Doctrine and Devotion, Truth and Love, Faith and Practice: Witsius, Cunningham, and Warfield on Ministerial Preparation in Seminary

J. Ligon Duncan III
John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson


How are ministers made? That’s what seminary was invented to help do (by and alongside the Church), but theological education has lost its way in our time, and we need to return to the Scriptures and to the old paths to find our way home again.[1]

What are seminaries for? Do we still need them? There are a lot of questions swirling around theological education today, and since you are reading this, you clearly care about preparing pastors and Church leaders who believe God’s word and embrace sound, biblical, Christian, theology, so perhaps we should reflect together on these things. Many people are looking at other options rather than traditional seminary education in our days, for a variety of reasons: the high cost of residential theological education, the desire to stay connected to a ministry in the local church, or even the view that the very idea of seminary education is obsolete. I assure you that theological educators are thinking about these kinds of things, and hear them all the time.

I even occasionally hear people question whether “seminary” is a biblical way of preparing for the ministry! I’ve had people say to me ‘seminary is not in the Bible,’ to which I reply, ‘but preparation for the ministry is.’ The Bible makes it amply clear that preparation and learning are necessary for ministry. Jesus spent three years with his disciples preparing them for ministry, and it is very clear that, in addition to providing for them a perfect model of self-denying service (“not to be served but to serve,” Matt. 20:28, Mark 10:45) and mentoring them in practical ministry, Jesus spent a significant amount of his time with them helping them to understand the Bible better because it was fundamental to their witness to him—the mission he was preparing them for (see, for instance, Luke 24:44-48), and the whole Bible emphasizes the importance of the pursuit of sound learning for the wise in general, and for pastors in particular.

Prov. 15:14 says that “The mind of the intelligent seeks knowledge, but the mouth of fools feeds on folly.” Prov. 18:15 reiterates the principle when it says, “The mind of the prudent acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.” Prov. 24:5 adds, “A wise man is strong, and a man of knowledge increases power,” reminding us of the old dictum “knowledge is power.” The Old Testament wisdom literature is replete with calls to the believer to pursue knowledge. But the Bible says more than this. It emphasizes that ministers need to pursue study of the truth.[2]

Ezra 7:10 describes this great Old Testament leader in this way: “Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” Hosea laments the lack of spiritual leaders like Ezra when he says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (4:6). The same aspiration and complaint can be found in the last book of the Old Testament: “For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts” (Mal. 2:7).

But it is in the pastoral epistles that we find some of the most direct words of instruction and exhortation regarding ministerial study. Paul can say to Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Here we have an apostolic directive for a young minister to study with the equivalent exertion and effort of a tireless day-laborer. The true minister is a workman (Paul really likes this metaphor!). He works hard at his task. The true minister is to work hard at study so as to know and preach the Truth rightly.

Furthermore, Paul gives Timothy a sterling example of studiousness from his own practice and priorities. Think of his astonishing request in 2 Tim. 4:13 where he asks, “When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments.” Now think of it. Paul is only months away from death. He has written the bulk of the letters of the New Testament. He has a lifetime of ministry behind him. And what does he want to do? Study! Winter is approaching and so Paul asks for his cloak, but more importantly he asks for books and parchments. Though almost at the end of his course, Paul aims to keep learning and growing by spiritual reading. Nobody has ever uttered a more poignant pastoral meditation on this little verse than C.H. Spurgeon. Here is what he says:

“How rebuked are they by the apostle! He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for a man to utter, yet he wants books! He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books! The apostle says to Timothy and so he says to every preacher, “GIVE THYSELF UNTO READING.”

The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. YOU need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible. We are quite persuaded that the best way for you to be spending your leisure, is to be either reading or praying. You may get much instruction from books which afterwards you may use as a true weapon in your Lord and Master’s service. Paul cries, “Bring the books” — join in the cry.

Paul herein is a picture of industry. He is in prison; he cannot preach: WHAT will he do? As he cannot preach, he will read. As we read of the fishermen of old and their boats. The fishermen were gone out of them. What were they doing? Mending their nets. So if providence has laid you upon a sick bed, and you cannot teach your class—if you cannot be working for God in public, mend your nets by reading. If one occupation is taken from you, take another, and let the books of the apostle read you a lesson of industry.”[3]

Paul is a lifelong learner, and we should be too. But Paul also indicates that there should be a time of preparation before ministry begins. When he says that an elder must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2), he assumes the prior learning necessary to that work, and the Church’s right and ability to discern and make a judgment about that learning when they choose the elder in the first place. He explicitly says that of deacons: “let these also first be tested and then let them serve” (1 Tim. 3:10), and the idea there is that they are to be tested before they serve, just as the candidates for the eldership are tested before they serve. That test certainly applies to the lives and character of the elders and deacons, but because of the elder’s task, to teach, it must also apply to his preparation, knowledge, and orthodoxy.

So, for Jesus and Paul, preparation for ministry is not optional. That preparation is not merely practical, but especially involves a mastery of the Scriptures. And seminary is designed to fulfill this function more efficiently and comprehensively than ministerial apprenticeships could ever do.

Seminary was invented to give future ministers a concentrated period of study with a cohort of colleagues to prepare them for a lifetime of ministry, and if seminary is adequately facilitating a biblical preparation for ministry then it is a very good thing.

B.B. Warfield once said: “The entire work of the Seminary deserves to be classed in the category of means of grace.”[4] Why? Because the main thing that a solid, biblical, theological education does is engage the seminarian with the study of the Word of God, as the means by which Christ communicates the benefits of his mediation (see Westminster Larger Catechism, 154). How does this work?

The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation (WLC, 155).

