Oliver Hart on the Necessity of Theological Education

“South Carolina Baptists, and Southern Baptists, have no more important pioneer than Oliver Hart” [Oliver Hart 1723-1795. A Biography (Greenville, South Carolina: The South Carolina Baptist Historical Society, 1966), 3.]. Hart served as Pastor of First Baptist Church, Charleston, South Carolina—the oldest Baptist work in the South—from 1750-1780. Hart strongly promoted theological education of young men for the ministry. Here he is speaking in a sermon entitled A Gospel Church portrayed and her Costly Service pointed out (1791), which he preached on 2 Chronicles 29:35b (“So the service of the house of the Lord was set in order.”). The “house of the Lord” in question was the Temple in Jerusalem. But the idea of “good order,” Hart emphasizes, pertains to “the whole of social, publick [sic], gospel worship” and thus can be viewed as a principle for New Testament churches. It is, he goes on to emphasize, “a mere burlesque on religious worship, to attend on it, in a confused, clamorous, frantick [sic] manner, as some do,” so that “the house of God…seems to be metamorphosed into a bedlam.” [A Gospel Church portrayed and her Costly Service pointed out (Trenton, 1791), 6-7]. This is an interesting remark that indicates that our Baptist heritage has sought to achieve a balance between freedom (of the Spirit) and all things in worship being done in order and decently.

Now, of the key elements that help maintain order in the church, Hart mentions those in leadership, namely ministers, whom he likens to pillars within the structure of the house. Ministers are like pillars in three respects. First, just as a pillar must be “erect” and “unwarped,” so ministers are to be “upright in their outward deportment” and orthodox in theology. When “a minister inclines to and embraces error,” he not only falls himself, but he “generally brings down others with him, and occasions a terrible breach in the church.” (A Gospel Church portrayed, 15-16).

Then, pillars support a building. Similarly ministers are “set for the defense of the gospel,” and should be able to “preach and defend” Scriptural truth and encourage those among God’s people who are weak and fearful (A Gospel Church portrayed, 16).

Third, Hart notes that pillars often have an ornamental function in buildings. So, he argues, faithful ministers provide a sheen and beauty for the church. In his words:

“Pillars are ornamental to a building; for which end they are hewn, planed, painted and varnished. None need be informed how much an able and faithful ministry adds to the beauty, as well as strength of the church. For this purpose they are hewn by the ax of the law—smoothed by the plane of the gospel—painted by the gifts and graces of the Spirit, and varnished by human erudition. This varnish, some deem superfluous, although a qualification of great importance, and ought never to be dispensed with, when it can be obtained.

“In ancient times, there were schools of the prophets; and they are not less needed now. May such institutions be encouraged. We can do little or nothing else towards preparing these pillars [i.e. ministers]. It is a pity we should be reluctant in this. I am sorry to say, that several young ministers, of bright natural parts, and gracious endowments, are groaning for want of this advantage.” (A Gospel Church portrayed, 16-17).

Hart’s focus here is on the necessity of a learned ministry. Some consider learning, or “human erudition,” a matter of little significance in the training of ministers. From one perspective Hart is prepared to grant this. True ministers are created by the Spirit of God, and given “gifts and graces” by him. No amount of education can render a man a true minister of the gospel where this work of the Spirit is absent. In this light, “human erudition” must be considered simply a “varnish” that beautifies and finishes the pillar (i.e. the minister).

On the other hand, Hart is confident that learning is “a qualification of great importance” and if it can be obtained, it should be. In other words, Hart believes that some sort of formal theological education, while not sufficient to make a man a minister, is nonetheless needful.