Confessional integrity and theological education, part 2

When Al Mohler was elected President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1993, he began working on the recovery and restatement of Boyce’s vision of theological education for Southern Baptists. He reasserted the importance of the Abstract of Principles as the doctrinal covenant between the school and the Southern Baptist Convention. Faculty members were served notice that the new President intended to take his stewardship seriously by expecting that all who signed that document as part of their terms of employment to have done so with integrity.

Any doubt about Dr. Mohler’s seriousness was removed when one of the most popular professors on campus, Molly Marshall-Green, was challenged over her theological convictions that were decidedly contrary to the Abstract of Principles. When she resigned in the face of the overwhelming theological evidence that was presented, it sent shock waves through others on the faculty who, like her, had never let the Abstract of Principles bother their consciences as they taught in clear contradiction to it.

In a 1998 article Dr. Mohler expressed his conviction that the “succession of faithful teaching–and faithful teachers–is absolutely necessary to the integrity of theological education.” He went on to explain how the process works at Southern Seminary:

The formal induction of new members into the faculty of this seminary takes place in a public ceremony which remains basically unchanged from its origins in the founding of this institution. Professors place their names on the very manuscript penned by the founders and pledge to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to” the explicit truths contained therein. The public pledge made by these professors represents the teaching contract required of all who teach at Southern Seminary (emphasis added).

The Abstract of Principles was incorporated into the by-laws of Southeastern Seminary in 1950. All faculty members of that school are required to subscribe to this document and to do so with a public signing of it at the opening session at which they begin their duties.

It is obvious that this statement of faith was never intended to be a wax nose that could be adjusted to fit on any theological face. It was, after all, framed by leading theological thinkers during a time when the theological consensus was clearly Calvinistic or Reformed. In his defense of the Abstract Boyce wrote of 3 guiding principles that shaped its content. “The Abstract of Principles must be:”

1. A complete exhibition of the doctrines of grace, so that in no essential particular should they speak dubiously; 2. They should speak out clearly and distinctly as to the practices that are universally prevalent among us; 3. Upon no point, upon which the denomination is divided, should the Convention, and through it, the Seminary, take any position (from the Western Recorder, June 20, 1874; cited in Robert Baker’s A Baptist Sourcebook [1966], p. 140; emphasis added).

This is important because, unfortunately, at various points in the history of Southern Seminary there have been professors who signed the Abstract without conscientiously agreeing with the meaning that its framers invested in it. These duplicitous professors justified their actions by claiming the right to private interpretation of the document. Under this guise liberalism crept in and became entrenched at Southern Seminary until the recent recovery of its original charter and vision.

The first challenge to the Abstract by a professor was not Molly-Marshall Green or any of her contemporaries on the faculty. Rather, that notorious distinction belongs to Crawford H. Toy. Ten years after joining the faculty in 1869 Toy was forced to resign because of his advocacy of “progressive” scholarship that rejected many of the recorded events in the Old Testament as authentic. As Timothy George notes,

“Toy believed that his views had not violated the confessional commitment of the seminary despite the wide variance between his teaching and that of his colleagues. However, with reference to the Abstract, [Basil] Manly insisted: ‘This language must be understood in accordance with the well-known convictions and views of the founders of the Seminary, and of the Baptist denomination generally. While I am accustomed to insist on no theory of the manner in which inspiration was effected, I hold and teach the fact that the Scriptures are so inspired as to possess infallibility and divine authority'” (emphasis added).

A fundamental principle of hermeneutics is authorial intent and that principle is just as necessary to a right understanding of the twenty articles of the Abstract of Principles as it is to any other document.

In light of these historical and theological realities, Southern Baptist churches should take seriously their responsibility to hold their theological institutions accountable to maintain the trust that has been vested in them. They should expect and insist that those who teach in seminaries funded by their contributions will do so in complete harmony with the respective school’s statement of faith. Where there are questions or concerns, the churches should raise them. If and when such are raised, those who serve in our seminaries as well as those trustees who oversee their work should not regard the questioners as adversaries but as owners who are seeking a proper accounting from their stewards.

No seminary administrator, nor any trustee that sits on the board of any of our six seminaries, should be afraid of the following questions:

Can you assure the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention that every professor who teaches in this school agrees, without any equivocation, with every article of the confession that he or she has signed? If you are made aware that any professor holds to views that are in opposition to the confession what assurances will you give to the churches that this situation will be appropriately addressed?

We must never allow ourselves to be lulled into thinking that just because the conservative resurgence won the day in recapturing our seminaries for the authority of Scripture that they are thereby immune to doctrinal slippage now and forevermore. Our own history teaches us that confessional integrity can be lost much easier than it is regained or even maintained.

Praise God for the recovery of doctrinal integrity in our seminaries! But don’t stop with that. Honor God by maintaining careful watch, lest we inadvertently find ourselves on the same kind of downgrade from which we have been rescued over the last twentyfive years.

Tomorrow I intend to apply all of this to our contemporary context by examining an alarming example of the very dangers that Boyce and Manly warned against.