The Westminster Confession reminds us that “The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching, and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God with understanding, faith, and reverence” are part “of the ordinary religious worship of God” (WCF 21.5), and these things are specifically part of the worship that seminarians owe to God in their studies, but they are also the very means by which God’s Spirit grows them in grace and godliness, and blesses them, in order that they might bless others.

The work of theological education in the confessional Protestant tradition thus falls in the category of sanctification—a special and specific kind of sanctification: the sanctification of the Church’s present and future ministry unto the gathering and perfecting of the saints for the glorying and enjoying of God. It is thus necessarily academic and intellectual, devotional and spiritual, as well as practical and ministerial.

Both the seminary and the seminarian must endeavor to tie together in the closest of relations: doctrine and piety, learning and godliness, knowledge and conviction of the truth, with growth in and expression of the truth in love, in the service of Christ and his people. This is one reason that we often speak at Reformed Theological Seminary of wanting to cultivate in our students “a mind for truth and a heart for God.”

The entire work of the theological seminary may thus be construed as serving as an instrument of the Holy Spirit in applying the Word of God as a means of grace. The entire work of the seminarian is to be undertaken as an act of worship: to study to show themselves approved in order to present their bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is their spiritual service of worship, and not to be conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of their mind, so that they may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom. 12:1-2) and handle accurately the Word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15), the Holy Scriptures, which are all God-breathed, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:14 -17)—living a life of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7), preaching the Word (2 Tim. 4:2), fighting the good fight, keeping the faith, finishing the race (2 Tim. 4:7).

From the standpoint of confessional, Reformed, Presbyterian principles, theological education aims to gather and prepare a cohort of those called by the Church for the Gospel ministry, so that they grow by God’s grace together in faith, hope and love, come to a greater and deeper knowledge and conviction of the whole counsel of God, so are thus enabled to handle accurately and to proclaim faithfully the Word of God; to pray continuously, Scripturally, and earnestly; to minister the sacraments, the covenant signs and seals of God, rightly; and to shepherd wisely and lovingly—and who correspondingly have their own hearts filled with and faith matured by that grace and truth, so that their character, life, ministry and witness are shaped by God’s lavish, gracious, loving, saving work on their behalf, in Christ, and by his written self-disclosure and revealed will.

This is what prompts John R.W. Stott to say: “the key institution in the Church is the seminary or theological college. In every country the Church is a reflection of its seminaries. All the Church’s future pastors and teachers pass through a seminary. It is there that they are either made or marred, either equipped and inspired or ruined.”[5]

The original plan of Old Princeton Seminary reflects these same commitments and aspirations. What was its aim?

It is to form men for the Gospel ministry, who shall truly believe, and cordially love, and therefore endeavor to propagate and defend, in its genuineness, simplicity, and fulness, that system of religious belief and practice which is set forth in the Confession of Faith, Catechisms, and Plan of Government and Discipline of the Presbyterian Church is thus to perpetuate and extend the influence of true evangelical piety, and Gospel order.

It is to provide for the Church an adequate supply and succession of able and faithful ministers of the New Testament; workmen that need not to be ashamed, being qualified rightly to divide the word of truth.

It is to unite, in those who shall sustain the ministerial office, religion and literature; that piety of the heart which is the fruit only of the renewing and sanctifying grace of God, with solid learning: believing that religion without learning, or learning without religion, in the ministers of the Gospel, must ultimately prove injurious to the Church.

It is to afford more advantages than have hitherto been usually possessed by the ministers of religion in our country, to cultivate both piety and literature in their preparatory course; piety, by placing it in circumstances favourable to its growth, and by cherishing and regulating its ardour; literature, by affording favourable opportunities for its attainment, and by making its possession indispensable.

It is to provide for the Church, men who shall be able to defend her faith against infidels, and her doctrines against heretics.

It is to furnish our congregations with enlightened, humble, zealous, laborious pastors, who shall truly watch for the good of souls, and consider it as their highest honour and happiness to win them to the Saviour, and to build up their several charges in holiness and peace.

It is to promote harmony and unity of sentiment among the ministers of our Church, by educating a large body of them under the same teachers, and in the same course of study.

It is to lay the foundation of early and lasting friendships, productive of confidence and mutual assistance in after-life among the ministers of religion; which experience shows to be conducive not only to personal happiness, but to the perfecting of inquiries, researches, and publications advantageous to religion.

It is to preserve the unity of our Church, by educating her ministers in an enlightened attachment, not only to the same doctrines, but to the same plan of government.

It is to bring to the service of the Church genius and talent, when united with piety, however poor or obscure may be their possessor, by furnishing, as far as possible, the means of education and support, without expense to the student.

It is to found a nursery for missionaries to the heathen, and to such as are destitute of the stated preaching of the gospel; in which youth may receive that appropriate training which may lay a foundation for their ultimately becoming eminently qualified for missionary work.

It is, finally, to endeavour to raise up a succession of men, at once qualified for and thoroughly devoted to the work of the Gospel ministry; who, with various endowments, suiting them to different stations in the Church of Christ, may all possess a portion of the spirit of the primitive propagators of the Gospel; prepared to make every sacrifice, to endure every hardship, and to render every service which the promotion of pure and undefiled religion may require.[6]

The aim of this approach to theological education is to produce and prepare shepherd-teachers for the Church who have a mind for truth, a heart for God and who will live a life of ministry. Humble, happy, faithful, brave, loving, pastoral, sturdy, gentle, godly ministers who understand, teach and embody Reformed piety, doctrine, worship, polity, and practice. We want to provide God’s people with ministers who know and believe their Bible; who treasure God; who bear witness to Christ and proclaim his Gospel; who are themselves transformed by grace and truth; who love their people; who live to serve; and who have a passion for the great commission.

