Confessional integrity and theological education, part 1

A crisis in Baptist doctrine is evidently approaching, and those of us who still cling to the doctrines which formerly distinguished us have the important duty to perform of earnestly contending for the faith once delivered to the saints. Gentlemen, God will call us to judgment if we neglect it.

These words were spoken by James Petigru Boyce on July 31, 1856 in his inaugural address entitled, Three Changes in Theological Institutions, delivered before the Board of Trustees of Furman University. This was the speech that set the course for theological education in the Southern Baptist Convention. Boyce’s basic concerns were incorporated into the Fundamental Laws of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary which opened its doors three years later in 1859.

The third change for which Boyce argued is confessional integrity. He rightly insisted that any institution responsible for training ministers who are to serve Baptist churches must adhere to a strict confessional fidelity. A confession should be adopted, and every professor required to adhere to it at every point. The error of a single man, if he has a position of influence, can do incalculable damage to a denomination of churches. Few positions have greater influence than that of an instructor at a theological institution. Just imagine, Boyce said, how much greater the damage the heresies of Alexander Campbell would have caused had he “occupied a chair in one of our theological institutions.” Such a thought, he said, “should make us tremble.”

If there be an instrument of our denominational prosperity which we should guard at every point, it is this. The doctrinal sentiments of the faculty are of far greater importance than the proper investment and expenditure of its funds, and the trusts devolved upon those who watch over its interests should in that respect, if in any, be sacredly guarded (emphasis added).

For Boyce, the Charleston Confession of Faith (the Second London Confession) would have been a fine choice as a confession for Baptist professors to sign.

For all the purposes aimed at, no other test can be equally effective with that confession of faith acknowledged in the Charleston Baptist Association–the doctrines of which had almost universal prevalence in this state at the time of the foundation of the institution. Let that then be adopted, and let subscription to it on the part of each theological professor be required as an assurance of his entire agreement with its views of doctrine and of his determination to teach fully the truth which it expresses and nothing contrary to its declarations (emphasis added).

Regardless of what confession is adopted by a theological institution, those who teach on its faculty must be held to the highest standard of accountability to it. Just as ministers of the Gospel have a greater responsibility to understand accurately and teach clearly the Word of God, so those who are engaged in ministerial training must be held to strict accountability to adhere to the school’s confession faith at every point. Boyce put it like this:

But of him who is to teach the ministry, who is to be the medium through which the fountain of Scripture truth is to flow to them-whose opinions more than those of any living man, are to mold their conceptions of the doctrines of the Bible, it is manifest that much more is requisite. No difference, however slight, no peculiar sentiments, however speculative, is here allowable. His agreement with the standard should be exact. His declaration of it should be based upon no mental reservation, upon no private understanding with those who immediately invest him into office; but the articles to be taught having been fully and distinctly laid down, he should be able to say from his knowledge of the Word of God that he knows these articles to be an exact summary of the truth therein contained. If the summary of truth established be incorrect, it is the duty of the board to change it, if such change be within their power; if not, let an appeal be made to those who have the power, and if there be none such, then far better is it that the whole endowment be thrown aside than that the principle be adopted that the professor sign any abstract of doctrine with which he does not agree and in accordance with which he does not intend to teach. No professor should be allowed to enter upon such duties as are there undertaken, with the understanding that he is at liberty to modify the truth, which he has been placed there to inculcate (emphasis added).

This is the theological vision that very precisely framed the direction of Southern Baptist theological education. James Boyce became the principal founder of the first Southern Baptist seminary–The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (the definite article is part of its legal name!) now located in Louisville, Kentucky. Under his supervision the Abstract of Principles was written and incorporated into the charter of the seminary. Every professor is required to subscribe to this confession by signing his name to the promise to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to” it.

Asd Boyce articulated so well, no professor was ever to be allowed to sign the confession with his fingers crossed behind his back, or with the mental reservation that “this is what the Abstract means to me,” or that “I agree with it as long I get to define its articles.”

Prior to the conservative resurgence, such duplicity is exactly what was going on among many if not most of the faculty at Southern Seminary. With the election of Al Mohler as the President of Southern in 1993, a decided return to confessional fidelity began. Once again, the Abstract of Principles began to be taken seriously and faculty were held accountable to their pledge to teach according to its articles. The results have been commendable as Southern Baptists once again can have confidence that those who teach at that school have been required to do more than give a passing glance at the confession they sign upon joining the faculty.

We have seen a genuine upgrade in the confessional integrity of all six of our Southern Baptist Theological Seminaries over the last 15 years. This is reason to rejoice and give praise to God, but it is no reason to forget about the great vision that was cast for theological education by our denomination’s founders. Vigilance is always needed to insure that the sacred trust between the denomination’s churches and seminaries is not violated by allowing professors who do not honestly embrace the institution’s confession to teach the rising generation of Gospel ministers.

In a future post, I will further address why such vigilance is needed today, and how it can be carried out.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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