A Vision of Theological Education

A Vision of Theological Education

Tom J. Nettles


In his 1881 essay, “The Influence of the German University System on Theological Literature,” Robert L. Dabney, the great Southern Presbyterian Theologian, described the unsettled condition deriving from the perpetual necessity of “doing new work.” Its application to philosophy, but especially theology, works a deadly mischief. It almost invariably is an incentive to heretical innovation. Dabney says that “The animus which this trait of the German erudition has imported into theological study, is poisonous to orthodoxy.”[1] The data of theological study were given by divine revelation and made those who believed wise unto salvation just as surely in the first as in the twentieth century.

I share something of the spirit of Dabney in this essay. Nothing presented here will not come under the category of “new work.” Rather, what follows is a reiteration of old ideas which is set forth with the conviction that the greatest challenge of seminary education is not to produce ecclesiastical innovators but ministers who are grounded theologically. Consequently, I see four basic elements in the theological task.


To say that the first is Scriptural may seem too obvious. Perhaps this should be such a given that we need not spend time developing its importance. A recent look, however, at seminary catalogues and at the description of the purpose of a newly endowed chair at another school has intensified my conviction that eternal vigilance in this matter of Bible-centered theological education is a peculiar stewardship of our generation.

It is incumbent on every evangelical seminary faculty to re-pioneer by cutting back through the forest removing “new growth” currently shadowing the path from the light of God’s Word. Theological faculty members must not only give verbal assent to the unique power and authority of the Bible, but also must confide in it, delight in it, love it, meditate on it, conform to it, and teach and exhort others in light of its truth.

The curriculum should reflect this by offering as many courses as possible for each student to become “mighty in the Scriptures.” This involves an unembarrassed emphasis on biblical languages, exegesis courses, and English Bible. Other parts of the curriculum itself should be justified by Scripture, either directly or by necessary consequence. A theological seminary cannot exempt itself from the protection and guidance of the regulative principle.

This principle creates a rich reservoir of directions, however, not just for the kinds of courses offered in the curriculum but the viewpoint from which they are taught. When I teach history, a biblical world view should guide the honesty and thoroughness with which I treat the sources and should constitute the reality through which I consciously express my viewpoints about the meaning of history. In addition to setting a table carefully arranged with names, events and dates, I should try to infect my students with a sense of the moral texture of history, a desire for careful discernment of the providence of God in its ebb and flow, a fascination with those moments in which the truth graces the experience of the church, and a love for the challenge of thinking biblically about history.

One of the most devastating issues confronting Christian intellectual life in general and Baptist life in particular is the failure to generate a world view approach to higher education. Many, though not all, Baptist colleges have proceeded on the assumption that they are Christian because they have a religion department, required chapel, and a so-called Christian environment. Often the only common presupposition which is actively protected is secular libertarianism, now post-modern relativism, under the guise of a Baptist commitment to liberty of conscience and academic freedom. That the construction of a Christian world view embracing and informing all academic disciplines is possible, or even desirable, seems an absurdity.

It is not absurd, however, for even now moments of real Christian education occur under the influence of gifted and devoted individuals who have made a personal mission of functioning professionally within the framework of a rich, provocative, and energizing Christian world view. That which currently flourishes as an ornament of individual discipleship can be extended into the realm of corporate discipleship if a whole theological faculty views its task in this light.

Perhaps the Lord will lead one of our seminaries to develop a “World View Institute” aimed particularly at college teachers in non-biblical disciplines to help them develop skills in thinking biblically and theologically about the world in general and their expertise in particular. Many who currently teach faithfully and effectively in those contexts will have much to offer us in honing this skill.


The second part of this vision is a particular kind of manifestation of the first. Theological education should be confessional. The founder of Southern Seminary, James Boyce, believed this strongly and sought to insure that the school would remain that way. Nor was he out of harmony with the flow of Baptist history when he criticized the creedless ideal of Alexander Campbell and warned Baptists against slipping into a false implication of the Bible-only principle. This is why Boyce and the other founders of Southern Seminary led in adoption of the Abstract of Principles as the institution’s guiding confession.

If theological education is not confessional it will tend toward randomness and incoherence. A confessional commitment testifies to our confidence in the non-contradictory nature of Scripture.

In addition, commitment to the goal of unity in the faith and knowledge of the Son of God calls for an open statement of what we believe to be true. A confession states clearly: To these teachings we are conscientiously committed. No authentic attempt at unity in the faith is possible without serious confession of the faith.

