In April 2009 I began a nearly two-year process that has shaped and continues to shape my spiritual life and thinking on theological matters: I pursued and eventually completed a Certificate in Systematic Theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, though distance learning. At the time I was looking for some additional direction in my theretofore self-directed theological study, and was even considering leaving my present profession and entering the pastorate. Because my wife and I were childless then and both working full-time, I had the free time and financial means necessary to take up this pursuit. I chose PRTS because its promotional materials and available sample lectures communicated a combination of rigorous academic requirements, warm piety, confessional orthodoxy, and to be honest, low tuition that I found more appealing than its rival institutions. Additionally, its certificate programs required only 18 credit hours of coursework, while those at other schools required 30 or more—really the equivalent of a full master’s degree in any field other than theology. While PRTS was and is a young institution and was not accredited by the Association of Theological Schools at that time, I was assured that they were pursuing that accreditation. The seminary has since been fully accredited by ATS.
It has been more than three years since I completed this program, and life now is substantially different. I was just about halfway finished with the certificate when we adopted our son, and I know full well that both time and finances would prevent my entering such a program at this time in my life. I am teaching at a university with greater requirements for performing and publishing than my previous one, which also limits the time I have available for outside study. Furthermore, my family is now part of a larger church, and opportunities for putting the results of my studies to use in a formal setting are rightly slow in coming as we continue the process of finding places of service and involvement here. (That said, one might argue that my present position teaching preschool Sunday School is the most important teaching role I have ever had in the church!)
All of that said, given the opportunity, time, and money I would gladly continue my formal studies through PRTS or a similar institution. The benefits of the studies I was able to complete have been many; here are just a few of them:
1. Greater appreciation for the work of the pastor.
Taking 18 credits of systematic theology will certainly give one an appreciation for the “academic side” of a pastor’s initial preparation, as well as the myriad considerations and hours of study that are part of the development of every sermon. Given the pastoral bent of the professor for all of my courses, Dr. Joel R. Beeke, I also received a glimpse into the practical challenges that are part of the pastor’s work. While “bi-vocational” ministries are sometimes necessary for pastors, they are far from ideal—it’s a full-time job!
2. More informed opinions on theological matters and related subjects.
I entered this program largely hoping to enhance the teaching ministries I had already enjoyed in several churches. Unsurprisingly, after 18 hours of systematics I know a whole lot more about theology, the Bible, and how these ideas apply to practically every area of life. However…
3. Greater appreciation for how much I don’t know.
Strangely enough, I have found myself less willing (really!) to voice my opinions about matters of theological discussion and controversy than I once was. I entered the program at PRTS having already read the Bible through several times in multiple translations, and thought I knew things pretty well. After hundreds of hours of listening, reading, studying, and reflection, I came to realize that even after these formal studies I had barely “scratched the surface.” Learned men have been plumbing the depths of God’s Word for centuries, and their findings, expositions, and reflections occupy thousands upon thousands of pages. The Bible alone yields new treasures upon every reading, while the thoughts of godly and erudite scholars give further “food for thought.” I know a great deal more of this than I once did…enough to be even more aware of what I do not know.
4. More awareness of the historical context of theological ideas and debates.
American evangelicals, like practically all people living in advanced societies today, tend to be very “present-minded.” Even those of us that are lovers of books tend to fill our shelves with the works of recent authors, and the result is an unhappy intellectual myopia. By its very name, PRTS displays a fondness for the works of sixteenth and seventeenth-century authors, and those men were in turn quick to cite sources extending back to the earliest days of the church. Reading and learning about the debates, circumstances, and struggles of the past is enlightening regardless of the subject area; when the subject is God and His Word, such study is humbling and inspiring, as well.
5. A “reticent eagerness” to serve.
When I began my studies I truly believed myself ready to serve the church in the office of elder. (I thought I knew a lot, remember?) While I am eager to serve the church in whatever way I can, I find myself much more tempered in my view of my own readiness for its highest “lay” office. Not only do I realize how much I have yet to learn about theology and the Bible, I realize even more just how much I have yet to learn about the challenges of bringing the teaching of God’s Word to bear upon the lives and struggles of real people. Maybe the Scriptures use the word “elder” to describe this office for a reason….
6. A removal (perhaps) of my pastoral ambitions.
I really did consider for a time leaving the music profession and the secular academy to become a pastor, and Dr. Beeke was kind enough to speak to me on the phone about it and offer his counsel. His advice: “If you can stay out of the ministry, stay out of it.” He reiterated the difficulty of the work and the need for a real sense of calling if one was to persevere. For my part, I came to realize that loving God’s Word and enjoying the study of theology do not by themselves make a pastor. After completing my formal studies with PRTS I thus redoubled my efforts at pursuing my present vocation in a manner that glorifies God and edifies my students, colleagues, and others.
Still, in the back of my mind I sometimes wonder…and consider…and pray….
7. Exposure to pastors and theologians who continue to shape my thinking.
In other writings I have discussed my transition from Southern Baptist to Reformed Baptist to Presbyterian. I began my studies at PRTS in the middle part of that journey, and the men whose writings and sermons I came to know through those studies have been instrumental in furthering my growth in both understanding and piety. While I came to PRTS already knowing of many of the top pastors and scholars in the Presbyterian tradition, through my studies I first became aware of the Dutch Reformed tradition and the rich heritage that is there. My iTunes podcast list thus continued to grow, and my bookshelves become ever fuller. I only wish that the English translations of Dutch works were not as stilted as they sometimes are.
8. An informed opinion regarding distance education.
I cannot adequately say how thankful I am for these studies and how much I would encourage any Christian with the necessary desire, opportunity, and means to undertake a similar course. However, distance education (regardless of the field—not just theology) does have its limits, and I became keenly aware of these over the course of my studies. The spontaneous interactions with faculty and fellow students before and after classes, in the hallways, and elsewhere are an important part of the educational process that is not adequately replicated in online courses. The lack of access to a theological library (or a library with resources for whatever field one is studying online) can also be problematic; in his lectures Dr. Beeke would at times refer to a book chapter or article that students should read beyond those listed in the syllabus, and while on-site students could simply go to the library and do so, I had to purchase or otherwise procure those additional sources. The building of relationships with future colleagues is also an important part of post-secondary education in any field. For seminary students planning to enter the pastorate, classmates become that initial and sometimes lifelong “support group” when the difficulties of the pastor’s work begin to take their toll. These relationships don’t happen online! The same is true to one extent or another for professionals in every field. Finally, students must be very self-motivated to succeed in online courses. Often there is no set schedule, no regular class meeting time, and no reminder of due dates (if fixed due dates exist at all). I have seen many college students fail online courses because they simply forget to do the work. If you lack the drive to complete coursework without regular reminders to do so, distance education might not be for you.
If you love God, His Word, and His church, and have the means to do so, consider some kind of formal theological education. There are on-campus and online programs available at numerous institutions representing every denomination. For most folks, distance learning is the only viable option, and while imperfect, it can be both enjoyable and edifying. Still, if you find yourself considering the pastorate, an on-campus, residential program is definitely preferable.