For the Church: Theological Education, the SBC & the Future of Midwestern Seminary (III)

*This post was originally published on 8 April 2014.

Guard the Truth: Serving the Church by Maintaining Confessional Integrity.

Since Southern Baptists founded their first seminary in 1859, the denomination has experienced an uneasy relationship between her seminaries and the churches that own them. Though the year 2013 finds the seminaries very much in line with the denomination’s confessional statement—the Baptist Faith & Message 2000—such has not always been the case. Moreover, a survey of the history of theological education indicates the need for churches to keep an ever-vigilant eye on the seminaries they own.

Paul designates the church as “the pillar and support of the truth” (I Tim 3:16). Moreover, the New Testament is replete with references to the church’s role to cherish, defend, and proclaim the truth. The faithful seminary intentionally co-labors with the churches it serves to this end.

Rightly related, the seminary and the church enjoy a symbiotic relationship. The churches hold the seminaries theologically accountable and send them students to train. The seminaries return those students to serve the church as pastors and ministers who are reinforced biblically and strengthened doctrinally. Thus, a mutually beneficial cycle of theological faithfulness should exist. How might the church ensure such a cycle of faithfulness is maintained?

More than Signatures

No single act more intentionally communicates an institution’s commitment to confessional fidelity than when a professor publicly signs the seminary’s statement of faith. Though every professor signs the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, the public, ceremonial signing typically occurs after the professor has been formally elected to the faculty by the board of trustees. The act itself is a significant communal reminder of the institution’s determination to be doctrinally faithful, but this act alone is insufficient.

Many seminaries’ confessional statements are littered with signatures that proved not to have been rendered in good faith. In fact, many of the names are now infamous in Southern Baptist life, such as C. H. Toy, Dale Moody, and Molly Marshall, to name only a few.

Closer to home, and in great irony, the first signer of Midwestern Seminary’s Articles of Faith was Ralph Elliott. His embrace of higher critical interpretive methodology, as evidenced in his Genesis commentary, plunged Midwestern Seminary, and the entire denomination, into a theological crisis known as the “Genesis Controversy.” These rumblings would portend broader denominational conflict to come over the inerrancy of Scripture.

History teaches that signatures are important, but signatures are not enough. Every professor who once taught in our Southern Baptist seminaries, including Ralph Elliott, did so ostensibly with confessional faithfulness. They signed their confessions of faith, as do we, and they spoke of these things, as do we.

Prima Facie Evidence, Please

Throughout the Conservative Resurgence, professors often engaged in an insidious game of “catch me if you can.” When an allegation of heterodoxy arose, the moderate establishment placed the burden of proof on the “fundamentalists.” Moderates argued that fundamentalists bore the moral responsibility to sift through their obfuscation and “double speak” to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, their guilt of errant belief. The moderates assumed the conservatives were morally obligated to function like a court of law, honor-bound to prove conclusively that a professor had violated the confession of faith. Such burden of proof is nonsensical and needless.

It is not the Southern Baptist Convention’s moral responsibility to find evidence—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that a professor is violating their confessional commitment. Rather, each signatory bears the moral and confessional obligation to demonstrate, prima facie, that he or she believes and teaches in accordance with, and not contrary to, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. The burden of proof is not on the denomination; the burden of proof rests on those whose salary the denomination pays. The Southern Baptist Convention has every right to expect members of their seminaries’ instructional staff to demonstrate, in a prima facie way, their own theological faithfulness.

Maintaining Vigilance

We must recognize that, at the very least, the embers of the world burn within us all. The noetic consequences of the fall, the allure of the academy, and the riptide-like pull of an increasingly secular culture all necessitate sobriety and care. Moreover, seminaries must resist the tendency to treat the churches they serve paternalistically. Seminaries must resist thinking they know the churches’ needs better than the churches themselves. It is not the role of the seminary to prod, drag, or enlighten the churches theologically. The seminary does not sit in judgment of the church; the church sits in judgment of the seminary.

As to the issues themselves, “Hath God said?” is Satan’s perennial question, and the contest for inerrancy will likely be with us until Jesus returns. Furthermore, the subtle undermining of the exclusivity of the gospel will come with ruinous consequences, upending the entire rationale for the modern missions movement. In the immediate future, slippage will most likely occur where, in so many of our homes and churches, there is already growing discontinuity between our confession and our praxis. We can see this most especially in relation to gender roles and the increasing acceptability of homosexuality.

Just like federal laws and regulations can hardly keep up with new forms of criminal activity, so confessional statements—important as they are—can hardly keep up with new forms of disbelief. Moreover, no confessional statement can include everything that could be stated. That is what the Scriptures are for.

Confessional faithfulness demands that we remain vigilant. We must seek to anticipate doctrinal drift, to perceive proactively where theological slippage may occur. Theological faithfulness must also include a relentless refusal to settle for obliqueness—probing and distilling questions must never be out of bounds. After all, ambiguity has proven to be the incubator of doctrinal unfaithfulness.

For the Church

The fulcrum of doctrinal accountability for a seminary is its confessional statement, but it is only as meaningful as the integrity of the one signing it, and only as helpful as the courage and care of those charged with enforcing it. This oversight begins with the seminary’s administration, but it encompasses the churches that own the seminary.

As the Constitutional Convention adjourned in Philadelphia in 1787, a woman approached Benjamin Franklin and asked, “Mr. Franklin, what kind of government have you given us?” “A republic, madam,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.”

We may amend this story and ask, “What have Paul Pressler, Paige Patterson, and Adrian Rogers bequeathed to this generation of Southern Baptists?” The answer is doctrinally faithful seminaries, but we must have the courage and determination to keep them.

Part I // Part II // Part III // Part IV // Part V // Part VI // Part VII // Part VIII

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