My design today — on this day which will ever remain sacred in my memory as the occasion of my own public attestation of this confession — is for us to consider the central role of the Abstract of Principles in structuring the identity of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The roots of that role are integral to the founding of this institution in the 1850s. The very idea of a central Baptist seminary was controversial then, and so it remained for over half a century. Baptists, though increasingly convinced of the need for an educated ministry, were suspicious of centralized structures and had long established a pattern of uneven cooperation in educational endeavors. The decline and loss of Columbian College was but the most celebrated embarrassment to Baptist educational efforts.
On the other hand, virtually all of the Baptist colleges and universities founded in the nineteenth century were established for the express purpose of training ministers of the Gospel and had developed theological departments of varying size and impact. Each had a loyal following, however, and none was ready to surrender its own institutional identity in order to meld a larger school. That was true, at least, until the rise of James Petigru Boyce.
Boyce, the son of a patriarchal South Carolina businessman and financier, brought together the threads of seminary aspiration left untied by so many others. As a twentynine year old theology professor at Furman University, Boyce delivered his inaugural address as what became the Magna Carta of Southern Seminary, "Three Changes in Theological Institutions."
Educated at Brown University and Princeton Seminary, Boyce had followed a privileged educational pathway. In presenting his vision for a uniquely Southern Baptist theological institution, he drew from his own experiences at Brown and Princeton, his tenure as a newspaper editor, his deep rootage in what historian Walter Shurden has identified as the "Charleston Tradition" in Southern Baptist life, and the wisdom which had been imparted to him by the influence of others.
Among those who influenced Boyce, surely none exerted a more powerful moral, theological, and ministerial impact than Boyce's former pastor and future trustee chairman, Basil Manly Sr. Manly, who had been pastor of First Baptist Church, Charleston (S.C.) during Boyce's boyhood, was one of the towering figures of the South, and of the Southern Baptist Convention. Manly was also an ardent confessionalist, who believed that a confession of faith, clearly articulated and endowed with institutional authority, was a necessary precondition to Southern Baptist support for a theological seminary.
Boyce delivered his weighty address, uncertain that Southern Baptists would ever respond to his call, but certain of his rectitude in pointing the denomination toward a vision for theological education that was open at some level to all persons, regardless of their educational preparation, offered the most strenuous programs to persons of exceptional preparation, and was firmly rooted in a confession of doctrinal principles binding upon all who would teach therein.
This last point, the third of Boyce's three proposed changes, is our concern today. Boyce's call was answered in the Educational Convention of 1857 and in the eventual founding of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Boyce was himself to be the central stack pole of the founding faculty.
But Boyce did not dream nor serve alone. The most critical role in bringing the Abstract of Principles to final form was served by Basil Manly, Jr., another of the four founding faculty. The younger Manly had also enjoyed a Princeton Seminary education. Though he began his studies for the ministry at Newton Theological Institution, a Baptist school, he was directed to Princeton by his father, at least in part because Princeton was governed by a regulative confession of faith.
At Princeton, both Manly and Boyce had studied under the imposing figure of Samuel Miller, a stalwart defender of Presbyterian theological and ecclesiastical standards, who argued that "The necessity and importance of creeds and confessions appears from the consideration that one great design of establishing a Church in our world was that she might be, in all ages, a depository, a guardian, and a witness of the truth."
That same conviction drove Boyce, both Manlys, John A. Broadus, and those who deliberated with them, to propose an Abstract of Principles based upon the Second London Confession, which was itself a Baptist revision of the Westminster Confession. The Second London Confession had been adopted in slightly revised form by the Baptist associations in Philadelphia and Charleston, and had thus greatly influenced Baptists of both the North and the South.
Writing in 1874, Boyce detailed the principles which guided the drafting committee:
The Abstract of Principles must be: 1. A complete exhibition of the fundamental doctrines of grace, so that in no essential particular should they speak dubiously; 2. They should speak out clearly and distinctly as to the practices universally prevalent among us; 3. Upon no point, upon which the denomination is divided, should the Convention, and through it, the Seminary, take any position.
