Preparing SEBTS Students for the SBC Annual Meeting

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As many readers will know, the SBC Annual Meeting will gather in Houston on June 11–12, 2013. In conjunction with the Convention, I teach an elective travel course at Southeastern Seminary titled The Southern Baptist Convention. The course is divided into three components. First, we meet on campus for one full day to discuss Southern Baptist history, theology, and polity, as well as specific information related to the upcoming annual meeting. Second, the students read several books and articles and listen to numerous audio resources related to these themes. Finally, the students attend the SBC Annual Meeting itself. While at the Convention, the students attend most of the proceedings, meet a couple of times with key SBC leaders, hobnob at the SEBTS booth, and attend the SEBTS Friends and Alumni Luncheon. Most also attend auxiliary events such as the Pastor’s Conference, Baptist 21 Luncheon, and 9 Marks at 9 events, among others.

I thought I would pass on to you some of the resources I use to prepare students for the SBC Annual Meeting. Obviously, we spend quite a bit of time walking through the Convention program, which, along with numerous other helpful resources, is available online. In addition to my lectures and guided class discussions, the students also watch or listen to several lectures, sermons, and panel discussions. This year, I’ve required them to watch the various Baptist 21 panel discussions from previous years (available at the B21 website), which are a helpful gauge of the “hot topics” in the SBC in recent years. I also required the students to watch one of the panels from last year’s 9 Marks at 9. The panel, which included Mark Dever, Al Mohler, and Danny Akin, discussed Fred Luter’s presidential election, the nature of SBC cooperation, and Calvinism, all of which remain important topics a year later.

I also point the students to four lectures or sermons. They watch David Dockery’s fine sermon “Participants and Partners in the Gospel,” which was preached in SEBTS chapel back in February. The sermon is vintage Dockery, calling for denominational unity around the gospel and basic Baptist orthodoxy for the sake of the Great Commission. Students also listen to Dockery’s lecture “The Southern Baptist Convention since 1979,” which helps to orient them to recent Baptist history. The final two lectures are Timothy George’s “The Future of Baptist Identity in a post-Denominational World,” which remains a timely topic, and Al Mohler’s “The Future of the Southern Baptist Convention,” an address that every Southern Baptist needs to listen to at least once.
The students read two books and over a dozen journal articles or book chapters. The first book is Roger Richards’ History of Southern Baptists (Crossbooks, 2012), which is the most recent history of the SBC. The second book is a helpful collection of essays titled The Great Commission Resurgence: Fulfilling God’s Mandate in Our Time (B&H Academic, 2010), edited by Chuck Lawless and Adam Greenway. The latter volume touches upon most of the current tension points in the SBC from a perspective that advocates unity for the sake of gospel advance.

Unfortunately, for reasons of copyright I can’t make most of the additional essays I require available outside of the class. The students read chapters, articles, and booklets written by SBC leaders and thinkers such as Danny Akin (on the Great Commission Resurgence), David Dockery (on Baptist theology), Nathan Finn (on Baptist identity, Calvinism, and the future of the SBC), Timothy George (on Baptist theology), John Hammett (on regenerate church membership and the ordinances), Chuck Lawless (on Calvinism), Al Mohler (on Baptist identity), Paige Patterson (on the Conservative Resurgence), Ed Stetzer (on missional churches), and Malcolm Yarnell (on the priesthood of all believers).

One resource that I can make available to you is Dr. Patterson’s e-booklet “The Southern Baptist Conservative Resurgence: The History, the Plan, the Assessment ” (Seminary Hill, 2012). In this booklet, was which was originally published as three separate articles in The Southwestern Journal of Theology, Dr. Patterson offers a first-hand account of the Conservative Resurgence. It is a helpful look at recent Baptist history from one of the most important shapers of that history. It is also a reminder that Dr. Patterson needs to publish a volume that brings together his collected articles and essays, a topic I have pestered him about in the past. (And again, now, on a public blog . . .)

Anyway, I hope you find these resources helpful. And I hope that many of you will consider attending the 2013 SBC Annual Meeting in Houston. Perhaps I will see many of you there.

(Note: This post was cross-published at Christian Thought & Tradition)

Paige Patterson Is Not a Traitor

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Recently, I was accused of “treason” in an online comment by an employee of a Cooperative Program-supported college in Georgia.  My crime? I’m general editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum that quotes Wesleyans, Anglicans, and Presbyterians. Apparently, in this person’s mind, quoting people from other denominations is sufficient evidence to deem one a traitor (according to Webster, a traitor is “one who commits treason”).

