Do Protestants Believe in Confession?

This blog post could be much lengthier (i.e. I could do a whole article explaining the practice of confession in Protestant churches), but I just saw something that I found interesting and thought I’d share it. When we think of confession, we may immediately picture going to a Roman Catholic priest in a box to confess our sins, receive absolution or assurance of pardon, and perhaps a number of practical responses of penance. As the Reformation took off, we see Luther work through each of the seven sacraments in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and when he addresses confession, he says he believes in the practice but not that it’s a sacrament. Today I came across this from William Perkins that is similar to how I’ve thought about it.

The trial of the cause [of temptation] is fitly made by private confession. “Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another that ye may be healed” (James 5:17). But lest that confession should be made a kind of rack or torture, it must be limited with provisios. (1) It ought to be free and not compelled, because salvation depends not upon it. (2) It must not be of all sins, but of those only which wrong the conscience. Unless they do reveal them, greater danger may hang over their heads. (3) Let it chiefly be made to pastors, yet so as that we must know that it may safely made to other faithful men in the church.

—Works of William Perkins, 10.341

This brief statement safeguards against some of the abuses that have occasionally shown up in which pastors overstepped in their visitations and interactions with members. When I do visitation, I tend to say something open ended, such as, “Is there anything you’d like to talk about in particular?” Or “How’s your spiritual life?” These give opportunity to the member to share any concerns (indeed, confess sins) without going beyond what I feel is biblically appropriate for me to require from them.

Who Are Reformed Baptists?

Several years ago, a book came out called Holding Communion Together in which the authors lay out a history of the Reformed Baptist movement. Like most Reformed Baptists, I’d rather not talk about the book. This post is not intended to do the same thing as that book, which basically presented a history of two “sides” of the movement from the standpoint of one of those sides. Rather, this post is designed to give a brief taxonomy of the movement more broadly as it exists in the United States.

Particular Baptists, Reformed Baptists, Calvinistic Baptists

To understand something of the categorizations, it is important to recognize that there are essentially three main historical movements that contribute to the modern make of what might generally be called Reformed Baptists. First, there was the initial movement of Baptists itself in the mid-seventeenth century. Growing out of Independency/Congregationalism, those who have later been called Particular Baptists established associations of churches all over. These include not only England, Wales, and Scotland, but New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South. One identifiable commonality was their confession of faith, the Second London/Philadelphia/Charleston Confession. It was a revision of Westminster and (more specifically) the Savoy Declaration. The roots in this movement are obvious in the first “confession” drawn up by Southern Baptists, the Abstract of Principles, which is essentially a summarized form of the Second London.

The second movement to be aware of is the renewal of Puritan-minded Christianity in the mid-twentieth century. The most obvious instantiation of this movement was the creation of Banner of Truth, and the most well-known preacher connected to it was Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Not only Lloyd-Jones, but the lesser known A.W. Pink and his books helped to fuel a fire of Baptists who had adopted the Second London as their own. The most obvious example of the merger of these two is the little town of Carlisle, PA where both Grace Baptist Church and the Banner of Truth distributor in America are located. The former is something of a mother church of many other Reformed Baptist churches. (To be clear, by “mother church,” I don’t mean it exercises any authority over them, only that it was instrumental in their formation).

The third movement to be aware of is the renewal of love for Calvinistic theology in broader evangelicalism at the beginning of our twenty-first century. Names like Mark Dever, John Piper, John MacArthur, Ligon Duncan, and R.C. Sproul all come to mind. Growing out of this movement, as well as the earlier “Puritan-minded” movement, several Baptists began to again value Reformation theology and its influence. For ease of definition, these I call Calvinistic Baptists. They’re not Reformed Baptists in the mid-twentieth century sense, nor are they Particular Baptists. This is the case because the standard of definition for both movements is the Second London Confession. With these three historical movements in mind, we can now shift to understanding the “types” of Reformed Baptists that are out there.

Defining “Reformed Baptist”

Before we explain the different “types” of Reformed Baptists, we need to develop a definition. Reformed Baptists are those who affirm the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1677/89). To my mind, there is no other definition since one of the purposes of confessions is to define a group. Immediately, this definition incorporates several characteristic items worth noting in the context of today’s evangelical landscape. First, its members are cessationists who hold to the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). Its members hold to covenant theology, justification by faith alone, and the autonomy of the local church (each of which should be understood by the definitions provided in the Confession). Its members understand themselves as part of the Catholic (defined by the Confession), Protestant, and Reformed faith. Its members believe baptism rightly defined is the immersion of a professing believer. Second, this means that some things, like the denial of the Sabbath’s perpetuity on the Lord’s Day, the affirmation of charismatic gifts, the language of “final justification,” the covenant theology of dispensationalism, the affirmation of the Son’s eternal submission to the Father ad intra, and other such items that are present in broader evangelicalism and Calvinistic Baptist(ic) circles are “out of bounds” for the definition of a Reformed Baptist. Thus, our friends and brothers in other Calvinistic Baptist(ic) circles are not included in the definitions provided below. Among these are several of those associated with 9 Marks, John Piper, and MacArthur. Of course, some associated with each of those might be definitionally Reformed Baptist—which, anecdotally, seems to be more often the case with those in 9 Marks circles than the others—but it does seem to be the case that those circles more often than not deny some part of the Confession. With this definition, let’s begin by noticing the different “types” of Reformed Baptists.