This explanation clarifies the Abstract's originating process and underlines the incredible theological unity of Southern Baptists at the middle of the nineteenth century. The members of the drafting committee were certain that Southern Baptists were undivided on "the fundamental doctrines of grace" and that the matters which threatened denominational unity — and were thus avoided by the confession — dealt with issues related to the Landmark controversies, in particular, to questions of baptism, alien immersion, and to related issues.
The committee protected the integrity of the confession's witness to the doctrines of grace, and, as Boyce indicated, spoke dubiously on no essential particular. Indeed, the Abstract remains a powerful testimony to a Baptist theological heritage that is genuinely evangelical, Reformed, biblical, and orthodox.
When the Committee on the Plan of Organization brought its report in 1858 — just one year before classes would begin — the Fundamental Laws of the institution stipulated that the Abstract of Principles, "selected as the fundamental principles of the Gospel, shall be subscribed to by every professor elect, as indicative of his concurrence in its correctness as an epitome of biblical truth; and it shall be the imperative duty of the Board to remove any professor of whose violation of the pledge they feel satisfied."
In that spirit, every elected and tenured faculty member of this institution has freely and willfully affixed his or her name to this historic record and to this confession of faith.
In publishing their report, the Committee also indicated that the Abstract "will always be a guarantee as to the safety of the funds now contributed, against any perversion from their original intention." . . .
In (the Abstract) we have inherited a priceless and gracefilled testimony to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the eternal truths revealed in Holy Scripture.
Philip Schaff, whose great work The Creeds of Christendom remains an indispensable classic, defined a creed, however it is labeled, as "a confession of faith for public use, or a form of words setting forth with authority certain articles of belief which are regarded by the framers as necessary for salvation, or at least for the wellbeing of the Christian Church."
Schaff well described the purpose of the founders of Southern Seminary in framing the Abstract of Principles. It is a testimony to those central doctrines necessary to salvation, and to other issues essential to the wellbeing of the Christian Church.
Abstract's operative convictions
What operative convictions are revealed in the Abstract and in the testimony of those who framed the confession?
First, that truth is always confronted with error, and that the doctrinal depository of the Church is ever in danger of compromise. The founders of this institution were quite ready to speak of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, of evangelical truth and heresy. This was a vocabulary used with individuals certain of the reality of divine revelation and the necessity of orthodox teaching. These issues were taken with deadly seriousness.
They offered no apology for stipulating doctrinal issues nor for demanding theological fidelity. In fact, Boyce specifically aimed his critical sights at "That sentiment, the inevitable precursor, or the accompaniment of all heresythat the doctrines of theology are matters of mere speculation, and that its distinctions only logomachines and technicalities ...." There is no theological indifference to be found here, no doctrinal minimalism or lowest common doctrinal denominator is the focus or sentiment.
This is a robust, fullorbed faith from beginning to end; a faith which would establish Southern Seminary on its rightful course. Southern Seminary was established in the very year Darwin published his The Origin of Species. Critical philosophies were already spreading from Europe to the United States. Harvard had fallen to Unitarianism and Transcendentalism. Established seminaries in the North, once considered secure in the faith, were now seen to be wavering. Boyce and his colleagues saw a "crisis in Baptist doctrine" approaching, and they were determined that Southern Seminary be ready.
Second, that a confession of faith is a necessary, proper, and instrumental safeguard against theological atrophy or error. As Boyce argued,
"It is based upon principles and practices sanctioned by the authority of Scripture and by the usage of our people ...." Further, "you will receive by this assurance that the truth committed unto you by the founders is fulfilled in accordance with their wishes, that the ministry that go forth have here learned to distinguish truth from error, and to embrace the former ...."
