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Puritan Seminary Draws Pious-Minded Students

c. 2007 Religion News Service GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. _ A dozen heads bow as Derek Baars prays that God will bless their day at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. “Holy Father, as we gather for prayer, we thank thee so much for the opportunity to come to thee,” prays Baars, a blind student from British Columbia. […]

c. 2007 Religion News Service

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. _ A dozen heads bow as Derek Baars prays that God will bless their day at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.

“Holy Father, as we gather for prayer, we thank thee so much for the opportunity to come to thee,” prays Baars, a blind student from British Columbia. “We pray thou wouldst be present here and that we would know thy presence … our refuge, our strength, our tower, our joy.”

It is with such humble prayer that faculty and students go about their work each day at this small but industrious seminary tucked away on Grand Rapids’ Northeast Side.

In a handsome colonial building, Puritan Reformed’s 38 students study a conservative theology dating to America’s earliest settlers.

But theirs is not the dour-faced, severe faith of Puritan stereotype, say students and faculty at this 12-year-old school. Students come here from around the world to learn a Christ-centered worldview meant to infuse their preaching with both intellectual rigor and heartfelt joy.

“Every day here is a gift from God,” said Baars, 26, who is in his second year pursuing a master of divinity degree. “Besides just the knowledge we gain, it’s the opportunity to be in God’s word and know that’s the kind of knowledge that matters _ and is going to matter at the end of time.”

Antoine Theron arrived recently from South Africa, where he said no school approaches Puritan Reformed’s standards of preaching and piety. The former lawyer believes the school’s theology of head and heart will help him become an effective minister.

“If you want to be a pastor, you have to use your mind, but first of all you’ve got to be a holy man,” Theron, 36, said cheerfully. “I don’t think I can do better than study here.”

Since 1995, Puritan Reformed quietly has been attracting more students under the leadership of its president, the Rev. Joel Beeke.

The longtime pastor and widely published author founded the seminary with the support of Heritage Reformed Congregations, a small denomination that owns the seminary, its 8-acre grounds and an on-site bookstore.

Despite West Michigan’s abundance of seminaries, Beeke saw the need for one in which every class was grounded in the Puritan tradition. That tradition took root in 16th-century England and was brought to America by such pioneers as Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards.

“That’s the reason we exist,” said Beeke, one of two full-time teaching faculty teachers along with Gerald Bilkes. “We wanted to have a seminary where all the professors would consistently maintain a Puritan Reformed emphasis.”

The Puritans fleshed out the doctrines of John Calvin and other Reformation giants by wedding them to a deep spirituality and a reforming social conscience, Beeke said.

“They said Reformation doctrine is fine, but you need to apply it to the heart. You need to live it,” explains said Beeke, 54, pastor of the 700-member Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids.

“Head, heart and hand ministry: That’s what we’re aiming for. We know it in our mind, experience it in our heart and live it out with our hands.”

That mission has gained ground as the seminary has grown from four students to nearly 40, 17 of them full-time.

Nearly half are international students from as far away as China, Brazil and the Philippines. They come from the Heritage Reformed and Free Reformed denominations, as well as Lutheran, Baptist and other churches.

The student body is all male, reflecting the seminary’s belief the Bible prohibits female ministers. The two-year master of arts and one-year master of theology programs are open to women provided they don’t use the degrees toward pastoral ministry.

With growing enrollment came the move from classes held in a nearby home to the opening of the $3 million, 20,000-square-foot seminary building in 2004. More than 1,000 donors funded its construction.

The seminary’s founding in 1995 grew out of a denominational split two years earlier.

A dispute over theological and personal issues led to the breakup of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations. The majority of Beeke’s church stayed with him in the newly formed Heritage Reformed Congregations. It now has nine churches and about 2,000 members.

The new denomination offered the chance to found a seminary devoted to Puritan teaching, Beeke said. He also helped found Reformation Heritage Books, a nonprofit bookstore carrying 3,500 titles with close to $1 million in annual sales.

The seminary’s library of 45,000 volumes reflects Beeke’s passion for print. He is the author or editor of some around 50 books and 1,500 articles.

He continues to write at a prodigious rate. He recently co-authored a massive volume, “Meet the Puritans,” and edits the denominational magazine, “The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth.”

His reverence for literature is evident in the 3,000 rare books in the library’s Puritan Resource Center. They include the 1612 three-volume works of William Perkins, considered the father of the Puritan movement.

“Books were very instrumental in bringing me to spiritual liberty,” says Beeke, sitting in his office surrounded by many of the 30,000 books he owns.

As a teen growing up in Kalamazoo, Mich., Beeke voraciously read his father’s collection of Puritan literature. There he grasped the centrality of Christ and the possibility of his own salvation.

One night he heard his family’s minister say, “There’s a way of escape in Jesus Christ.”

“Those words just penetrated my soul,” Beeke said. “I was overwhelmed with the thought that Christ could be my savior. I came down at 3 in the morning and said, `Dad, I’ve been saved.”’

The Puritans spoke to his mind and touched his heart. That personal experience of Christ is part of what the seminary teaches its students to preach.

Appealing to the intellect and confronting the conscience also were cornerstones of Puritan thought. They challenged people’s sins and believed personal afflictions were God’s way of bringing people to greater submission.

“They weren’t afraid to go into God’s gymnasium and be buffeted,” Beeke said.

(Charles Honey is religion editor of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press.)


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