How to start a seminary – 1

How do you start something when you have no idea how to go about it? That would be next to impossible.

Concerning the coming of God into this world, St Paul speaks of the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4). There is a sense in which the seminary in Novosibirsk was organized at the right time. It would not have been possible to do it earlier because of the communist ideology of the political system, and chances are that nothing could have happened later due to tightening controls and regulations that did not favor formation of new religious educational entities.

The seminary was started not without a certain irony. Between Socrates, who used irony as a method to bring his interlocutors to the point of confessing their ignorance, and Aristotle, who despised irony and felt that one should conduct oneself in a straightforward manner and in accordance with one’s skills, I side with Socrates. We find numerous cases of divine irony in the Scriptures – particularly in the Gospel accounts, where the Son of God is revealed in the most unexpected ways.

So it happens in our life. It is hard not to think of God having some sense of irony in how he brings his purposes to completion. We realize the purpose of some events in our lives years after they take place, while the meaning of still other events remains hidden this side of the grave.

When my pastor told me that there was no viable option for theological education at the moment and that I had to find something to keep myself busy for some time, I was upset. This did not correspond to my plans at that time. God had other plans, though. So in the year 1994 I as a young Novosibirsk State University graduate “downshifted” by going to the city of Krasnoyarsk (about 500 miles east of Novosibirsk, 14 hours by Trans-Siberian Railroad) and starting work as a translator at the newly organized “Bible Institute” of the Baptist Church there. I got the invitation to go there through a fellow parishioner, Olga, who later became a translator at our Seminary in Novosibirsk. She was already in Krasnoyarsk and so asked me to come and help alleviate her excessive workload. Unlike in our community in Novosibirsk, people in Krasnoyarsk could not find qualified translators who knew theological English and who could interpret without running into major problems. While interpreting for those courses in Krasnoyarsk, normally 2 weeks long [and taught by guest instructors from America], I also took the courses for “credit” (the school was not an official one, so it was not a formal education in any sense – hundreds of colleges, institutes, and seminaries of all denominations mushroomed across Russia at the time). This Institute trained preachers for the Baptist congregations and mission locations. The program took one year, during which time the students studied such subjects as Old Testament and New Testament Isagogics, Biblical Hermeneutics, Doctrine, Church History, Missiology, and the like. In the second year of my involvement there I worked also as the administrator of the school, dealing with practical questions such as taking care of guest instructors, supervising the academic progress of the students, administering exams, helping with their grading, and so on. Perhaps the biggest difference from the first year was that I got married during the summer break in Novosibirsk, and so during this second year (1995-96) my wife, Elena, who also worked as a translator, and I lived in an apartment that was rented for us.

Part of my responsibility was inviting guest instructors over and making them feel welcome by feeding them some meal. It was much easier to do this with a wife around, especially because there were few public restaurants in Siberia at the time; in some of these places the food was questionable, while so-called “mafia” frequently visited others, and so they were not really safe places to take foreigners to (the Russia of the nineties with all its anarchy-like freedom was a natural environment for all kinds of criminals).

I think one of the highlights of that year was when our young family was able to host a group of three men for a couple of days in the spring of 1996. These were our pastor, Vsevolod Lytkin, from Novosibirsk, newly ordained deacon Pavel Zayakin, serving in Tuim, Khakassia, and Rev. Jeff Thormodson, missionary of the Board for Mission Services of the LCMS, who resided in Novosibirsk. They were on their way to the republic of Buryatia, if I remember correctly. I was excited about their visit, and so invited the students from the Bible Institute to come to our home to talk to the Lutheran clergy. Some of them did. We had a reception of sorts and an evening of questions and answers. I remember very well “the moment of truth” when one of the men by the name of Sergey picked up the Large Catechism of Martin Luther, opened it to a random page, and read aloud about “a question by which the devil confuses the world through his sects, the question of infant Baptism.” Needless to say, those poor Baptist students were quite confused that Luther, whom they considered to be a hero of justification by faith alone and somebody on their side, spoke so harshly against their own view. There was almost a moment of revelation in the room when this happened.

There were many things that happened in Krasnoyarsk. Sometimes I thought of that “exile” as a waste of time. I would much rather have been around my Lutheran congregation in Novosibirsk, which I missed so much! Looking back though, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of this 2-year experience.

That place gave me an idea about theological curriculum as a concept and what theological education was like in general. During this time I learned a few things that later contributed to the approach taken in the matter of the organization of the seminary in Novosibirsk. These include the following:

  1. One or two years is a chronically inadequate time to train a student to become proficient in theology and the Bible. At the same time, on-sight training is the way to go: students need to wrestle through the issues, be in the company of their instructors and each other, and eventually progress in a way that can be externally verified.
  2. It is impossible to study the Bible professionally without giving serious attention to the original languages first. Otherwise people will just eat whatever they are fed without any critical assessment, or end up comparing translations all the time or arguing about the meaning of individual words without seeing the bigger picture.
  3. Doctrine is really important. It does matter in what theological paradigm you study theology. All theological education takes place in accordance with a certain creed or “rule of faith,” whether or not it is publicly recognized. One example will suffice. A professor at the Bible Institute once asked the class the question of what was the main theme of the Bible. And he emphatically rejected all of their attempted answers. Salvation? No! God? No! Christ? No! Church? No! “So what is it then?” His normative answer was “God’s Kingdom and its rule over all.” Questions of God’s sovereign will and predestination played the central role for him, yet he claimed that it was not just his opinion or the position of his denomination, but rather the transparent (according to him) teaching of the Bible.
  4. Theological education is a progression from simple things to more complicated and intricate things. Students come with different backgrounds. It is important to immerse them in an environment where even the slow learners will grasp the essentials and be able to move further.
  5. It does matter who teaches the course. Good theological education is done by personalities; it does not happen in a vacuum. The title of a course may sound great on paper, but an inadequate instructor will spoil it. Alternatively, a great teacher will work with any core subject in a way that will benefit the student.

I’m not sure if I could have formulated my thoughts in this exact way if I had been asked at that time. Then it looked more like a negative in photography, where you can only guess how it would look in an actual print. But that real print had to wait until the Russian project of the seminary in Fort Wayne began its operation.