August 26, 2014

The First Seminary

by Nathan Busenitz

Today is the first day of classes for the fall semester at The Master’s Seminary. Hence the topic of today’s post. Paul_teaching A biblical justification for seminary education might be made from a number of passages, from Matthew 28:19 (and its emphasis on teaching disciples) to 2 Timothy 2:2 (and its emphasis on leadership training) to Titus 1:9 (and its emphasis on elders being equipped to articulate and defend the faith).

But there is a short passage in Acts that, I believe, provides a biblical precedent for seminary education in a particularly insightful way. These verses, which at first glance may not seem overly significant, show the apostle Paul starting a theological training school in the city of Ephesus. As one commentator explains: “In Ephesus, Paul opened a school of theology to train future leaders for the developing church in the province of Asia” (Simon J. Kistemaker, Acts, NTC, 684).

I doubt Paul called it Ephesus Theological Seminary (not to be confused with the modern ETS), but in essence that is exactly what it was. The setting was Paul’s third missionary journey (A.D. 52/53–56). After leaving Antioch and traveling through the churches of southern Galatia, Paul made his way to the city of Ephesus. There he encountered a dozen or so disciples of John the Baptist and introduced them to the Lord Jesus Christ, the one to whom John pointed (Acts 19:1–7). Picking up the narrative at that point, Luke writes:

And he entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before the people, he withdrew from them and took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. This took place for two years, so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks. (Acts 19:8–10)

As Luke explains in verses 9–10, Paul met with a group of believers in a school every day for two years, reasoning with them about theology. That, in its essence, is the basic paradigm of seminary education.

From this short passage (vv. 8–10), three features of the first seminary might be derived. And while I hope to avoid twisting a narrative text from Acts into a normative prescription for the contemporary church, I do believe these features provide helpful parallels for those engaged in seminary education today (whether as students or as teachers).

1. The Imperative: A Courageous Commitment to the Gospel (vv. 8–9a)

Acts 19:8 describes the content of Paul’s message—a message he no doubt continued to deliver after he left the synagogue and engaged the disciples in theological education. A study of verse 8 demonstrates that Paul’s message was continuous (“continued”), courageous (“boldly”), careful (“reasoning”), full of conviction (“persuading”), and Christ-centered (“about the kingdom of God”). In keeping with His God-given mandate to preach the gospel, Paul faithfully discharged the truth of salvation in the synagogue in Ephesus for a period of three months.

As inevitably happens to those who are faithful to biblical truth, Paul was met with hostility. His message proved controversial (v. 9), not because the apostle was pugnacious, but because the Word of God is always polarizing. Commenting on this verse, Donald Grey Barnhouse explained:

Notice the reaction Paul received to his preaching. It is always the same; some respond favorably, but the vast majority are hardened and disobedient in their outlook. Paul wrote about this in 1 Corinthians 2:14: “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him; neither can he know them, because they must be spiritually discerned.” This is always the response any preacher of the Word receives. This is the response any Christian receives to his faithful witness to the truth of God. (Acts, 176)

Paul’s unwavering commitment to the truth, in the face of hostility, sets a bold precedent for those in ministry today (whether in a church or a seminary). Far too many Christian institutions are quick to soften the message for the sake of popular appeal. But the God-given imperative of any pastor or seminary professor is to champion the truth, no matter how foolish or unwelcome it may seem to the society around us.

2. The Investment: A Concerted Concentration on Training (vv. 9b–10a)

Unable to continue teaching in the synagogue, Paul withdrew and began meeting with the disciples in a nearby school (probably a lecture hall used by a local philosopher named Tyrannus). Everett F. Harrison sheds more light on the situation:

Paul’s new location was “the school of Tyrannus.” The Greek word is scholē, which denotes first of all leisure; then discussion, or lecture (a favorite way to employ leisure among the Greeks); then a group attending such lectures; and finally, the place in which such instruction was given. An illuminating addition in the Western text [Codex Bezae] at this point states that Paul’s daily activity in this place went on from the fifth to the tenth hour, i.e., from 11:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. This was siesta time for the inhabitants. It has been conjectured that Paul was able to rent the hall at a nominal figure because it was not used at this time of day. (Acts, 291)

The fact that Paul met daily for a period of two years shows the level of personal investment that he was willing to make in the training of his fellow believers. If the Western text is correct, Paul’s theology classes met during the city’s normal naptime (suggesting that the reality of sleepy seminary students has a long history). The apostle gladly sacrificed his personal rest to instruct the disciples, likely through a form of dialogue teaching.

It is interesting to realize that if Paul met with the disciples for five hours a day, six days a week, his total time with them would have been approximately 3,000 hours over two years. That is roughly the equivalent of 200 units of seminary lecture.

