Old Princeton: Benjamin B. Warfield and Seminary Education Today

During my first year of seminary, I took a required course titled “Spiritual Development”. Some question the inclusion of such a course in a program of formal theological study. After all, an academic course can not make someone spiritual by itself. What’s more, seminary is best suited to impart academic tools and disciplines necessary for ministry, not develop the personal piety or ministerial character of pastoral candidates. However, this course was no doubt retained to impress an important point raised in one of its required texts: “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.”1

The text was B. B. Warfield’s address, “The Religious Life of Theological Students”, given at Princeton Seminary on October 4, 1911. It contains several insights that proved helpful to me as I began a course of formal theological preparation. I also believe these insights are important for those who contribute to or benefit from seminaries today, whether professors, students, pastors, or lay people who sit under their ministries.

First, seminaries exist to impart the scholarly expertise that pastors need to be “able to teach”. Warfield states, in no uncertain terms, “The importance of the intellectual preparation of the student for the ministry is the reason of the existence of our Theological Seminaries.”2 Imparting specialized knowledge that enables pastors to guide the church theologically, defend the faith, and faithfully exposit the text of Scripture every week, are what seminaries are best adapted to accomplish. When seminaries lose sight of this point, time and resources are wasted, and the rationale for their very existence is called into question.

Second, seminary study should be a “religious exercise” that impacts the heart and will as well as the mind. Warfield challenged his Princeton seminary audience:

[I]t is surely not all right with the spiritual condition of that man who can busy himself daily with divine things, with a cold and impassive heart. … [Theological studies] bring you daily and hourly into the very presence of God; his ways, his dealing with men, the infinite majesty of his Being form their very subject-matter. Put the shoes from off your feet in this holy presence!3

When seminary boards, professors, and students lose sight of this point, they can quickly become worthy of the popular jab that equates seminaries with spiritual cemeteries. However, as Warfield’s comments demonstrate, this objection ought to have no real weight in practice.

Finally, seminary studies should be approached with diligence, because hard work in one’s calling is part of true spirituality. Warfield reminded his audience that the doctrine of vocation, recovered in the Protestant Reformation, restored a sense that all lawful employment has dignity, because performed unto God. Doing one’s duty to God should not be considered a detriment to spirituality, but an aid. A seminarian’s duty is to study, and to study hard. This insight is liberating for students who come for formal theological education from backgrounds that suggested only things like prayer and evangelism are spiritually beneficial. It is encouraging to every student who will occasionally find aspects of their studies mundane or tedious. Taken together, I think these three insights are of immense importance to the health of seminaries and the churches they serve.


[1] Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Religious Life of Theological Students.” The Master’s Seminary Journal 6, no. 2 (Fall, 2015), 182. http://www.tms.edu/m/tmsj6g.pdf

[2] Ibid., 181-182.

[3] Ibid., 186.

Steven McCarthy is pastor of Walton Reformed Presbyterian Church in Walton, NY, and a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. He is enjoying life with his wife and son in the Catskill region of Upstate New York.

Steven McCarthy