The Reformed have always understood the importance of an educated ministry. A gift of the Reformed tradition is that it has emphasized both learning and piety, both loving God with our hearts and with our minds.
In the early days of the Reformed Church in the North American colonies, ministers had to receive their theological education in the Netherlands. This was quite difficult and a significant barrier, but it was done. This was not readily embraced by the churches in the colonies, however, as the first significant division in the Reformed Church was largely on this point.
In 1792, when the Explanatory Articles were established (the Explanatory Articles, along with the Church Order of Dort from 1619, formed the government of the Reformed Church until 1833), those who desire to be examined for the ministry must present three things.
- A diploma, or certificate of his having passed through a regular course of studies in some College or respectable Academy. 2. A certificate of his having been a member in full communino of the Reformed church, at least two years. And 3. A testimonial, under the hand and seal of a Professor of Theology, declaring such student to have studied Theology with him (or with some person expressely authorized for that purpose by the Geneal Synod,) for the space of at least two years; and recommending said student as well qualified for becoming a candidate in the holy ministry. (Article III).
This is the origin of the “Professorial Certificate” which has become the “Certificate of Fitness for Ministry.”
But what is the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry (also referred to here as a “Certificate of Fitness”), and what role does it really play in the process which leads to ordination to the ministry of Word and sacrament?
Since the beginning of the Reformed Church much has changed. We now have institutional theological schools with faculties and buildings. There are now degrees granted which testify to one’s competency in these matters. So why does such a certificate continue to exist?
It is these two questions that I will seek to address in this relatively short space.
Candidates for the ministry of Word and sacrament have several forms of evaluation on several different levels — from consistorial to synodical. This is important to judge a candidate’s character, fitness, capacities, and abilities. Because the classis has oversight over ministers, a consistory alone cannot make that determination. But because the consistory is closest to the individual, they must first recommend them. And because the training and formation of candidates for the ministry is a concern of the whole church, the General Synod, through the boards of the Reformed Church seminaries or the Ministerial Formation Certification Agency supervises and certifies their fitness.
Even after the advent of more formal forms of theological education, the requirement for a Professorial Certificate and later the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry remained a part of the process. In the Explanatory Articles of 1792, it can almost seem as though the professorial certificate is little more than a testimony that a candidate has completed studies in theology. However, there is also the point that this certificate also has the purpose of “recommending said student as well qualified for becoming a candidate in the holy ministry” (1792/3 Art. III). And beyond this, subsequent church orders have required this certificate to be granted before one is able to be examined by their classis.
Formation for the ministry is far more than just intellectual formation. The intellectual and academic component is important, but it alone is not sufficient. Formation for ministry includes transformation as well. And how better to gauge fitness than for those who are involved in one’s education and formation?
As the Reformed Church historian and polity authority, William H.S. Demarest, wrote in his Notes on the Constitution,
The church’s interest in the matter is not so much that he has graduated from the school as that he is qualified for appearance before classis. It is a forward look toward the ministry, the church’s great objective. (1946, p. 23)
This is the essence of the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry. First, the candidate is granted the degree of Master of Divinity, and this attests to their academic competencies and abilities. After this is granted, the Certificate of Fitness can be granted, and this attests to the individual’s overall fitness for the ministry of Word and sacrament. But, even still, the process is not yet complete. The Master of Divinity does not guarantee a Certificate of Fitness for Ministry, and a Certificate does not guarantee ordination.
After the granting of the Certificate of Fitness, a candidate is now entitled to an examination by the classis in which the candidate is enrolled. Ultimately, then, the final decision rests with their classis whether or not to grant them a Certificate of Licensure, which is required before one can be ordained to the ministry of Word and sacrament.
So, then, what power does a Certificate of Fitness for Ministry have? What role does it play?
We must avoid two temptations, as is the case with many things regarding the church order — we must avoid both overstating and understating.
A candidate cannot be examined for licensure and ordination without a Certificate of Fitness for Ministry. The order is clear that this is required for the classis to examine for licensure. Indeed, after the granting of the Certificate of Fitness, the classis is obligated to admit the candidate to the examinations prescribed in the church order. However, its function is limited. Once a Certificate of Fitness is granted and the classis acts upon it, namely, examines the candidate and grants a Certificate of Licensure, the Certificate of Fitness is of no more use. Its only function is to certify fitness for classical examination. It is, one may say colloquially, a ticket to classical examination for licensure and ordination — no more and no less.