He Didn’t Want to Rush into Ministry Unprepared: Jonathan Edwards and Theological Education
At Southwestern Seminary, where I serve, we regularly underscore our conviction that the call to ministry is a call to prepare. Formal seminary training is not a requirement for ministry or necessarily even a barometer to guarantee a certain level of genuine godliness or qualified fitness. However, to have 3 to 5 years to learn from professors and work out one’s understanding of foundational beliefs is not only a helpful blessing for many toward a long-term ministry of faithfulness, it is also often a form of what I call “structured discipleship” that many of us need before we are in a position of regularly leading others.Before or during seminary, students usually reach a point of wanting to go out and serve and finish their degree later. This hurried spirit is often noble and motivated by God-given zeal but regularly is short sighted. With some regularity I meet people seasoned in ministry who tell me how much they regret not staying for more training or who had every intention of finishing their degree but have never found the time.
Though an enjoyable and memorable time, enrolling in seminary and seeing a degree through to the end is not easy. The rigors of theological education combined with a growing family, a job and local church service can stretch and strain even the most resilient among us. Often students seem to identify with Joseph’s 13 years in prison hoping someone out there will “remember them” so they can “get out of this house” (Genesis 40:14)! But as hard as it may seem, there is good and joy that comes through the stretching.
While reading through materials related to my recent “Seven Summits” article on Jonathan Edwards, I came across this portion in Iain Murray’s biography of Edwards that serves as a great reminder to all those currently in a preparation season for ministry:
The choice, then, before Edwards in 1723 was between taking up a pastorate and the spiritual work which he had so greatly enjoyed in New York, or responding to the need at Yale with the prospect of wider studies which a Yale tutorship would provide. The fact that he went as far as formally to accept the call to Bolton, only to withdraw from it, is proof enough that the decision was not an easy one.
As we shall see, the three years now before him were not among those which he regarded as his happiest, yet the additional discipline involved was to contribute largely to his future usefulness.
The comment of Samuel Miller on Edwards’ decision to return to Yale is worthy of repetition:
Many a young man since, as well as before his time, of narrow views and crude knowledge, has rushed into the pastoral office with scarcely any of that furniture which enables the shepherd of souls ‘rightly to divide the word of truth’; but Jonathan Edwards, with a mind of superior grasp and penetration, and with attainments already greater than common, did not think three full years of diligent professional study enough to prepare him for this arduous charge, until, after his collegiate graduation, he had devoted six years to close and appropriate study.
As I tell students, if God has given you the opportunity and ability to give time to formal study and theological preparation, he has given you access to something the majority of ministers in the world will never have. While it may at times feel like you are spinning your wheels while others are changing the world, the truth is God knows exactly where you are and what you need.
Like Jonathan Edwards, the question is one of stewardship in sacrificing now so as to be able to enjoy and see maximal fruitfulness for the Kingdom in the years to come. If Edwards felt he needed further and formal theological education, do you? The call to ministry is a call to prepare.
Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Banner of Truth, 1987), 56.