Old and Young

First, it is worth noting that there seems to be a difference between older Reformed Baptists and younger Reformed Baptists. Older Reformed Baptists often have their own set of debates, and younger Reformed Baptists often have a different set as they are agreed on some of the things older Reformed Baptists argued over. This should be expected in basically any movement. If there is something that stands out about the “Old–Young Divide” in Reformed Baptist circles, though, it seems that the younger generation is actually more conservative than the older. Older Reformed Baptists seemed a lot more comfortable overlooking the disagreements on the sacraments (younger Reformed Baptists are generally less inclined to permit the unbaptized [i.e. presbyterians] into membership) and a lot less inclined to affirming associationalism, not to mention questions over classical theology (e.g. eternal submission/subordination and impassibility) and classical apologetics (older Reformed Baptists are more inclined toward presuppositionalism). It does seem that there is more favor among the younger generation toward reformed liturgy as well (which I distinguish from evangelical liturgy). It seems, when some of these things are grouped, that there has been a deeper focus on theology as a whole and ecclesiology in particular. In my anecdotal experience, these differences actually transcend the debates over other things that resulted in formal separations, which could simply be because those other issues have already been settled for those involved. It will be interesting to see where these sort of things develop as the next generation of Reformed Baptists continue their work in the vineyard.

Trinity and Carlisle

The most infamous of divisions is between Trinity Baptist Church of Monteville, NJ, whose first pastor was Al Martin, and Grace Baptist Church of Carlisle, PA, whose most influential pastor was Walter Chantry. These two churches had the most impact on the beginning of the Reformed Baptist movement back in second half of the twentieth century and various churches impacted by them have their own traits. Two somewhat well-known distinctions between the two groups are the questions about pastoral oversight (and church-over-church oversight) attributed to the Trinity group and the debates over formal associationalism promoted by the Carlisle group. My aim is not to rehash those debates. Instead, I simply point out that this resulted in two “camps” within which the churches do things very similarly. Anecdotally, I spoke with one brother who said he was with a church for six months before they voted on him to become their pastor, a practice that is common among the Trinity “camp.” Similarly, some churches expect there to be a process of ordination (with the involvement of an ordination council) and installation. These are often influenced by the Carlisle “camp.” I have my opinions on all of these things, but my point here is simply to say that these different groups are affected by their history.

As an aside, while most will associate the Carlisle “camp” with the formation of ARBCA, we should also recognize that other regional associations have begun to form (such as in Texas, Georgia, and the Midwest. The Southern California Association predates even ARBCA and is discussed below).

FIRE

The Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals is what it sounds like: a fellowship. To my mind (and my interaction with them is admittedly limited), FIRE is like a Reformed Baptist version of the Evangelical Free Church (they even use the same Augustinian motto, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity”). I say “Reformed Baptist version” because they are explicitly baptistic and state that they are in the stream of the First and Second London Confessions, not to mention the fact that their Fellowship was developed in the midst of the growth of the Reformed Baptist movement.

Reformed Baptist Network

This group was formed in the aftermath of the debates over impassibility. Some disagreed with the classical position while others disagreed with making it a grounds for communion. The Reformed Baptist Network seems to be mostly formed around supporting missions. They purposely strive to permit differences in opinions on a host of issues as seen, for example, in their practice of Associate Membership.

Founders

In the 1970s, a man named Ernest (Ernie) Reisinger (pronounced “Ree-singer”) became pastor at North Pompano Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL, a church associated with the Southern Baptist Convention. His efforts along with those of Fred Malone, the Ascol brothers, Tom Nettles, and others began an effort to call Southern Baptists back to their roots in the Convention’s founders’ Calvinism (read more about this here). The result as been that several churches in the Southern Baptist Convention have adopted the Second London for their local congregations. There are others that were impacted by the Founders movement who are more “Calvinistic” in the way described above, so even this group of churches within the larger Convention is not monolithic. One benefit of this particular movement is the fact that it was explicitly within Baptist circles so that some of the struggles over ecclesiology that attended other Reformed Baptists are not as present in confessional Founders churches. Perhaps it is also worth noting here that Founders is not an association or a formal group. Think of it more as a “ministry” (it’s called “Founders Ministries” after all) that aims at recovering historic Baptist doctrine.

Southern California

Another group of Reformed Baptists that has had a particular impact are those connected to the Southern California Reformed Baptists. The names that come to mind are Jim (father) and Sam (Son) Renihan, Richard Barcellos, and James Dolezal. Though the latter is only now returning to Southern California, his most well-known work is probably All that is in God which was the product of a series of lectures given at the Southern California Reformed Baptist Pastors Conference. The works coming out of that “camp” touch on things of a particular historical nature relating to the Particular Baptists’ history, classical theism, and historic Baptist covenant theology. This might be the “headier” of the “camps.”

“Others”

While the groups listed above have some sort of formal relationship, we must also acknowledge the fact that there are churches all over America that have adopted the Confession. They may not have been planted by any of the groups listed above, but they were convinced by the theology and ecclesiology of the early Baptists as most correctly aligning with the Scriptures, and they have now come to embrace it as their own. These churches will not often be characterized by the same debates that surrounded the formation of the various other camps.

Conclusion

In sum, there are several different “types” of Reformed Baptists, some “stricter,” some more “independent,” some more like “typical evangelicals.” Reformed Baptists are known as a fighting bunch, which is because we love the truth, but the more you meet actual Reformed Baptists (not just the people on Twitter and Facebook), the more rare you find that to be. Like any group of people, to know what Reformed Baptists are like, you have to get to know us personally. We believe strongly in the gospel of God and his beautiful grace toward wretched sinners. We believe strongly in the sufficiency and infallibility of Scripture, the Triune God, and the communion of saints.

