Confessional integrity and theological education, part 3

As the previous two posts have shown, those who drafted the Abstract of Principles as well as those responsible for setting the course of theological education in the Southern Baptist Convention clearly intended that the professors in our institutions be held to a strict doctrinal accountability. In his “Three Changes in Theological Institutions” address, James Boyce argued that “The doctrinal sentiments of the faculty are of far greater importance than the proper investment and expenditure of its funds.”

He also forcefully demonstrated that accountability to a written confession of faith is not only in keeping with our Baptist heritage it is imminently biblical. To those who would protest in the name of liberty of conscience, Boyce made this salient point:

It is no hardship to those who teach here to be called upon to sign the declaration of their principles, for there are fields of usefulness open elsewhere to every man, and none need accept your call who cannot conscientiously sign your formulary.

As has been noted previously, that original commitment to doctrinal integrity was lost over time and by the middle of the twentieth century some Southern Baptist seminaries became havens for teachers who had little regard for the doctrinal standards that they signed as terms of employment. Michael Spencer (aka the Internet Monk) summarizes his first-hand experience of this during his days at Southern Seminary in the 1980s:

Dr. Dale Moody, beloved and controversial professor of theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville, used to get majorly steamed up in class every time there was a signing of the school’s “Abstract of Principles” in chapel. (Tenured Professors would dress up in their finery and sign this century old document in an impressive ceremony.) Moody made it clear that he didn’t believe most of what was on that piece of paper, particularly the Calvinistic theology on subjects like election and perseverance. He had signed only after telling the powers that be that he disagreed with it and wouldn’t be bound by it. They had said, sure, whatever, and he signed it. But Professor Moody never missed the opportunity to point out that those who were signing the Abstract didn’t believe it, and shouldn’t have to act like they did.

Moody was half right. They should not have acted like they believed the Abstract, but neither should they have signed it (nor should the “powers that be” have allowed it)! This highlights the nature of the problems that we had in our seminaries in the 1970s-80s. They were not only doctrinal problems, they were moral. To believe and teach bad theology is a doctrinal problem. To sign a document promising to teach according to it and not contrary to it without honestly believing it is a moral problem. By safeguarding confessional integrity, we can resist both.

That is why I am very concerned about the attitude displayed on this blog by a current professor of one of our Southern Baptist seminaries. He is not at all convinced of the doctrines of grace and has made that point repeatedly. But that is not what concerns me. I have never insisted that a person see eye-to-eye with me on every theological point in order to receive my respect or be the object of my love and appreciation. I have great fellowship with people with whom I disagree doctrinally.

My concern for this professor, however, stems from his comments here on June 29, 2006. As a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, he is employed at an institution that uses the Abstract of Principles (along with the Baptist Faith and Message) as its doctrinal guide. Professors are required to sign the Abstract as terms of employment. This professor purportedly recognizes that the Abstract explicitly articulates 3 of the so-called “5 points of Calvinism.” Yet, when pressed about his own affirmation of the Abstract, he responded with this troubling comment:

And I am never ashamed to admit publicly and before all, including churches I may pastor my soteriological position. To not do so, is unethical. I affirm 3 of the classic points of Calvinism provided I can define them, rather than their being dependent on the entire system’s presuppositions (emphasis added).

Here is how I responded to this brother on that occasion:

Now, I am quite sure you are no liberal, but this is *precisely* the way liberal professors at Southern and Southeastern rationalized their signing of the Abstract of Principles in the 1980s. Authorial intent was completely rejected. The real question–the question that every honest signer of that document should be able to answer in the affirmative–is this: Do I believe the article of this statement in the same way that James P. Boyce and Basil Manly, Jr. did?

He did not answer my question, and the response he did offer did nothing to alleviate my concern.

Let me reiterate exactly what that concern is. After the hard-won battles of the last 27 years, I am concerned that we not lessen our commmitment to confessional integrity in our theological institutions. It is utter folly to think that “our side” is immune to the very same temptations that led the “other side” to disregard confessional boundaries. The issue is not personal, it is moral and doctrinal. My hope is that professors, administrators, trustees and the churches to whom they are all accountable will be vigilant in our efforts to maintain confessional integrity throughout our institutions.

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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