Beyond this, the confession is a safeguard to trustees, to faculty, to students, and to the denomination:
It seems to me . . . that you owe this to yourselves, to your professors, and to the denomination at large; to yourselves because your position as trustees makes you responsible for the doctrinal positions of your professors, and the whole history of creeds has proved the difficulty without them of correcting errorists of perversions of the Word of God — to your professors, that their doctrinal sentiments may be known and approved by all, that no charges of heresy be brought against them; that none shall whisper of peculiar notions which they hold, but that in refutation of all charges they may point to this formulary as one which they hold ex animo, and teach in its true importance to the denomination at large, that they may know in what truths the rising ministry are instructed, may exercise full sympathy with the necessities of the institution, and may look with confidence and affection to the pastors who come forth from it.
Here is where the institution would stand, before God and before the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. The founders were certain that this was solid ground, and in this they were surely right.
Third, that a theological institution bears a unique responsibility to protect the integrity of the Gospel, and that its professors should give their unmixed and public attestation to the confession of faith. As Boyce commented: "You will infringe the rights of no man, and you will secure the rights of those who have established here an instrumentality for the production of a sound ministry. It is no hardship to those who teach here to be called upon to sign the declaration of their principles, for there are fields of usefulness open elsewhere to every man, and none need accept your call who cannot conscientiously sign your formulary."
Fourth, that those who teach the ministry bear the greatest burden of accountability to the churches and to the denomination.
Boyce delivered his address as the ghost of Alexander Campbell still haunted the Baptist mind. Campbell criticized confessions of faith as assaults upon freedom of conscience and, as Boyce lamented, "threatened at one time the total destruction of our faith." As Boyce feared, "Had he occupied a chair in one of our theological institutions, that destruction might have been completed."
"It is with a single man that error usually commences," argued Boyce. "Scarcely a single heresy has ever blighted the Church which has not owed its existence to one man of power and ability whose name has always been associated with its doctrines." Boyce specifically identified Campbellism and Arminianism
Those who founded this institution were painfully and solemnly aware of the history of heresy which included Arianism, Nestorianism, Pelagianism, Socinianism — a parade of doctrinal deviation. And they were determined to safeguard the institution they would establish, in so far as human determination would suffice. They knew nothing of radical revisionist theologies which would follow, of process philosophy and deconstructionism, of demythologization and logical positivism. But they knew the pattern of compromise and deviation which marked the checkered history of the Church and its testimony to the truth. They had seen the radical Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and they had seen enough to understand the challenge.
The faculty of Southern Seminary would be held to a standard higher than that required of the churches, higher than that required of students, higher than that required of those who would teach at many sister institutions. As Boyce stipulated:
But of him who is to teach the ministry, who is to be the medium through which the fountain of Scripture truth is to flow to them — whose opinions more than those of any living man, are to mold their conceptions of the doctrines of the Bible, it is manifest that more is requisite. No difference, however slight, no peculiar sentiments, however speculative is here allowable. His agreement with the standard should be exact. His declaration of it should be based upon no mental reservation, upon no private understanding with those who immediately invest him into office; but the articles to be taught being distinctly laid down, he should be able to say from his knowledge of the Word of God that he knows these articles to be an exact summary of the truth therein contained.
Let those who would understand Southern Seminary understand this: That our faith is not in the Abstract of Principles, but in the God to whom it testifies; that the revealed text we seek rightly to divide is not the Abstract of Principles, but Holy Scripture, but that this Abstract is a sacred contract and confession for those who teach here — who willingly and willfully affix their signatures to its text and their conscience to its intention. They pledge to teach "in accordance with and not contrary to" its precepts.
The Abstract is not something foreign which has been imposed upon this institution — it is the charter of its existence and its license to teach the ministry. Its purpose is unity, not disunity; its heart is bent toward common confession.
In some sectors of theological education, confessionalism is assumed and charged to be dead — a fossil of an ancient era when the Church claimed and proclaimed objective truth on the basis of divine revelation.
