Spiritual formation and the modern seminary

One of the classic introductions to theological studies is B.B. Warfield’s The Religious Life of Theological Students, where his primary concern is to argue for the necessity of personal piety in the life of those studying at a theological seminary. He expects that the seminary be a place of piety, where piety is inculcated and where the students experience what we call today “spiritual formation.” Reading my dear friend Carl Trueman’s recent post at reformation21 on “Witsius, Character and Cleaning Rosters” I was honestly surprised to find the following remarks in which he clearly disagrees with his distinguished Presbyterian forebear:

“I find the whole notion of ‘spiritual formation’ within seminaries to be somewhat problematic: seminaries impart knowledge and skills which are essential for ministry and which cannot be acquired with like ease in a practical mentoring situation; they also provide a context for developing important and useful friendships which will last a lifetime; but they cannot really engage in spiritual formation in any deep way.”

Trueman argues that this is because seminaries are not centers where the means of grace like the Lord’s Supper and the preaching of the Word are observed:

“Certainly, the professor can and should strive to model Christian behaviour; but the real, deep, lasting spiritual formation for ministerial candidates takes place in a church context just as it does for every other Christian. The church is where the word is preached, the sacraments administered and discipling takes place.”

To be sure, seminaries are not churches and I agree wholeheartedly that as such a seminary is not the place where baptism (albeit Carl and I differ somewhat about this ordinance/sacrament) and the Lord’s Supper are carried out. But surely the Word is preached at Westminster? What does Carl expect should happen as that Word is heard by students there? And surely the lifelong friendships formed are a central means of grace in the lives of the students—or maybe my dear brother has forgotten the way that our Evangelical (or should I say Reformed?!) forebears prized friendship as a means of grace? And would he disagree that part of the seminary professor’s role is to mentor the students (or some at least) under his care? Surely seminaries are places where more than places where “knowledge and skills which are essential for ministry” are imparted? If this is all our idea of a seminary, I would not be surprised if the long-term result were a hall of dry orthodoxy!

I am sorry, I think I shall stick with the perspective of B.B. Warfield, or one of my favorite models, D.A. McGregor (1847–1890), professor of systematic theology at and then principal of Toronto Baptist College. A former student said of his teaching: “He not only thought out the…doctrines upon which he lectured, but he felt their power, and falling tears often evinced his emotion while he spoke of some particular aspect of the truth. This made us all feel that we had before us not only a theological professor but also a Christian man whose life was swayed by the great principles about which he spoke… He not only made us see the truth, but he made us feel its power and perceive its beauty.” Were not lectures like this a rich vehicle of spiritual formation?

In fine, spiritual formation is a vital part of what should be happening at the seminary as well as the local church.