Monday, July 24, 2006

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.


BSC said...


SavedandSure said...

Many of us have nothing but great respect and admiration for the courage of Dr. Al Mohler and others of his honesty and integrity!

May all of our SBC seminaries and universities regain reputations of
doctrinal integrity!

To that end many of us continue to pray on a daily basis!

One Salient Oversight said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
One Salient Oversight said...

My greatest problem with the SBC at the moment is the way in which it has imbibed worldly and/or unbiblical belief and sees it as biblical.

Therefore, somelike like Al Mohler can happily say publically that he adheres to the abstract of principles, but also explicitly teaches that drinking alcohol is sinful.

Or, for that matter, publically supporting the use of torture.

GeneMBridges said...

Therefore, somelike like Al Mohler can happily say publically that he adheres to the abstract of principles, but also explicitly teaches that drinking alcohol is sinful.

That position is not out of step with the Abstract of Principles unless you say that XVIII necessitates a moderationist position, in which case you become guilty of contradicting XVIII because you take an interpretive issue related to the issues Scripture leaves to liberty of conscience and turn it into a blanket under which there is room for only one party to lie.

I also believe you need to reread that article OSO:

Mohler writes things like: Instead, I would suggest that Senator McCain is correct in arguing that a categorical ban should be adopted as state policy for the U.S., its military, and its agents. At the same time, I would admit that such a policy, like others, has limitations that, under extreme circumstances, may be transcended by other moral claims. The key point is this – at all times and in all cases the use of torture is understood to be morally suspect in the extreme, and generally unjustified.


These two contexts of moral decision-making can serve to develop a coherent and principled policy on the state's use of torture and extreme coercion. First, the use of torture should be prohibited as a matter of state policy – period. No set of qualifications and exceptions can do anything but diminish the moral credibility of this policy. At the same time, rare exceptions under extreme circumstances can be considered under those circumstances by legitimate state agents, knowing that a full accounting of these decisions must be made to the public, through appropriate means and mechanisms.

He is not advocated torture without a massive number of caveats. As I read that article I read him saying that we’re often confronted with borderline cases—cases where our moral intuitions are too blunt an instrument to draw fine distinctions of right and wrong, or where we experience conflicting moral intuitions, a conflicted sense of duty. In that case there may be no right answer, and it’s a question of what to do in case of doubt. To play it safe? Or to be lenient?

What is torture? Here’s one generic definition: “torture is the deliberate infliction of intense physical or psychological suffering to punish, or to deter others, or to extract information, or to coerce a confession of guilt, or to exact revenge, or for the sake of sheer cruelty.”

Now, that’s a broad definition. “Torture” is a very loaded word, and one reason is that it triggers all these varied connotations.

That’s because it’s a general, abstract definition, intended to cover every essential hypothetical case. But, of course, at a specific and concrete level, the definition doesn’t apply as a whole.

What we’re talking about in context is interrogation to extract actionable intel from an unwilling informant.

The first question to ask is not, “Is it torture?” but, “Is it effective?” What are the most effective techniques for extorting intel?

The second question to ask, after answering the first question, is, “Is it torture?” There may be several methods at the disposal of the interrogator. So one follow-up question is whether torture is necessary, or if there is some other method that will succeed short of torture.

Torture ranges along a continuum. You could say that any coercive interrogation is torture. That any infliction of physical or psychological suffering, however, mild or temporary, is torture. Any extraction of information against the will of the informant is torture. And there are “human rights” groups who think it’s inherently wrong to force information out of a terrorist.

The social contract is premised on a tacit agreement: I’ll respect your civil rights if you respect my civil rights. But if you game the system to sabotage the system, then you forfeit your civil rights. Coercive interrogation presupposes that the detainee is a terrorist. It would be improper to use coercive interrogation on the innocent. But the very fact that the detainee is a terrorist, that there is probative evidence to that effect, discharges the burden of proof.This is not a question of legal evidence, of legal guilt or innocence. We’re not trying to extort a confession of guilt.
Rather, this is question of whether the detainee is likely to have useful information about those who would do us harm.

Now, you could argue that prisoners have human rights according to Scripture, but doing that throws out much of the OT's treatment of prisoners as well as just war and holy war, which are biblical distinctions. As to torture, Scripture tells us to return good with evil, but that in contexts where we are not the civil authority carrying the power of the sword. The OT Law isn't too much help in this regard either, particularly for the one arguing that all coercion is "torture" if one takes that position, since even the greatest rulers were brutal by modern standards.