A Pastor’s Apple Watch?

Since some of my focused-thought articles will be placed on the Baptist Dogmatics website, I think this blog should be able to include more “blog” type of content (i.e. random thoughts). In this post, I just want to offer some thoughts about the benefits and shortcomings for a pastor owning an Apple Watch.

I’ve owned an Apple Watch since Father’s Day of 2017 and, like any other piece of technology, I have found it enhances some things and presents its own drawbacks. The adoption of some piece of technology should include considering both the dangers and benefits in the life of the particular individual. So here are some of each that I have found in connection to my vocation as a minister.

Benefits

  • Encouragement to move. It’s a sad reality that many pastors are objectively obese. When you consider the reasons, they include both the sin of gluttony and the realities of the calling in general. To the former (sin of gluttony), we could develop an entire argument, but this post considers the latter (realities of the calling). The calling to the pastorate is a call to study and to prayer. I doubt many pastors work less than, say, 10 hour days. But the work of pastor is work that involves sitting: reading books, writing, responding to emails, counseling, driving, etc. When this is added to the fact that meetings often include food, a recipe for the decline of physical health appears. The Apple Watch has hourly “Stand” goals (stand up for at least a minute per hour twelve hours out of the day). Add to that the basic “Exercise” and “Move” goals and the pastor is encouraged not to forget that bodily training is of some value.
  • Timing the Sermon. One of the things I find difficult (and this may just be me) is moderating my sermon length. I know some of this is because I’m still young and developing as a preacher, but some of it is also because I just don’t like thinking about a clock when I’m preaching. I know “about” how long my sermon can take, but of course sometimes I take longer on one point than another. One thing I began doing a while back is using the timer function on my Apple Watch. I set the time for 5 minutes shy of when my sermon should be done (e.g. 40 minutes for a 45 minute sermon, 25 for a 30 minute sermon, etc.). While I move through my points I can glance at my watch and see there are 7 minutes and 43 seconds left until my timer goes off. Then, when the time is up, my watch vibrates. It’s not loud enough for anyone to hear (at least nobody has told me 😊), but it’s noticeable enough to me to know it’s about time to start concluding.
  • Glance at messages. The first point in the shortcomings will look at this as a problem, so let me explain this first as a benefit. I have notifications silenced on my Apple Watch, but I still have the text message app available on the main watch face. This helps me not to be distracted as they come in, but I’m still able to look quickly and see that I’ve received a text message. I don’t need to pick up my phone to reply (I usually just give a “thumbs up/down” from my watch if I can). This helps me avoid the “rabbit hole” affect where picking up the phone to reply also presents the opportunity to read emails, check the news, watch a YouTube video, etc. I can leave my phone on the charger in our living room and stay at my desk with less distraction. I want to be available to people, but I also want to guard my attention and time.

Shortcomings

  • Distraction. The pastor’s life is a life of thought. As such, it is particularly important that he learn to do what’s recently been called “Deep Work,” that is, sustained focus on a particular thing for an extended period of time. The Apple Watch is able to bring many of the functions of the iPhone to the wrist and, just as much as it alerts the preacher that his time is coming to a close in the pulpit, it tells him to stop looking at his book in the study. Of course, the answer to this is to turn off notifications on the Watch. Some may think that doing this reduces the value of the Watch, but the reality is that distracting you from your work is what reduces the value of the Watch.
  • Cost. The Apple Watch does cost a bit of money and, as we ought to be model stewards of our resources, this may be a mark against the device. There are a couple things to think about here. First, proper use of funds is a real thing to consider when you’re making the purchase. If it doesn’t add the value that you think it will, or if you can’t afford it without placing other priorities in jeopardy, don’t purchase it. Maybe another smart watch with similar functions is available at a lower price (and there are different versions of the Watch itself). Second, be sure to recognize that you don’t have to buy a new one every time it’s released. Use it until it doesn’t work (or begins glitching and slowing down) and then reconsider it again and replace it if you found it was useful.

The Apple Watch is something of a luxury device. It offers benefits that you can get elsewhere for much less money. I’ve gone back and forth about whether I should just switch back to an analog watch, but the benefits the Apple Watch provides for me to 1) stay active, 2) time my sermons, and 3) glance at text messages are enough to just keep it for now.

New Website

My good friend Drew Sparks and I just launched a website called “Baptist Dogmatics.” This blog will remain active (i.e. I’m not pulling the content down), but much of my online work will be done on that site now. Take a look at it and let us know what you think. We hope it will be a beneficial work, doing good to those in the church as well as giving us an opportunity to publish some of our thoughts as we work through things ourselves. In the initial two blog posts, we provide 1) a vision for what we’re doing as well as 2) the way in which we hope to accomplish that.

The website is www.baptistdogmatics.com

Fencing the Table?

In the document provided below, I demonstrate the basically universal understanding of Christians that one must be baptized to take communion. There are two things to note beforehand for full transparency. First, some denominations are more liberal than their stated standards, meaning they might not require baptism before communion de facto, while their standards do require it de jure. Second, Baptists have a stricter definition of baptism than other denominations which is why this particular issue shows up in our circles more frequently. Finally, this document will be updated periodically as I encounter more evidence, though it really shouldn’t be necessary since the anomaly really lands on the part of those who do not require it.

