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.

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

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).


On the Dangers of Seminary (Pt. 5): The Danger of Seeking Academic Acclaim

Ps. 111:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments.”

Titus 1:7-9: “For a bishop must be blameless…a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught….

Sometimes seminary people forget that theology is primarily a spiritual task, done for the glory of God and the good of his church. If you are at seminary for any other reason, you should re-assess your calling. Looking back on the period of time during when I decided to come to seminary, I think I can gather together my various reasons for coming to seminary and distill them into one sentence: I wanted to be fully prepared to study, preach and defend God and his Word, in season and out. This was, I think, the right reason to come to seminary and for the most part I have maintained that desire. However, along the way, there have been times that other desires have trumped that one. Allow me to illustrate.

During my second year of seminary, I realized that I loved theology. I enjoyed studying, discussing, and debating theological method, the classical loci, contemporary theology, philosophical theology, and everything else in between. My favorite place to study was the Caribou Coffee on Falls of the Neuse Road. I spent hours there, reading and studying, and engaging in debate sessions with the other students who gathered to study and drink $3 coffees. It was “Theology on (Caraffe) Tap,” Southeastern style. In those days, Open Theism was the rage and it seems that we were all whipped up in a French-Canadian frenzy over the theological infelicities of Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and company. During Ph.D. studies, my mind turned to George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, Brevard Childs, and the Yale School, as well as John Milbank and the oh-so-Radically Orthodox. I began attending ETS as well as AAR. I wanted to keep up with everything that was going on in the field of theology.

As I began working on my dissertation (the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein on late 20th century Anglo-American theology), I found myself talking with a whole new group of people. Almost none of them were Southern Baptist and not too many of them were evangelical. Overall, it was a great experience. I was forced to think rigorously like never before, as all of my assumptions were being challenged. It was during this time that I remember finding myself in discussion with several of the AAR’s big stars (I had interviewed one of them for my dissertation) and, for the first time in my life, I shrunk from defending my convictions. The discussion had turned toward the subject of biblical inspiration and inerrancy, with evangelicals being on the receiving end of more than a few belittling comments for believing such poppycock. And I did something that I had never done before: I stood there and said nothing. Now, there isn’t anything wrong with keeping one’s mouth shut at the appropriate time. But I kept my mouth shut for the wrong reason and at an inappropriate time. I was silent because I didn’t want to be looked down upon or condescended toward, and probably also because I was afraid of being “shown up,” unable to stand toe-to-toe with the big guys. There is a name for the malady from which I suffered that day: fear of man. With the choice between fearing God and fearing man, I chose the latter rather than the former.

Fear of man is especially dangerous to the theologian because theology is a spiritual task. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10). Theology is done primarily for the glory of God and the good of his church. That is why the qualifications for teachers (1 Tim 3:1-7, Tit 1:5-9) are primarily spiritual, not intellectual. Paul does mention the ability to teach (which implies analytical and communicative ability) but most of the qualifications he gives are ethical in nature. In order to be a good theologian, one must be godly. In order to see clearly, one must walk closely. That is why there are many simple believers who know God better than many learned theologians. I suspect that my father and mother (who never earned college degrees) walk more closely with the Lord than I and therefore in some ways are better theologians than I. Theology and godly living enforce one another.

During the encounter I mentioned above, I demurred when given the opportunity to speak my convictions about God and his Word, and I did so because I was seeking the acclaim of the academy rather than the pleasure of God. And the acclaim of the academy will likely never come to one who confesses that the Christian Scriptures are ipsissma verba Dei (the very words of God). Rather than receiving acclaim, one is likely to be put in the dunce’s seat and told that he is not allowed to play in the “big boy” sandbox.

Maybe you have never been tempted to hedge on one of your convictions, but there are other ways of seeking the acclaim of the academy. I have seen more than a few students make an idol out of their grades. “No,” you say, “I would never do that.” Really? Have you ever found yourself going to professors more than, say, once a year, and asking for your exam grade or paper grade to be adjusted? Do you talk trash about teachers under whom you do not receive an A? Are you more concerned about the grade you received than the knowledge and virtue you gained? Are you willing to neglect your family and your church in order to receive a high grade or the respect of your students or professors? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, there is reason to examine your heart.

For other students or professors, academic idolatry takes the form of high-brow theology and preaching. Do you find yourself theologizing or preaching in a way that is not helpful for the church? Are you unable to preach the Word in a way that ministers to a congregation of believers who do not have a college education? Do you find yourself looking down upon, or being frustrated with, the beliefs and practices of “simple” Christians who have no inkling about the regulative principle, the mid-trib rapture, or the Evangelical Theological Society? There are few things more distasteful than a seminary student (or professor) who is unable to enjoy ministering to God’s people at whatever level of education (theological or otherwise) they might have.

If you have read this blogpost and realized that, in one form or another, you struggle with idols of the academy, here are a few suggestions:

  • Commit to studying God’s word with affection for him and his church, and a willingness to be subject to Scripture, even when your convictions conflict with modern or postmodern sensibilities.
  • Commit to treating your seminary classes as an act of worship. Never allow yourself to sit through a course in theology, biblical studies, missions, or whatever, with an attitude of indifference.
  • Commit to reading God’s word and listening to the teaching of God’s Word (whether at home, in Old Testament class, in chapel), with a concentrated faithfulness, with a disposition to obey.
  • Read the text of Scripture thoughtfully and prayerfully, meditating upon it, before taking a theological position or applying it to particular situation.
  • Resolve never to theologize or preach unless you are actively seeking to glorify God and strengthen his church.

Theology is a spiritual task, one done for the glory of God and the good of his church.