The Insights of Three Theologians

The reflections and contributions of three Reformed theologians to the vision of theological education described here enrich our understanding of how God makes ministers. In 1675, Dutch theologian, Herman Witsius (1636–1708), gave his inaugural address as a professor of theology at the university in Franeker, subsequently translated and published in the little booklet On the Character of a True Theologian (made widely available in Scotland in a translation by John Donaldson in 1856 and again in 1871, with a commendation by William Cunningham, and more recently edited and reprinted in Greenville, SC by Reformed Academic Press in 1994). William Cunningham (1805–1861), An Introduction to Theological Studies (seven chapters excerpted from his Theological Lectures [1878], from his course for first year students at New College, and published in three editions by Reformed Academic Press in 1991, 1993, and 1994). B.B. Warfield (1851–1921) wrote two superb essays, one on the seminarian, The Religious Life of Theological Students, originally an address delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary on October 4, 1911, and published frequently and variously since then (e.g., Phillipsburg: P&R, 1983); and another on the seminary, “Spiritual Culture in the Theological Seminary,” an address delivered to the incoming Students, Sunday afternoon, September 20, 1903, in the Oratory of Stuart Hall, Princeton Theological Seminary (one can imagine J. Gresham Machen, already a student, in attendance), and subsequently published in the Princeton Theological Review 2, January, 1904.

Witsius, On the Character of a True Theologian (1675)

Though Witsius does not claim the title for himself, William Cunningham calls him “a ‘true’ and consummate theologian” possessed of “talent, sound judgment, learning, orthodoxy, piety and unction.”[7] Dr. Mike Honeycutt (an expert on William Cunningham, who studied and introduced the modern edition of Witsius’ address) comments on Witsius’ “precise theological formulation and intense experiential religion.”[8] You can see in these two descriptions the qualities that were appreciated and aspired to in the Church’s ministry. Indeed, Witsius’ own definition of a theologian evidences the same interests: “By a theologian, I mean one who, imbued with a substantial knowledge of divine things derived from the teaching of God himself, declares and extols, not in words only, but by the whole course of his life, the wonderful excellencies of God and thus lives entirely for his glory.”[9]

Witsius tells us that he writes this description of a true theologian (and he is not just speaking of professional academic scholars, he is especially thinking of what all ministers should be) in order “that I may have it continually before me.” He wants his “delineation of the ministerial character” to point him to his duty and to remind him of his shortcomings that “he may the better discern his own failings and learn how humbly he should think of himself.”[10] Already we are seeing that a combination of aspiration and humility are a part of the soil of spiritual growth for the seminarian.

He then outlines his address in three parts. He wants to contemplate how a true theologian is made, what he is supposed to do with what he has learned, and finally what he is to be himself. He says it this way:

Let us, in contemplating such a theologian, inquire first in what school, under what teachers, by what method, he reaches a wisdom so lofty; then into the mode in which he may most successfully communicate to others what he has been taught himself; and lastly, into the habits of soul and outward walk by which he may adorn his doctrine; or, to comprehend in three words the sum of what is to be said, let us portray the TRUE THEOLOGIAN as a STUDENT, as a TEACHER, and as a MAN. For no one teaches well unless he has first learned well; no one learns well unless he learns in order to teach. And both learning and teaching are vain and unprofitable unless accompanied by practice.[11]

The True Theologian as a Student of Scripture and Disciple of the Spirit

Witsius wants the minister to “lay the foundations of his studies” in what he calls “the lower school of nature” or the “rudiments” (the basics of logic, grammar, rhetoric, moral philosophy, the acquisition of languages, etc.). Whatever is sound and judicious in human arts, whatever is true and substantial in philosophy, whatever is elegant and graceful in the wide extent of polite literature, all flow from the Father of Lights, the inexhaustible Fountain of all reason, truth, and beauty; and all this, therefore, collected from every quarter, ought again to be consecrated to Him.[12]

But he is especially concerned that the true theologian devote himself to the study of Scripture as a disciple of the Spirit. He wants him to “rise from that lower and merely natural school to the higher fields of Scripture study, and sitting humbly before God, let him learn from His mouth the hidden mysteries of salvation” and “ be ravished with these heavenly oracles.”[13]Putting his faith in God and God alone, the true theologian is “a humble disciple of the Scriptures” and “must also be a disciple of the Spirit.” Why? Because “in order to understand spiritual things, we must have a spiritual mind”[14] and only the Holy Spirit can give that to us (1 Cor. 2:12-16). What is the result of this discipleship? “He [the Spirit] imparts the mind of Christ along with the things of Christ.” What things? “He who is a student in this heavenly school not only knows and believes, but has also sensible experience of, the forgiveness of sins and the privilege of adoption and intimate communion with God and the grace of the indwelling Spirit and the hidden manna and the sweet love of Christ.”[15] Thus, our true theologian has an experiential acquaintance of the things of God, and especially the saving benefits of Christ, revealed in Holy Scripture.

The True Theologian as an Experienced and Loving Teacher

Having been taught in the school of the Spirit in Scripture, our “experienced theologian” (meaning someone possessed of a true and saving knowledge of God, through Christ, by the Spirit) teaches the truth of God from Scripture, and does so from love. That is, having experienced himself the saving and sanctifying realities that are revealed by God in Scripture, and having known himself the love of God in Christ, because of his love for God and for God’s people as God’s own children and his brethren in Christ, he is inexorably drawn and driven to “employ every resource and put forth every effort to win many souls” and to build them up in grace and truth.[16] And so,

he exerts himself to cherish his spiritual children in a winning and gentle manner and with an assiduity which knows no weariness, desiring to impart unto them not the gospel of God only but, if it were possible, his own soul and still more the Spirit of Christ, teaching, admonishing, beseeching, and fashioning and forming them as it were with his own hands, that at length, full of joy, he may, after the example of Christ, present them before God …[17]

Witsius is less focused on the theologian’s cultivation of skill in the art of teaching than on the motivation of his heart in teaching. What will the love of God yield in the heart of the true theologian as a teacher?