It is also noteworthy that Paul supported himself financially during this time as a tentmaker. As F. F. Bruce explains:

So we may picture Paul spending the early morning at his manual labor (cf. 20:34; 1 Cor. 4:12), and then devoting the next five hours to the still more exhausting business of Christian dialectic. His hearers must have been infected with his keenness and energy. (The Acts of the Apostles, 408)

One final observation comes from “Tyrannus,” whom most commentators think was the lecturer from whom Paul rented (or was given use of) the lecture hall. Kistemaker notes the significance of his name, “We have no further knowledge of Tyrannus, whose name meant Tyrant. Probably this was a nickname given to him by his pupils” (Acts, 684). If that’s true, then the precedent of taskmaster-type professors also has a long history.

Again, Paul sets a compelling example for contemporary seminary instructors to consider. The apostle made real sacrifices to train up the next generation of Christian leadership. It is our privilege to do the same for the glory of Christ.

3. The Impact: A Christ-Honoring Contribution to the World (v. 10b)

Luke concludes this small section by commenting on the impact that resulted from Paul’s training school in Ephesus: “so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” Paul focused his attention on training, and the results were explosive. In fact, one commentator notes that “this venue, with its daily discussions over the course of two years, enabled Paul to have the most extensive influence so far recorded in Acts” (David Peterson, Acts, 536).

As a result of this training school, pastors were trained and churches were planted. Bruce describes its impact in these words:

Henceforth the province of Asia became one of the chief centers of Christianity. Probably all seven of the churches of Asia addressed in the Apocalypse were founded during those years, and others too. The planting of the churches of the Lycus valley, at Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea, must be dated in this period: these cities were evangelized not by Paul personally but by his fellow workers. (The Acts of the Apostles, 409)

And Kistemaker adds:

We assume that the students trained by Paul became pastors in developing congregations in western Asia Minor. . . . These disciples were instrumental in preaching Christ’s gospel, that is the word of the Lord, to both the Jews and the Greeks. (Acts, 685)

Paul’s two-year training school, by God’s grace, had an incredible impact for the advance of the gospel and the cause of Christ. As R. C. H. Lenski rightly points out:

Paul used Ephesus as a radiating center. While he remained in this metropolis and political center he reached out as far as possible by means of his assistants; how many he employed we cannot estimate. Congregation after congregation was formed. (Acts, 790)

Again, Paul’s example provides us with a compelling model to consider. If seminaries are faithful to their God given imperative and faithful to the investment with which they have been entrusted, they can rejoice in watching God bless their work as He uses His Word to impact the world.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • We so appreciate TMS! May the students beginning today develop into the godly, biblically sound, skilled teachers and lovers of people and God and His church that we have seen in the TMS graduates that we have met and/or been taught by. Thank you, professors, for your investments.

  • f

    Sounds to me like a reaching attempt to justify a system that has resulted in inserting an extra-Biblical requirement for eldership that isn’t found in the Bible and has created a “clergy-class” of rulers (contrary to 1 Pet. 5) rather than Biblical shepherds.

    • f

      Oh by the way, answer this charge: what’s up with places like TMS creating such a workload for its students that they end up neglecting their families? This report came to me from one who just recently graduated from TMS; part of the way through the program, the student realized he was totally neglecting his family at the expense of trying to keep up. When he went to his advisor to discuss his options for reducing the class load, he was told that maybe he can’t hack it in “the ministry” and might consider another path in life.

      That’s a foul if true, but sadly would be consistent with the report out of many seminaries, that men who think the piece of paper from a man-made institution somehow qualifies them for ministry, but they also get divorce papers the same day, thereby disqualifying them. How ironically tragic!

      • Ted Bigelow

        Hi f,

        I’m sure that cases like this arise, and who but knows that your report is accurate? As one who went to TMS for 5 years and even served as student body president, I saw a lot of situations of student stress. But never once did I see a professor handle a student harshly, as you report here. Quite the opposite, and stories could be told of professors bending over backwards to help students undergoing familial stress. Their compassion and personal godliness makes them highly beloved by the students, most who are doing ministry, taking classes, raising families, and working – all at the same time.

        During my 5 years at TMS I was exhorted repeatedly by my professors to make my family a higher priority than either ministry or my training. We all were, and we were all told the stories like you relate above. Never ever once was there a contrary message. So when men chose studies above family at TMS, please understand from one who has been there: it was their own choice, and quite opposite of the training we actually received.

        And I think you are being too harsh on Nathan, here. You could rethink your position on a church meeting “every day” above. Most would agree that churches don’t meet daily, nor should they. A better position, seems to me, is reflecting obedience to Jesus Christ by all meeting on the Lord’s Day (1 Cor. 11:18-20, 14:23, 16:1-2), not every day.

