Southeastern Seminary (3): A Curriculum Marked by Five Core Competencies

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

In light of their desire to facilitate a learning environment consistent with the seminary’s Great Commission vision, the Southeastern faculty and administration have identified five core competencies which undergird its curricula: spiritual formation, biblical exposition, theological integration, ministry preparation, and critical thinking and communication.

1. Spiritual Formation: Students are provided with the knowledge and skills necessary to pursue an authentically Christian way of life, manifested by trust in God, obedience to Christ’s commands, and love of God and neighbor. An Old Testament course, for example, teaches syntax and exegesis not as an end in itself, but as a means of increasing one’s affection for God, one’s desire to worship and obey him, and one’s determination to share the gospel with one’s neighbor. The proper end of any seminary course is not merely sciential (oriented to conceptual knowledge), but sapiential (oriented to wise living).

Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed, to consider well [that] the maine end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternall life, Jn 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. –Founders of Harvard College (1643)

2. Biblical Exposition: Students are taught to interpret, apply, and communicate the Scriptures, and to do so appropriately and effectively. Each of the courses in the seminary’s curriculum is shaped in some manner by Christian Scripture, and therefore each course is a rich environment for biblical reflection. An evangelism course, for example, equips students to rightly interpret the biblical teaching concerning the gospel so that they can communicate it in personal conversations or public speaking opportunities.

But everyone, indeed, knows that at times they [the Fathers] have erred as men will; therefore, I am ready to trust them only when they prove their opinions from Scripture, which has never erred. –Martin Luther

3. Theological Integration: Students learn to understand and apply the doctrines of Christianity to life and ministry. A seminary is by design an integrative institution. Reality is a coherent whole, so each discipline is integrally related to all others. Although a healthy approach to specialization can yield rich and deep insights within a particular field of study, unhealthy approaches tend to seal themselves off hermetically from other disciplines, thereby distorting and fragmenting a body of knowledge which should be unified and coherent. A seminary course in church planting, for example, might draw upon an exegesis of the book of Acts, a systematic treatment of the doctrine of the church, a historical overview of church planting methods, and an anthropological assessment of challenges for cross-cultural communicators.

Fields of study and areas of life that are frequently compartmentalized in people’s minds actually belong together, particularly in our use of the Bible. God created us to be whole people. We are meant to respond as whole people to the whole of God. Every aspect of our being—our minds, our emotions, our physical abilities, our digestion, our tears—has been created by God to play a role in our communion with him and our service to him. The Psalms are examples in words of what holistic response involves….Stretching our categories helps force us to think about integrating what we may have too neatly compartmentalized. –Vern Poythress

4. Ministry Preparation:  Students acquire knowledge, skills, and the disposition necessary for ministry and leadership in the church and world. Every course at the seminary—bar none—exists to prepare students to minister Christ’s gospel in this world. The seminary is not a research university or a think tank. It is a greenhouse for gospel ministers. A philosophy course, for example, introduces metaphysics or epistemology, but never as ends in themselves; it covers such topics in a manner such that they can be comprehended by the broad range of students at the seminary and can be utilized in Christian ministry.

But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. –The Apostle Paul (2 Tim 3:14-17)

5. Critical Thinking and Communication: Students learn to think critically, argue persuasively, and communicate clearly. Every aspect of Christian life and ministry is the argument of a thesis: Jesus is Lord. Critical thinking and communication are vital to the life of the seminary. A New Testament course, for example, will necessarily recognize the centrality of logic to the entire endeavor of New Testament studies, as an interpreter must draw upon powers of valid induction and deduction moment-by-moment in order to exegete a biblical text.

Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly. –Ludwig Wittgenstein

There are two sorts of eloquence; the one indeed scarce deserves the name of it, which consists chiefly in labored and polished periods, an over-curious and artificial arrangement of words….The other sort of eloquence is quite the reverse to this, and which may be said to be the true characteristic of the holy Scriptures; where the eloquence does not arrive from a labored and farfetched elocution, but from a surprising mixture of simplicity and majesty. –Laurence Sterne

The faculty of Southeastern fosters these competencies across the curriculum, instilling them while cultivating a delight in God, his word, and his church. Because Southeastern seeks to be truly a “Great Commission Seminary” and envisions every classroom a “Great Commission Classroom,” each member of the faculty is committed to carrying out this mission.

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

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.

Missions & Seminary Education (3): Seminaries Must Find Ways to Forge a “Deep Connect” between their Theology Faculty and their Mission Faculty

In order for a seminary to produce healthy mission-minded students, it must ensure that theology and missiology are inseparable by (1) hiring theology faculty who are concerned to show how theology issues forth in ministry and mission, (2) hiring missiology faculty who are theologically orthodox, theologically aware, and theologically savvy, and (3) crafting curricula that reflect the close relationship between theology and missiology.