Now, to be sure, this is certainly not the first time that I have been criticized. And I don’t feel that it is necessary to respond to every statement of disagreement or expression of disdain that is sent in my direction. But in this case, both the use of strong language with the word “treason” as well as the charge itself seemed to warrant comment. When we start to say that looking outside our own convention walls as we learn is disloyal and should not be done, we are only hurting ourselves. Banning non-Baptist books to “protect” lay people does not bode well for our future.

This kind of Southern Baptist isolationism and elitism does not serve the mission of the churches of our convention, and it certainly does not serve the kingdom of God well. Pastors and leaders in our convention have always benefited from books and commentaries written by Biblical scholars from other traditions. We glean insight from people throughout church history, and we can learn biblical truths from people in other denominations.

A great example of this kind of respect of others and humility to learn from others comes from Southern Baptist statesman, and a hero for Southern Baptists, Dr. Paige Patterson. Recently B&H Publishing Group published his long-awaited commentary on Revelation for the New American Commentary series (and I mean long-awaited).

As I have perused this magnificent offering, I noticed he interacts with scholars from across the denominational spectrum– sometimes citing them to make his point. These quotations do not make me question his motives. They don’t make me think he is less than Southern Baptist in his affiliations or convictions. In fact, they provide evidence of how thorough his work was to write such a helpful commentary.

Dr. Patterson is certainly not a “traitor” to the SBC. Instead, I believe this kind of work makes him a better Southern Baptist. Dr. Patterson is willing to glean truth– wherever it is found– and to interact with the Body of Christ at large in a way that strengthens and bolsters his (and, ultimately, our) Baptist convictions.

Some might say that this example is different, as it refers to an commentary where such interaction is expected and appropriate. After all, pastors and scholars need to be aware and exposed to the thoughts of others. A few might think that a different standard should be applied to a bible study curriculum.

First of all, let’s be clear. When The Gospel Project does quote a non-SBC thinker, it is a quote that builds up universal Christian doctrine and biblical truth, not one that undermines our distinctives. But we need to address something that I believe is even more important. At LifeWay, we believe that we do not need to treat laypeople like children. We believe that it’s important to educate our people theologically, and we are grateful for the insights of Christian believers that can point us to the truth. We are not afraid to use them, and we do not condescend toward laypeople as if they can’t handle them.

The Gospel Project starts with theology and goes deep– and we think that laypeople can handle it. Actually, based on the response, we think they are handling (and loving) the depth.

Even with respect to the NAC series, we target not only ministers but also “Bible students” of all kinds, and work to make it helpful for all who want to study and expound the Scripture. Lots of laypeople are buying and interacting with Dr. Patterson’s, and all the other, New American Commentaries.

It is sad that a vocal minority from a few Baptist institutions advocate for a view that can lead to denominational isolationism and elitism. I, for one, am thankful that it’s not treasonous to listen and learn from Wesleyans (like Charles Wesley, whose hymns are in the Baptist hymnal) or Anglicans (like J. I. Packer, who helped us see the importance of inerrancy), or Presbyterians (like D. James Kennedy, who inspired some of our own evangelistic strategies).

The good news is that most Southern Baptists know better– most but, apparently, not all. But, that’s part of being in a family. We don’t all have to agree, though perhaps accusing others of denominational treason is not the best way to be in a family together. We just disagree about what laypeople can and should handle. That’s OK.

People like Paige Patterson, and others who have benefited from the wisdom and faith of non-Southern Baptists, are not traitors to the SBC if they quote non-Southern Baptists. To even insinuate such quotes are disloyal shows an elitist or sectarian spirit that is just not helpful. Thankfully, I believe most Southern Baptists already know that.

If you have not yet read Dr. Patterson’s new commentary in the NAC series—order it now, read its fine scholarship, and read some quotes from people who are not Southern Baptist. You can order it here. It has great reviews on Amazon and makes s strong case for a pre-tribulational, pre-millennial view, while still treating other views with clarity and fairness.

Also, if you’d like to join in with the hundreds of thousands of “traitors” learning weekly through the Gospel Project, written in accordance to the Baptist Faith and Message, and occasionally quoting from well-known Presbyterians, Wesleyans, and Anglicans when they give additional insights in accordance with that faith statement, you can find out more about the Gospel Project here.

Briefly Noted: On the Benefits of Dissertation Defenses (Especially Ones that Involve Paige Patterson, Stanley Hauerwas, Andreas Köstenberger, and David Nelson)

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Fetching topic, no? In an article entitled, “The Dissertation Defense: We’re Doing Something Right,” Leonard Cassuto, English professor at Fordham University, describes and defends the benefits of dissertation defenses.[1] His defense of the defense comes in the wake of a recent American trend toward doing away with the defense as a required portion of earning the Ph.D. In fact, Cassuto himself never defended his own dissertation. Rather, his two faculty readers signed a form approving it and he walked the bound manuscript to the registrar and submitted it. “That was that,” he writes.

