July 1, 2013

Why Seminary? Exhibit B: Charles Spurgeon

by Clint Archer

Our discussion on why a seminary education may or may not be necessary started with “Exhibit A: Joel Osteen.” Rev Osteen leads America’s largest church without the benefit of formal theological training. After his crucifixion interview by Larry King, our case may seem solidly set against those venturing into ministry without studies. But to be thorough, another specimen needs to be slid under our microscope. Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-92) is often hailed as a prime example of God’s ability to use untrained men for the ministry. But is Spurgeon really the poster boy of the theologically uneducated?spurgeon

Allow me to state for the record that formal education is NOT a biblical requirement for pastors. I have personally met dozens of pastors in Africa and Asia who have not even matriculated from their public school system, but who are powerful preachers, with undeniable theological acumen, and an impressive command of all things doctrinal. Conversely, I have met seminary graduates with more degrees than Celsius, yet who don’t live out the gospel or love the church, and some don’t even know the Lord!

So it would be foolhardy to use seminary as a litmus test of one’s aptness for ministry. God uses character as the primary qualification (1 Tim 3:1-7). In the skill category, only two major abilities must be evident, namely the ability to manage his household, and the ability to teach (1 Tim 3:2).

But I submit to you that although no formal training is necessary for the ministry, rigorous education must occur at some point prior to deemed “able to teach.”

That biblical qualification assumes not only the skill of communicating knowledge, but that there is an accurate body of doctrine that is being shared. “Able to teach” refers to the preacher’s doctrine as much as it does to his homiletic prowess.

Charles Spurgeon boasted no university degrees. But is it true that he was theologically untrained?

Allow me to produce the trump card in my opening gambit: Spurgeon possessed the rare and enviable gift of a perfectly photographic memory. His mind was like a steel trap, nothing that got caught in the grip of his attention ever escaped.

Can you imagine what it must be like to have every factoid you have ever read  chomping at the bit like an eager horse in the racing gates, just waiting to charge out your mouth on command? Spurgeon was able to quote, verbatim, large passages from books he had read only once several years previously.

photographic memoryHis grandmother was the one to discover this prodigious superpower at great loss to her change purse. In an attempt to encourage piety, she offered to pay him in coin for every hymn he could memorize. Little did she know that Charlie could pick up knowledge faster than he could pieces of litter, or perhaps she would have offered the reward for the latter exercise.

Spurgeon’s memory was supported by his towering intellect and his insatiable curiosity. He read every book he could get his chubby paws on, and devoured tomes with the ease and ecstasy most kids reserve for candy.

By the time Charlie reached the age most seminoids are entering seminary to begin their Greek and Hebrew tour-of-duty, the 20 year-old Spurgeon, having already mastered the biblical languages, was pastoring his second church, the New Park Street Chapel in London!

Far from being a boyish, garish country bumpkin (as some critics described him in his early years) Charlie’s wisdom, knowledge, discernment, and insight were the four wheels that carried his oratory acumen. His preaching was unsurpassed in power and eloquence. He spawned 3,600 sermons and about 50 books, every single one of which reads like a masterpiece of literary and rhetorical genius.

He also had the work ethic of a sweatshop sowing machine, drilling away at projects with little respite until his relatively early death at 57 years old. He started schools, orphanages, seminaries, and literally dozens of societies that proliferated his output for the kingdom. He stood against the liberalism of his day in the infamous Downgrade Controversy because he valued doctrinal accuracy with unwavering courage.

One has difficulty picturing Spurgeon replying, “I don’t know” when asked who goes to heaven, why Muslims are wrong, or why God allows suffering.

Incidentally, Spurgeon suffered greatly throughout his ministry emotionally (betrayal), spiritually (depression), socially (incessant public criticism), and physically (gout).

And through it all Spurgeon grasped deep theology, and applied it to his own condition. He loved to show biblically and practically that trials prove and improve our faith, adorn the gospel, and magnify God’s glory.

So if you are an aspiring seminoid who is still unsure if you’ll ever make it into the hallowed halls of an accredited seminary, take heart. God doesn’t require a graduation ceremony or mounted parchment. What He does expect is that you do the best you have with what He gives you. And who knows, if you are faithful with what He provides, perhaps He will give you more with which to be faithful?

If you ever do get the chance to further your studies, grab it with gusto. And learn to substitute “I don’t know” with “I’ll find out and get back to you.”

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Petroc Kernow

    Very helpful article. I learnt more about correctly handling the
    word of God and its practical application from Mr Thomas, my “untrained” Sunday
    school teacher, than anything I ever learnt at seminary. Thankfully, he knew the
    importance of applying Proverbs 22:6.

    • That’s a great testimony. Thanks for sharing.

