Southeastern Seminary (4): A Faculty Who Assess Themselves by Five Criteria

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

A Great Commission faculty member is one whose professorial vocation is shaped not only by his confessional commitments but also by professional standards in the field of higher education. These confessional commitments and professional standards are the criteria by which faculty members are appointed, elected, and promoted, but more importantly are the criteria by which they can measure growth in their divinely-given vocation. Five criteria are noteworthy: Christian character, classroom instruction, research and writing, church and community service, and institutional commitment.

1. Christian character. Professors display a Christian way of life. One way of encapsulating this way of life is to say that they are actively engaged in obeying the Great Commission. Another way is to view it through the lens of the Great Commandment, in which we are told that the Lord God is one (Mk 12:29), and which instructs, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. And the second like it, is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:30-31). It is interesting to note that our Lord refers to the Shema as he articulates the two greatest commandments (Deut 6:4). He draws upon its declaration of God’s Oneness and its instruction to meditate upon God’s Word in order to instill Christian love for God and neighbor. We can say that the loving and mutually reciprocal inner life of the Triune God is the model for us as we seek to love God and neighbor. We can further say that love for God issues forth in love for neighbor. Faculty members love and honor God publicly in front of their students. They love and honor their fellow faculty members, the seminary’s administration and staff, and the students who sit under their tutelage. Such love is at odds with cynicism, hyper-criticism, and other vices which sometimes poison academic communities.

The study of religious truth ought to be undertaken and prosecuted from a sense of duty, and with a view to the improvement of the heart. When learned, it ought not to be laid on the shelf, as an object of speculation; but it should be deposited deep in the heart, where its sanctifying power ought to be felt. –J. L. Dagg

2. Classroom instruction. Professors shape their courses and pedagogy consciously in light of the mission, and the core competencies which cause students to flourish as learners. A professor’s course never stands in a one-to-one relationship with any single core competency; indeed, even though a particular course will emphasize certain competencies over others, it will somehow be related to all of the competencies. A systematic theology course, for example, will conceptualize and articulate truth by reflecting upon biblical teaching (biblical exposition), conceptualizing and articulating it (critical thinking and communication), bringing it into conversation with what has been learned in other courses (theological integration), applying it to life and ministry (ministry preparation), and allowing it to drive us deeper into fellowship with God (spiritual formation). Inversely, a core competency never stands in an exclusive relationship with any single course or discipline. Biblical exposition, for example, is not the sole possession of the Old Testament and New Testament faculties. Each professor shapes all of his courses in light of God’s Word, listening attentively to his address in relation to the subject matter at hand. Moreover, Great Commission classroom instruction extends beyond course design into instructional method and style. Great Commission professors value each student under their charge, embracing the challenge to teach every student the churches send, whether that student is undergraduate, graduate, or post-graduate; whether that student is residential or online; whether that student is learned or unlearned; whether that student is male or female; whether that student is a member of our ethnic and cultural heritage or not.

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. –George Steiner

3. Scholarship: Professors will engage regularly in research and writing. God’s revelation of himself sets the stage for the importance of such scholarship, which is vital to the life of the seminary. Because God has spoken, we listen attentively to his voice, in submission to the Scriptures, seeking to craft lecture notes and publish research in a manner worthy of our calling. As we teach our students to love the Lord God will all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength, we ourselves demonstrate love for God by faithfully engaging our chosen disciplines with spiritual purpose and intellectual rigor. Although some professors will be more inclined than others toward research and writing, each professor is expected to engage in research and writing at some level, for the good of our students, our colleagues, and various publics who might benefit. A professor who continues to grow and develop within his field is likely to be a more interesting classroom instructor. A stagnant researcher is likely to make a stale instructor. Further, one of the seminary’s distinctives is its expectation that faculty members remain in scholarly conversation with professors from other disciplines, so that each professor has a transdisciplinary perspective which helps him to understand his own chosen field of research. It should be noted that the seminary integrated its office space for just such a reason. Faculty offices are not arranged by departments or fields of research; instead they are integrated in a transdisciplinary fashion.

