A Conversation with Danny Akin about Theological Education*

Audio: A Conversation with Danny Akin on Theological Education


Dr. Allen:

It is a joy to have with me in the Spurgeon Room today Dr. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary. We are here in the Spurgeon Room on the campus of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in the basement of the President’s home—the Vivion Home—where we have the Spurgeon Room as a part of my library. We have excerpts from C. H. Spurgeon’s library here on display. It is fun to be in this room and to talk about preaching and things of concern for the Great Commission, the denomination, and different topics of interest.

Today, I want to talk about theological education in the Southern Baptist context. I confess that I am the newbie to the table. I am a young man, elected not too long ago, in my mid-30s. I serve with men who are much older than me, much wiser than me, who have been around much longer. One of those men is Dr. Danny Akin. It is a unique joy to have you in the context of this conversation, Danny. You were a professor of mine a number of years ago, and you have been serving roughly a decade as president of Southeastern Seminary.

What I want to talk about is theological education in the Southern Baptist context. When you think about the stewardship that we have; when you think about the fact that roughly 40 percent of seminary students in Evangelical seminaries today—or we should say, in non-Catholic seminaries in North America—are in Southern Baptist Seminaries; when you think about the largest Protestant denomination in America—about 16 million Southern Baptists, located in about 46,000 Southern Baptist churches, who have six seminaries, an incredible stewardship is there.

Then, when you factor in our own denominational narrative—the history that has taken place over the past 155 years—you have a convention founded in 1845 that started its first seminary is 1859, under the vision of James P. Boyce. Over the next century, it would add five more seminaries. To a greater or lesser degree, all six of those became wayward theologically in the context of the 20th century. Then, all of those were recovered theologically through the efforts of Paige Patterson, Paul Pressler, and most visibly, through Adrian Rogers and other pastors. The seminaries were recovered and restored to their confessional roots, primarily the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.

So, here we are in 2013, seeking to serve a denomination that has this history, that has this potential, that has entrusted us with this incredible kingdom stewardship. It is a denomination that is diverse, that is eclectic, that is, in a sense, incredibly diverse, while it is incredibly unified. We are unified around conviction about the Great Commission, reaching the world for Christ, and belief in the Bible. When you look at where the convention stands as it relates to other denominations, we actually are incredibly unified in that sense, but when you work back from that convictional uniformity, with so many churches, being a free-church movement and a bottom-up denomination—it is an eclectic group.

So, here we are seeking to be faithful. Tell us the way you assess our job in the year 2013, the season we are serving within, and how we undertake this task most faithfully.

Dr. Akin:

The simplest job description for us, Jason, is that we are called to serve the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. You are right: we are a bottom-up denomination. The churches do not serve us, we serve them. If we are not serving the churches well, then we forfeit our right to exist. I think it is imperative that we never lose sight of that. Will there be times when we speak prophetically into the life of the churches? Yes, I think that is true. However, the bottom line is that we respond to their requests for service, so our goal and our calling is to serve them and to serve them well.

How can we serve them well? I think primarily it is through integrity in theological and biblical studies. We serve them well as we send back to them well-trained ministers, faithful expositors, evangelists, men and women with missionary hearts who are grounded theologically and who know what they believe and why they believe it. They do so robustly and ecclesiastically, under the umbrella of our Baptist Faith and Message 2000.

I know some people think that it is too elastic of a statement, but actually, if you think about it, it is pretty narrow. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it is very narrow. You have to affirm an inerrant Bible. You have to affirm the exclusivity of the gospel. You have to affirm penal substitution. You have to affirm a regenerate church. You have to affirm the sanctity of life from conception to natural death. You have to affirm the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, and you have to affirm the complementary nature of marriage. That is a lot of stuff to agree upon. We really do have a very unified voice. Yes, there are differences in terms of soteriological emphases and eschatological positions, differences in how we understand church government with respect to plurality of elders versus single pastors, and some other areas as well, but we really do have a substantial body of theological conviction and truth that we are united on.

Dr. Allen:

Absolutely. Sometimes folks have asked me, “Given that we are such a diverse denomination, how can we work together?” I say, “Are you kidding me? How can we not work together when you think about where we are?” We have one driving mission—to reach the world for Christ. We have a bedrock of shared convictions that is all based upon an inerrant Bible and a confessional statement derived from that. You put those two realities there and you say, “Oh, by the way, we have a world that is deeply and increasingly entrenched in a secular mindset that will become more and more adverse to who we are and what we do as believers in Christ.”