        And if your report of divorce is not true, then it is an anonymous slander. It merely is thrown out there without any consideration for factuality, and appears to have the goal of calling into question men who are taking very low salaries – much lower than such skilled men could earn in the marketplace – and who receive no honor in this world in order to invest their lives in men in the hopes they will sacrificially and wisely serve the people of God.

        Indeed, men who will one day serve Christ in churches that have young men like you in them must learn to bear such calumny and to return insult with blessing. So on behalf of them, thanks. Your post reminds us why we go through the process.

        • f

          “You could rethink your position on a church meeting “every day” above.”

          Actually, we see this example in the newly formed church in Acts. Now, we know that didn’t continue, but based on that example, it’s reasonable to think that newly formed churches in other locations behaved similarly, and that as time progressed, they adopted the model of meeting on the Lord’s Day shortly thereafter. At least it’s just as reasonable as the blatant assumptions made in the posted article…

          I’ll stand solidly by my comments; they are valid and need to be addressed in our culture, particularly as they relate to a return to a Biblical model of eldership contrary to what the majority opinion is today.

          I’ll recommend Alexander Strauch’s book, “Biblical Eldership”. While he doesn’t get it quite perfect, he has the best articulation that I can find.

          My point is not to attack and destroy seminaries per se. While they can, and often are, of great benefit to the folks who attend them, they aren’t a requirement, and often they are viewed and touted in an un-Biblical manner. The argument that Nathan makes is a poor one at best.

          My point is that churches have ceded ground to seminaries where they should not. The root cause is a failure to understand and adhere to a Biblical eldership: the result is the “clergy-class” I mentioned before. I find it interesting, and telling, that when this point is highlighted, the seminarians scream the loudest, which comes across as “the system” trying to justify itself, often through rationalizations that stretch Scripture beyond it’s intended meaning…

          By the way, I’m not so young…but thank you for that assumption anyway!

          • Eric Dodson

            “I find it interesting, and telling, that when this point is highlighted, the seminarians scream the loudest…”

            This point is quite disingenuous. You entered this forum, made several accusations on seminaries in general, and then an anonymous accusations against TMS in particular, and then when men from that school defend themselves, you use it as some kind of argument in your favor.

            If your point isn’t to “attack and destroy seminaries per se,” why all of the anonymous, generalized, accusations?

      • Eric Dodson


        I am sad to hear of your anonymous report and what seems to be a negative view of seminary in general. I would ask you to consider that you don’t know the whole story. I can only speak of my experience at TMS. Multiple times I had to reduce my work-load to accommodate family, and all of those times, I was encouraged to do so, and to make sure I was caring for my family. While in Seminary, my wife and I welcomed three children, each time the faculty of TMS was not only helpful in working around my family needs, but also extremely gracious, encouraging, and loving in supporting us.

        This was not only my experience with regard to family, but also with regard to the work. I’m not the birghtest bulb in the box, and there were many times that professors took me aside to help encourage and exhort me when I just wasn’t “getting it” with regard to the academic side of things.

        I don’t know who your friend is, and it grieves me that this is the report he has of TMS. I can confidently say that his report is not my experience at TMS, and perhaps there’s more to the story than you know.

        • f

          That’s why I said “if true”; that’s also why I highlighted it as a common report from many different seminaries, which points to more of a systemic issue than a “one off” thing…

          • Eric Dodson

            “answer this charge: what’s up with places like TMS creating such a workload for its students that they end up neglecting their families?”

            Sounds like a specific accusation against TMS that was followed by your anonymous example…

          • f

            So what you’re saying is that I did well by asking it the form of a question, giving Nathan a chance to respond, rather than just throwing a grenade and walking away? Thanks for confirming my comment!

          • Eric Dodson

            Your accusation, which was thinly veiled as a question, is the equivalent of someone saying:

            “Answer this: Why would I go to your church, when there are so many hypocrites there? I knew a friend once who told me he didn’t get treated very well at your church, and that’s how all churches are, so we should just get rid of the whole system. Besides, they met in house in Acts anyways!”

            If someone said that about your church, you’d probably defend it, and point out the weaknesses in such an argument.

            Hopefully they wouldn’t hide behind something like, “I find it interesting that when I talk about the church being full of hypocrites, it’s the church people who scream the loudest.”

          • f

            Oh by the way, my “anonymous example” does not stand alone, specifically in relation to TMS. There are enough other reports that would suggest what I described is more common than is cared to admit…

          • Eric Dodson

            Notice how you followed you defense, “That’s why I said if true” with more accusations? It kind of negates the assertion that you were saying its possible and makes it sound like you’re saying it is true.

