Vignettes of a Seminary Training
Vignette (vin-yet): “a short descriptive literary sketch;” “a brief incident or scene” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary).
Herman Hoeksema was an old man when I was in seminary (1960-1963). Born in 1886, he was seventy-four when I entered seminary and seventy-seven when I graduated. After my graduation, he had only two more years to live. Naturally enough, he had lost something, even a great deal, of the liveliness of the days of his great powers. He informed me once, after his criticism of my sermon at a practice preaching session, that he had “mellowed” over the years. (I breathed a silent, heartfelt prayer of thanks that I had been born opportunely.)
But he was still in possession of all his faculties, especially his theological and exegetical faculties, and he was still Herman Hoeksema.
One may have his own opinion about the merits or demerits of the ironclad law that is now in place retiring professors of theology at the Protestant Reformed Seminary at age seventy. But I bless God that no such law was yet in place from 1960 to 1963, depriving me of studying under Herman Hoeksema.
Although I was the only student the first two years and one of only two students the last year, the classes were conducted as formally as though there were a student body of a hundred. Hoeksema lectured, sticking strictly to his subject and determined to cover all the material. There was no wasting of time, or implicit diminishing of the seminary, by idle conversation.
Mostly, the lectures consisted of his reading and commenting on his own published syllabi or printed outlines. Hoeksema had the fascinating habit of reading over a glaring grammatical error in his manuscript, which in those days, before copy machines, was printed in a primitive form, only to stop, suddenly, in his reading, in order to ponder the grammatical barbarity aloud. His tone of voice as he repeated the grammatical blunder was that of an inquisitor gravely evaluating some horrendous heresy. Invariably, he would shake his head sadly and conclude that the crime was that of some student copyist.
Of special benefit to me were the New Testament exegesis courses. The Rev. Herman Hoeksema, first and foremost a preacher of the Word of God, was a brilliant exegete (interpreter of the Bible). Upon good exegesis, he never tired of reminding me, good preaching depends. Often, the worth of the dogmatics class was enhanced by his careful interpretation of a passage of Scripture upon which the Reformed doctrine he was explaining was based. The format of the exegesis courses was that Hoeksema gave his exegesis of a passage in one class (which I wrote out word-for-word in my notebook). I read my exegesis of an assigned passage in the following class. Hoeksema would then critique my exegesis. The benefit of the course was especially the student’s observance of Hoeksema’s exegesis, not only the content of the passage, but also the way in which he went about interpreting it.
One year, he was working his way in class through the book of Philippians. I give a sample of his exegesis. Hoeksema worked with the Greek text and sprinkled his comments with the Greek words and phrases. In this sample, I use the corresponding English words and phrases. The text was Philippians 2:3: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.
The word “strife” originally was used to indicate those who ran for public office and courted popular applause by trickery and low arts. It comes from the verb meaning “to spin wool” as the attribute of a hireling. In the New Testament it has come to mean “a desire to put one’s self forward,” “a partisan and factious spirit which does not disdain low arts,” “rivalry,” and “ambition.” Its close associate is “vainglory,” “groundless self-esteem,” “empty pride.” In fact, ambition has its roots in vainglory. The latter is the basis of the former. Every man burns with esteem of his own worth. He values himself far above all others and thus would advance himself by any and all means to the forefront, where attention is his. And thus he envies the success of everyone else, strives with others in bitter jealousy, and rejoices at the failure and trouble of others. Such a condition among men, such concern for one’s own advance, and such magnifying of one’s own self simply are incompatible with love, sympathy, and likemindedness. Where true, spiritual love is, there will be found no factiousness and no vainglory. And it is, we notice, vainglory, glory that is mere illusion, empty pride, pride that has no content, thus no reason for being. If there were even a basis for that pride in self, it would be something. But there is no basis because all glory of man is like “the flower of the field” (Isaiah 40:6). All the esteem of a man for himself is folly, for man is a depraved creature. Only one glory has worth, only one glory provides a basis upon which man can act and which can regulate all man’s activities, and that glorying is the glorying in God. That alone is not “vainglory” but “real-glory” (here, Hoeksema did some word play with Greek terms, creating a Greek word meaning “full glory” to contrast with the Greek word translated “vainglory” in the text, which literally means “empty glory”).