We are going to be in a situation here very soon, as you think about where we are in society, where we are going to want all of the friends we can get. As a convention of churches, that is who we are. We are together. At the SBC in June, I tweeted that the annual meeting is the one week of the year to me that it seems like everything is right in the world. You are there with God’s people, talking to them by the minute about missions, evangelism, and the local church. It is where we are. It is who we are. It is a sweet thing to be together in this task of training pastors, ministers, and evangelists for the church.

Of course, we have branded Midwestern Seminary as being a seminary for the Church. That is not just a brand statement. It is, we trust, a statement of our identity and will be increasingly so. One of the things I tell folks is that we exist best for the church when we are most in the church as a seminary. We are seeking to do all we can to hardwire this institution into local churches through partnerships, through internships, through talking to pastors on a daily basis as to how we best serve them. Not only is there not a great chasm, we pray there is no chasm, no distance, no daylight between what we are aspiring to do and what churches aspire us to do.

Dr. Akin:

I think you are exactly right. In fact, I have been saying for a number of years—and my heart resonates with yours 100 percent—the best theological education takes place in a partnership with a seminary and the local churches. There are some things that the seminary can do more easily than the local church. I would never say that we can replace the local church in any area. Theoretically, the local church could do all of the things that we do, including teaching Greek, Hebrew, ethics, philosophy, and so on. We are set up in such a way as to do that more easily than they are.

On the other hand, there are some things that we are not capable of doing in a seminary classroom that can only be learned in the laboratory—and if you like I will use a stronger metaphor—the furnace of the local church. We need to recognize that we do not need to try to do everything. We cannot do everything, but in partnership with the local church, we can provide a comprehensive, holistic, well-rounded preparation for ministry that really will set these men and women in good stead for serving our churches well.

I love what you are saying. We do a better job of teaching theology, biblical studies, and everything else if we are doing so with a vision for fulfilling the Great Commission and in deep connection with the life of the local church. You put that combination together, and you are going to produce some well-trained, well-informed, well-equipped ministers.

Dr. Allen:

Absolutely. That is a very accurate and helpful way of thinking of it and of putting it frankly.

Dr. Akin:

I think churches would like to be partnered with us. I think sometimes, we did—not intentionally—navigate toward an ivory tower mindset where we spoke down to them. We spoke at them when we should have been in conversation all along. The fact of the matter is that they are in the trenches. Therefore, they see things that we do not see, and when they are asking for us to assist them in those areas, rather than push back, we ought to be quick to respond because they are out there with real people in real life, doing real ministry. If we are not meeting their needs to be equipped to do that, we forfeit our right to exist, Jason.

Dr. Allen:

I totally agree, Danny. Thank you. That is very well put. Someone said to me recently, “Seminary presidents, you guys never really criticize each other publicly.” And they said it with a whiff of us having some secret handshake or agreement. I laughed and said, “You are right. I have been at this a little over a year, and no one has ever said to me, ‘Whatever you do, do not criticize other seminary presidents.’ There is no agreement. There is no secret covenant. There is no political calculation we have made collectively. It is just the fact that as I have gotten to know these five men, known their hearts and minds, they are men that I deeply respect.”

I knew all five seminary presidents to a greater or lesser degree before taking the job but have gotten to know in a very personal way that these are men who love their wives and love their families. These are men who resolve to keep trust with the SBC, who are doing their very best under God to serve the churches and their seminaries. Not only do I endorse that, my heart overflows in light of that. I say this not merely publicly; I say it privately to people as well. I say it to prospective students on nearly a daily basis that come through here and say, “I am considering Southern. I am considering Southwestern.” I say, “Here is who we are; here is what I think we do well. Here is where we are going and what I am seeking to build, but I find joy and assurance in you going to any of the six Southern Baptist seminaries.” I cannot say that about every seminary in America. As a matter of fact, I cannot say that about many seminaries in America. I can say that about the SBC seminaries, and I can say that about a few others as well. I say, “I can find joy in that. I really can.”

You have six seminaries with different cultures, different leadership, different ministry emphases, different strengths and weaknesses, but when you look at the overall operation we can find joy in it. I know you share the same assessment, but would you elaborate on that?

Dr. Akin:

Absolutely. I tell folks when they visit Southeastern, “When it comes to our six seminaries, you are in a win, win, win, win, win, win situation. If you come here, I think you will come to a great school. If you go to Midwestern, or Southwestern, or New Orleans, or Golden Gate, you are going to go to a great school.”

You are right, we do not criticize each other publicly because we love each other; we support each other; and we want each other to succeed and do well. We have healthy conversations behind the scenes like any good brothers will. Every time we come out of our meetings—you know this very well—we come out with one voice, one heart, and one mind standing together. We have covenanted to be each other’s cheerleader. We have covenanted to be each other’s prayer partner, and I rejoice when I see Midwestern succeeding.

