Recovering Our Heritage of Theological Education

Recovering Our Heritage of Theological Education

Tom Ascol

In the summer of 1996, Matt Forman, a student at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, was on a work detail for the Facilities Services Department. His assignment included the demolition of an old building on campus. When the task was nearly completed, an old memorial stone from another building, previously torn down, was discovered on the site. The inscription on the stone read, “Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 1859-1877.”

Forman knew that this stone was significant as a reminder of the formation and early existence of the first Southern Baptist seminary in Greenville. When, at the end of the summer he discovered the cornerstone in a scrap pile which was destined for the county dump, Forman gathered some friends to help him rescue it from the trash heap. Unbeknownst to them, the actions of these young men constitute a metaphor for what we are witnessing in the Southern Baptist Convention.

After years of being covered up and ignored, the doctrinal heritage of the Southern Baptist Convention is being discovered by a new generation of church members and leaders. Once cast on the scrap pile of pragmatism and doctrinal indifference, historic Southern Baptist theology is being rescued for the third millenium by those who are weary of shallow teaching which parades under the guise of biblical exposition. That which was commonly believed by our forebears is proving much more nourishing to modern hearts which are hungry for Scriptural truth.

Under the leadership of Professor James Boyce, Furman University helped establish The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1859 in the city of Greenville. The seminary was founded on the Abstract of Principles (which is also the confessional basis of The Founders Journal) in order to insure the orthodoxy of every professor who would ever teach there. Boyce regarded this step as throwing “a safeguard, as to the future teachings of the professors, around the endowments” which were raised for the seminary.

When the question arose regarding which confession of faith should be adopted for the seminary, the Philadelphia Confession (which is essentially the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689) was naturally considered because of its vast influence upon and acceptance by Southern Baptists. “If the [Education] Convention had been acting only for its own members,” Boyce stated, “I believe that that confession might have been adopted.” Out of deference for some who took exception to certain points of that confession (especially, because of Landmarkism’s influence, on ecclesiological issues), it was decided that a separate abstract should be developed.

Three principles guided the formation of this document. First, it had to be “a complete exhibition of the fundamental doctrines of grace, so that in no essential particular should they speak dubiously.” Secondly, it must speak “clearly and distinctly” on those practices which universally prevailed among Southern Baptists. Thirdly, where the denomination was not in agreement, the document should not take a position. Through following these guidelines, Boyce said, “The doctrines of grace are therefore distinctly brought out in the abstract of principles.”[1]

Early Southern Baptists took for granted that Christianity is essentially doctrinal. To know Christ and follow Him faithfully demands we understand and believe the essential tenets of the faith. Must one, then, be a theologian in order to be a Christian? No. But every Christian ought to be as theologically informed from the Bible as possible. Such an attitude was once commonplace in Baptist churches. Doctrine was not regarded as dry, boring, or unimportant, and neither was it relegated to the domain of “professionals.”

The recognition that right doctrine is important to a healthy Christian life led to a high degree of agreement among those who called themselves Southern Baptists in the last century. The Abstract of Principles represents a summary of the theological consensus which then prevailed.

Among its twenty articles this document asserts that “God from eternity, decrees or permits all things that come to pass, and perpetually upholds, directs and governs all creatures and all events; yet so as not in any wise to be the author or approver of sin nor to destroy the free will and responsibility of intelligent creatures” (article IV). It further states that “Election is God’s eternal choice of some persons unto everlasting life–not because of foreseen merit in them, but of his mere mercy in Christ–in consequence of which choice they are called, justified and glorified” (article V).

It is not suprising that these statements are less thorough and comprehensive than those found in the Second London Confession. After all, it is an abstract–not an exact explication–of commonly held Baptist principles which was devised for the seminary. What is quite clear is simply this: early Southern Baptists believed that God is sovereign and men are responsible in salvation. Further, they intended the future generations of their pastors to be taught these truths among the other salient points of doctrinal Christianity. Ministerial training was to be intensely concerned with sound doctrine.

Yet doctrinal soundness gets little more than a passing expression of concern in many Baptist churches today. It hardly ever gets mentioned in the recasting of their vision and purpose statements. This is glaringly apparent when it comes to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. How many Baptist churches have heard a sermon in the last five years which exlpains the biblical teaching on election the way that it is summarized in the Abstract of Principles? God’s sovereign freedom, which is the very foundation of salvation by grace, has been all but lost to modern Baptist churches.

