Southeastern Seminary (5): A Community Devoted to Faithfulness & Excellence

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[Note: This blogpost is the final installment in a five-part series which articulates and expounds Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s mission to be a Great Commission seminary.]

In this brief and concluding installment of the current series on Southeastern Seminary’s mission to be a Great Commission seminary, I wish to note very briefly our desire for our work to be marked by faithfulness and excellence. As participants in the life of this seminary, we find it incumbent upon us to do our work faithfully in the hope that our work might also be marked by excellence. Excellence cannot always be achieved, though faithfulness can. We can always do our work faithfully by allowing Scripture to be normative and formative in our teaching and writing, and by engaging in our work with the purpose of knowing and loving God, and participating in his mission in this world. To the extent we are able, we will work together as a community of scholars and teachers, integrating the various disciplines and remaining in conversation with other fields of learning.

Most importantly, we will work hard to evoke from our students a curiosity and excitement about the things of God.  To be a stagnant or lazy faculty member is a sin. Although he was not writing about seminary professors, George Steiner’s quote, to which we referred earlier, is salient: “To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. . . . Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, unconsciously or not, cynical in its mere utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by its roots. Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented.” As seminary professors, may we never reduce to gray inanity the breathtaking splendor of our Subject—the Triune God himself. May our efforts be pleasing to him. May we teach in a manner worthy of our calling.

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I appreciate the interest this series has received from readers inside and outside the Southeastern community. For those who might be interested, I’ve made this blog series available as a single essay. You can download the essay below.

Bruce Riley Ashford, “A Great Commission Seminary

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.

Reflections on the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention, Part 2

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On Monday, I published the first half of my reflections on the Houston Convention. This is my second and final post on this topic.

4. The ERLC Transition. One of the most important happenings at the Convention this year was the leadership transition at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Richard Land has led that ministry for a quarter-century. Over those years, Land became a key leader among the so-called Religious Right, taking a clear stand on such matters as the sanctity of human life and the importance of biblical/traditional views on sexuality and marriage. He was also a leading proponent of an “accommodationist” understanding of church-state separation. I would argue that Richard Land was the public face of Southern Baptists, particularly to non-religious people who only know us through the media. Of course, Land retired a few weeks ago and Russ Moore of Southern Seminary became the new president of ERLC.

There is little doubt that Russ Moore and Richard Land have far more in common than they do different. In fact, I would suspect that the left-wing journalists who seem elated at Land’s retirement and Moore’s appointment will become less enamored with Moore once they find out that he, too, is pro-life and affirms biblical sexuality and traditional marriage. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Moore has less of an “edge” than Land. Moore is also a champion of several issues that younger Southern Baptists identify with such as adoption and orphan care and combating human sex trafficking. As an added bonus, Moore is one of the best preachers in the SBC. My students were more excited about hearing Moore’s vision for ERLC than they were anything else at the Annual Meeting besides Danny Akin’s Convention sermon.

5. The Resolutions. Messengers passed several interesting resolutions at the Houston Convention. You can read them all at the SBC website. Many of them have attracted attention, and understandably so. For the purposes of this post, I will only mention two resolutions. First, our resolution related to the Boy Scouts, which has garnered the most attention from the press, strikes a good balance by criticizing the BSA’s new membership policy, but without calling for a universal exodus from the Scouts. Though I’ve been vocal in my opposition to the Boy Scouts’ new policy, I believe it would be premature to urge all Southern Baptist churches to pull back from sponsoring Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops.

Second, the resolution recognizing the 125th anniversary of Woman’s Missionary Union, though unmentioned in the press, is noteworthy. No organization has done more to raise missions awareness among Southern Baptist churches than the WMU. We should be thankful for the WMU and their contribution to our Great Commission efforts over the years. Thank you, ladies, for all that you do.

6. The Calvinism Discussion. There was a tremendous spirit of unity in Houston among Southern Baptists with varying views of the “doctrines of grace.” The Executive Committee hosted well-attended panel discussion with members of the Calvinism Advisory Committee on Monday. By all accounts, the Committee’s published statement has been well-received by almost everyone. The comments made from the Convention platform were uniformly gracious and helpful. (This has not always been the case at previous Conventions.) We should be grateful to EC president Frank Page for his statesmanlike leadership in this discussion and to David Dockery and the rest of the Calvinism Advisory Committee for their willingness to lead by example on this issue.

Perhaps more remarkable, the “chatter” about Calvinism in the Convention hall, the exhibit booths, and in various meetings was generally very encouraging. Virtually everyone seems eager to move forward in a spirit of Great Commission cooperation. The only unfortunate moment was the surreal Baptist 21 interview with Louisiana College president Joe Aguillard. By and large, however, it seems that most engaged Southern Baptists agree with my argument that Calvinism is, and should remain, a tertiary matter in the wider denomination. Join me in praying that this sense of unity and good will becomes more pervasive among all of our state conventions as well.

7. SEBTS Students. For the second year, I taught the Southern Baptist Convention course for Southeastern Seminary. Over thirty SEBTS students enrolled in the course and attended the Convention; for almost all of them, it was their first SBC Annual Meeting. They had the chance to hear from new ERLC president Russ Moore on Tuesday night and meet with IMB vice president Clyde Meador on Wednesday afternoon. Many of the students told me they enjoyed being at the Convention, learning more about our various ministries and emphases, and meeting other Southern Baptists from hither and yon. They are excited to be Southern Baptists. And if they are our future, then I’m even more excited than they are to be a part of the people of God called Southern Baptist.