Today was the first major milestone in my seminary career. There are the regular milestones of passing first, second, and third year, of course, milestones that are reached when you get that final year-end email that says “Faculty Decision: May Proceed” at the bottom. But today I was given the grace to sustain my first classis exam, the exam that allows me to preach in the churches.
It’s the least serious of the three classis exams, but it is serious. You spend a month preparing for it, two weeks writing a sermon and two weeks studying your assigned doctrine. It’s not as though all day every day is spent studying, but it’s a lot of studying nonetheless, and your wife probably thought you were grumpy at times.
The sermon text I was assigned was Luke 6:6-11, the healing of the man with the shriveled hand on the Sabbath; and the doctrine I was assigned was the doctrine of Scripture. It’s a great doctrine for an aspiring preacher to study as it illuminates your mind to the very thing you will be preaching. Take 1 Corinthians 2:14, for example, which is a proof text for the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
Spiritual discernment isn’t something that can be taught at seminary, nor can it be examined at classis. Yet it’s essential to rightly interpreting Scripture. It’s an important point to make because there is any number of unbelieving scholars in the world who can offer valuable insights into Scripture. They can give insights into the Greek grammar, or the historical and literary context. They can read a passage and discover things that you in all your hours of careful research missed. What this means is that although they could give a fascinating lecture on some part of Scripture, they could never preach a sermon.
This was something Augustine emphasized in his book on interpreting Scripture, On Christian Doctrine. He taught that above all, what one needed in order to rightly interpret the Scriptures was not a brilliant mind or clever insights, but faith, hope, and love. This involves positioning yourself not only thoughtfully, but prayerfully toward the text. It requires the exacting discipline of humility, the submission of all of one’s intellectual virtues to the words God has spoken. This is a much more difficult thing than just doing good exegesis. In fact, it’s an impossible thing, for the virtues of faith, hope, and love are divine gifts of grace. No one can work toward these gifts; the only way in which they come to man is through the grace of the Holy Spirit.
And this brings to mind another proof text I memorized, this one for the inspiration of Scripture: “All Scripture is breathed out by God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Ultimately, that’s the point of any sermon. If the sermon does not teach or reprove or correct or train in righteousness, then all you’re listening to is a lecture. It takes a spiritual man, not an intelligent one, to preach edifying sermons. That’s a tall and intimidating order.
Well that was preparing for the exam. The way the exam itself works is that you go to the pulpit, read your text, and preach the sermon proposal. This part of the exam is open session, which means anyone can sit in. When the sermon is finished classis goes into a closed session, so everyone who is not a member of classis stands out in the hall and compliments you on your sermon. You wait what feels like a long time, and then they invite everyone back in and announce whether or not your sermon was sufficient. Then the oral exam begins, which is also open session.
You were given an examiner, in my case Rev. Paul Aasman, who has 25 minutes to ask you whatever he likes about your particular doctrine. When the 25 minutes are finished, he must stop, regardless if he’s halfway through asking you a question or you are halfway through answering one. Then there is a 10-minute open floor session where any other member of classis can ask you any question on any topic. This is probably the point you were the least excited for. Here is a sample list of the questions I was asked:
– Is the doctrine of Scripture still important today?
– What was Calvin’s analogy for relating general and special revelation, and do you think it’s a good one?
– Is there a problem with red-letter Bibles?
– How does the gospel of Luke begin? Did Luke write what he wanted to write, or what God wanted him to write? Explain.
– What parts of Scripture were written down by God himself?
– Do you follow the majority text or the eclectic text, and how would you explain your choice to the congregation?
– Galileo said that the Bible is not a book about how heaven goes, but how we go to heaven. How would you respond to this?
– Can God’s general revelation be in conflict with his special revelation?
– If Scripture is perspicuous (clear), then why are there so many disagreements about what it means?
– Someone says to you that the doctrines of Scripture are inspired, but not the facts of Scripture. How would you respond?
The atmosphere of the exam was quite comfortable, and Arenda commented later on the “charitable spirit” of the examiners. At one point Rev. Aasman asked me what three words BC article 5 used to describe how Scripture functions for us.
“The creation, preservation…” I began, then realized I was quoting article 2 on general revelation.
“Oh,” I continued, “the regulation, foundation, and preservation of our faith…?”
“Not preservation,” Rev. Aasman replied.
Right, I remembered. I was still quoting article 2. The word he was looking for had slipped my mind. I was looking around, trying to find the answer somewhere, and I did when I looked at Rev. Ludwig and he mouthed the word, “Confirmation.”
“Confirmation,” I said.
“Yes! That’s the word,” responded Rev. Aasman.
So there very much was a spirit of goodwill there, and it made the whole process more enjoyable. Also, all eight of us who were examined today passed, which means that we’re coming soon to a pulpit near you.