In our first and second posts on James Durham’s essay, "Concerning Ministerial Qualifications," we saw that the prerequisites “for the complete qualifying of a Minster” were “Gifts, Learning, and Grace.” And we spent some time looking at Durham’s understanding of ministerial gifts. This short series continues with Durham’s thoughts on the necessity of an educated ministry. In our age of the self-appointed and self-taught internet "theologian," Durham's words are so relevant.
What is Learning and Why Does it Matter?
Durham defined learning as an “acquaintance with Scripture and with the divine and heavenly things in it.” And by "acquaintance with Scripture" he meant Scripture in its original languages. Unpacking this Durham noted this learning entails “a fitness to reason for Truth and against error, to draw conclusions from premises, to open hard places, to reconcile seemingly contradictory places, and to answer objections etc.” Durham also said ministers should be widely and broadly learned, not just in relation to the scriptures and theology.
Sufficient learning to “reason against gainsayers and to open the mysteries of the gospel” is, Durham noted, “required in all ministers.” Aptness to teach, and the learning that necessitates, is a non-negotiable (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9). But why is learning necessary? Well, one great purpose of the ministry is to explain those things in Scripture which “are hard and not easily understood, which the unlearned and ignorant are ready to pervert to their destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). So, the ministry has to help the congregation understand difficult and hard things in Scripture. But without learning this will not be possible. Unless ministers themselves have studied these “difficult” and “hard” things they will not be able to help their congregation understand the scriptures and so grow in grace.
But, as well as for the congregation, learning is also important for the minister himself. The minister as a “teacher of the law” has to “understand what he is saying” (1 Tim. 1:7). The minister has to “hold fast … the pattern of sound words” that they have been taught (2 Tim. 1:13). And to do this they need to be learned. But why? Well, yes, so they can help their congregation. Yes, so they can convince doubters. But Durham also noted it is also important so that ministers themselves can avoid “being turned aside foolish unlearned questions” which will only bring “strife” (2 Tim. 2:23). It is by giving heed to doctrine or teaching that the minister saves himself as well as his hearers (1 Tim. 4:16). It is no act of kindness to the minister himself, as well as no act of kindness to the congregation, to allow an uneducated ministry.
How is Learning Acquired?
So learning is good. An educated ministry is necessary for the minister himself, and for his congregation. But how do we get a learned ministry? Well, there has to be a basic level of intellectual gifts, there has to be the raw materials given by God to work with.
But the duty of the man of God is to “stir up the gift that is in them” (2 Tim. 1:6). Natural gifts have to be cultivated. Hard work has to be put in. A learned ministry does not happen overnight by some “immediate” gifting of God—as Durham noted, the age of the charismata is over. Rather we get a learned ministry by “the way of studying, by reading, and by being brought up by others in knowledge.” This may not be glamorous, it may not be in step with the “I want it now” spirit of our age. But if we want a ministry that will build up the church we cannot neglect learning. A few years have to be devoted to the hard yards of intensive study or many years of trouble may follow. As Durham notes, “the many sad fruits of ignorance, error and confusion, which flow from this neglect of study, show the necessity of this.”
So we need an educated ministry. And therefore we need places that educate ministers. But it is one of the remarkable things in church history that seminaries or universities have so often been the breeding ground for error in the church. As the devil knows their importance, so he has so often attacked them, and brought ruin into the church. So let me ask you to pray for the many seminaries that seek to cultivate a “learned ministry.” Pray that they would be kept faithful, and pray that through their work a generation of men would be raised up who would be genuinely “learned” in the Scriptures.