The same spirit of love will lead him to set forth only what is certain, sound, solid, and fitted to cherish faith, excite hope, promote piety, and preserve unity and peace; doing all without prejudice, inclining to no party, abstaining with the utmost solicitude from all novelties of expression, unprofitable speech, strifes, and curious, foolish, and unlearned questions of words, by which the minds of the simple are disturbed, the Church rent in pieces—surmisings and whisperings engendered within, while without, a spectacle is exhibited which affords gratification to its enemies and a cause of triumph to Satan himself.[18]

Thus specious speculation and doctrinal deviation are revealed to be derivative not only from pride, but also from a selfish lovelessness for God and his people. The true theologian does not diverge from the pattern of sound words (2 Tim. 1:13), precisely because of his love for God and his people.

The True Theologian as a Man whose Life corresponds to his Profession

As we have already seen, Witsius taught that “both learning and teaching are vain and unprofitable, unless accompanied by practice.” He was fond of telling his students that “he alone is a true Theologian, who adds the practical to the theoretical in religion.”[19] Chaucer’s compliment of the Poor Parson in the Canterbury Tales, “first he practiced, then he preached” is based upon a similar conviction. Both Witsius and Petrus Van Mastricht (1630–1706) studied under Gisbert Voetius, and both of them stressed that true theology is always practical and never merely notional (hence Mastricht called his magnum opus Theoretical-Practical Theology).

And so the final section of Witsius’ address to seminarians begins with a searching question: “But with what heart, with what success, will that man labor who has not first sought to be himself fashioned after the image of God?” Witsius is concerned here with the minister’s “habits of soul” (his inward dispositions) and “outward walk” (his personal, familial, ecclesiastical and social manner of life). What would the habits of soul look like in true theologian? Witsius describes them:

The desire of heaven, contempt of the world, unfeigned gravity, a modesty leading him to be busy with his own affairs and to abstain from meddling with those of others, a humility teaching him to think soberly of himself and highly of all besides, a mind solicitous to preserve peace as well as truth, fervent zeal tempered with the blandest gentleness, long-suffering under injuries and reproaches, a prudent circumspection in regard alike to the time and manner of action, a precision the most unbending and accurate in exacting of himself, with a readiness to pardon many things in his brethren, and whatever else pertains to this august preparation—these, these are the things which do not simply adorn, but which make the theologian.[20]

These are the things that a godly minister is disposed to. And what does his life look like? Witsius answers in seven copious clauses.

First, he says that the true theologian does not outwardly pretend seriousness, nor long for riches, but sets his heart on things above (Col. 3:1–2). Show me a man who, intently meditating on sacred realities, does not simulate gravity by his beard or dress but, panting after the things which are above and eternal, holds in low estimation the sumptuous halls of the rich and the whole earth itself, with its gold and its silver;

Second, he does not covet pleasure, wealth and honors, nor the vanities and allurements of the world, but is wholly satisfied with the grace of Christ and the fellowship of the Spirit.

who, satisfied with the grace of Christ the Saviour and the fellowship of the Divine Spirit inhabiting his breast, looks down as from a lofty eminence upon all the vanities and allurements of the world, coveting neither pleasures, nor wealth, nor honors;

Third, he does not become entangled with worldly affairs of business or politics, nor seek after positions, nor is he a manipulator, nor does he pursue the patronage of the great. He neither grovels before superiors in the Church, nor acts superior to his own flock, but concentrates fully on the pastoral care of souls and the interests of Christ’s kingdom, appropriately confining his attention to his own place of ministry.

who, devoting himself wholly to the care of souls, and the defense, promotion, and enlargement of the kingdom of Christ, does not give himself up to secular business or politics, watches for no office, is no demagogue, does not pay court to the great, does not cringe to his ecclesiastical superiors, nor lord it over God’s heritage, and, accurately assigning to the church, the college, and the civil power their proper relative places, confines himself to his own church or chair;

Fourth, as he grows in the things of the Lord and in the duties of the Christian life, he does not compare himself favorably to others, or even to himself, but to those who are more mature, and supremely, to the commands of God in Scripture.

who, the farther he advances in the contemplation of the things which are above and in the practice of virtue, is the less disposed to tarnish the glory of his neighbor, measuring himself not by himself, but with those who are more perfect, and above all, with the perfect law of God;

Fifth, he is zealous for God’s cause (rather than his own), and careful for the salvation of sinners, the protection of Christ’s Church, and sound doctrine.

who, whensoever the cause of God, the salvation of souls, the defense of the Church, and the guardianship of the heavenly doctrine call for exertion, is all on fire with zeal for God and would rather die a hundred deaths than that one jot should be yielded to the enemy in that cause which is not his, but his Lord’s;

Sixth, and yet, he does to want to settle scores, forbears personal criticisms, and doesn’t insist on his own views on uncertain questions. He is immovable against vehement attacks and at the same time has a way of attracting and unifying those who are in conflict.

who, at the same time, would seek no revenge for personal injuries, would bear with moderation reproaches directed against himself, and in doubtful matters not insist on his own opinion; who, as was said of Athanasius by the ancients, stands firm as a rock against the assaults of the violent, but as a magnetic center of attraction and union to those at variance;

Seventh, he is not reckless but careful, works hard but inconspicuously, seeking sincerely and simplicity to serve all, not viewing himself as better than others, ready to give others credit, regarding his neighbor above himself.