Swain and Barcellos: Two Little Trinity Books Worth Reading

In the last week-and-a-half or so, I made my way through two equally good, though quite distinct, little books on the Trinity that are worth recommending. The first, The Trinity: A Short Introduction by Scott Swain, was a nice, short read offering a classical definition of trinitarian doctrine at the college or introductory systematic theology level. It provides a worshipful introduction to key terms and biblical, historical, and theological categories. The second, Trinity and Creation: A Scriptural and Confessional Account by Richard C. Barcellos is much less “introductory” and much more a dogmatic presentation of the doctrine of creation in light of those truths we affirm about the Triune God.

There are two things that mark both of these books, besides their similar size (the first is ~130pp and the second is about ~100pp.). First, they are both clearly “Websterian.” By “Websterian” (a reference to the late theologian’s theologian, John Webster), I can almost simply say “classical.” Both men are influenced by the work of Webster and demonstrate that in the way they argue. Webster gave classical teeth to evangelical theology, which is something I, for one, am certainly thankful for. The second similarity is their dealing with a particular contemporary issue that plagues contemporary evangelical theology. In Swain’s, the issue of “ERAS” (Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission) is addressed and shortly refuted. In Barcellos’, the issue of covenantal or relational changes proposed by John Frame and Scott Oliphint. Both books provide helpful, quick critiques that can be handed to someone wrestling with the issues at hand. Both books recall the classic, orthodox, and catholic doctrine of God and all things in relation to God. Tolle Lege!

The Dangers of Associations and Assumptions

I have been reflecting for some time now on a particular phenomenon that makes honest discourse very difficult: it is the danger of associations and assumptions. I have two anecdotes that will illustrate what I mean and then I will offer some basic reflections.

In 2012, two authors released a book called Kingdom through Covenant which seeks to provide an explanation of the progressive development of Scripture along the “backbone” of the historical covenants. In the initial release of this book, the authors stated that their proposal could be classified as a subset of the then-known brand of covenant theology called New Covenant Theology. However, several items in their work were less given to some of the extremes of New Covenant Theology (NCT). The result, though, of associating themselves with NCT was that a quick reading resulted in misunderstandings of and assumptions about their proposal. I’m not one to vindicate their proposal, but my concerns with it are not as grave as my concerns with certain strands of NCT. Yes, they “modify” the Sabbath command in a way that I think is incorrect, and no they do not provide as satisfying of an account of the covenant of works with Adam, but they do say there is a covenant at creation, and they do make federal headship crucial, and they do advocate for the active obedience of Christ, all which some strands of NCT have further modified, and some have outright denied. (As an aside, the authors of Kingdom through Covenant included a clarification of their proposal and distanced it from NCT in their revised edition as well as the other work they produced called Progressive Covenantalism.)

The second anecdote is more recent. In 2016, a semi-popular-level book broke on the scene unleashing a firestorm of controversy about some of the peculiar Trinitarian proposals put forward by many of the authors. Chief among these proposals, the authors claim that an eternal property of the Son is submission to the Father, which seems to be very close to some ancient heresies. This book was a collaborative work that included several authors, each also aiming at presenting a defense of “complementarian” male-female relationships. Among the authors, however, was one article/chapter which did not hold to the eternal–submission proposal but did wonder if there might be a way to situate the complementarian proposal within classical Trinitarianism by way of analogy. Step 1) the Son is eternally from the Father (filiation). Step 2) it is fitting (latin, conveniens), then, that the Son is the Person who adds to himself a human nature in the forma servi. Step 3) it is in this human form, and only in the human form, that the Son submits to the Father. Step 4) it is in this way in particular that Paul relates the submission of the wife to her husband to the submission of the husband to Christ and the submission of Christ to God (1 Cor. 11:3), all within the context of analogical language. Thus, it is not grounded in an eternal relation of submission, but neither is it completely detached from the eternal relations; it is connected to the analogical and economic manner in which Triune God manifests himself. Thus goes the argument. However, because this argument was in a book alongside those who do advocate for eternal submission, it was immediately associated with those proposals, and therefore arguments were leveraged against it which assumed they knew what they were doing. I read one a couple days ago that was really well done, except that the writer didn’t realize that he had essentially built for himself a very academic straw-man. He argued against the author of the chapter/article because he assumed the author was arguing for something he in fact wasn’t.

Many more anecdotes could be presented, but we must ask how they provide warnings for us. They provide warnings for us in two ways. First, as readers, they warn us not to assume that we know what someone will argue just because they are associated with a particular “camp.” We see this in politics, for instance. We see (R) next to someone’s name and we immediately assume “climate change denier” or we see (D) next to someone’s name and we immediately assume “abortion advocate.” Things may be true in general, but we must be those who listen to arguments as they are given so that we adequately assess them. The individual may still be wrong, but we should be those who at least take the time to see what that particular person is arguing. By doing so, you will not only build a stronger case against them when you disagree, but you will also strengthen your arguments for your own position.

Second, as writers (or proponents of an argument), this calls us to take serious the way in which our arguments may be misunderstood by our associations, and make clear and explicit those points where we differ. Right now, publishers (esp. Crossway) are doing a lot of collaborative works, which only heightens the need for this clarity. If you associate with a particular group, and it touches on your argument, you need to be explicit about your differences (I have to go back an make sure, but I do believe the chapter on the Trinity was actually quite explicit, which makes misunderstandings inexcusable). Collaborative works may be helpful for dictionaries and certain other works, but with books making a proposal I have found that unless the individuals are very close in “real life,” the collaborative works tend to lead to misunderstandings because they seem to make a cumulative argument, but in reality the authors don’t agree with one another on various points. The preface can include statements like, “The authors in this book do not necessarily agree with each other on every point,” but the reader will still tend toward associating the several pieces to one another.

