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The MDiv senior students in my two sections of the Capstone Integrative Seminar are gearing up to take their Oral Comprehensive Exams next week and so last Thursday with my Distance students and yesterday with my Residential students we held a final practice session to help them get into the zone of answering a variety of biblical-theological questions orally and on the spot.  As usual, there is already some level of anxiety in the air around the seminary!

This year for the first time, however, they will have a slight advantage on their opening question.  To help the various Oral Comp panels share a common footing for assessment purposes, we have gathered up a pool of eight or so fairly broad questions and let the students see the master list, knowing each of them will get just one of those question. But also to insure some assessment-worthy parity across the panels, the students will be asked to include in their answer items that tie in with each of our four MDiv Curriculum Goals and Outcomes.  The four categories are Gospel, Context, Calling, and Person.

Thus if a student gets asked about the meaning of Christ’s atonement for our sins, they will answer in terms of:

Gospel: Please be able to find a few relevant Bible passages as well as be able to name a key area (or the key areas) of theological doctrine involved in atonement.

Context: Please talk about key historical periods in the church when atonement doctrine was either developed or was very important in the life of the church.  Then state also how and why atonement is important in our current day and age and culture too.

Calling: Please talk about how atonement would figure into the worship life of the church—how might it come up in music, singing, liturgy, etc—as well as how and when atonement might figure prominently in your preaching.

Person: Please talk about why atonement is important to you personally and how it affects your heart, mind, and soul as well as your walk of discipleship.

Granted that is all fairly comprehensive but then again, it is called an Oral Comprehensive exam for a reason!  But as I think about how our new opening question for each student gives them a chance to talk about the topic in those four areas of our curriculum Goals and Outcomes, it also strikes me that this kind of integration is such a great model for all of us who follow Jesus as Lord.  Granted, depending on our level of education and what kinds of degrees or education we pursued, we would all have varying levels of knowledge on things like church history or the full range of doctrines in the church.

Still, there is something to the idea that on important questions related to our faith, we should all take delight in knowing the Bible well enough—or being willing to study the Bible seriously enough—that we know where to go to think about prayer, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and more.  And we should have some sense for why something like, let’s say prayer, is important in the life of the church not just throughout history but also in the 21st century and in whatever ecclesiastical and cultural context we find ourselves.

What’s more, nothing in the life of theology exists only in the realm of theory.  The big things of the faith must come to expression in the worship life of the congregation and in the sermons we hear on a regular basis.  And because all of this finally ties in with our walks of discipleship with Christ, we ought to be able to articulate a personal, emotional, and spiritual meaning of all this as it applies to us as persons.  Faith involves our minds but also our hearts, our thinking but also our feelings.

What our Calvin Seminary students will be doing next week in their Oral Comps will hopefully not be the last time they frame vital matters of our shared faith in the ways we are formally requiring them to do.   But here is hoping this will not be foreign or a rare kind of thing for any of us Christians to do.   Seeing the matters of the faith in the areas of Gospel, Context, Calling, and Person is—in a very real sense—an application of something we know that Jesus called all of us to do when he said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength, and with all your mind.”

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Nate says:

    I really dreaded taking oral comprehensives at CTS. But studying for them was probably the most important part of my entire seminary education. All the seemingly disparate strands of doctrine, polity, and Scripture all came together. I was glad when it was over, but it really brought it all together for me.

  • James Ernest says:

    Most appropriate exam format I’ve ever heard of for ordinands.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    On the one hand that all sounds delightful and helpful in many ways. On the other hand the first question about atonement could take 4 hours to answer. How long are these bloody exams? My word, as much as it would hurt to take these exams, it would be excruciating to sit through them, and I offer that as someone who loves to dig deep into our theology.
    Good luck to examiners and students.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Concision counts too! The total exam is 45 minutes and the answer to the first question I highlighted here is not more than 15 minutes, so hitting the highlights, getting a few key passages out, etc is plenty good!

  • Susan LaClear says:

    I absolutely love this format for oral comps. Thank you to all those at Calvin Seminary who have worked to develop the curriculum and assessment methods around these 4 essential outcomes.

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