December 20, 2018

“God will call us to judgment”: A Warning to Theological Institutions

What is the source of problems in Southern Baptist theological education?

“The chief cause is to be found in our departure from the way which God has marked out for us, and our failure to make provision for the education of such a Ministry as He designs to send forth and honor.”

According to J.P. Boyce, the pioneer of Southern Baptist seminary education, and the founder of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, this was the chief cause in 1856. It is still the chief cause in 2018.

1. According to Boyce, a seminary must be oriented toward preparing ministers to preach the gospel clearly in and through their local churches. The seminary exists first and foremost to assist the churches. The seminary does not exist to please the academic. This truth has not changed.

“Who is the Minister here—the man of the schools, or the man of the Scriptures? Who bears the insignia of an ambassador for Christ? Whom does God own? Whom would the Church hear? In whose power would she put forth her strength?”

These questions still ring out the answer that we in the seminaries exist “for the church.” (Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary wisely chose this appropriate phrase as their motto, while Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary includes the Latin equivalent, “pro ecclesia,” on our academic seal.)

“The qualification God lays down is the only one He permits us to demand, and the instruction of our Theological schools must be based upon such a plan as shall afford this amount of education to those who actually constitute the mass of our Ministry, and who cannot obtain more.”

Our task in the seminaries is not to create credentialed scholars who will impress the world, though that will occur. Our task in the seminaries is to assist the churches in preparing those who have been called by God and recognized by the churches for preaching Bible doctrine.

Boyce distinguished between things of primary importance and secondary importance. There is a difference between the classical and the theological. One may excel in the classical and butcher the theological. While I myself love both the classical and the theological dimensions of education, only one of them is absolutely necessary—Christ, Bible, gospel.

“[W]e are so far from saying that education is unnecessary, [instead] we proclaim its absolute necessity. We undertake, however, to point out what education it is that is thus essential, and what that which is only valuable; and while we urge upon all useful knowledge as an aid to that work, we point out the knowledge of the word of God as that which is first in importance.”

The unique necessity of the Word of God and of our necessary submission to it and constant immersion in it has always been the case. This is still the case. This will always be the case.

2. Boyce’s second vision for the Southern Baptist seminaries was that they preserve and promote the Baptist witness. There must be an additional course of studies for our best and brightest students so as to prepare them to teach and write for the health of our churches.

Boyce argued that some students must be led beyond basic Biblical studies, theology, and rhetoric, and given expertise in the study of the Biblical Languages, a Biblical exegesis not distorted by Liberalism, and the conduct of the Missionary enterprise, as well as a thorough advocacy of Baptist principles.

The goal for offering advanced studies is to create “a band of scholars” from “every one of whom we might expect valuable contributions to our Theological literature.” The seminaries must develop students who will, in turn, teach personally and write literature for the churches.

3. The third issue that Southern Baptists must take into account is one that Boyce believed endangered not only the schools but, ultimately, the churches. With a prescience based upon historical precedent, Boyce opined that Baptists must be clearly confessional in their theology.

Southern Baptist educational institutions must embrace “the adoption of a declaration of doctrine to be required of those who assume the various professorships.” For his day, Boyce advocated the Charleston Confession, which is an historic, clear, and detailed Baptist standard of theology.

While Southern Baptists have continually developed our theological confessions historically in submission to Scripture and in response to cultural queries, Boyce’s basic point stands. Unless our schools require our professors to declare themselves to be of our faith, we will suffer.

Boyce’s third point requires our attention more than ever. For instance, Baptists have historically understood only one religious institution to be established by our Lord Jesus Christ. The only biblically-founded theological institution is the church of Jesus Christ.

While recognizing the wisdom of creating a seminary or divinity school, we should never define a seminary as a church. The seminary does not ordain elders or pastors, nor may it administer baptism or the Lord’s Supper. While the churches expect their theological institutions to be pastoral and ecclesial in their ethos and actions, our theological institutions must never adopt the enthusiastic position that they are established by God to be churches or that their leaders are pastors by fiat. The Bible doesn’t reveal seminaries. The churches created the seminaries and other theological institutions for their use.

This truth—that the seminaries are creatures and servants of the churches—is helpful to remember. It reminds administrators and professors that while we each remain personally responsible to God, we are, as institutions, dependent upon the churches for our existence. It calls those of us who are theological educators to humility and responsibility.

One final word from the first President of a Southern Baptist seminary, a word of warning:

“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...”

We would do well to heed Boyce's warning.

(If you wish to read James Petigru Boyce's inaugural address regarding theological education in full, in an original transcription, you may consult a pdf published through Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary here.)

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