Our minds are designed to associate things that seem similar, which calls us to be more diligent as readers and as writers to ensure that we have not superimposed one thing on another.

Still Confessing: What is It?

My first book, Still Confessing: An Exposition of The Baptist Faith & Message 2000, should be shipping in the next few days. In view of its release, I want to give a slight explanation of what it is and how it’s laid out so that you know what to expect and why you might purchase it.

It’s an exposition of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 from a Reformed, or Calvinistic, Baptist perspective. The document was specifically written so that those from the Particular Baptist stream of Baptist life as well as those who aren’t can both affirm it, and my exposition, which is a way of saying “explanation,” aims to show how those of us from that stream read the document and affirm it. Lest someone think this is disingenuous, let’s remember that Second London Baptist Confession (1677/89) also includes parts that are interpreted differently. They purposely left out questions of open or close(d) communion, and some have pointed out that their confession may allow for differences about the interchangeability of “elders” and “ministers.”

It’s not a critique. Certainly there are points in the BFM2000 where I wish things were written differently because the pinnacle of confessions to my mind is the Second London, which is more explicitly Calvinistic and stands more directly in the Puritan tradition. This book does not aim to present those critiques though since the point is really to show how Reformed Baptists honestly affirm the confession, no fingers crossed.

The layout is standardized. Instead of spending more time on one item and less on another, I aimed to spend an equal amount of space on each article. The first section in each is an exposition (explanation) of the doctrine and the second looks at some Bible passages to draw out the concepts a little more. It neither gives a full explanation of the doctrine (remember, every doctrine could take up a volume or more on its own) nor explains every Bible verse related to a doctrine (remember, theological work is the summarization and explanation of what the whole Bible says about a topic). At the end of the chapters, there are book recommendations for further study of the topic.

We are “still confessing.” Included in the recommendation sections are references to chapters in the Second London Baptist Confession, as well as other creeds and confessions, that speak to the same topic covered from the BFM2000. In doing this, my hope was to demonstrate that the BFM should not be seen as standing outside the confessional tradition; the BFM fits among other documents that explain what Christians believe the Bible teaches.

It’s not a study guide or a full systematic theology. The book is should fit somewhere between those two other types of works. It’s short enough that it should not be too daunting, but covers enough (I hope) to serve as a base text for other studies. I could see the book even being used in a Bible college—in which page limits are often ~500pp, and sometimes only a single semester of Systematic Theology is required— where my chapter on a doctrine was then supplemented by someone who covers the doctrine in greater depth. It could also be used as a study text for pastors/Sunday School teachers who are preparing to lead a new member’s class and want something more explicitly in line with our (Particular Baptists) doctrine.

I’m sure the book is imperfect. Due to this process, my own empathy for authors has grown as I read others. But I pray the work is used by the Lord to edify his people and, perhaps, even bring about new believers. I pray eyes overlook the errors and hearts are strengthened by the truth.

Thoughts About the “Kerfuffle”

Many know (at least the same group of “many” that read blogs) that there have been two videos of accusations by the former Old Testament Dr. Russell Fuller against The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Here, for what they’re worth, I offer my thoughts on the situation. (N.B. There are supposed to be three, and I will update this post when the third releases).

First, let me say that I have never had any interaction with Dr. Hernandez, the subject of controversy in the first video. I have, on the other hand, had casual interaction with Dr. Pennington since he oversees the Ph.D. program and teaches the first required course (Foundations of Theological Studies) and last course (Teaching in Higher Education) for the program. I did my introduction to Hebrew using Dr. Fuller’s textbook, though not with him as the professor, and I took my Old Testament 1 course with him. In other words, while I have been in contact with 2 of the 3 parties involved, I am not someone who has interacted deeply with their thought. I have the video accusations to go on just as others.

That said, let’s think through the different accusations. In the first video, Dr. Fuller accuses Dr. Hernandez of liberalism and representative of a liberal drift because he presents the “firstborn of death” and “king of terrors” in Job 18:13–14 as mythical personifications. Let’s think about the charge itself, not the interpretation. The charge is that this is representative of a liberal drift since liberals interact with and offer the same interpretation. However, if you just take a look at Gill’s commentary, you’ll see that he acknowledges the same interpretations by the Jews. He doesn’t agree, but he also doesn’t lambast it. Second, on this reading it would be hard to read Augustine’s City of God and hold him to be orthodox since he also talks about the gods as though they were something while also reminding his readers that they aren’t anything (cf. 1 Cor. 10). In other words, the Christians of the past, reaching back to at least the New Testament itself, have seen the gods as real, spiritual forces, personages even, though demonic. The Bible presents the gods as both something and nothing in two different ways. Third, it is certainly Bildad who is speaking, so we must be careful about the way we read his interpretation. In other words, while we may finally disagree with Dr. Hernandez’s interpretation, you would have to demonstrate more substantially that he contradicts the truthfulness of Scripture to show that he has departed from orthodoxy. We (inerrantists) regularly remind ourselves and others that we hold to the inerrancy of Scripture not the inerrancy of our interpretations.

On a shorter note, in that same video Dr. Fuller critiques Dr. Hernandez’s insistence on translating the article with “Satan,” so that in Job it would be translated “the Satan” rather than simply “Satan.” To make this an issue is absurd. We say “the devil” all the time. Why? Because “this world with devils [is] filled,” but there is only one “the” devil. Similarly, this world is filled with accusers/adversaries, but there is only one “the” Accuser/Adversary/Satan. Preachers, commentators, and other teachers regularly bring out the importance of the article in a particular text where it’s not normally translated, so for Dr. Hernandez to require that from seminary students hardly seems like foul play.

