The Story of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1950-2010 (Part Three)

Author’s note: This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is the third of four posts commemorating that history.

The Fastest-Growing Seminary in America, 1992-2003

Under Patterson’s leadership, the faculty completed its transition from theologically moderate to conservative. In addition to the Abstract of Principles, Patterson required all faculty members to sign the Baptist Faith and Message (2000). Southeastern experienced remarkable growth during the 1990s. Though only 555 students matriculated the semester before Patterson’s arrival, by spring 2000 Southeastern enrolled almost 2100 students; Southeastern was the fastest-growing seminary in America in the 1990s. Major improvements were also made to several campus buildings. In 1995, the seminary renovated the Manor House, a large house used for lodging prospective students visiting Southeastern. In 1997, Bostwick Hall, one of the oldest remaining building on campus, was extensively renovated and converted into apartments. Binkley Chapel was renovated in 1998 and construction began on two new apartment complexes. The next year, Mackie Hall was renovated into faculty offices and renamed Stephens-Mackie Hall. In 2001, the seminary dedicated Jacumin-Simpson Missions Center, a building housing faculty offices, a state-of-the art auditorium, and the Center for Great Commission Studies, now named in honor of former president Lewis Drummond.

New academic programs were also initiated during the Patterson administration. Southeastern expanded the Associate of Divinity program into a fully-accredited four-year college in 1994, now called The College at Southeastern. The following year, the seminary established a Doctor of Philosophy program. In 1999, Southeastern added a Master of Arts in Christian School Administration to equip teachers and administrators to serve in Christian private schools. That same year, a Women’s Study Program was established under the leadership of seminary first lady Dorothy Kelley Patterson; the program included graduate courses and a Certificate in Women’s Studies for student’s wives and other laypeople. Southeastern also became the first SBC seminary to embrace the Biblical Counseling paradigm for Christian counselors. Several faculty members assumed leadership positions in the Evangelical Theological Society and other professional scholarly organizations. Russ Bush and John Sailhamer served as presidents of the ETS in 1994 and 2001, respectively, and Andreas Köstenberger edited The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.

An emphasis on evangelism and missions continued to permeate the campus. The seminary installed evangelism professor Alvin Reid into the Bailey Smith Chair of Evangelism in 1995, the school’s first endowed chair. That same year, Southeastern added a Master of Divinity with International Church Planting, the first degree of its kind at a Southern Baptist seminary. This course of study is popularly known as the 2+2 Program because the degree requirements include a two year term of service with the International Mission Board. In 1997, Southeastern established a partnership with the New Hampshire Baptist Convention in an effort to plant SBC churches in New England; other similar partnerships soon followed. In 1999, the seminary partnered with the North American Mission Board’s Nehemiah Project and added the Master of Divinity with North American Church Planting. Patterson continued to exercise leadership in the wider SBC, and from 1998-2000 he served as president of the Convention, the first seminary president to have that honor since 1924. In 2003, Patterson resigned in order to accept the presidency of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

On the Dangers of Seminary (Pt. 8): The Danger of Missing Out

This series arose out of extended reflection on the Scriptures, out of which the Lord has made clear to me some of the perils of seminary, many of which I have succumbed to or been tempted by over the past decade and a half. I have attempted to communicate these perils to those of you who would read this post and might benefit from it. Although I have interjected humor at several points, I could not be more serious about the dangers I mentioned. After having written on those dangers, however, I would be remiss not to include one final danger: the danger of missing out on all that a good seminary has to offer.

I will never forget the first day of Systematic Theology with Paige Patterson. I had decided to take Systematic during my first semester and the opening class period would be the first experience I would have in a seminary environment. I sat on a row with J. D. Greear, Keith Errickson, and Chris Thompson. As Dr. Patterson began class, he announced that he would begin by handing out the class “syllabi.” As he said this, I leaned over to a friend and mentioned that the proper plural of syllabus is “syllabuses,” not “syllabi.” At this point, Keith raised his hand, was acknowledged by the teacher and proceeded to say, “My friend Bruce has a problem with your grammar.” I’m not joking. Dr. Patterson looked at me and said, “Yes?” To which I responded, “No sir, there is no problem with your grammar. My friend is joking.” The professor, however, insisted that I should put on my big boy pants and tell him what I really thought. So I did. I proceeded to unload my theory that syllabus was not derived from the Latin and therefore the plural should be syllabuses. Dr. Patterson thought about it for a second or two, looked at me, and said, “no, –buses are things that children ride to school, and since you know so much about everything, I will grade your weekly quizzes out loud, in front of the entire class, for the rest of the semester.” And that he did. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of theological wedgies the remainder of the semester was for me?

