It’s been 36 years — nearly a generation in biblical terms — since the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (RPCES) joined the PCA. Through the process known as “joining and receiving,” the RPCES agencies were folded into their PCA counterparts, except two: Covenant College and Covenant Theological Seminary. Both, of course, continue as agencies of the PCA.
It may be a good time — for the current generation’s benefit — to review the thinking behind that decision: What, at the time, was the rationale? And in the eyes of the college and seminary’s present leaders, do those reasons still hold?
In this issue, we look at Covenant Theological Seminary. In the summer edition of byFaith, we’ll review the history and status of Covenant College’s role in the PCA.
Covenant Seminary and the PCA: A Brief History
CTS was founded in 1956 as the denominational seminary of the Bible Presbyterian Church (Columbus Synod), the denomination that in 1965 joined with the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America to create the RPCES.
In 1982, the RPCES joined the PCA. At our denomination’s 10th General Assembly, William Barker, Covenant Seminary’s president at the time, addressed the relationship that Covenant’s founders hoped to have with a specific denomination.
“The events that led to the founding of Covenant Seminary caused its founders to stress the church-related character of the school as over against independency,” he said. “Experience had confirmed the principle that theological education should be under the denomination’s auspices and responsible to the church. Our history has been blessed through this orientation to the work of the church.”
Dr. Jay Sklar, vice president of academics, dean of faculty, and professor of Old Testament, says, “The story of the Bible is the story of how Jesus rescues us from the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, restores us to relationship with Himself so that we can become His agents of transformation; of extending His kingdom in this world. That’s the story of the Bible and that’s the story that drives everything we do at Covenant Seminary.”
Mark Dalbey, Covenant’s current president, noted that “between 1981 and 1982 all 25 PCA presbyteries unanimously voted to receive the RPCES into the PCA, with the understanding that Covenant College and Covenant Seminary would be received into the denomination as well.”
Covenant enjoys thorough supervision by the General Assembly, and Dalbey regards the connection between the PCA and Covenant as vital to ensuring the faithfulness of the denomination and the seminary.
When denominations slide toward liberalism, the change often begins with seminaries hiring liberal professors who pass on their unorthodox views to their students, who go on to preach those views in pulpits around the world. The accountability and oversight of the General Assembly safeguard against such shifts in theology at Covenant, Dalbey points out.
All Covenant board members are approved by the General Assembly to serve four-year terms. But nominations start with individual sessions recommending board members to their presbyteries, which then make recommendations to the General Assembly nominating committee. At General Assembly, the nominating committee picks a slate of teaching and ruling elders to recommend to the General Assembly for filling the next class of Covenant’s board. Finally, the General Assembly votes to approve the nominees.
Covenant’s voting board is comprised of 16 ruling elders and eight teaching elders. (There are also advisory board members, selected by the Covenant board, who have a voice on the board, but no vote.)
In addition, the seminary reports to the PCA through its Committee of Commissioners, which brings the seminary’s report to the floor of the General Assembly each year. The commissioners recommend the approval of Covenant’s budget, review the seminary’s financial statements, audit, review, and approve board minutes, and review and discuss Covenant’s annual report.
Jay Sklar, Covenant vice president of academics, appreciates how the supervision and accountability of the PCA give the seminary a “living connection” to the church.
“Since the seminary is in the business of equipping people to minister in the church, it seems entirely appropriate that the church have oversight of the seminary, and that’s what our connection to the PCA gives us,” Sklar said.
Sklar affirmed that a multi-denominational seminary can certainly maintain biblical fidelity without one denomination providing supervision but also noted that Covenant appreciates the extra accountability of its board being selected by the PCA General Assembly.
Certification in Reformed Teaching
Candidates for Covenant faculty positions also must submit to rigorous examinations as befitting the responsibility of training future preachers.
Faculty candidates submit to a five-step process that examines their doctrinal alignment with the PCA. The process involves meeting with a faculty screening committee to assess the candidate’s character and doctrine, meeting with faculty and teaching two classes (which faculty are invited to attend), interviewing with the entire faculty before going on to interview with the Academics Committee of the board, and a final interview in front of the entire Covenant board of directors.
Every year, Covenant board members and faculty reaffirm their commitment to the Westminster Standards and the inerrancy of Scripture by signing a written statement.
“The end result is a very thorough process to ensure the candidate’s character, doctrinal alignment to the PCA, and ability to teach,” Sklar said.
Before becoming Covenant’s president, Dalbey also met with the General Assembly theological examining committee for a theological exam, just as the coordinators of other PCA committees do.
Mutual Ministry Support
Dalbey maintains good relationships with leaders from other Reformed seminaries such as Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) and Westminster Theological Seminary’s (WTS) California and Philadelphia campuses. While RTS, WTS, and Covenant have their subtle differences, Dalbey believes their common commitments to Reformed theology are far stronger than their differences.
“Experience had confirmed the principle that theological education should be under the denomination’s auspices and responsible to the church. Our history has been blessed through this orientation to the church.”
Dalbey also appreciates and endorses other ministry training options available in the PCA.
Walt Turner, longtime Covenant board member, agrees, adding that it is an honor that Covenant maintains an official relationship with the PCA. The vast majority of Covenant graduates go on to serve in the PCA, he said, and their denominational leadership helps to set the course for Covenant, too.
Turner noted that since all board members are active in their local congregations, they represent the denomination’s needs to the seminary and in turn encourage seminary support at the presbytery and session level.
“We don’t want to be out from under that [accountability],” Dalbey said. The thorough vetting process “is what ensures our faithfulness and guarantees pastors who will preach the Gospel well and be what our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren need to keep the denomination on course.”