Second, Dr. Fuller critiques Dr. Pennington’s emphasis on a few main things. First, he confronts the concept of the regula fidei, or “rule of faith.” Second, he confronts the concept of “communal readings.” The problem, of course, is that anytime someone challenges the place of creeds and confessions, they end up in plenty of historical and logical hot water. Historically, the Reformed/Protestants have not rejected the regula fidei, though we have carefully defined it in light of Roman Catholic conceptions. We understand the regula fidei to be the summary of theological axioms contained in Scripture (again, see Gill, this time his introduction to his Body of Divinity). It is only within particular strands of fundamentalism that creeds and confessions were ever rejected. (As an aside, the history of the church I pastor is one which was taken up in the early nineteenth century by the “Christian movement” which rejected creeds and confessions. It had to recover from that in the 1830s, though not all churches did recover). Further, it seems unreasonable to challenge someone as to their adherence to the Abstract of Principles if you simultaneously say there is no particular acceptable reading our community affirms. SBTS, as a community, agrees that the only acceptable reading of Scripture affirms that it teaches that there “There is but one God, the Maker, Preserver and Ruler of all things, etc.”

On a shorter note, Dr. Fuller also critiqued a paper Dr. Pennington had to rewrite multiple times. The trouble with this as an accusation is that it implies Dr. Pennington only changed what he wrote, not what he thought. If he only changed what he wrote and not what he thought, God will deal with him. If, upon challenge, he changed what he thought and therefore what he wrote, then a brother has been won. Retractions and revisions of works exist for a reason: we’re not infallible. Further, it is not acceptable to critique someone because of who they footnote or incorporate in their arguments. It may raise a flag, such that you look closer at the extent to which the Person A follows Person B in the particular areas of danger or disagreement, but any falsehood needs to appear in Person A’s work itself. Plenty of Christians have incorporated the work of non-Christians or different denominations to make their own arguments.

Some further thoughts. I don’t know if I agree with Dr. Herndandez. I haven’t taken the time to look at his dissertation or SBL his paper. I know that I do disagree with Dr. Pennington on various items (though I don’t count him as an adversary. Critical thinkers disagree with each other on plenty of items). Further, we should be willing to admit that Dr. Fuller is right, if he brings stronger evidence. However, the point of this post is to take a look at the accusations themselves that have been released. The accusations carry with them the “shock factor,” but upon close examination they are troubling. They are troubling not because they have exposed some great heretical push at SBTS but because the charges themselves are outside of what Baptists have said in the Particular Baptist tradition (in which I take SBTS to be). In other words, it’s being promoted as a drift toward postmodern liberalism, but these particular charges could actually be leveraged against pre-modern critical Reformed thought. I do think there are dangers, because there are always dangers, but I don’t think they’re quite what Dr. Fuller claims they are. In fact, any charges will need to come from someone who has thought enough about Protestant Scholastic exegesis to avoid the pitfalls mentioned above.

Finally, I’m saddened to see how this affects those I align most closely with theologically. Many have been stirred up into hype rhetoric and assumption of guilt, which is disheartening. We must be those who critically evaluate all claims that are made. It is too easy to get angry at some group and then agree with anyone who seems to take a stand against that group. We must be ready and willing to dismiss claims that do not seem reasonable, even when those claims might help our case. A brother has pointed out to me that many people have said this about issues of sexual abuse, racial injustice, etc., but then they have uncritically received claims like Dr. Fuller’s. If you wish to be heard by lovers of truth, you must be one who consistently follows the truth and love.

Classical Seminary: A Proposal

I want to start a seminary. This may seem like a “bold desire,” like something that’s too fanciful, or else too premature. Let me begin by saying, this is a dream of mine, not necessarily something I’m trying to do by the time the fall semesters come around, when the “corona cares” have dwindled. This is something that I would love to be able to have a part in at some point in my life. That said, there are a number of things I would like to be part of said seminary that address various needs and shortcomings in the current seminary system.