Against this trend, Cassuto argues that American universities should retain (or in some cases, reinstitute) the dissertation defense as an integral part of doctoral programs. Building upon a 19th-century European tradition which emphasized face-to-face “disputation,” American universities traditionally have required dissertation defenses in order to test the candidates’ abilities and encourage them to make further progress. Cassuto writes, “the plan is not to roast candidates on a spit; they are instead gently warned, encouraged to elaborate on what they know.”

Detractors of the dissertation defense often argue that it is a tired old ritual that is continued merely for the sake of tradition. Cassuto counters, however, that the defense is quite practical. He offers three reasons. First, the committee gets the opportunity to reflect on the student’s work and offer insight on what might come next–publication, further research, etc. Second, defenses offer the soon-to-be doctor a formal welcome to the community of scholars. Third, the faculty gets the chance to tell the student thank you for the opportunity to share in the student’s learning. This last reason is overlooked, but one, Cassuto argues, that should be well remembered.

For what it’s worth, I’ll put my chips in with Cassuto. The dissertation defense is well-worth the three hours’ spent. I’ll never forget my own defense. At the end of my three years’ study in the Ph.D. program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, having written a dissertation entitled, “Wittgenstein’s Impact on Anglo-American Theology: Representative Models of Response to Wittgenstein’s Later Writings,” I now found myself in a room with three professors who set forth to determine the validity of my argument.

There I sat, at the head of the table in a conference room in the Jacumin-Simpson building, with the sweated anxiety of an Amish kid at a tattoo parlor. Even though my dissertation was sternly structured, detailedly documented, and fanatically footnoted, I was still nervous. There’s nothing like a live disputation, especially if your dissertation committee consists of Paige Patterson, Andreas Köstenberger, and David Nelson. Stanley Hauerwas was my external reader; he was unable to come to the defense but did send a four page, single spaced assessment, which had been placed neatly at his vacant chair.

In my mind, I had played and replayed worst case scenarios, in which my examiners said things like, “Mr. Ashford, after having read your dissertation, I conclude that you have an intellect rivaled only by garden tools,” or “Mr. Ashford, your ignorance is encyclopedic,” or “Mr. Ashford, you dissertation induces in me a catatonic sense of utter tedium. Every time I turned a page, I wondered if your train of thought had a caboose.” In fact, I wanted to open the dissertation defense by saying something like, “Good afternoon gentlemen. I’ve set aside this special time to humiliate myself in public, and I’m honored that you would attend and participate.”

But I digress. In fact, here is what happened: Dr. Köstenberger opened by asking me quite a few questions concerning the implications of Wittgenstein’s philosophy for hermeneutics and biblical interpretation. His questions were helpful because he interrogated me as one who had not only mastered the field of hermeneutics, but also had read the dissertation very carefully. Next, Dr. Nelson asked me questions which arose at the intersection of Wittgenstein and theological method. He pushed me on some of the connections I had made between Wittgenstein and the six major case studies (Lindbeck, Frei, Hauerwas, Kerr, Tracy, and Geisler). Then Dr. Patterson pushed me to evaluate Wittgenstein’s philosophical method, his view of the mind/body problem, and his epistemology. Finally, Dr. Patterson read Dr. Hauerwas’ evaluation, including the questions he would have asked me if he had been there.

In the end, I came away challenged and encouraged. My thesis had been evaluated by several seasoned scholars who helped me to recognize some of the weaker links of my argument, while at the same time pointing out the its strengths and encouraging me to push forward in my field of study. They encouraged me to publish on the topic, and suggested several publishers and venues. They formally welcomed me into the “guild,” the community of scholars who will research, write, and teach theology.

This sort of interaction is invaluable, in my opinion, not only at the PhD level, but also at the bachelor’s and master’s level. This is the reason The College at Southeastern requires our baccalaureate students to take four seminars in the History of Ideas. In these seminars, our 18- and 19-year olds are forced to read books by many of the towering thinkers of time past (e.g Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, Kant, Marx), to write critical theses about those thinkers’ work, and then to defend their theses orally in a seminar with 14 other students and a professor. When it’s done well, these seminars are invaluable for the students’ education. Likewise, this is the reason why we offer master’s level elective seminars in the same format.

Cassuto is right. Something is lost when a community refrains from taking part in constructive communal disputations. Such disputations offer a valuable venue for constructive dialogue and debate, socialization, evaluation, and hopefully encouragement of the student.

 



[1] Leonard Cassuto, “The Dissertation Defense: We’re Doing Something Right” The Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 2, 2012: A47).