Southeastern Seminary (1): A Mission Framed by the Story of a Great Commission God

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Years ago, President Akin challenged the faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary to make every classroom a “Great Commission classroom.” Since then, our faculty members have put considerable time and energy into doing just that. We have tried to build a Great Commission seminary, curriculum, and faculty. Often, however, we are asked what we mean when we say that SEBTS is a Great Commission seminary. In response to these questions, I recently put together an essay which gives a brief theological rationale for our seminary’s mission, followed by an attempt to show how that mission is fleshed out in our curriculum and in our criteria for hiring, electing, and promoting faculty members. In the blog series of which this post is the first installment, I offer a concise version of that essay, divided into five sections which describe Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s mission as one which is (1) framed by the story of a Great Commission God and (2) centered on our Lord’s Great Commission; further, (3) its curriculum is marked by five core competencies and (4) its faculty members assess themselves by five criteria, while (5) aiming for faithfulness and excellence in their vocation.

Baptist, Confessional, Missional

Before embarking upon an explanation of what it means for Southeastern to be a Great Commission seminary, it is best to start with SEBTS’s denominational identity, doctrinal confessions, and mission statement. The seminary is an institution of higher learning and a Cooperative Program ministry of the Southern Baptist Convention. Its faculty members confess the Bible as the authoritative Word of God and covenant to teach in accordance with, and not contrary to, the Abstract of Principles and the Baptist Faith & Message. They further affirm the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Together with the Board of Trustees and the administration, faculty members share a mission in which “Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary seeks to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping students to serve the church and fulfill the Great Commission (Mt 28:19-20).” In summary, SEBTS is a confessional seminary in the Southern Baptist stream of historic Christianity whose mission is to be a Great Commission seminary.

A Mission Framed by the Story of a Great Commission God

The seminary’s rationale for its mission is undergirded by theology proper. To speak about mission is to speak, first of all, about the Triune God whose identity, character, and mission are depicted in Christian Scripture. This God—Father, Son, and Spirit—did not create by necessity but freely and from the overflow of inner-Trinitarian love and for the sake of his glory. In the beginning, he called forth something from nothing, shaped the something which he called forth, and called it “good” and even “very good” (Gen 1:31). At the pinnacle of this series of creative acts stand man and woman, whom he created in his image and likeness. To his imagers alone he entrusts the tasks of being fruitful and multiplying, tilling the soil, and being stewards of the created order (Gen 1:26-28; 2:15). To humanity alone he gives the charge to act as vice-regents under God the King, worshiping him and spreading his glory as they fill the earth and till the earth. Indeed, God’s design was for his imagers to flourish under his good reign, living in rightly ordered relationship with God, each other, and the created order. This state of universal flourishing, order, and peace is encapsulated in the biblical concept of shalom.

As the biblical narrative progresses, we learn that the first man and woman—Adam and Eve—forsook their call to vice-regency and chose instead to strive for autonomy, seeking the Regency which is rightfully claimed by God alone. Their rebellion is the first instance of idolatry, of exchanging the truth of God for a lie and worshiping the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1). The effect of this sin upon them, and upon humanity, was disastrous (Rom 1:18-32). Humanity no longer lives in a state of shalom, but instead in a world disordered by sin and its deleterious effects. As human beings, we experience these effects in the form of a broken relationship with God, as well as broken relationships with self, with others, and with the rest of the created order. Our relationship with God is broken, as we now stand under his just wrath, with no hope of salvation on our own apart from Christ Jesus (Rom 1:16-32; Acts 4:12). We also find ourselves alienated from others (Rom 1:28-31); rather than loving our neighbors as ourselves, we lie, murder, rape and otherwise demean our fellow imagers. (e.g. Gen 9:6). We further find ourselves alienated from the created order, as our attempts to “work the garden” are full of frustration and pain (Gen 3:17-18). Finally, we find ourselves alienated even from our self, as sin distorts and disorders the human heart, rendering life on this earth vain and meaningless (Ecc 1:1-11).