who, always exercising prudence, attempts nothing rashly, exerting himself unobtrusively even in the most difficult undertakings; who in fine, not feignedly nor lightly, but with the most unaffected simplicity, is ready to throw himself at the feet of all, preferring himself to no one, but everyone to himself, is forward to give honor to all, esteeming his neighbor more than himself …[21]

Witsius admits this is an incomplete picture, but it is still beautiful, and humbling. Indeed, he confesses that he himself falls short of it: “How little I resemble, how very far I differ from such a one, no one knows better than myself.”[22] And yet his contemporaries saw much of these characteristics in him. He once said that “the love of truth and the spirit of charity, equally cultivated, constitute the brightest ornament of a Christian mind.”[23] This was on full display in what Honeycutt calls “his irenic polemics with opposing theologians.”[24] Witsius gives us an example, in his teaching and conduct, of minister made by the means of grace, equally concerned for truth and love, and able to speak the truth in love.

Witsius’ model of self-giving to his students is also an inspiring example to all seminary professors. As he concludes his address, and before he closes in prayer, he exhorts and encourages them with these words:

Whatever I can do, for you I will do it. In all that I am, I will be yours. For you I will study; for you I will labor; for you I will write. You will I set before me; you will I carry in my bosom. I shall shrink neither from the weariness nor exhaustion attendant upon study if only I can subserve your improvement.[25]

Cunningham, An Introduction to Theological Studies (circa 1843, published 1878)

When William Cunningham began to lecture at New College, Edinburgh in the 1840s, he developed a series of lectures for first year students that were eventually published posthumously in 1878 in a book called Theological Lectures ([1878], reprinted in Greenville, by A Press, 1990). I encountered the volume of those lectures when I was a postgraduate student at New College in the 1980s, had it reprinted, and eventually excerpted the first seven chapters and had them published for my new students at Reformed Theological Seminary in the 1990s. When you read them, you get a feel for the kind of wisdom Cunningham imparted to those new ministerial students.

Each of the seven lectures are worth our reflection in thinking through the work of the seminary, but this a chapter, not a booklet. His first lecture sets out helpful explanations of the function of education in general, and definitions of religion and theology in particular. It reminds us in a very Witsius-like way of the importance of an experiential knowledge of God in theology, and of the role of the Holy Spirit in understanding the Scriptures. Lectures two through four sketch out the various branches of theological studies, their significance, and relation to one another. His divisions are: first, exegetical theology; second, systematic theology; third, historical theology; and, fourth, pastoral theology. Our attention is going to be given to what he says in lectures five and six, so we will here only note that in lecture seven he makes a case for the absolute importance of mastering the biblical languages, as well as being thoroughly familiar with our English Bibles, and reminds ministerial students of the necessity of resting from their academic studies on the Lord’s Day.

Now we turn our attention to lectures five and six. His great subjects in them are prayer, meditation, and temptation (meaning the experience of resisting temptation in our trials). In these two lectures, Cunningham urges upon aspiring ministers a sense of the importance of prayer and the Holy Spirit to the attainment of true knowledge of God, he shows the importance of meditation (meaning considered, prayerful, reflection on God’s Word) to the minister’s growth in grace, and he indicates the vital role of Christian experience, and even temptation, in our preparation for ministry. He is, of course, borrowing his outline from Martin Luther’s famous dictum that “Oratio, meditatio, tentatio (prayer, meditation, trials/testing/affliction) make the minister.” Cunningham leans more into the idea of resisting temptation than Luther’s tentatio/Anfechtung, which Roland Bainton describes as “all the doubt, turmoil, pang, tremor, panic, despair, desolation, and desperation which invade the spirit of man.”[26]

Prayer, in Light of the Necessary Agency of the Holy Spirit in Theological Study

Cunningham begins his exhortation first with prayer (following Luther): “it is the imperative and primary duty of all who desire to become acquainted with theology, and qualified for the office of a minister of the gospel, to abound in prayer and supplication.”[27] But what Cunningham labors to do in much of his treatment of prayer in this lecture is to explain why prayer is so primary and necessary. His answer, in short, is that you really cannot understand the Scripture without the direct aid of the Holy Spirit. He says:

It is a truth clearly revealed to us in Scripture, that no man ever really attains to any such knowledge of God’s revealed will as will be available for his own personal salvation, or warrant him in entertaining the expectation of being instrumental through the truth in promoting the salvation of others, except through the direct agency of the Holy Ghost.[28]

He then elaborates this point. What is the reason that “the whole of your theological studies” must be accompanied “with a spirit and habit of earnest prayer for the illuminating influences of the Holy Ghost”? The answer he gives is threefold:

First, that all really useful and valuable knowledge of theology, or of God’s revealed will, must come from God himself;

Second, that God imparts this knowledge in connection with the study of his word, and the other means of grace, through the direct agency of the Holy Ghost, the third person of the Godhead; and

Third, that prayer is the direct and appropriate means which God has appointed and promised to bless, for drawing down upon us the influences of the Holy Ghost.[29]

The only proper conclusion from this three-part argument is that the whole of ministerial studies must be attended with prayer. Cunningham again expounds the point:

If these truths are duly impressed upon your minds, and if along with these convictions you have a real, sincere, and permanent desire to know God’s revealed will, with a view to the great practical ends which this revelation was intended to serve with reference to men, collectively and individually, then the natural, the necessary result will be, that you will abound in prayer and supplication for the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, that you will earnestly and importunately seek his guidance and direction with reference to the whole of your studies, to every book which you peruse, every topic to which your attention is directed, and every attempt you make to investigate the meaning of any portion of his word.[30]

Furthermore, Cunningham will argue, prayer alone can protect us from wrong desires for theological knowledge.