  • Thank you Clint Was looking forward to Exhibit B. Right knowledge rightly used leads to right answers. God ordains the means as well as the end. Ours is to add to our faith virtue, knowledge, self control, etc., whatever be the means (seminar or not) to end that we “know” Him intimately, and thus become (more and more) fit vessels for the Master’s use. Spurgeon was a sterling example of godly ministry as evidence by his meekness, integrity and stamina through out his tenure.


    Clint, no discussion of Spurgeon and higher education would be complete without his story of how God directed him otherwise. Here is the story from sermon number 187, “Providence”

    I shall always regard the fact of my being here to-day as a remarkable instance of providence. I should not have occupied this hall probably, and been blessed of God in preaching to multitudes if it had not been for what I considered an untoward accident. I should have been at this time studying in College, instead of preaching here, but for a singular circumstance which happened. I had agreed to go to College: the tutor had come to see me, and I went to see him at the house of a mutual friend, I was shown by the servant into one drawing-room in the house, he was shown into another. He sat and waited for me two hours, I sat and waited for him two hours. He could wait no longer, and went away thinking I had not treated him
    well; I went away and thought that he had not treated me well As I went away this text came into my mind, “Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not.” So I wrote to say that I must positively decline, I was happy enough amongst my own country people, and got on very well in preaching, and I did not care to go to College. I have now had four years of labour. But, speaking after the manner of men, those who have been saved during that time would not have been saved, by my instrumentality at any rate, if it had not been for the remarkable providence turning the whole tenour of my thoughts, and putting things into a new track. You have often had strange accidents like that. When you have resolved to do a thing, you
    could not do it any how; it was quite impossible. God turned you another way, and proved that providence is indeed the master of all human events.

    • FYI – that’s no the real Spurgeon. That is just a guy with CHS as his profile picture and name.

      • Would have thought at first Spurgeon rose from the grave when I skimmed this and saw the “I” and “my”!

    • Thanks for sharing this info. Very pertinent.

  • Dan Phillips

    Mm; Kerry Allen could correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think CHS ever learned Hebrew, and I don’t think he was very good at Greek, if he knew it at all. He should have, but I don’t think he did/was.

    • Dave

      What I think we hae to watch for Dan, is that we don’t put too much importance on the knowledge of biblical languages. Yes, it has helped the Church to have men capable of understanding the biblical languages, like yourself. GWIP is a valued book in my library which obviously benefited greatly from your knowledge of the biblical languages. But my issue is that, we should not get to the stage were we believe you have to know these languages well in order to fully understand the word of God or even be able to teach it well. Every Christian aided by the Holy Spirit can know and understand the Bible. Men are gifted to teach and through Gods providence we have the word of God translated in our own language thanks to the Lords working in the life’s of many able men.

  • Thanks for this inspiring article Clint.
    One thing we definitely learn from Mr Spurgeon is that whether one goes to college or not,
    an aspiring “seminoid” needs to be reading good books all the time. As
    we all know, CHS had a library somewhere in the region of 12000 books,
    and these were not amassed merely to impress the visitors to his study.

    are a number of Spurgeon’s books available for free download at
    http://www.searchandtrace.net ~ e.g.: “Lectures to my Students”,
    “Morning and Evening Devotions”, “The Soul Winner”, “The Treasury of
    David”, “Till He Come: Communion Meditations”, etc.

    Your readers
    can also request any of Spurgeon’s works and http://www.SearchandTrace.net
    will endeavour to source and deliver these books to your readers for
    free, wherever possible, or, at a greatly discounted price.

    • Do you mean 12,000 books? 120,000 books, at a nice steady pace of 3 per day would take a man over 100 years.

      12,000 books could be read at a pace of only 240 per year for 50 years. (which is still impressive!)

      • Thanks Michael, yes I meant and said 12000 books 😉

    • I love SearchAndTrace’s ministry. Spurgeon would be proud of and thankful for you guys.


    When did Joel Osteen begin leaving comments under the nom de plume “Michael Coughlin?” (Cough, cough.)

  • Dave Dunbar

    Thank you, Clint, for this good article.

    I’m one who is uneducated and untrained by the official schools (Acts 4:13), The apostles got an education, of course, but no official degree. I greatly appreciate excellent seminaries and the men they produce, but why do so many churches insist on “the piece of paper” hanging on the wall?

    I, too, have seen horrendous behavior from guys that went to a superb seminary, and non-MDiv guys that don’t know Greek but know their English Bibles and have the heart of a true shepherd.

    We would all do well, I believe, to quit differentiating between elders/pastors that have a Masters, and those that don’t. We may have differing skills, different areas of strengths and weaknesses, but we’re all to shepherd the flock, together, in unity.

    • I think many churches assume that the paper diploma is evidence of education. Pity, but understandable.

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