In all seriousness, I loved Systematic Theology. There is nothing more satisfying, more unsettling, more helpful, and more practical than asking the really big questions about God, man, salvation, the church, and last things. First and foremost, we studied the text of Scripture, drawing upon the resources of the entire canon to answer each question. Along the way, however, we investigated what the church fathers and the Reformers had to say on any of these doctrines, and learned to defend and apply those same doctrines. I was forced to write my first bona fide research paper. I had never written a paper in Turabian style and had no idea how to argue a thesis. I chose to argue for the divine inspiration theory of Scripture (vs. human constructivist and human response models).

After having mustered all of my bibliographic, analytic, and stylistic resources, I managed to complete my paper. I received it graded the next week. At the end of the paper, Dr. Patterson devoted several paragraphs of red ink to the shortcomings of my paper, gave me a few words of encouragement, and then ended with this sentence, which I will never forget: “Mr. Ashford, we will make a real scholar of you yet, if it kills us both in the process.” Hmmm. Even though I had just been informed that (1) I was not a real scholar, and (2) that to make me one might actually kill my professor in the process, I found myself encouraged, oddly enough, that I might one day make a decent theologian. There was light at the end of the tunnel. From Dr. Patterson, I learned not only theology and research, but also how it is that a teacher really challenges those whom he is teaching.

My biblical languages and biblical studies courses were of inestimable value. One of those courses was the book of Isaiah with Gary Galeotti. It was one of the most worshipful experiences of my life, as we studied Isaiah, line by line, for an entire semester. I realized that Isaiah understood Christ 800 years before the Lord’s coming better than I did 2000 years after. In addition to learning the book of Isaiah, I learned what it meant to be a godly preacher and teacher of the Word. Day after day, he opened the text of Scripture, expounded it, applied it to our lives, and challenged us to embrace and obey the words of God. He aimed not only for the mind, but for the heart.

I took Christian Philosophy, Apologetics, Christian Faith and the Modern Mind, and several other courses with L. Russ Bush. In these courses, I learned to give a defense of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Dr. Bush was a man who had thought deeply and broadly and was able to speak cogently on any issue across the range of the disciplines. At his fingertips were theology, philosophy, history, world religions, and current affairs. It was in this class more than any other that the Lord distilled in me a love for reading widely across the disciplines.

Alvin Reid was my professor for Introduction to Evangelism. I had never been around a man with such a contagious enthusiasm for the gospel. His courses were an extended argument for evangelism, missions, and revival. He argued from the text of Scripture, illustrated from the annals of church history, and applied it to our contemporary milieu. Between his evangelism course and Keith Eitel’s Introduction to Christian Missions, I found myself under conviction every week. They continually impressed upon me the fact that a love for God and His Word necessarily issues forth in a desire to commend Him to a lost world.

John Hammett was my professor for courses such as Ecclesiology, Soteriology and Baptist History. Not only was I forced to study the doctrine of the church in depth, but I encountered a man who was the consummate scholar. In presenting his own views, we recognized that he was rigorous in his research and unflinching in his argumentation. In presenting views that differed from his own, he was unfailingly even-handed. He did not need to misrepresent his opponents in order to refute their views. One of the things that most impressed me about Dr. Hammett was that one could be a tough-minded theologian and at the same time have a gracious demeanor.

From Andreas Kostenberger, I encountered not only the New Testament but also a man who embodies the severe discipline necessary to “leave no stone unturned” in the study of the Scriptures. From Steve McKinion, I imbibed not only the writings of the church fathers but also learned that one could be a missionary to the academy; he could research and write and speak in such a manner that he reaches an audience extending far beyond the bounds of the evangelical world. From Dan Heimbach, not only did I learn Christian Ethics, but also observed the life of a man who had advised the President of the United States and taught at the Naval Academy and who was willing to leave all of that in order to teach ministers of the gospel. And this is just the short list of men from whom I have learned.

Last, but not least, I want to encourage seminary students to learn from those who God has put in leadership at their seminaries. It is God who has placed these men in such positions and we would be remiss not to learn from them. The lessons learned from each president will vary according to their personality, context, and relative strengths and weaknesses. Since I live and write from within a Southeastern context, I will mention our own President, Danny Akin. If I had to limit my thoughts to only one thing that I have learned from watching him, it would be that he has modeled for us what it means to hide behind the cross. I think it was James Denney who said, “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.” Our president models this in his preaching, as he keeps the text of Scripture front and center, and puts himself in the background. The lesson here is that we should not allow our personalities or agendas or sense of humor to overtake the text itself. He also models it in his leadership. It is not often that one has opportunity to sit under a leader who is genuinely self-effacing, consistently willing to admit his faults and ask forgiveness when wrong, committed to visit and serve his missions students on the field (in less than ideal conditions), and willing to spend time with students in spite of his multiple responsibilities.