There are enough students to train for all six of us and then some. There are enough lost people to reach that all six of us can be full up with our responsibilities until the day that we pass off the scene. So, rather than being adversaries, which makes no sense for brothers in Christ, even to be in competition with one another—yes, maybe a little friendly competition—but again, we each rejoice with one another. That is because we are devoted to a common mission, we are convicted about a common core of theological beliefs. It is easy for us to come together and work in that kind of partnership. It is a joy and a delight.

Dr. Allen:

Absolutely. That is very well put. When you think about our role to serve the churches, and all of us—I knew this from serving at Southern, my previous location of service, and now here in a more acute way—we are entirely dependent on the churches to send us students. They do not owe that to us. They do not owe us students or money. We have the responsibility day-to-day to prove that we are a worthwhile investment and to prove that we are faithful to train the students they would send us.

As I say that, I also know we are not only dependent on the quantity of students they send, but as to the relative maturity of the students they send. Some people think that we can produce diamonds if they merely ship coal this direction. I say to people, “Never overestimate the power of a seminary. Do not underestimate it either. Great things can happen, and profound things can happen, for better or worse.” Make sure you have healthy schools because they will impact students, but we are not magicians. We are presidents. My professors are not magicians either. They are professors.

We are intentional about discipling, training, and teaching, but we need our churches to do their very best for the kingdom by investing in these students, discipling them from childhood through adolescence so that they show up here with elementary tools to begin this road of ministry. As a footnote to that statement, we acknowledge that so many are saved in college, so many are coming from broken homes, so many are coming from churches that are at relative degrees of health, so it really is so important that we receive this stewardship to do our very best to train them. I just want to state publicly as I do privately all the time—we are not magicians. We are dependent upon our churches to send us students who are poised for ministry success.

I want to especially bring that to bear in one reality. I was asked in a public setting by a student a while back, “What is the most important book I read before I come to seminary?” I said, “The Bible.” I think they thought that was a Sunday school answer. They said, “Yes, I read my Bible, but beyond the Bible what is the most important book I read.” I’ll say it again, “The Bible.” I do not merely mean that for the spiritual benefit, though I mean it for that. I mean it at every level because that is the one book that, if you are going to come to this seminary, your theological education will intersect with every day. You are going to be called to preach the Bible, to teach the Bible, to counsel the Bible, to bring the Word of God to bear on God’s people, which is the fundamental responsibility of the minister. You need to learn it, know it, and it needs to be a lifelong discipline. But nothing will more prepare your heart for the Christian life, your mind for theological education, and will kindle afresh your call to ministry than being in God’s Word day by day.

Dr. Akin:

I agree. What you said earlier, I think I can synopse it in a very simple statement. It is not our assignment to fix people. It is our assignment to train people. If we get broken people here, we will do our best to try to fix them, but every now and then, especially on the college level, we get students whose parents have forced to come here as a last resort, trying to get them fixed by us when they have been broken for the duration of their lives because of whatever took place in their family life. I try to help these families understand that we are not really set up or equipped to fix your child. We are set up to train them and prepare them for ministry, but if they need to be fixed, they probably need to be in a different context because that is not what a seminary is called to do and that is not what a seminary is called to be. We will try. We will give it our best shot, but you are right.

We really need to have people coming to us who sense that calling, who have the conviction, “This is what God is calling me to do with my life, and woe to me if I do not do this.” Thereby, they are in the mindset and the orientation for us to do something good with them. If they come broken, what I have experienced, unfortunately, Jason, is that most of the time they do not survive. Most of the time they become a disciplinary problem and, in short order, they usually wind up going back home embittered and perhaps worse off than when they got here.

Churches need to help us there. I am amazed sometimes at the endorsement forms we get, when a certain student turns out in a certain way, and I contact the church and the word I get is, “Well, we wanted to give them a chance.” No, no, no. You should have told the truth. You should have been completely up front and above board so that we knew what we were getting. If we did let them in, we did so knowing we needed to give them additional attention. We needed to give them a special eye. You could have helped us help them better if you had been completely truthful and trustworthy with us.

So, we really do have a trust with the churches. Sometimes, as I tell folks, the students who come to us that are kind of messed up, you got them messed up. You sent them that way. We are trying to do our best now to correct the mess that took place prior to them getting here. You put us in an awkward position, especially when you did not tell us in advance this is what was headed our way. This trust runs both ways, but it is a good trust and one that is most of the time honored. We are talking about the exceptions that become the squeaky wheels and become something that requires an inordinate amount of time and attention. I can say, having been involved in this now for 22 years, those are the exception rather than the norm.

