with prayer and Scripture reading by the instructor and ends with prayer by a student. Most of our classes are lecture-style, though some, especially Hebrew and Greek, use the seminar-style as well. They usually run in blocks of 50 minutes or an hour and twenty minutes. Between classes there is a short break of 10 minutes. During the break, the students tend to gather in the seminary kitchen or sitting area and talk together about various issues, assignments, other duties, or simple concerns arising from daily life. The main lecture room also functions at other times as a bookstore, so there is ample opportunity to browse (and buy) newly published books or reprints. During hours when the students are not in classes, they can stay at the seminary to use the extensive library downstairs, consult the tape library, or find an empty room to study.

RP: Our members know the students mostly from their preaching in our churches. How does PRTS go about teaching this?

GMB: Indeed, Reformed churches have always seen preaching as the most important aim of theological education. Almost everything the students learn at the seminary contributes to their ability to bring the Word of God to the church and beyond. More specifically, we have a rigorous program of special courses in homiletics (the art of preaching). These courses deal with everything from how to compose a theme and points on the basis of the text or passage to delivering a sermon in a reverent and relevant way. Twice now, the Free Reformed students have also been given some added training by Rev. Schouls. This has taken place during two weeks in January.

RP: Do the students ever hear each other preach?

GMB. Yes, we have an hour and a half session on Wednesdays after lunch in which the students alternately preach a sermon in an actual church building. In the past, Dr. Beeke, Rev. VanderMeyden, and I would all attend and each critiques the sermon. The students also supplement our critique with a few pointers of their own. Many of the students have found these sessions to be among the most significant times in their training.

RP: How much time do the students spend learning Greek and Hebrew?

GMB: The students study Greek and Hebrew each for at least two and a half years. Fortunately, many of our students study some of this already in college. In fact, our theological education committee stipulates that the student accomplish 2 years of Greek prior to undertaking seminary studies. Some students have had a year or two of Hebrew as well. This is helpful, because when they arrive at seminary, they can immediately build on and use their previous knowledge. Besides studying these languages, they spend the rest of their studies using the original languages in their study of the biblical books. Here they are assigned passages in the original language. Altogether, this adds up to a lot of time with the original languages.

RP: This seems like a very long time. Do you ever wonder whether students could better spend their time doing other necessary things?

GMB: This is a fair question. The answer is, however, quite simple. There are at least three reasons why the students study the original languages so intensely. First, they need to know with precision what God has revealed in his Word. God has been pleased to use Hebrew and Greek (along with Aramaic) as the original means to convey his revelation to people of all nations. Should we not be delighted to trace what God has been pleased to do? Secondly, many fine points of meaning cannot be ascertained from translations of the Bible. Preachers of the Word should know the exact content of the Word in order to convey it faithfully and defend it ardently against error. Thirdly, studying the Word in the original forces one to take time and expend effort to determine the exact meaning of the Word. This time and energy is very beneficial, especially since the tendency of our age is one of convenience and superficiality. Mind you, the preacher must digest all this technical work before he preaches to his congregation. Generally speaking, a preacher should not occupy his congregation with finer points of Greek and Hebrew; instead, he should absorb their force and significance in a way that does not attract attention to either the languages or his learning, but to God who speaks in his Word.

RP: You have been working on a dissertation. How far do you have to go? What is your topic?

GMB: I am writing on the book of Nehemiah, specifically on the topic of how the law functions in the book of Nehemiah. I began with a larger scope, but as the years have gone by, I have had to narrow my focus. During his tenure as governor of Judah, Nehemiah enacted many laws and makes references to laws of Israel during earlier times. How does law function in this small book? Do we find the beginnings of Jewish legalism, as some scholars say? Or is the law used in a way that is consistent with how the Word of God speaks of it elsewhere? Some of the technical things aside, these are some of the questions I am treating. Nehemiah is a very interesting book and merits a close study. It would make for a good book for a Bible study in our congregations. I have been working on this dissertation for many years. A number of times, I thought I was near completion. But, there have been some delays, and I had had to make revisions. If all goes well, I hope to have it completed within this current academic year.

RP: What do you enjoy most about your work?

GMB: Truthfully, I love studying GodÕs Word. It is always profound and relevant. I try to convey to my students the importance of having our minds, hearts, and lives molded by the Word of God. I find that the Word of God examines us as we examine it. It feeds and directs. It shapes and forms. We must always abide by the Word. As soon as we stray from it, we have lost our anchor, our armor, and our compass. I emphasize in my classes that we must passionately search after the one meaning of Scripture. We should not treat Scripture as an echo chamber, in which we hear back what we have piped in; we should treat it as a rich mine or treasure house, always bringing forth things old and new (Mt.13: 52).

RP: What place should the seminary have in the hearts and minds of our churches?

GMB: God uses earthly means to fulfill his will. We might be tempted to look at the seminary as a poor effort of a few weak men, who seek to instruct other weak men to go out into a difficult and unrewarding field of labour. This, however, is not according to faith. Christ, who is exalted at the right hand of the Father, rules and reigns supreme. He is applying his finished work through his blessed Spirit. He has led captivity captive and is giving gifts to men. All things shall be under his feet. I believe our seminary, and others around the globe, are means whereby Christ rides upon his white horse, going forth, conquering and to conquer. He makes men and women willing in the day of his power. I pray that our people might truly see him, and beholding him, might Òbe changed from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the LordÓ (2 Cor.3: 18). The churches have a rich place in our heart here. I pray that we here at the seminary might have a place in their hearts as well. And above all, all glory to Him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb.

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