It is only a desire of theological knowledge, based upon those views and motives which we have described, that will lead you to abound and to persevere in prayer for the effusion of the Holy Spirit; and if you are not fervent and frequent in your prayers for his guidance, it is the plain dictate of common sense and prudence that you are not yet influenced by a sincere and intelligent desire that God by his Spirit would guide you into all truth. You are not then to infer that you have a desire for theological knowledge of the right kind, based upon right views, unless you are habitually praying for the guidance of God’s Spirit; and you may be assured that during the whole of your theological studies, which ought to last during your lives, the restraining of prayer, a disposition to neglect or disregard this exercise, or to perform it carelessly or perfunctorily, may be regarded as marking at once a declension in your spiritual vigour and activity, and also a diminished proficiency in the acquisition of really valuable professional knowledge.[31]

This whole section of the lecture has obvious and lifelong importance for the minister. It also reminds us again of how often we are changed by prayer.

Meditation, unto the Discernment of Scripture’s Meaning and Application, and our Protection from Error

Cunningham begins this lecture with a definition of meditation, which he identifies as reflection upon our learning and reading, in particular, and especially contemplating the meaning and significance of what we have read, particularly Scripture. He says:

Meditation, as including learning, reading, and reflection, and especially reading and reflecting upon the Word of God, so as to understand the meaning of its statements and the import of its teaching, is that which in the ordinary relation of cause and effect bears most directly and immediately upon the acquisition of theological knowledge.[32]

Why is this so important? Cunningham explains:

You must read and reflect. Theological knowledge cannot be put into you, ab extra [from the outside], without your own faculties being called into vigorous exercise. It consists radically and essentially in the formation of correct judgments, as to the meaning and import of statements in God’s word …[33]

But Cunningham goes on to argue that neglecting to meditate and reflect can leave us open to theological error. He urges in us “the right and honest exercise of our faculties, and the faithful and conscientious improvement of our opportunities,” as well as “diligence, caution, and perseverance” in their exercise, in order that we be kept from error.

The knowledge of the truth is the gift of God, and is traceable to or connected with the right and honest exercise of our faculties, and the faithful and conscientious improvement of our opportunities, while the adoption and maintenance of error is owing universally to some failure in these respects; to the want of a sincere and honest desire to know the truth, to the operation of some perverting and misleading influence, or to some failure in the diligence, caution, and perseverance with which our faculties have been brought to bear upon the investigation.[34]

Temptation, unto Intimate Acquaintance with Divine Truth and its Application in Resisting Sin

According to Cunningham (and a little different from Luther), tentatio/temptation means “experience, or the practical application of divine truth in the way of guarding against evil tendencies and results.”[35] He argues that you really can’t understand the meaning and significance of Scripture, or apply it to others to help them resist temptation, until you have had to do so yourself, and have thereby come to understand more deeply the truth of God’s word.

You can have no thorough and intimate acquaintance with divine truth, and especially you will be very ill fitted to explain and apply it for the benefit of others, unless you have had some practice in actually bringing it to bear upon the resistance of those temptations with which all believers are assailed in their journey towards Zion.[36]

Cunningham again explains that the experience of temptation, as we take recourse to God’s Word, increases our understanding of it, and our ability to rightly apply it to others.

The habit and exercise of applying divine truth for resisting temptation and growing in grace is indispensable to every believer, to every one who has really entered upon the way to Zion. But at present we are called upon specially to notice that it tends greatly to promote and extend men’s real knowledge and intimate discernment of divine truth, and to aid them unspeakably in rightly dividing it, or applying it wisely or judiciously for the benefit of others.[37]

Indeed, Cunningham says, there is an experiential knowledge and wisdom that can only be obtained by going through such temptation, and that uniquely equips ministers of the Gospel to explain to our flock, clearly and helpfully, how to fight temptation.

This process of actually applying the word of God and the doctrines which it contains to their great practical purpose in the formation of character and in the regulation of conduct, according to the actual circumstances in which men are in providence placed, and the temptations they are called upon to encounter, produces a clear, impressive, experimental acquaintance with divine truth, which cannot be acquired in any other way, and which peculiarly fits them for communicating clear and impressive conceptions of them to others …[38]

So, we can see in Cunningham’s exposition in these two lectures, that even though he was living and ministering in the midst of rising rationalism and infidelity of the 19th century, he fully retains the experiential emphasis in theological education and ministerial preparation that we encountered in Herman Witsius, who ministered in a very difference context and time.

Warfield, Spiritual Culture in the Theological Seminary (1903) & The Religious Life of Theological Students (1911)

B.B. Warfield, who taught theology at Old Princeton Seminary from 1887 to 1921, and served as its last Principal until 1902, in his address to first year students on “Spiritual Culture in the Theological Seminary” expresses the aims and aspirations of the theological seminary and counsels seminarians on how they are to make the most of their time and studies:

How are we who teach best to fulfill the trust committed to us, of guiding others in their preparation for the high office of Minister of Grace? How are you who are here to make this preparation, so to employ your time and opportunities as to become in the highest sense true stewards of the mysteries of Christ?[39]

Warfield is balancing two concerns. The first is his assertion that the academic and intellectual work of the seminary must not displace its concerns for the spiritual, moral, and practical preparation for the ministry. He says “intellectual training alone will never make a true minister; that the heart has rights which the head must respect; and that it behooves us above everything to remember that the ministry is a spiritual office.”[40] To that end he will argue that “any proper preparation for the ministry must include these three chief parts—a training of the heart, a training of the hand, a training of the head—a devotional, a practical and an intellectual training? Such a training, in a word, as that we may learn first to know Jesus, then to grasp the message He would have [us] deliver to men, and then how He would have us work for Him in His vineyard.”[41] He candidly admits: “aptness to teach is only the beginning of his fitting. All the other requirements are rooted in his moral or spiritual fitness.”[42]

But the other concern he has is the prevalent rejection of the necessity of academic and intellectual study for the ministry. He means to strongly object to the idea that the seminary’s plan for ministerial preparation is overly intellectual, citing Joseph T. Duryea who declared it “high time that the question whether culture and learning do not unfit preachers for the preaching of the Gospel to ordinary men and women, were referred back without response to the stupidity that inspires it.”43[43] In particular, Warfield is concerned about three things: the failure to appreciate the importance of study and learning the ministry, the false juxtaposition of it with the practical and spiritual aspects of ministerial preparation, and neglecting to grasp the reciprocity that should exist between the intellectual and spiritual, the academic and devotional, the theological and practical.