The confession serves as a goal as well as a foundation. None need be deceived as to what students will be taught when they come to Southern Seminary. The witness and influence we desire to have is writ large. The confession not only defines who we are but serves as a summary of what we believe our students ought to be. The Abstract of Principles are a profile of how we intend to guide the students sent to us. As the unique gifts of each God-called individual develop in the context of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, these truths shape our sense of stewardship.

Moreover, that the “faith once delivered to the saints” consists of revealed truth and therefore is both clear and compelling is a desired message of confessional education. A minister to the people of God should not exit the place of his most intense personal academic preparation for his task with confused ideas, inconsistent and contradictory notions, or lack of confidence in the authority of the Scripture as the very Word of God. In the hour of preaching, the Bible study time, the preparation and execution of music for worship, the counseling room, or strategizing for missions, our graduates must be filled up with that confidence.


This leads to the third element of the vision. Seminary education must be pastoral. This word implies something about our main focus, that is, to train men for shepherding the flock of God. No other aspect of what we do–missions, education, music, counseling, evangelism–can thrive within its legitimate sphere apart from its relation to the training of godly pastor-teachers. Whatever else may be a desired and legitimate part of the task, foremost is enhancing the gifts, developing the tools, teaching the minds, and training the hearts of those who will have oversight of the churches. Whatever else may be desirable for the defense and confirmation of the gospel in our culture–Christian politicians, better TV, Christian University professors, an ethically-informed medical profession, more G-rated movies–none will do lasting good without reformation in the pulpit. Until churches have a clear, biblically-informed, earnest voice from the pulpit, until the brethren know that like Paul their ministers are “set for the defense of the gospel,” reformation will escape us, and with it the gospel honoring, God glorifying revival for which we pray.

At the core, therefore, of this task, is the concern for evangelism. “Do the work of an evangelist,” Paul told Timothy, and he would tell each seminary student today the same. Every discipline we teach and every conversation we have should generate skills and sensitize affections for pastors to be curers of souls. Being content with plaster for wounds that call for radical measures will be no option for them. The skill to search out the soul’s windings and open before the senses of the people all the putrefaction of the heart in rebellion against God can’t be graded but should be the desired outcome of each class. If a student can learn to search out the desperate wickedness of the sinful heart, unmask its deceitfulness, and finally live and minister in the confidence that the Word of God lays bare the soul before the eyes of Him with whom we have to do and reveals Christ as infinitely and uniquely adequate as the only Savior of such sinners, no greater learning can be desired. I have a dream, and a large part of it is a seminary in love with pastoral theology.


Finally, because the nature of this task calls for an all-surpassing power and wisdom, seminary education must be Christ-centered. “No man has seen God at any time, but the only begotten dwelling in the bosom of the Father, he has revealed Him.” Our God-ward emphasis proclaims, “In Him dwells the fullness of the godhead in bodily form;” our man-ward emphasis says, “Ye are complete in Him.” The grand privilege we have is to listen for the voice of God in the text of Scripture and to expect that in the preaching of the gospel message some will see the glory of God in the face of Christ when He shines in their hearts. How grand is this calling–the knowledge of God is in Christ, forgiveness before God is in Christ, righteousness before God is in Christ, wisdom from God is in Christ–and this calling is to teach and encourage God’s ministers how to preach Christ and Him crucified in all the richness and fullness of that task.

We are called to arm our students with everything that is divinely mandated, that is consistent with worship in Spirit and truth, that they might be able to pull down everything that raises itself against the knowledge of God and be able to take every thought and make it captive to Christ. The understanding of Christ as couched within the Chalcedonian formula should inform the scope and promise of our task. In Him, time and eternity, infinite and finite, mortal and immortal, Creator and creature, God and man meet in one indivisible person–in His humanity, elect and precious; in His deity eternally begotten and beloved; in His person the one who saves and the one who judges.

Could we learn to see Christ as the paradigm for teaching? If so, we would work in the confidence that our varied gifts and personalities, properly disciplined, will all work toward the manifestation of the glory of that One Face. We could work toward a unity in our views of the content and purpose of the curriculum. We would with one voice affirm both the certainty and mystery in our confession. We would agree on the transcendently magnificent calling of preacher-of-the-gospel without diminishing in any sense the importance of the multiplicity of other gifts and callings. We would have a corresponding sense of the awfulness of training such, and a single-minded intensity about glorifying Christ in His person and work as we strive together for the defense and confirmation of the gospel.