There is no shortage of material in the Bible on the subject. The first four inspired words of Holy Scripture set forth God’s freedom. He was under no compulsion to create the world. The Apostle Paul appeals to this point when defending God’s unconditional election of certain sinners to salvation. To the one who objects to God’s actions, the apostle responds, “But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?” (Rom. 9:20-21).

Job learned to bow before God’s sovereign freedom. After being humbled by divine interrogation, he confesses to the Lord, “I know that You can do everything, And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You” (Job 42:2). Such understanding caused him to repent in sack cloth and ashes over his earlier little thoughts of God.

The mighty Babylonian conqueror learned this lesson, but not until he served time grazing like an ox in a field under the sovereign chastisement of God. At the end of his sentence he said, “I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me; and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever: For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, And His kingdom is from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven And among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?'” (Dan. 4:34-35). He caught a glimpse of the sovereignty of God and it led him to worship.

This God exalting, human pride crushing truth was known, believed, and loved in our churches during the nineteenth century. It is what gave impetus to the great missionary enterprise which marked the beginning of the Southern Baptist Convention. Because God is sovereign, our forebears felt that they must go, and go they did in great confidence that the God who rules the universe went with them.

God’s absolute sovereignty in every area of life is a comforting truth for sincere believers. In the seventeenth century, English Baptist pastor, Hercules Collins, adapted the Heidelberg Catechism for Baptists and published it as The Orthodox Catechism. The first answer in these catechisms warmly summarizes the sure foundation which God’s sovereignty provides to the Christian.

Q. What is thy only comfort in life and death?

A. That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who with his precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

The comfort which is outlined in this wonderful statement arises from a proper appreciation of sound doctrine regarding sin, Christ, atonement, providence, the Holy Spirit and divine sovereignty. Where doctrine is neglected, experience suffers.

What is needed is a return to doctrinal Christianity in our churches. For this to happen, there must first be a recovery of the importance of doctrine in our pulpits. By God’s grace, this is happening more and more frequently. Pastors are being awakened to the emphasis which the Bible gives to teaching sound doctrine in the pastoral ministry. A growing number of ministers are hearing, as if for the first time, Paul’s admonitions to “take heed…to the doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:16) and to “speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). This reformation in the pulpit is encouraging to see, but it reveals a tragedy of our recent past and a need for our immediate future.

“Why wasn’t I taught this in seminary?” Variations of this question have been asked hundreds if not thousands of times in recent years by pastors who have come to see the necessity of sound doctrine for a faithful ministry. As one minister expressed it, “I graduated from a prominent Baptist University and received two degrees from a Baptist seminary. But it wasn’t until years later that I realized that my ministry was to be doctrinally based. I feel like I was misled.”

The sad truth is that, until recent years, training ministers to be doctrinally sound and equipping them to develop a theological approach to ministry was overshadowed by other concerns in many Baptist seminaries. On the one hand, some of these institutions reflected the reign of pragmatism which characterized many Baptist churches over the last sixty years. Content was subordinated to method. Style took precedence over substance. Truth took a back seat to results. On the other hand, the seduction of academic prestige made others of these institutions embarassed by the hard edges of propositional revelation. Relativism became magnanimous. Certainty was heresy. The idea that ministerial students should be encouraged to understand and teach sound doctrine was regarded as being contrary to an academic institution’s purpose. “Education, not indoctrination” was the mantra of the day.

Tragically, two generations of Baptist pastors were trained in such educational enviroments. This is not to suggest that all of them came out having bought into the system in which they studied. Many were helped along the way to see things more clearly by some exceptional professors. Others, through the influence of pastors, churches, or books were challenged to recognize the importance of doctrine to ministry. But too many pastors were sent into their fields of labor woefully unprepared for battles they faced. As one prominent Southern Baptist leader publically stated years ago, “I went to seminary looking for bread and came away with a handful of stones.”

By God’s grace, the future of theological education for Baptists looks excessively brighter than does the recent past. The reformation which is taking place in pulpits across the land is also taking place in seminary classrooms. A reemphasis on biblical truth and doctrinal foundations is emerging on many seminary campuses. Though this renewal of theological education may be much more, it is certainly nothing less than a recovery of the original Southern Baptist burden for sound teaching in our churches.

As current and future generations of Baptist ministers are trained to think theologically and establish their ministries on the sound doctrine of the Bible, the reformation which is underway will not only continue, but increase. Our churches deserve doctrinally sound, spiritually enlivened pastors. May the Lord continue to supply them in ever increasing numbers.