So, the whole first section of his address aims to keep these things together. Ministerial preparation requires knowledge and devotion, head and heart, truth and practice. He explains:

Our primary business at the Seminary is, no doubt, to obtain the intellectual fitting for our ministerial work, and nothing must be allowed to supersede that in our efforts. But neither must the collateral prosecution of the requisite training of the heart and hand be neglected, as opportunity offers. Nor will a properly guarded attention to these injure the discharge of our scholastic duties; it will, on the contrary, powerfully advance their successful performance. The student cannot too sedulously cultivate devoutness of spirit … When the heart is thoroughly aroused, the slowest mind starts into motion and an impulse is given it which carries it triumphantly over intellectual difficulties before which it quailed afraid. And equally a proper taste of the practical work of the ministry is a great quickener of the mind for the intellectual preparation. We cannot do without these things. And the student must be very careful, therefore— even on this somewhat low ground—while not permitting any distractions to divert him from his primary task as a student, yet to take full advantage of all proper opportunities that may arise to train his heart and hand also.[44]

In other words, the preparation of our heads, hearts, and hands for ministry ought not to be opposed or put at odds. Indeed, they are inseparably connected and mutual dependent and reciprocal.

In the second section of his address, he attempts to explain how this is to be done in seminary. He outlines five ways that seminary life may serve to assist this well-rounded preparation. First, in attendance upon the public means of grace. Second, additional opportunities for social worship and voluntary association for spiritual purposes. Third, understanding and undertaking the work of the seminary itself as a means of grace. Fourth, and thus, approaching your seminary work as a religious duty and act of worship. Fifth, the cultivation of communal devotion, engagement in and discussion about congregational labor, theological reading and mutual interaction and conversation.

I will concentrate our attention on two of these, the third and fourth, though the fifth also warrants extended reflection. As we have already noted in this chapter, Warfield argues that

The entire work of the Seminary deserves to be classed in the category of means of grace; and the whole routine of work done here may be made a very powerful means of grace if we will only prosecute it in a right spirit and with due regard to its religious value. For what are we engaging ourselves with in our daily studies but just the Word of God, the history of God’s dealings with His people, the great truths that He has revealed to us for the salvation of our souls? And what are we doing when we engage ourselves day after day with these topics of study and meditation, but just what every Christian man strives to do when he is seeking nutriment for his soul? The only difference is that what he does sporadically, at intervals, and somewhat primarily, it is your privilege to give yourselves to unbrokenly for a space of three whole years![45]

So, since seminary is fundamentally ministering the Word of God to future ministers so that they can minister the Word of God to others, and is thus a means of grace, how should the seminarian approach his labors and respond to these privileges? Warfield is definite in his answer and exhortation:

I beseech you, brethren, take every item of your Seminary work as a religious duty. I am emphasizing the adjective in this. I mean do all your work religiously—that is, with a religious end in view, in a religious spirit, and with the religious side of it dominant in your mind.[46]

In other words, as we have already said, seminarians ought to approach seminary as an act of worship.

The third section of Warfield’s address treats of (not Luther’s and Cunningham’s trilogy of oratio, meditatio, tentatio) but of lectio, meditatio, oratio making the theologian. Warfield says: “Lectio, meditatio, oratio, (reading, meditation, prayer) the old Doctors used to say, faciunt theologum [make the theologian]. They were right. Take the terms in the highest senses they will bear, and we shall have an admirable prescription of what we must do would we cultivate to its height the Christian life that is in us.”[47] But having given this trio, he begins with oratio, prayer, and we see the experiential concerns of Witsius and Cunningham alive and well at the dawn of the twentieth century in confessional Reformed theological education. “Above all else that you strive after, cultivate the grace of private prayer,” Warfield says, then he adds “Next to the prayerful spirit, the habit of reverent meditation on God’s truth is useful in cultivating devoutness of life.”[48] What is meditation? Warfield explains: “Meditation is an exercise which stands somewhere between thought and prayer. It must not be confounded with mere reasoning; it is reasoning transfigured by devout feeling; and it proceeds by broodingly dissolving rather than by logically analyzing the thought.”[49]

And what of Bible reading? Warfield connects it to the other side of meditation:

As meditation, then, on the one side takes hold upon prayer, so, on the other, it shades off into devotional Bible-reading, the highest exercise of which, indeed, it is. Life close to God’s Word, is life close to God. When I urge you to make very much while you are in the Seminary of this kind of devotional Bible study, running up into meditation, pure and simple, I am but repeating what the General Assembly specifically requires of you. “It is expected,” says the Plan of the Seminary, framed by the Assembly as our organic law, “that every student will spend a portion of time, every morning and evening, in devout meditation and self-recollection and examination; in reading the Holy Scriptures solely with a view to a personal and practical application of the passage read to his own heart, character and circumstances; and in humble, fervent prayer and praise to God in secret.”[50]

We hasten on to Warfield’s classic, “The Religious Life of Theological Students”. Given just over a decade after “Spiritual Culture of the Theological Seminary,” “Religious Life” focuses on the student, the seminarian, and the considerations which he needs to be aware of in his ministerial preparation. Warfield starts with a familiar assertion: “A minister must be learned, on pain of being utterly incompetent for his work. But before and above being learned, a minister must be godly.”[51] And just as in “Spiritual Culture,” he is concerned that these not be set in opposition to one another. He will spend the whole essay urging us not to sunder or oppose godliness and learning, theology and religion, mind and heart. “Put your heart into your studies; do not merely occupy your mind with them, but put your heart into them.”[52] Along the way he will give good counsel on how the student can keep learning and devotion together.

