Saturday, July 29, 2006

Friday is for Photos...so is Saturday

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Five cases of books moved to tables in my study to protect them from water
Photo by Rebecca Ascol

Damage done to our facilities the last two years during hurricane season has left us in a long, ongoing effort to have repairs completed. The roof above my study was damaged and patched and damaged again and repaired again, only to discover more extensive damage upon closer investigation. In God's mysterious providence, two weeks ago, as repairmen began to work on the more extensive problem (replacing a gutter system), they discovered yet more problems. While exlporing ways to address this latest discovery, the workers left the gutter system dismantled and exposed for a couple of hours. In SW Florida during this time of year, that is long enough for several inches of rain to fall...which is exactly what happened.

Though none of my books were damaged when water came into the building (including a small amount into my study), it was judged wise to remove the ones shelved on the outside wall until all repairs are complete. No one knows how long that will be. For now, most of my history, theology pastoral ministry and biography books are spread over 3 tables and my desk in my study. A narrow pathway leads to my chair. Now when I sit at my desk I get the sensation of being in a cave, which according to some, suits my neanderthal ways just fine.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

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.

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.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

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.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Friday is for Photos, July 21, 2006

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This rose graced my wife's rose garden in our back yard two weeks ago. We are in the rainy season in Southwest Florida and my daughter, Rebecca, took this shot minutes after a downpour.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Reforming theological education

One of the great results of the conservative resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention the last three decades has been the impact made on our theological seminaries. Whatever doubts there may have been about the confessional integrity of those institutions has been, for the most part, removed. Now there is reason to believe that most professors actually believe the statements of faith that they sign in order to teach at one of our schools.

Another development in theological education that is serving to reform it even further both within and beyond the SBC is the explosion of opportunities to study via the internet. Granted, sitting at a computer is not the same as sitting in a classroom, interacting with other students. Nor is listening to an audio lecture the same as experiencing the lecture in person. There are other limitations, as well. But given all that, the availability of excellent instruction via online resources has put basic theological education within the reach of countless people who otherwise would have no hope of being taught by Martin Lloyd-Jones, Don Whitney, Roger, Nicole, Timothy George, J.I. Packer or Tom Nettles.

Now the insights of those men, and others, can be gleaned through classes offered by the Founders Study Center. Under the direction of Dr. Ken Puls, the Study Center promotes opportunities for people to study in their own church settings under experienced pastors who serve as mentors. It is inexpensive and very accessible. Although only 3 years old, the Study Center has been recognized and acclaimed by recognized leaders in theological education. Two new courses and the Fall semester schedule have recently been announced at the Study Center.

A new endeavor in theological education has just completed its first year under the direction Sam Waldron and Ted Christman, pastors of Heritage Baptist Church in Owensboro, Kentucky. The Midwest Center for Theological Studies is committed to providing ministerial training in a local church context. Semester courses as well as J-term and I-term classes are offered. What makes the Midwest Center such an attractive situation for aspiring ministers is not only the presence of Dr. Waldron and Pastor Christman, but also the vitality of Heritage Church. One of the unfortunate limitations of seminaries that are based on the university model is that a student can complete the course with little or no involvement in a warm-hearted, well-ordered, confessional, evangelistic church. Yet, for those who desire to become spiritual leaders themselves, there is no substitute for being engaged--fully engaged--in the life of a healthy local church under the oversight of faithful shepherds.

I praise God for the upgrade that theological education within the SBC has experienced in recent years. And I am also grateful for these new options and opportunities that are opening up for the future.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Pulpit Masters update--it's really happening

Last year 0n July 19 I wrote about a new reality show that was in development. Given the working title, "Pulpit Masters," it was being produced by Original Productions, the same folks who have given us "Monster Garage," "Monster House" and "Plastic Surgery Before and After." Now, 900 auditions later, the final 10 will have their preach-off aired on The Learning Channel beginning July 23 (HT: Gene Bridges). According to the Winston-Salem Journal, the show is called, "The Messengers."

Actually, it probably isn't fair to call it a preach-off. Let's call it an inspirational speak-off. According to the Religion News Service, "Each episode revolves around a field trip. In the first episode, contenders spend 24 hours 'homeless' on the streets of Los Angeles' Skid Row. Then, they deliver speeches on the topic of charity. A studio audience votes for the best speakers and eliminates one." The promotional trailer indicates that the same emotionally manipulative techniques that characterize other "reality television" shows will be employed (given the state of modern preaching, maybe "preach-off" is an apt description).

Bobby Schuller, grandson of Robert who built the Crystal Cathedral, is one of two experts who will evaluate each message before the studio audience votes each week. He is positively full of hope about the new show:
Politicians and even preachers are giving shallow messages. They tell people what they want to hear.... What we value as a society is becoming more and more shallow. For some strange reason, the leaders in our communities are movie stars. But now, the culture is recognizing that a vacuum is there and we need to change our perspective.
There definitely is a leadership vacuum in our culture and I agree with Schuller's assessment of politicians and preachers. But the idea that depth and gravitas can be delivered from an entertainment company via an entertainment medium by wannabe movie stars is at best laughable. The irony seems to be lost on the expert.

Note: July 15 marked the first anniversary of this blog. When I entered the blogosphere I wasn't sure what I would find. The friendships and encouragements that have come my way are far beyond my expectations. Thanks for allowing me to participate in the conversation with you.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Brief update

Thanks for your prayers for my family and me the last week. We are still navigating the medical maze in seeking tests and consultations for my wife. She is doing well, able to be up and about her normal activities for the most part and has begun physical therapy for a nerve impingement in her leg. Please pray that the Lord will guide us as we continue to seek medical counsel.

A new blog has shown up in the blogosphere. The first several posts interact with Dr. Paige Patterson's recent article on alcoholic beverages. They are very insightful and worth reading. Check out the Concerned SBCer.

I have remained at home this week while the 24th annual Founders Conference is being held in Owasso, Oklahoma, hosted by Bethel Baptist Church. Joe Thorn preached the first message today and I have heard that it was tremendous. Joe has indicated that he will try to post some during the conference, so you might want to check out his redesigned blog for more information.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Out of pocket for awhile

I have been preoccupied with family matters the last week or so, resulting in very little time given to the blogosphere. That will continue to be the case for the next week or two, as well.

Though I have often failed, I have consciously tried to live by a set of priorities that has served me well over the last 26 years. These priorities have been derived from asking myself a basic question, "What has God called me to be?" As I think through the answers to that question a series of fundamental commitments emerge rather clearly and in a very decisive order (see the article linked below). By God's grace, I try to live by those commitments.

Doing so has led me to cancel out of the upcoming Founders Conference next week in Oklahoma. It will the first one I have missed since its inception 24 years ago. My wife, Donna, was scheduled to speak to the ladies this year on, "Stand By Your Man as He Walks the Line" (thank Tom Nettles and the timing of the release of the Johnny Cash film for the title!). Some medical difficulties have arisen with Donna that need our attention close to home. It is nothing that is imminently life-threatening as far as we know, but it is requiring a full engagement with the medical community and I need to be by her side as we navigate this course. There is absolutely nowhere that I would rather be.

Thanks for your prayers. We are asking the Lord to provide us good counsel, wisdom to make God-honoring choices, favor with those with whom we consult and the ability to represent Him well at every step of the process. As appropriate, I will try to give an update in the future.

Here is an article I wrote about pastoral priorities several years ago. My convictions remain the same today.