In response to the first couple’s sin, God responds not only with a curse (Gen 3:14-19), but also a promise of life (Gen 3:15), in which the Seed of the woman would destroy the serpent, thereby eradicating sin and death, and restoring God’s intended shalom. Paul recognizes this promise as a prophecy of Jesus Christ (Gal 3:16), God’s Son who is “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). The biblical narrative wends its way through the lives of the patriarchs and of the nation of Israel, finally reaching the point in history when God’s Son was born of a woman. Through the Son’s life, ministry, miracles, death, and resurrection, he fulfilled his ministry as Savior of the world. By his stripes we are healed, and upon his shoulders the sin of the world was borne (Is 52:13-53:12). Through his atonement, our Lord will win for himself worshipers from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev 5), and will redeem even the non-human aspects of creation. He will “reconcile all things to Himself, by Him” (Col 1:20) and will “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him” (Eph 1:10).

God’s plans for redemption will culminate one day in the renewal of his good creation—a new heaven and earth (Rev 21; 22). While the first two chapters of Scripture depict God’s creating the heavens and the earth, the last two chapters depict his creating a new heaven and earth. This new creation is one “in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13) and in which “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21), thus fulfilling God’s good purposes for his world. The mission of God culminates in God the King’s dwelling with redeemed anthropos in a renewed cosmos.

For the Record: Nathan Finn on Being Baptist (Part 1)

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[Editor's note: Nathan Finn is Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Baptist Studies here at Southeastern. He is known as a top-shelf classroom instructor, a prolific writer, and a student of all things Baptist. In this interview, we ask him questions about eight of the most significant and/or controversial issues arising in Baptist life today. Part 2 (questions 5-8) will appear here tomorrow morning.]

1. Baptist identity seems to be a hot-button issue in some SBC circles. How do you understand Baptist identity?

This is a great question. I’ve written a great deal on this topic over the years, most recently in a nine-part series on my personal blog that attempts to tie Baptist identity and distinctives with the gospel. First of all, we need to understand that there is no such thing as a normative Baptist identity. Presbyterians have the Westminster Confession and Roman Catholics have their Catechism, but we can’t point back to a particular document and say “that’s the authoritative statement of Baptist identity.” As a tradition that has emphasized freedom and autonomy, sometimes perhaps too much so, we have to be careful to distinguish between description and prescription. So descriptively, I’d say there are many Baptist identities, even within the SBC. The tricky part is articulating a view of Baptist identity that reflects biblical emphases and is compelling to Baptist Christians.

I argue that when Baptists are at their best, our identity is simultaneously catholic, reformational, evangelical, and radical. By catholic, I mean Baptists share certain core convictions with all professing Christians, particularly concerning the Trinity, Christology, and basic anthropology and eschatology. By reformational, I mean we share certain beliefs with all traditional Protestants, especially concerning the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and the centrality of justification by faith alone. Our identity is also evangelical because we hold to a conversionist understanding of salvation and embrace the imperative to intentionally share the gospel with others. And our identity is radical because we embrace a view of the church (especially the local church) that was considered radical until the last couple of centuries because it rejects any version of Constantinianism and embraces a believer’s church and credobaptism.

2. Do you think there is such a thing as a uniquely Baptist understanding of doctrines such as Scripture, salvation, last things, etc.?

For me, this is closely related to the last question. I wouldn’t say there is a “uniquely” Baptist understanding of these things-again, we want to stand with other types of believers in these areas. But it would be true to say that there are definite tendencies in the way that most Southern Baptists (and many other Baptists) approach these doctrines. For example, most all Southern Baptists affirm a view of the Bible that is common to many conservative evangelical Protestants; it’s not unique to Southern Baptists, but most of us are on the same page. The same could be said of salvation-virtually all Baptists argue that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There are different nuances (the Calvinist-Arminian debate sticks out here), but even in those cases we agree on more than we disagree and our debates aren’t unique to Baptists. On eschatology, we pretty much all agree on the basics, though we debate some of the particulars; again, our core convictions and our debates are common to other Christians. The only area where Baptists really stand apart is in our ecclesiology.