First , I would like it to be classically oriented materially. I was extremely blessed to have been shaped before formal education by R. C. Sproul and then to take my initial church history course with Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin. I took a course in Medieval Theology and another in Calvin and the Reformation, and I took a course on the Person of Christ with Dr. Stephen Wellum. In my doctoral studies, I have taken a course in Protestant (read Reformed) Scholasticism. I’ve been committed to confessional Baptist theology since before starting my schooling. Each of these have ensured two things. One, they have forced (i.e. allowed!) me to deeply engage in original source reading, with what’s been called the “Great Tradition.” My initial major in college (before I changed to ministry) was military history, and for that program the opening course was called, “Research Methods in History.” It stressed the importance of engaging primary works and then conversing with secondary sources. When I was introduced to Reformation theology, I found that they had the same concern, to show that they were holding fast to the line of truth that was given in Scripture and handed on through the ages. They loved to show from the sources, biblical, patristic, and medieval, that they were not departing from orthodoxy but reforming the church according to the truth. As I read in various courses, in addition to my own reading, I was being taught by voices of the ages. Dr. Haykin once told an anecdote from his own education where he responded to his fellow students, who were Roman Catholics, that when he read the Fathers he could only recognize that they were preaching the same faith that he held to. This has been my experience as well, and it is why I hold the Puritans in such high regard. In my understanding, the Puritans (and their continental cousins) are something of a high water mark in the Christian tradition, taking in the best of the ages through the proper lens of the Reformation. The second thing this background and particular track of education did was show me how varied someone’s education can be. While I was being taught and thinking through classical articulations of the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of Scripture, and the importance of history (i.e. tradition), fellow students and those at other schools were hearing about a passible and complex God, a Trinity where the Son and Spirit eternally submit to the Father, Scripture’s ability to be bent every which way, and tradition’s subordination to private readings. Some have encountered good classical theology and then forgot to read such theologians as Turretin (or Bavinck), who carefully distills classical theology and maintains a strong affirmation of the Reformation. However, most encounter the shallow, eminently practical (read pragmatic) theology that has more in common with modern education and trade schools than the contemplative-praxis of past pastor-theologians. Thus, I would like such a seminary to be materially sourced in classical theology and exegesis. By classical, however, I don’t mean “ends at 1516” the way many insinuate today. I mean, “continues through Reformed Orthodoxy,” such that we would be reading such men as those encountered in Muller’s PRRD. When’s the end of Reformed Orthodoxy? Honestly, that’s not as important as many historians try to make it. I would classify Gill’s work as methodologically and materially Reformed Orthodox, but almost as one born out of season. Not to mention the fact that Bavinck could be read as rearticulating Reformed Orthodoxy. It’s nice to be able to silo eras, to disconnect them from the years that precede and follow, but dates are often more arbitrary than people assume. They’re helpful for an intro course, less helpful for real conceptualization.

Second, I would like it to be classically oriented methodologically. Another experience I’ve had that has influenced my thinking, for what I would consider the good, is my involvement and concern with classical education. We homeschool our four children. If you have encountered homeschooling for any substantial amount of time, you know many different styles of homeschooling exist. Some parents homeschool in a way I believe to be detrimental to the children and society, essentially allowing their children to decide what (or if!) they want to learn for the day. Most homeschool families are not that way though. They look for a good math curriculum, a good phonics/grammar/literature curriculum, a good science curriculum, and so forth, and cobble together what it seems like the kids need to know. Such families have often kept their children out of the public school system because of the anti-Christian ideology that pervades it, an ideology that can be nearly impossible to counteract considering the fact that the children are there for most of their waking hours. This definitely plays a part in why we have homeschooled our children. But another reason we’ve homeschooled our children is the opportunity it provides us to educate them in a manner better than they would receive in a public school and at a price we can afford (classical Christian schools regularly charge $6,000–$9,000 per student per year). We believe our children will likely be more thoughtful and virtuous members of society than they would be if they were in a public school system that despises the past and despises the faith. We have used the curriculum of Highlands Latin School, provided through their press company Memoria Press, but there are others such as Veritas Press as well. Additionally, I also taught a year at a classical Christian high school. What does this have to do with seminary? I am convinced that the mindset of reading through the ages would be particularly helpful for the seminarian. Most schools now will have prerequisites for some courses, but other than those few, the student has the freedom to choose what they want to take and when. The result is usually a cobbled-together education that leaves holes in understanding and deficiencies in organic thinking. So, step one would be to create a program that is not open to student manipulation. Step two would be to create a program that seriously understands the importance of building a body of knowledge, not just imparting bits of information. That would apply to the fullness of the program as well as the particular aspects of the program, such as exegesis and theology and practical ministry. Read how the New Testament interprets the Old Testament, and then how the Fathers, Medievals, Reformers, and Post-Reformed continued to clarify and reform their interpretation through those ages. Then turn to modern commentary and engage it thoughtfully, knowing that you have been shaped by primary engagement with the Bible itself and then by the thinking of Christians across the ages. Do the same with any doctrine or practical ministry activity. (As an aside, this method and model follows the general principle of grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages in classical education).

Third, I would like it to be classically oriented practically. What I mean by “practically” refers to organization, practice within the seminary, and practice beyond the seminary. In terms of organization, it is appropriate that the teachers of the seminary are ordained ministers. This follows the command in 2 Tim. 2:2 that the faith be handed on to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Since my vision for a seminary is the vision of a Reformed Baptist, the ordination has the particular definition attached to our ecclesiological principles. We hold that ordination is finally an act of the local church under the Word and Spirit at the recommendation of other elders. We hold that “elder,” “pastor,” “bishop,” “overseer,” “minister,” etc. are interchangeable terms, and so all the elders of a local church ought to be ordained. (I leave aside the debates over whether Baptists should affirm something called ordination; I think what I’ve provided above shows how I understand this).This means that it may not be the primary preaching pastor who teaches in such a seminary, but he should be a recognized pastor/elder in a local church. Inside the seminary, it would be classically oriented in terms of internal practice by means of set times of communal prayer and Scripture readings, memorization, singing of psalms and hymns, and other activities of communal life in view of those going into ministry. Professors in such a setting would be more like tutors and mentors than untouchable, unapproachable conveyors of information. This would, to a large extent, prohibit either online or part-time programs. In some sense, it might look like the old monasteries without the expectation of lifelong monastic vows. Third, it would be classically oriented in terms of subsequent practice in that it would encourage students to be true pastor-theologians. Who can deny that the Puritans are models here? They saw the life of the pastorate as the life of a thinker and teacher rather than as the life of a CEO. Muller says, “Seminaries have been guilty of creating several generations of clergy and teachers who are fundamentally ignorant of the materials of the theological task and prepared to argue (in their own defense) the irrelevance of classical study to the practical operation of ministry. The sad result has been the loss, in many places, of the central function of the church in the West and the replacement of a culturally and intellectually rich clergy with a group of practitioners and operations-directors who can do almost anything except make sense of the church’s theological message in the contemporary context” (quoted in Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 29). The Christian ministry was once populated by some of the sharpest minds in their era, from Paul to the Cappadocians, to Augustine to Calvin to Owen to Gill. I think this change is due, in part, to the ever-broadening focus of seminaries. When they think of themselves as training people for a broad range of “ministries” rather than training the next generation of pastor-theologians, they must necessarily weaken their standards and broaden their foci. They must waste many of the students’ time with courses that fulfill the demands of accrediting agencies and student expectations. They must offer programs in “Urban Ministry” and “Communication Studies” and “Business Administration.” Instead of seeing practical ministry as the outworking of biblical and theological principles, as those things that you learn in the context of your local church while you’re going through your ministerial training, they have to worry about developing a good program that will meet the felt needs of the students who will then worry about the felt needs of their congregations. No longer are Christian leaders leaders, they are facilitators. They simply facilitate the fulfillment of felt needs in both the seminary and the church, and this teaches husbands and parents to do the same in their homes. Can we really wonder why the church is in the state it is when our seminaries, the “seedbeds” (from Latin semen), are in the state they’re in?