Exegesis serves preaching. Hoeksema was determined to give the churches good preachers and good preaching. One requirement for good preaching, he insisted, is that preachers preach series of sermons, and not jump around in the Bible from isolated text to isolated text. Series preaching is the Reformed tradition. But Hoeksema’s reason for urging the preaching of series is intriguing. “Preaching series of sermons is preferable to random preaching,” he said. “In this way the preacher can say ‘Amen’ conscientiously.”
Prof. Herman Hoeksema welcomed questions from his student and the discussions that ensued. Questions often resulted in responses, which, though interesting, were not those that were expected. I asked him once about Erasmus’ book, The Praise of Folly. I had just read the book and enjoyed the humanist’s satirical attack on the Roman Catholic clergy. I expected a blistering condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church and, perhaps, some praise of Erasmus. Nothing of the sort. “Erasmus,” Hoeksema replied, “I know him. But I don’t like him. I don’t like him because, although he knew that the Reformation was right, he remained in the corrupt Roman church. And this he did for his own convenience. Men like him, I have not much use for.”
On one occasion, discussion turned a dogmatics class into a fiery debate. I was not involved. It was in December, 1961. The debate featured Hoeksema and the Rev. Prof. George M. Ophoff. Ophoff had retired in 1959. But he was still interested in theology. Twice a week, he would visit Hoeksema’s dogmatics class—alert, discerning, enjoying, and, when necessary, participating.
In this particular class, Hoeksema was lecturing in Christology. The topic was the incarnation of the Son of God and the virgin birth. Concerned to safeguard the deity of Mary’s child, as well as the sheer grace of the coming of the Son of God into the world, Hoeksema denied that Mary’s part in the conception of Christ was the production of a “seed.” This caught Ophoff’s attention. Concerned to safeguard the true humanity of Mary’s child, Ophoff insisted that something of the woman is “fructified” in the intercourse that results in conception. But Ophoff had the misfortune to call this “something” a “seed.” This put Hoeksema instantly on his guard against transgressing Scripture’s teaching that the male was excluded in the conception of Jesus Christ.
Biological confusion having been firmly established from the outset, the battle was joined. For the entire hour, the exchange was hot and heavy. In frankest terms, the two theological giants, close colleagues, and old friends delved deeply into the physiological intimacies of conception. “Seed,” “sperma” (so, reference was made to “sperm”),” “ovums,” “zygotes,” and “embryo” flew back and forth across the classroom like so many bullets in warfare. Although I was the only student, for whose theological benefit, presumably, the debate was raging, I was as forgotten as though I had been on the moon. The debate became heated. Ophoff was excited, and not a little irritated. Finally, Hoeksema called a halt. “George, George, we should stop this.”
The debate had its hilarious moments. I confess that at one point in the debate I could not refrain from laughing out loud (which went completely unnoticed).
But in the minds of the antagonists, the issues were doctrinal, and deadly serious: on the one hand, the Godhead of Jesus and grace; on the other hand, his genuine humanity. I did not miss this. Everything is theological, and sound theology is essential.
The tenacious Ophoff did not give up after one inconclusive battle. Hardly had we settled into our seats at the next class than Ophoff returned to the matter of “sperma” and “ovums” in regard to the conception of Christ. He had been thinking and studying. This time he carefully avoided calling the “something” Mary contributed to the conception of Jesus “seed.” Ostensibly respecting his position as a guest and visitor in the class, he couched his carefully crafted argument as a question. But the question was, in fact, a long argument in favor of his position, concluding with the assertion that the Holy Spirit “took the place of the male organ” in the conception of Jesus and with the pointed question, whether the Spirit also supplied the ovary. Hoeksema did not rise to the bait. He declined to go into the matter any further, and headed off another heated debate, with the soothing words, “It is a mystery.” And so it is. Ophoff yielded.
Spiritual descendants of those two men have doctrine—sound doctrine—(and controversy) in their bones.