I was very, very close to eliminating this installment because I was afraid that it would seem like an extended piece of flattery. After all, in trying to give a brief exposition of God’s grace to me in a seminary context, I have focused on the faculty as much as (or more than) I have the curriculum. There are two reasons why, in the end, I decided to post this installment. First, at a good seminary, the faculty and curriculum are inseparable. That is the whole point of having a seminary community. We are drinking deeply from the well of the Christian Scriptures at the feet of men who have walked with the Lord and who have studied their chosen disciplines with more depth than we likely ever will. Theology, pastoral ministry, and leadership are caught just as much as they are taught. Second, with all of the emphasis on young leaders in our convention, I thought it fitting to focus on the benefits of listening to, and learning from, the older leaders whom God has set before us. Young men are most likely to become leaders by sitting at the feet of their elders.

In conclusion, let me affirm what I wrote in the first post, “I can say that life in a seminary context has been good in many respects. It is a place where I learned to study God’s Word and relate it to all aspects of His world. I was introduced to church history, systematic theology, apologetics, and much more. I formed friendships that will last for a lifetime, and was taught and discipled by men who had walked with God for many years more than I. It is easy for me to recognize God’s grace and goodness to me in this calling.” Let us live and study and teach and worship in a manner worthy of our calling.

On the Dangers of Seminary

[Note: This is a revision and re-posting of an eight-part series published at Between the Times in 2009.]

This post is a confession of sorts, a confession that I hope will be beneficial to some who read it. In essence, it is about one thing-the fact that God’s grace toward me has been overwhelming and that at the same time I often have not lived in a manner worthy of his grace. The particular focus of this post is God’s calling on my life to study and teach in a seminary context.

From 1996-98, I had the opportunity to study for the M.Div. on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. After serving in Central Asia for two years, I returned to Southeastern to study for a Ph. D. which I completed in 2003. Those years of study were a gift from God. I was able to study the Scriptures, read widely, debate important doctrines and ideas, and learn to proclaim and defend the faith. Don’t get me wrong: there were times that I wanted to be “out there” preaching full-time rather than laboring over the Hebrew language or the intricacies of theological method.

In fact, it was during my first year of seminary that I went to a certain seminary president and informed him that devoting three years to seminary was possibly a waste of my time since there were people somewhere to whom I could be preaching and ministering. After allowing me to unload my brilliant idea, he opened the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a little blue bucket full of sand, complete with teddy bear imprints and a pink sandbox shovel. He asked me if I could see what was in the bucket. “Sand,” I said, confidently. “That is correct,” he said.

It was at that moment he pointed out that the apostle Paul took a few years in the desert (which has more than a little sand) to prepare for his upcoming ministry and that, as far as he could tell, I was no better than the apostle Paul. For this reason, he said, he was requiring that I carry this blue bucket of sand (and the little pink shovel) everywhere I went for the next week. It was a good reminder to me of the importance of laboring in God’s Word in order to prepare for future ministry. And it brought with it a dose of humility: I remember showing up for Systematic Theology the next morning (taught by the same seminary president) with a bucket, teddy bears, and a pink shovel in my hand. All eyes were fixed on me and my ridiculous accessories. I might as well have been wearing nothing but a purple unitard and a pair of Christmas socks. But I learned my lesson, as Dr. Patterson used me as an illustration to remind the class of their need not to think too highly of themselves.

But back to the point. During the dissertation stage of my Ph.D., I began teaching theology and philosophy full-time at Southeastern, and have continued in teaching and administrative capacities from 2002 until the present. Having been on campus now for 13 of the past 15 years,

I can say that life in a seminary context has been good in many respects. It is a place where I learned to study God’s Word and relate it to all aspects of His world. I was introduced to church history, systematic theology, apologetics, and much more. I formed friendships that will last for a lifetime, and was taught and discipled by men who had walked with God for many more years than I. It is easy for me to recognize God’s grace and goodness to me in this calling.

In spite of the blessing it is to live and teach on a seminary campus, however, I have recognized that this context brings with it certain attendant perils. I recognize these potential pitfalls partly because I have seen myself succumb to some of them. Knowing that I am not alone in struggling to live in a manner worthy of my calling, I will mention a few of these dangers in the hopes that others may benefit. In upcoming posts, I will write about the dangers of: (1) losing your first love for God and your love for the lost; (2) allowing seminary to replace church; (3) becoming a seminary dork; (4) seeking to impress the academy; (5) becoming an arrogant, narcissistic, hyper-critical jerk; and (6) perhaps a few others.game online mobile rpg