    • f


      “Paul met with a group of believers in a school every day for two years,
      reasoning with them about theology. That, in its essence, is the basic
      paradigm of seminary education.”

      No it’s not; it’s the basic paradigm of the local church!

      • f

        “We assume that the students trained by Paul became pastors in developing congregations in western Asia Minor.”

        Keyword: assume. That’s what this argument is based on, assumptions. I’ll prefer to make no such assumptions in keeping with Paul’s express command to “not go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6).

  • pearlbaker

    And for those of you who are going to bring up the fact that the beloved Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, was never a seminarian (or seminoid, a la Clint Archer), I refer you to a May 2012 Cripplegate blog by the aforementioned Mr. Archer:

    • pearlbaker

      Let me correct myself before someone else catches it…the link I provided is to one of Clint’s Cafe Seminoid blogs, not to a past Cripplegate. I subscribe to both and I get confused at my age. 🙂

  • Ted Bigelow

    ” If that’s true, then the precedent of taskmaster-type professors also has a long history.”

    Ha! But funny, isn’t it? The prof-tyrants are the ones you learn the most from, and learn to love the most. Dr. Thomas, anyone?

    Let me throw a trajectory out here to consider. In distinction from present-day practice, Paul did not raise up men to plant further churches in the city of Ephesus, but sternly warned against such a practice (Acts 20:29-30, cf. Eph. 4:12-16). Thus, over thirty years later there is only one church in Ephesus the Lord of the churches addresses (Rev. 2:1). Yet there were, in fact, more “churches” in Ephesus. They were the schismatic and heretical ones.

    This assertion comes from Paul’s prophecy that explains the creation of both heretical and schismatic churches in Ephesus within years of the meeting on the beach in Miletus. Heretical churches would come into existence in Ephesus from men outside of Ephesus: “savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Act 20:29), while schismatic churches would come into existence from men who perhaps trained under Paul :”and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Act 20:30).

    Here’s my point. Our ecclesiology has ignored these distinctions, esp. regarding schismatic churches. So the same professors will be teaching men who are pastoring different churches but are in the same community. That is something Paul would not have allowed, for his ‘body of Christ’ ecclesiology taught that Christ has but one body in a city or locale, not one body per church. Since we refuse to identify the body of Christ, we would say both churches are bodies of Christ. Thus Christ is schismed. It is one area where today’s seminaries do not follow Paul, but actively promote what he disallowed.

  • Dennis Bills

    Nathan, would this happen to be in print somewhere? I would like to reference this as print instead of blog (for a DMin Thesis). Or do you know of other print/scholastic resources on this same subject?

  • So the comment thread apparently jumped off the rails this morning, and a different moderator cleaned house. I’ll open the thread back up, under the optimistic and hopeful assumption that it can be productive. Let’s not go down the road of bashing any seminaries in this thread though.

    • x

      Viva la Fascism!

      • I know, right? Its funny how some people read the word “seminary” then feel this knee jerk reaction to post all that they think is wrong with every seminary in the world. I am sure there are even a few of them that are so wrapped up in their theological (or atheological) hobby horse that they honestly think blog moderation is fascism. Ha ha. Anyway.

  • Daniel Leake

    It seems that one really neat way that TMS exemplifies this that I admire is how it has helped to fuel seminaries around the world through The Master’s Academy International, which in turn has fueled local churches around the world, who can have well-trained pastors, which in turn evangelize their communities. Many Christians I have spoken to view seminary as merely an academic pursuit for the sake of intellect or gathering credentials (and they may then either see this as a good or bad thing). But it is undoubtedly true that a good seminary equips men to lead the local church and evangelizes the world by producing strong, truth-loving congregations who hold for the true gospel. It is highly practical, especially because an untrained man may have difficulty silencing those who would come in and spread false doctrine.

    I think it is a visible 21st century model that is a good reflection of the Biblical example shown here. There are certainly some other seminaries doing this well also. Thanks for the post Nathan.

    • Daniel–you are totally right about the replication happening internationally. One day someone should write a book about that…or at least a cool blog post. Its one of the coolest parts of the TMS legacy.

  • Jeff Schlottmann

    I personally don’t know my seminaries. But I have benefited from tms. The free lectures available for download on the tms website have been amazing and helpful. It was because of the website that my wife and I found our current church. Our pastor, Don Hagner graduated from tms and I’m thankful we found his ministry. We would’ve never found the church without the website.

    Cripplegate has been a great resource for me as well. I may not be seminary bound, but I found I learn so much from websites like this one. For me it might as well be a seminary. Thanks pastors.

    • Thanks Jeff. I’m glad you’ve used the on-line resources, esp. from TMS. Thanks for your comment here.

  • Insightful thoughts, thanks.

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