Dr. Allen:

That is good and very helpful. I would say, as a pastor, I cannot preach a powerful enough sermon in 40 minutes to undo or fix a week’s worth of bad parenting. As a seminary president, I say I cannot, in a few semesters, fix a lifetime of bad parenting. You are right, we are called to train ministers and you always have someone who shows up trying to find themselves, or someone who shows up in a less-than-ideal scenario, and you just have to work through that. Thankfully, that is a very small percentage of people.

I want to draw our conversation to a close with a couple of things. I want to ask a couple of personal questions. One related to me, and one related to you. I think it will be fun to reflect upon this for a few moments.

You have been at Southeastern for roughly 10 years. What have you learned about theological education? By that, I mean, you knew it as well as anyone. You served at Southeastern with Paige Patterson, the maestro of theological education. You served at Southern Seminary with Al Mohler in key roles, as well at Southeastern and Southern seminary in a most key role with another maestro in theological education. Before that you were at Criswell College. So, if anyone was prepared to do this, you were. Tell us something that you have learned in the past 10 years that will be especially germane and informative to those who will be listening today.

Dr. Akin:

I would say two things, Jason. One, you have to be vigilant to maintain theological integrity. It does not just happen by accident. You must take with seriousness your confessions of faith. You must have a faculty that knows they are to teach in accordance with, and not contrary to [the Baptist Faith and Message 2000], without mental reservation or hesitation. I love that classical confessional language. You beat that drum over, and over, and over, and over. Just like you beat the drum for the Great Commission, you beat the drum for doctrinal integrity, and you do not relax that one bit because you never drift to the theological right; you always drift to the theological left.

Secondly, I would say we need to strive to have balance in our theology and know what hills are worth dying on and what hills are not. I fear sometimes that we raise to a level-one tier certain issues that belong on the second or third tier. I will fight you tooth and nail over the historical, bodily return of Christ— to the death. I am not going to fight you over whether you are premillennial, postmillennial, or amillennial. I happen to be premillennial, but I have colleagues who take different millennial positions. I am not going to fight you whether you are pre-tribulation, post-tribulation, mid-tribulation, partial rapture, or pre-rapture. I am pre-tribulation, but I believe that there is room for disagreement on the time of the rapture, just not the truth of the rapture.

We need to know where the stakes need to be driven down, and I think there is a health to having theological balance. I will give you one example. This is the classic one: divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Which are you to believe? Yes. You are to believe them both. I say over and over and over to my students, “I believe God is sovereign in predestining and electing people to be saved, but he does so in such a way as to not violate our free will and responsibility to believe the gospel.” How does he do that? I do not know. That is why he is God, and I am not. I just know this: anything that weakens the sovereignty of God is unbiblical and theologically dangerous. Anything that weakens the responsibility of man to repent and believe the gospel is unbiblical and theologically dangerous. So, we need to avoid those kinds of extremes and maintain a good, strong, healthy balance of our view of Scripture.

Dr. Allen:

That is good. That is very helpful. Thank you for sharing that. I have one other question. I put you on the spot personally, and I am going to put you on the spot again personally. Here is a boomerang question back to me. When you think about our roles—in a sense you have been in theological education your whole adult life. Then you have me. I have been at it a little over a year. You have been at it 10 years. Give me some wise words. Words that our listeners would find of interest, but to me. How would you encourage me as a young seminary president? What would you encourage me to keep on the forefront of my mind as I lead Midwestern Seminary?

Dr. Akin:

Stay close to Christ. Love well your wife and your kids, and love well the people that God places under your care. If your faculty and staff believe that you love them and care about them—in other words, my model, right or wrong, Jason, is that we are called to be pastors of the seminary that we lead—they will love you back. They will trust you when you have to make hard decisions. They will follow you because they know, “He is in my corner, and he will go the extra mile for me. If he can serve me, he will.” When you build that kind of rapport with those people that work underneath you, they will have such trust in you and such respect for you. They will be a delight. You will not have to worry too often about getting shot in the back of the head.

Dr. Allen:

Right. Well, let’s hope we do not have to worry very often about that literally. This has been a fun conversation. It has been a helpful one. Again, just to restate what I said at the beginning, we are blessed men. We serve the finest people on the planet—Southern Baptists. We are not perfect. We are not perfect at all, but by-and-large, you walk into any gathering of Southern Baptists anywhere—whether it is in Mississippi, Montana, Missouri, India, Kenya—you tend to find people who love Jesus, who love the Bible, who love the Great Commission, and who love one another.

Dr. Akin:

They are family.

Dr. Allen:

They are and it is. It is an incredible breed of people, and it is just a real honor to get to serve them. Thank you so much for the time here. I love you and pray for you. May God bless Southeastern in every way, and we pray he blesses Midwestern as well.


*Recorded 23 October, 2013 in the Spurgeon Room

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