But Warfield will also sound the note that only God can make ministers. That is good for us to hear. God makes ministers. Seminary is but his tool, instrument and means. “None but he who made the world, Warfield quotes John Newton as saying, “can make a minister.”[53]


Perhaps it is good that we end here. What is seminary? A special and specific kind of means of grace. What does it do? Cultivate doctrine and devotion, truth and love, faith and practice, mind and heart, in the life of the seminarian. What does this kind of ministerial preparation produce? Ministers of the Gospel who

explain, enforce, and apply divine truth as contained in the sacred Scriptures, in order that by the agency of the Spirit through the instrumentality of the truth, men may be first of all turned from darkness to light, and then thereafter enabled to die more and more unto sin, and to live more and more unto righteousness.[54]

In the end, ministers are meant to do two things. Declare the Good News in calling sinners home to Christ (evangelism, “gathering”) and help Christians live the Christian life better (discipleship, “perfecting”). Thus, the minister’s whole life and work is wrapped up in the public and personal administration of the means of grace to these ends. That’s why the Westminster Confession of Faith says that the Church has been “given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and does, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto” (25.3).

This is what seminary was meant to help them do. And we need it today, more than ever.

[1] Dr. Douglas F. Kelly embodies the vision of theological education expressed in this chapter, and has devoted much of his ministerial service to preparing the next generation of Reformed pastors. Dr. Kelly was my senior colleague in Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson from 1990 until his departure to serve at RTS Charlotte, and we served on the RTS faculty for almost three decades. I first met the Kelly family in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1987. They (and I must here mention his beloved Caroline, too) welcomed me into their home and into the deep, rich bonds of their friendship. They became a formative part of my life and ministerial preparation, and they remain precious to me and my family to this day. Dr. Kelly has been a friend, encourager, example, esteemed colleague, faithful intercessor, and a father in the faith to me. The power of his intellect, the soundness of his doctrine, the reality of his piety, and the passion of his prayers have shaped the lives of hundreds of Gospel ministers, and my own. Thank you to all the Kellys: Doug, Caroline, Martha, Doug Jr., Angus, Daniel, and Patrick.

[2] Some of the material in this section is adapted from a portion of a chapter I wrote for Letters to Timothy (Founders Press, 2004 & 2016), chapter 12 “Keep Studying.”

[3] This is from Spurgeon’s sermon #542 “PAUL – His Cloak And His Books” in the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit 9 (1863): 668-669.

[4] “Spiritual Culture in the Theological Seminary” in The Princeton Theological Review 2:1 (1904): 73.

[5] John R. W. Stott, Guard the Truth: the Message of 1 Timothy & Titus (InterVarsity Press, 1996), 184.

[6] Plan of the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1811.

[7] Witsius, On the Character of a True Theologian (Greenville: Reformed Academic Press, 1994), 19.

[8] Witsius, 9.

[9] Witsius, 27.

[10]Witsius, 26.

[11] Witsius, 27-28.

[12] Witsius, 30.

[13] Witsius, 30-31.

[14] Witsius, 31, 35.

[15] Witsius, 36.

[16] Witsius, 40.

[17] Witsius, 40.

[18] Witsius, 40–41.

[19] Witsius, 13 and n.24, 16.

[20] Witsius, 45–46.

[21] Witsius, 46–47.

[22] Witsius, 47.

[23] Witsius, 14.

[24] Witsius, 14.

[25] Witsius, 49.

[26] Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), 26.

[27] William Cunningham, An Introduction to Theological Studies (Greenville: Reformed Academic Press, 1994), 57.

[28] Cunningham, 57-58

[29] Cunningham, 58

[30] Cunningham, 58.

[31] Cunningham, 62.

[32] Cunningham, 69.

[33] Cunningham, 70.

[34] Cunningham, 71.

[35] Cunningham, 63.

[36] Cunningham, 64.

[37] Cunningham, 63-64

[38] Cunningham, 64-65

[39] B.B. Warfield, “Spiritual Culture in the Theological Seminary,” in The Princeton Theological Review, 2:1 (1904): 65.

[40] Warfield, “Spiritual Culture”, 65.

[41] Warfield, “Spiritual Culture”, 67-68.

[42] Warfield, “Spiritual Culture”, 68.

[43] Warfield, “Spiritual Culture”, 65.

[44] Warfield, “Spiritual Culture”, 70.

[45] Warfield, “Spiritual Culture”, 73.

[46] Warfield, “Spiritual Culture”, 73.

[47] Warfield, “Spiritual Culture”, 76.

[48] Warfield, “Spiritual Culture”, 77.

[49] Warfield, “Spiritual Culture”, 78.

[50] Warfield, “Spiritual Culture”, 78.

[51] B.B. Warfield, The Religious Life of Theological Students [1911] (reprinted in Phillipsburg, NJ by P&R, 1983), 1.

[52] Warfield, Religious Life, 6.

[53] Warfield, Religious Life, 15.

[54] Cunningham, An Introduction to Theological Studies, 63.