Christian theology issues forth in mission:

A truly Christian theology will inevitably issue forth in mission. Any theology is deficient if it does not foster a healthy desire to take the gospel to the nations (including the multiple cultures and myriad sub-cultures of the USA). Therefore, a seminary is wise to hire and to develop theologians who evidence Great Commission passion and savvy. This is of the utmost importance. Students will not take missions seriously unless their theology professors take it seriously. Theology is the core of the seminary curriculum and if it is taught in such a way that it is divorced from the concept of mission, we can be assured that our seminaries will fail in the area of mission.

For what it is worth, here is how I try to model that when I teach the basic systematic theology courses at SEBTS. (1) I treat the concept of mission up front in the first semester by treating it briefly under the doctrine of the Trinity, with the Father’s sending of the Son. By showing that the seed idea of mission is located in the Godhead, it is less likely to be minimized. (2) Toward the end of each three hour teaching segment, I show how the particular doctrine (e.g. God’s attributes) subverts its counterpart in Islam, Eastern religions, atheism, and religious moralism/legalism; and I show how that same doctrine shapes and forms our missiological method. (3) I find other ways to verbally place value on the task of mission. The reason for doing so is that I am convinced that although SBC seminaries talk about the value of mission, the practical reality is that there sometimes is a tendency to view applied theology faculties as inferior to systematic theology faculties. I don’t think this is intentional, but I do think it is a fact. For this reason, many of our brightest students refrain from studying missions which hurts not only mission agencies and the nations, but also keeps our brightest students from doing PhD work in missiology, which in turn handcuffs the seminary presidents and deans when they are looking to hire missiology faculty members.

Christian mission is inescapably theological:

One of the most significant challenges facing our churches today is the imperative to allow her evangelical theology to shape her actual ministry practices. We declared our belief that the Christian Scriptures are ipsissima verba Dei, the very words of God. Our declaration, however, is not always consistent with our practice. We sometimes “bank on” our high view of Scripture, but undermine that by not doing the hard work of allowing biblical doctrine to shape our ministry and mission philosophies, strategies, and practices. A faulty doctrine of God, for example, will lead us to a wrong definition of ministry success. A poor hermeneutic will lead to an aberrant definition of God’s mission and of our mission. A misguided soteriology will neuter our attempts at evangelism and discipleship. A reductionist ecclesiology will result in anemic churches that fail to disciple their members or reach their communities, or that multiply aberrant doctrine and unhealthy churches. In order to foster a healthy missiology, therefore, we must seek carefully, consciously, and consistently to rivet mission strategies and practices to Christian Scripture and its attendant evangelical doctrine.

In other words, a truly Christian missiology is profoundly theological. Christian missiology finds its starting point, trajectory, and parameters in biblical theology. When missiology is separated (in principle or in practice) from biblical theology, it becomes a sub-Christian enterprise in which cultural anthropology, sociology, business marketing, and pragmatic situational human reasoning take the driver’s seat. In fact, evangelical mission is often driven by the social sciences rather than being supplemented by them. Evangelical mission is often a-theological rather than robustly theological. And all of this is in spite of the fact that most evangelical missiologists profess a high view of Scripture.

Seminary curricula should reflect a seminary’s view of missiology and the task of mission:

One way to close the divide between theology and missiology, between theology proper and theology applied, is to build curricula that connect the two. Doing so is not easily or quickly accomplished, as we have found out in our own efforts at Southeastern. One way that we have tried to close the divide is by creating a Ph.D. in Applied Theology (with tracks in both International and North American Missiology) that intentionally seeks for its missiology to be theologically-driven.

Our thought process includes the following three realizations: that (1) Doctoral programs in missiology are considered to be “applied theology” or “practical theology.” But one cannot “apply” what one does not possess. Therefore doctoral programs in missiology should include a substantial amount of systematic theology. (2) For this reason, Ph.D. seminars are consciously crafted in such a way that theology and missiology are riveted together. For example, a seminar in anthropology should never be merely a course in cultural anthropology. That seminar must be a course in theological anthropology which is in conversation with cultural anthropology. I am convinced that evangelical missiology is still beholden schools of cultural anthropology that run directly adverse to gospel, and is driven by the social sciences rather than by theology. (3) For this reason, in some of the seminars, our theology professors teach in tandem with missiology professors, and in other seminars missiology professors put in the work necessary to handle the theological aspects themselves.

Concluding Thoughts

In conclusion, missions and seminary education has sometimes been a match made in hell, but it more naturally should be a match made in heaven. By God’s grace our seminaries and our mission agencies will continue to develop their mutually beneficial partnerships for the glory of God, the benefit of the lost, the building of Christ’s church, and the advance of his kingdom.