The point of Christian scholarship is not recognition by standards established in the wider culture. The point is to praise God with the mind. Such efforts will lead to the kind of intellectual integrity that sometimes receives recognition. But for the Christian that recognition is only a fairly inconsequential by-product. The real point is valuing what God has made, believing that the creation is as ‘good’ as he said it was, and exploring the fullest dimensions of what it meant for the Son of God to ‘become flesh and dwell among us.’ Ultimately, intellectual work of this sort is its own reward, because it is focused on the only One whose recognition is important, the One before whom all hearts are open. –Mark Noll

[The scholarly life] implies a serious resolution. The life of study is austere and imposes grave obligations. It pays, it pays richly; but it exacts an initial outlay that few are capable of. The athletes of the mind, like those of the playing field, must be prepared for privations, long training, a sometimes superhuman tenacity. We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us. Truth serves only its slaves. –A. G. Sertillanges

4. Church and Community Service. Professors serve their churches and communities. Similar to a profession of faith in Christ, meaningful membership is a prerequisite to one’s vocation as a seminary professor. A seminary professor who is not regularly and closely involved in the life of his church is disqualified vocationally. Although a professor may not be serving on staff at a church, he is known as a regular attender, a person in close fellowship with the church, and one who otherwise demonstrates his commitment to the redeemed community. Through meaningful church membership, professors teach their students that one who loves Christ will also love Christ’s bride; they model for their students the life-on-life discipleship that emerges fully only within a local church setting.  Likewise, professors may find ways to serve the community.

The enduring authority of Christ’s commands compels Christians to study the Bible’s teaching on the church…. Christian proclamation might make the gospel audible, but Christians living together in local congregations make the gospel visible (see John 13:34-35). The church is the gospel made visible. -Mark Dever

5. Institutional Commitment. Professors serve at Southeastern because they are committed to Christ’s call on their lives through the ministries of this institution. They teach in accordance with, and not contrary to, the articles of faith and statements of affirmation. They are committed to the vision and mission of the seminary as expressed in its mission statement. They are committed to engendering faith, hope, and love among their colleagues, students, and the administration. Although the seminary is not a church and should not be confused with one, it is indeed an institution which trains the church’s servants and which should therefore serve as a model of Christian community. Faculty members will be careful to love and honor students, colleagues, and the seminary’s leadership. They will pray for the seminary community, and faithfully seek to play a part in the spiritual vitality of that community.

Christian community is like the Christian’s sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim…. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases. –Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We are all in the same boat, in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty. -G. K. Chesterton

Briefly Noted: On Jacques Barzun, Western Culture, and Public Theology

I will not easily forget the first time I encountered Jacques Barzun. During the very first seminar of my PhD program, I took a seminar on Christianity and Western culture. Dr. L. Russ Bush required a cornucopia of books, the fattest and most intriguing of which was From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, which Barzun published when he was 93-years-old. I’ve got the book in my hands right now. We were given two weeks to read it. It is 877 pages long and, accordingly, I took care not to read it in the evenings lest I fall asleep, drop it and crush myself to death. And, although the book had some wonderful moments, I thought it had some some dreadful quarters of an hour.

In a recent edition of The New Criterion, editor Roger Kimball reflects upon Barzun’s role as a public intellectual.[1] Barzun (1907-2012) was a presence on the American intellectual scene from the 1950s till his death this year. In his role as a professor at Columbia University, he was known as a teacher whose influence on his students was deep and pervasive. Also, to the point of this post, he “was a public intellectual before that role had been hollowed out by celebrity and the demotic faddishness of the 1960s” (p. 1). Barzun was the author of more than thirty books.

Kimball notes that Barzun’s earlier works established his public significance. Best-sellers such as Teacher in America (1945) and The House of Intellect (1959) “were part of an intellectual conversation that bridged the gap between academic and general culture in a way that fewer and fewer writers seem to manage” (p. 1). Yet, this is not code for “popular writer.” As the essay states, “Barzun was an academic expert who spoke the language of everyday life” (p. 1). What does this mean? “Barzun seems never to have succumbed to the intellectual’s chief occupational temptation of mistaking abstractions for the realities they adumbrate” (p. 2).