Some would now celebrate what Edward Farley has identified as the "collapse of the house of authority." Confessions, creeds, doctrines, truthclaims, supernaturalism, theism, commands — all these are swept away by the acids of modernity.
It cannot be so here. Not because we are unaware of the currents of modern knowledge; not because we do not understand the challenges of a relativistic and secular age, where all issues of truth and meaning are automatically privatized and politicized; not because we are unaware of the hermeneutics of suspicion, but precisely because we have faith in God, and in His truth unchanged and unchanging.
Our motive is not to seek false refuge in an antiquarian past absolved of all its faults and blemishes, but to keep the faith once for all delivered to the saints. We fear no charges of foundationalism, positivism, or authoritarianism. We do fear God and His divine judgment.
The Abstract is our most fundamental centering covenant with each other as faculty, students, president, and trustees. For students it is the framework within which you should expect to receive instruction and education. You will not be tested by the Abstract upon your arrival nor your departure, but it should frame your expectations and assure the confessional parameters of your study here. It is a pledge your professors have made before they enter your classroom to teach, and it is because they so highly esteem their calling to teach the ministers of the Church that they have come here and committed their lives to serve the Church and the cause of Christ by investing their lives in you. They do so gladly, heartily, and with consecration. They deserve your utmost respect, affection, and dedicated attention.
For faculty, the Abstract is the charter to teach and the standard of confessional judgment. Southern Seminary is a confessional institution, a precommitted institution. Teachers here should expose students to the full array of modern variants of thought related to their courses of study. But these options are not valueneutral. The standard of judgment is found within the parameters of the Abstract. In this charter is found the platform for true academic excellence, where all fields of study are submitted to the most rigorous and analytical study; but also found here is the standard for confessional fidelity to the churches and the denomination, for these fields of study and research are conducted by those who have established their own confessional commitments and who make these plain and evident to those who come here to study and to learn.
But the importance and impact of the Abstract of Principles and of Southern Seminary reaches much farther. We have arrived at a critical moment for the Southern Baptist Convention and its churches. A denomination once marked by intense theological commitment and a demonstrable theological consensus has seen that doctrinal unity pass into a programmatic consciousness. We are in danger of losing our theological grammar, and, more seriously by far, of forfeiting our theological inheritance.
This crisis far outweighs the controversy which has marked the Southern Baptist Convention for the last fourteen years. That controversy is a symptom rather than the root cause. As Southern Baptists, we are in danger of becoming God's most unembarrassed pragmatists — much more enamored with statistics than invested in theological substance.
The Abstract is a reminder that we bear a responsibility to this great denomination, whose name we so proudly bear as our own. We bear the collective responsibility to call this denomination back to itself and its doctrinal inheritance. This is a true reformation and revival only the sovereign God can accomplish, but we must strive to be acceptable and usable instruments of that renewal.
The Abstract represents a clarion call to start with conviction rather than mere action. It cries out, "Don't just do something, stand there!" This reverses the conventional wisdom of the world, but it puts the emphasis rightly. Southern Baptists are now much more feverishly concerned with doing than with believing — and thus our denominational soul is in jeopardy. This people of God must reclaim a theological tradition which understands all of our denominational activity to be founded upon prior doctrinal commitments. This is true for the denomination at every level — and of the local churches as well.
But this message is also critical for the future of theological education and of Southern Seminary. We can never measure our life and work in terms of activity and statistics. In the view of eternity, we will be judged most closely, not on the basis of how many courses were taught, how many students were trained, how many syllabi were printed, or how many books were published, but on whether or not we kept the faith. The other issues are hardly irrelevant, and they are valid markers of institutional stewardship and ministry. But there is a prior question: Does the institution and those who teach here stand for God's truth, and do so without embarrassment? May we answer that question with the humble confidence of Martin Luther, and say "Here we stand; we can do no other. God help us."