Hoeksema’s criticism in practice preaching was incisive, helpful, and sometimes biting. He may have mellowed by my day, but he retained a tang. Criticizing my sermon on I Peter 1:3, Hoeksema remarked that my pauses were too long. “I wondered if you forgot your sermon.” Concerning my delivery in delivering myself of a sermon on Isaiah 40:1, 2, he said, “When you hold out your big hands, you spread your fingers. Shut your fingers.” (I had not thought of this criticism for forty-five years, until I read it in an old notebook in preparation for writing this article. To my amusement, I am inclined to think that what I am told is a habitual gesture of mine—raising a hand with the fingers tightly closed—is the lasting, odd effect of Hoeksema’s ancient advice.)
And then the criticism that is devastating, sending the seminarian home in a reflective mood. Critiquing my sermon on Isaiah 43:1, 2, Hoeksema noted that “you had opportunity to speak about the cross, but never did.”
Herman Hoeksema’s criticism of my sermon on Proverbs 3:33 occasioned a delightful exchange between him and his son, Prof. Homer Hoeksema. Herman Hoeksema usually was the last critic. He had the final word. One of his criticisms of my sermon on the proverb was that it had only two points. (Proverbs lend themselves to two points to the inexpert and inexperienced preacher.) Herman Hoeksema proposed three points. Homer Hoeksema then did something unusual. With filial reverence and professional courtesy, he invariably deferred to his father. This time, he spoke up, coming to my defense (which endeared him to me). Addressing his father, he said, “You preached on this text once, and you had only two points.” Herman Hoeksema considered this discrepancy for a moment, and then responded: “Well, when Dave has been a minister for forty years he also may preach it with only two points.”
Hoeksema’s instruction was not limited to the classroom, or to the subjects in the curriculum. He regarded all aspects of seminary training as properly his concern. He was teaching with a view to the lifelong ministry of his student. And he was observant.
Occasionally, I would speak a word of edification as a seminary student in the old First Church at the corner of Fuller and Franklin in Grand Rapids. This was daunting. Hoeksema would be prominently in the audience. The church was historic. Even the vast, impressive auditorium was intimidating to a seminarian. Late one Sunday afternoon, living away from my mother and as yet without a wife, I dressed for my appointment in First Church in an appropriate black suit and, without giving the matter any thought whatever, in a pair of white, athletic socks.
The next morning at the seminary, over coffee, Hoeksema matter-of-factly remarked, “Your sermon last night was good, but I would not wear white socks on the pulpit, if I were you.”
Shortly after I began seminary, Hoeksema made it clear that he strongly disapproved of seminarians marrying while in school. “It detracts from their studies.” During my last year, with a studied casualness that did not fool me, he indicated that he did not think it wise for a seminary graduate to take a charge unmarried. He spoke vaguely of the possibility of “talk.”
Did he stop to consider that his program for the marriage of a seminary student gave the student a brief, four-month window to carry out the marital program—sometime between early June, when he graduated, and early October of the same year, when he would be ordained?
Did it enter his calculations that a young woman would necessarily be involved, who might have a program of her own?
And a mother-in-law?
His timetable was the best for the ministry and, therefore, should be followed. Furthermore, he had done it.
I could assure him that I would be married in the prescribed period. His hearty congratulations did not quite hide his relief.
Then there was the memorable last class of my last day at seminary. He did something he had never done before. He ignored the subject matter. But he did not engage in frivolous talk. He had important things to say at our parting. Among them were two exhortations, one carefully, but unsuccessfully, disguised, the other blunt.
“David,” he said, “you will soon graduate and be eligible for a call in the churches. You will receive a number of calls.” (There were many vacancies in those days, not long after the schism of 1953, and I was the only graduate.) “I must not advise you where to go, of course (of course, this was exactly what he was doing, and we both knew it), but I like Loveland [Colorado], and they have a great need. They are a new congregation, and they have been vacant quite awhile.”
His advice was good.
And then this, as his last word, a kind of blessing:
When you become a minister in the Protestant Reformed Churches, do not preach dogmatics. Do not preach my dogmatics. (Picking up a Bible and holding it in his tremulous hand), preach the Word. Preach the Word. And if the churches put you out as a heretic for preaching the Word, preach the Word.
Ah, yes, I remember Herman Hoeksema.