Some of you may ask, “But isn’t there something like this in existence?” I answer: sort of. Talbot has recently started an M.A. program, but it’s not quite what I’m talking about here since it’s an M.A. rather than pastorally focused. Further, the school isn’t particularly known as being Reformed. Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies Seminary are both theologically consistent with what I’m saying here, and likely to be fairly consistent practically, but structurally they have had to maintain the typical course of instruction (maybe for the sake of accreditation?). In other words, what exists now that would provide the content I’m envisioning still exists in a structure I think has shown to be faulty.

But is this sort of idea possible? We know that there are many seminaries on the edge of closing, some even closing their doors, and all of them wondering about their finances. The question, at this point, is whether a vision like I’ve outlined above might generate enough interest to sustain itself? I believe there are a few things that should be taken into consideration when asking this question. First, if a seminary might close anyway, why not at least close your doors by doing the right thing rather than stay afloat by weakening the church? I recognize that’s more of a polemical charge, and only works if what I outlined above appeals to you, but if you do think it’s appealing, you probably also feel the weight of the question. Second, we must recognize that seminaries serve the church, by producing theological works and training minsters, and so really it should be a question of whether local churches and individual Christians would give toward such an endeavor more than whether an accrediting agency would approve it. I think we may just find that there are enough churches concerned about the state of Christianity and the state of the ministry to support something like this. There are three ways in particular that we could see churches supporting something like this. One, they could support it financially by giving money so that students would be able to devote their time to their training rather than juggling jobs with their full-time studies. Two, they could commit to pay elders/pastors full-time wages, or at least supplement the income they receive through the seminary, knowing that some of their time will be spent mentoring future ministers, which should be part of the “job description” anyway (e.g. 2 Tim. 2:2). This would reduce the financial burden on the school itself. Three, they could commit to looking to such a seminary for future elders/pastors and letting them serve in their congregations during their time in seminary. Related to this, they might also encourage those pursuing the pastorate (what I call “emplaced missionaries”) or the mission field (what I call “sent pastors”) to go to such a seminary. Third, when we ask whether something like this might be possible now, we must consider the state of various conversations. The recent “retrieval” movement, or whatever else you might want to call this recommitment to historic Christianity, has become quite appealing in many areas of theological life, and the full-orbed Christian thought that would be required in a seminary like this has been demonstrated in various works recently. Consider, for instance, J. V. Fesko’s work. He has written on theological topics like union with Christ, historical topics like pneumatology in the nineteenth century and the pactum salutis, and biblical commentaries. Unfortunately, it seems Baptists have been among the worst offenders of theological compartmentalization. Systematic theologians will do biblical theology, but not often close exegetical work, and NT and OT scholars will dabble in theology, but it often feels clumsy (at best) or dismissive of historical theology (at worst). A seminary like that outlined above would require professors to read across the ages and thus engage in the historical and theological discussions concerning Holy Scripture; every theologian an exegete and every exegete a theologian. Though the lack of familiarity with Latin (and other languages) may have been a deterrent in recent decades, we have seen an explosion in two areas. Many works have now been translated from their original languages, and the classical education movement will recover the ability of young adults to read many classics in the original. Our generation may struggle with limitations, since the translations are in the process of coming out right now and many of us learned Latin late, but we can have a system in place for the future generations to engage our tradition substantially when they mature. A fourth consideration when thinking about the viability of such a project is the practical matter of space and supplies. First, the concept outlined above seeks to be purposefully classical and obviously Baptist. Both Baptists and early Christians began their ministerial training in the context of local ministry. Though designated building space is preferable, there is no reason something like that outline above could not use a church building initially. Second, due to the prevalence of online resources, the need for a physical library would be minimal, even non-existent, at first. There is something about the physical page and designated physical space that encourages us to value and engage with material creation differently than electronic engagement, but online resources would at least provide a buffer for the initial stages.

Above, I have outlined the call to a new form of seminary, a form which concerns itself with training pastor-theologians, men who will think deeply about God with the church through the ages, feeding the flock entrusted to their care. I not only think something like this vision is preferable, I think it is possible. I think it is possible for us to discard with a system that has starved the church by training practitioners rather than pastors and to replace that system with an older and newer one that looks at ministerial training more along the lines of discipleship.