Barzun’s magnum opus is a case study in communicating across the often-growing gap between academia and broader culture. To provide one small example of his attempts to bridge the gap: In From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun argues that decadence had triumphed in numerous aspects of contemporary (21st century) life. Western nations spend billions of dollars on public education, motivated by a generic desire for social betterment, or maybe, personal excellence. All the while,

 “ . . . society pounces on any show of superiority as elitism. The same nations deplore violence and sexual promiscuity among the young, but pornography and violence in films and books, shops and clubs, on television and the Internet, and in the lyrics of pop music cannot be suppressed, in the interests of ‘the free market of ideas.’” (p. 2)

This decadence pervades not only popular culture, but also “the realms of social relations and politics” (p. 3). Though Barzun was quite negative in his diagnosis of modern culture, his prognosis was less negative. As the essay remarks, “decadence is no more inevitable than progress . . . One never knows what reparations await the touch of fresh energies” (p. 3). Thus the essay concludes with the note that Barzun’s very life is evidence of this.

My response is limited to two points. First, in relation to Barzun’s fine point that Western culture is in a state of decadence, the Western church must begin to recognize the need for faithful presence in every sector of American culture (the arts, the sciences, politics, economics, business, sports and entertainment). We must not devalue these sectors (by, for example, implying that the jobs that “really” matter to God are professional vocational ministry jobs). To do so implies that Christ is not Lord over those sectors, and that biblical Christianity does not speak to those areas of life. I am afraid that our evangelical churches have built such privatized and experiential theologies that we have little idea how to relate biblical truth to the pressing public issues of the day. Second, in relation to Barzun’s role as a “public intellectual,” we must hope and pray that our churches and seminaries will produce “public theologians,” who can speak with propriety and prescience to our current context, and lead our churches well in thinking about public issues. Just as Lewis, Chesterton, Schaeffer, and Neuhaus did in their day, so we must in ours.

[1] Roger Kimball, “Notes & Comments” in The New Criterion (Dec. 2012): 1–3.


“We Are All Kings In Exile”–Thoughts on the Events in Connecticut

Like most everyone else, I have watched the news coming out of Connecticut in sickened disbelief. It just so happens that this week I have been studying and writing about the Fall. Without the biblical teaching of the Fall provided in Genesis 3, how could we begin to understand what has happened? The Bible teaches that we are not merely animals trapped in a bad world. Evil is real, as the tragic events this week at the Sandy Hook Elementary School demonstrate. We are horrified by such acts–and our horror evidences that we know things are not the way they ought to be, and that we know we are not simply amoral animals.

In his little but important book, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?, John Collins provides an extended quote from G. K. Chesterton that I think hits the mark.  Chesterton explains that the doctrine of the Fall is actually a very hopeful teaching.

Here’s the passage:

“The Fall is a view of life. It is not only the only enlightening, but the only encouraging view of life. It holds, as against the only real alternative philosophies, those of the Buddhist or the Pessimist or the Promethean, that we have misused a good world, and not merely been entrapped into a bad one. It refers evil back to the wrong use of the will, and thus declares that it can eventually be righted by the right use of the will. Every other creed except that one is some form of surrender to fate. A man who holds this view of life will find it giving light on a thousand things; on which mere evolutionary ethics have not a word to say. For instance, on the colossal contrast between the completeness of man’s machines and the continued corruption of his motives; on the fact that no social progress really seems to leave self behind; . . . . on that proverb that says ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,’ which is only what the theologians say of every other virtue, and is itself only a way of stating the truth of original sin; on those extremes of good and evil by which man exceeds all the animals by the measure of heaven and hell; on that sublime sense of loss that is in the very sound of all great poetry, and nowhere more than in the poetry of pagans and sceptics: ‘We look before and after, and pine for what is not’; which cries against all prigs and progressives out of the very depths and abysses of the broken heart of man, that happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner a memory; and that we are all kings in exile.”

Chesterton had a way with words, didn’t he?

We weep with those who weep. Let’s pray for those in Newton who are experiencing an unimaginable grief. May God give them comfort as only He can. One day, maybe some day soon, all things will be made right and new. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.

Cross posted at