This is all to say that Dr. Mohler is not advocating "torture" without heavily caveating what he states, and he does conclude with this:

Second, a thorough and legitimate review must be conducted subsequent to the use of any such techniques, with the agents who authorized or conducted such use of torture fully accountable, even to the point of maximum legal prosecution if their use of extreme coercion is seen to have been unjustified (not simply because the interrogation did not produce the desired information, but because the grounds of justification were invalid). The absence of legitimate accountability through a thorough and comprehensive process of review – with the threat of real and appropriate sanctions against those found to have acted without due justification – makes the state complicit in a web of cruelty and the official rationalization of evil.

We live in a fallen world threatened by agents of terror who are changing the reality of war and would end civilization as we know it, killing noncombatants without conscience as a matter of pride. In confronting this new form of evil, we are now forced to rethink many of the most settled questions of morality and the use of force. Nevertheless, we have no choice but to fight this foe and to wage war on those who would use mass murder and terror to sever the fragile bonds of human society. Yet, in fighting this war it is inevitable that we will look down and find dirty hands, even in doing what we would all agree is a lamentable necessity. What we must not do is compound the problem of dirty hands by adopting dirty rules.

GeneMBridges said...

I would also point out that unlike those who would say that they are able to comply with the Abstract (and/or BFM) if they get to interpret it/them for themselves, Dr. Toy did not attempt to hide his beliefs behind such sophistry.

Tom Nettles, The Baptists Vol.2, p.308 writes:

Although convinced that his views accorded with the Seminary's confession, Toy knew that he differed with his colleagues on the matter and from the denomination in general. This difference, however, he thought was not deadly. Instead, he saw these views as "helpful for Bible study" and "calculated to bring aid and firm standing-ground to many a perplexed mind, and establish the truth of God on a surer foundation." In addition, though he candidly admitted that he saw inaccuracies and contradictions in both the Old and New Testaments, he was transparently insistent that his views were "lawful for him" to teach as Professor at the Seminary. In spite of such confidence, in order to relieve the trustees and his colleagues of any embarrassment in the matter, he tendered his resignation.

Note that Toy just flat out said that his views comported with the Abstract. He did not seek to "reinterpret" the Abstract in order to get around it. He did not say things, like, "I can agree to x, y, and z as long as x,y, and z are allowed to be interpreted as I see fit." He was firm in his own beliefs, but he did the honorable thing in the end and resigned in the end.

Timmy said...

"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."

In just a couple of weeks, I will be entering the halls of Southern Seminary once again (I am a little slow with this education thing), and if I can skip bedtime, attend the convocation where another new prof will sign the Abstract of Principles. It is not doubt a big deal and serious matter for which I am grateful.

You are correct, Tom, that we must continually remind ourselves of what history has taught us and be ever vigilant in maintaining this doctrinal integrity and fidelity to the Scriptures. And while history is being written today, may the future generations look back to this generation and find students and scholars alike faithful to the doctrines and truths which have marked Southern Baptist history from its inception.

scripturesearcher said...

Thank you, Gene Bridges (aka Mean Gene - the Writing Machine) for always building a sturdy bridge over theological troubled waters!


Our as our mutual friend from Beaumont often concludes:

Press on!

Jim Crigler said...

Hmmm ... We keep hearing about the theological commitments of three seminaries (Southern, Southeastern, Southwestern). But we never seem to hear about the theological commitments of New Orleans, Midwestern or Golden Gate. Speaking not as a pastor, deacon or anything (I'm just Fred the Sunday School teacher), can someone tell me why?

scripturesearcher said...

I implore Ascol or Bridges or Nettles to answer JC in English or German.......

Denny Burk said...

I'm looking forward to part 3.

One Salient Oversight said...


You make some interesting points. I won't suffer this comments thread any longer than I have to with this subject, but I will point out that I obviously think Mohler's argument (and therefore yours) is fatally flawed and condones sin.

I will write a response to your comments at my blog in the near future. Stay tuned.

Jim Crigler said...

I'm guessing ScriptureSearcher was referring to my request in use of the initials "JC". Generally, I don't mind being identified with Jesus Christ, but it would be silly, stupid and foolish to identify me as Him.

I'm also sure there's a joke in there about "English or German," but I don't get it. Oh, well. Or perhaps SS is really a native speaker of German, but I can't tell.