3. We hear a lot about Baptist distinctives. What are the Baptist distinctives?

The Baptist distinctives are those eccesiological views or tendencies that are uniquely emphasized by Baptists. The earliest Baptists simply attempted to take the principle of sola scriptura and apply it to eccesiological matters. They would say that when local churches are brought under the lordship of Christ as it is revealed in Scripture, those churches will look a particular way. I’d argue that wherever you find these views, you have a Baptist (or perhaps better, baptistic) Christian, even if that identity isn’t affirmed in an overt way.

I’d argue Baptists have four unique emphases: a regenerate church membership, believer’s baptism by immersion, congregational freedom, and a free church in a free state. We believe that local churches should be communities of presumably regenerate individuals who’ve covenanted to walk together under Christ’s lordship for the sake of the gospel. We believe that only those who can give a credible salvation testimony should be baptized by full immersion and become church members. (I’d also argue only baptized believers should participate in the Lord’s Supper, but many Southern Baptists argue baptism shouldn’t be a prerequisite to communion.) We believe that the whole congregation should come together to make the most important decisions of the church (congregationalism) and that every church is a local outpost of the kingdom that is free to pursue Christ’s agenda for that body (local autonomy). We believe that God alone is Lord of the conscious and that authentic Christianity best thrives when full religious liberty is extended to all citizens in a particular land. Different Baptists will nuance each of these distinctives in different ways, but we’re pretty much agreed on the basics.

4. Which Baptist distinctive do you believe is most threatened in our contemporary context?

They’re all threatened to some degree, but I think congregationalism is far and away our distinctive that is most threatened. I think there are many reasons for this. Some Southern Baptists are overreacting to unhealthy manifestations of congregationalism: the tyranny of the majority, reckless congregational votes to terminate pastors, full church votes on even the most mundane matters, etc. Others are convinced congregationalism is incompatible with pastoral authority, often because they’ve experienced bad congregationalism, incompetent pastoral leadership, or both. Many are convinced congregationalism isn’t as efficient as other polity models-it takes time for a church to come together and seek Christ’s will for the body. Still others believe that congregationalism is simply not as biblical an option as some sort of pastoral rule, whether by a single pastor or a plurality of pastors (or elders).

We need to admit that congregationalism as we practice it isn’t a perfect reflection of the New Testament. In the apostolic era, they had apostles who exercised authority over the whole church. Yet we also see that the congregation often made certain key decisions, particularly the setting apart of elders and deacons and the final act of church discipline. I call the New Testament model “apostolic congregationalism.” Since most Baptists agree that the apostolic office didn’t continue past the original apostles, we’ve attempted to adapt what we can of New Testament polity to a world without apostles. I’d argue this is a pastor-led congregationalism, where the pastor or pastors lead the body through the ministry of the Word but the whole church at the very least sets apart pastors and deacons, practices church discipline, and (for the sake of prudence) approves of the budget and important church property matters. Everything else can be contextual from congregation to congregation.

 

A H Strong on Metaphysics and Mosquitoes

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At the turn of the 20th century, Augustus H Strong (1836-1921) was the premiere Baptist theologian among northern Baptists, and he remains one of my favorites to read. This morning I was reading his discussion of whether or not this is the best of all possible worlds, and I came across a number of quotes that he had collected (Systematic Theology, 406). How one answers this question, Strong opines, often determines whether he is an optimist or a pessimist. He then gives several remarkable quotations. A sampling:

When Henry Ward Beecher was asked whether or not life was worth living, he replied, “Depends very much upon the liver. Optimism and pessimism are largely matters of digestion.”

A student gave his reasons for rejecting the best-possible-worlds notion: “I would kill off all the bed-bugs, mosquitoes and fleas, and make oranges and bananas grow farther north.”

Strong has several quotes relating to mosquitoes. He says, “A lady who was bitten by a mosquito asked whether it would be proper to speak of the creature as ‘a depraved little insect.’ She was told that this would be improper, because depravity always implies a previous state of innocence, whereas the mosquito has always been as bad as he now is.”

Dr. Lyman Beecher, however, seems to have held the contrary view. “When he had captured the mosquito who had bitten him, he crushed the insect saying: ‘There! I’ll show you that there is a God in Israel!’ He identified the mosquito with all the corporate evil of the world.”

Who knew that Victorian theologians had such a sense of humor?