Navigating the Shorelines of Orthodoxy: Theological Education in a Confessional Context
September 20, 2022
In the following article, Stephen Eccher, Associate Professor of Church History and Reformation Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, shares how he equips Southeastern’s Great Commission students to refine, articulate, and practice their beliefs in a confessional context bounded by Christian orthodoxy.
Every semester I eagerly meet Southeastern students who have joined our community with the hope of securing a theological education for a lifetime of service to King Jesus. Getting to know these men and women and hearing their stories, especially regarding their aspirations for ministry and desire to participate in God’s mission, is always thrilling. But just as enjoyable as these moments are, the sobering weight of the monumental task before me always surfaces as well. In our current climate of division, polemic, confusion, and crisis of meaning how can I best prepare these students for the challenges ahead? Knowing how far too many gospel servants in evangelicalism fail to finish well, what can I offer them that will hopefully provide a foundation for sustainable success?
Given the importance of those questions, my teaching at Southeastern is oriented around inviting all my students to ponder three questions: What do you believe, why do you hold to those beliefs, and what are you willing to give up for those beliefs? The first of these questions is crucial. It provides a sense of ownership for the students as they ponder their own faith while building on their past tradition, church, and family experiences.
What do you believe, why do you hold to those beliefs, and what are you willing to give up for those beliefs?
The second question relates to authority. Here, students consider how they have come to those beliefs. It is at this point that I stress the importance of “sola Scriptura,” the doctrinal belief that the Bible is the normative and final authority when it comes to establishing doctrine and church practice. Focusing on the nature of the text being divinely authored, literally breathed out by God, provides us with assurances about the nature of God, humanity, and how we can rightly relate to him in a way that no other authority can.
The third and final question, which is sadly often forgotten, forces students to ponder the depths of their beliefs. If their convictions are true and valuable, then what are they willing to sacrifice or endure in order to maintain them? This is certainly a relevant question for many of our students desiring to serve overseas on mission. However, it is also increasingly relevant in an American context, which is becoming antagonistic, even hostile, to Christianity by the day.
The Foundation of Christian Orthodoxy
Beyond the aforementioned pedagogy, all my teaching is oriented around helping students ask these important questions on two different tracks. First, I encourage them to explore their beliefs against the backdrop of Christian orthodoxy. Of course, this requires that I help them to understand the nature of orthodoxy. That is, I work to help them know and identify the shorelines of doctrinal belief that have served as the common theological standards of Christians across the confessional-denominational divides for the past two thousand years. These orthodox beliefs relate to unified theological agreements on things like the Trinity, Christology, the exclusivity of Jesus, and so on. These serve as the boundaries of Christian belief on essential matters of the faith.
I encourage them to explore their beliefs against the backdrop of Christian orthodoxy.
Language is crucial here since theology is language. So, we explore how Christians before us have used words to convey what the Bible teaches regarding the faith that was given to the saints once for all. To deviate from this instruction is to wander beyond the shorelines of orthodoxy into the wilderness of heresy. The early church creeds serve as a valuable aid for us at this point. Things like the Nicene Creed, the Apostles Creed, and the Chalcedonian formula stand as consensus statements, conveying carefully nuanced theological suppositions derived from the Bible, the normative and final standard for establishing doctrine and church practice. These creeds do not create doctrine. Rather, they reaffirm the Bible’s message of redemption and rearticulate that message with special attention to aberrant beliefs that have risen in a particular historic context. This is especially helpful because when it comes to heresies, there is nothing new under the sun.
This is a weighty and challenging task. However, it is one that I happily and soberly embrace for it is the same pattern of trust that Paul offered to Timothy: to rightly receive the baton of the gospel, to cling to it throughout life, and then to faithfully pass it along to those who might do the same. Though we deal in theological terms and doctrinal convictions, those beliefs have dramatic consequences in their outworking. This is why it is crucial to identify and correct any heretical beliefs in a classroom setting before they surface in a church context where souls and eternity are at stake.
The Formulation of Confessional Convictions
The focus of my second teaching track narrows the scope of examination. Beyond considering the importance of maintaining orthodox convictions, I have the honorable trust of helping shepherd my students to think through their own confessional convictions. This means walking alongside them as they contemplate their own beliefs — not just about foundational, essential matters of the faith but also about particular convictions that situate them within a confessional heritage.
It is understandable and to be expected that good and fair-minded Christians will disagree on a host of secondary and tertiary matters based upon different readings of Scripture. The Bible is inspired and inerrant, but our interpretations are not. Accordingly, for centuries Christians have held contested views on church polity, the sacraments (or ordinances), election and human responsibility, etc. As we discuss these important matters, I frame all such discourse against the backdrop of our four confessions at Southeastern (Abstract of Principles, Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, and the Danvers Statement).
These four statements are vital to us as an institution as they define and anchor the unique type of Baptists that we are at Southeastern. In a sea of seemingly endless beliefs and at a time when many people waffle on their doctrine, the convictions in these four documents are a statement of our beliefs. Given the relationship that our convention of churches has with Southeastern, our steadfast adherence to these documents provides an anchor of trust. Our churches can be confident that these are the specific doctrinal parameters that we hold to as a faculty when their students come to study with us.
In a sea of seemingly endless beliefs and at a time when many people waffle on their doctrine, the convictions in these four documents are a statement of our beliefs.
Specifically, this means that we unashamedly believe in regenerate church membership, believers’ baptism by immersion, the separation of church and state, freedom of conscience, inerrancy, a biblical view of marriage between one man and one woman, and a complementarity of gender roles in the home and church, by way of example. Because we are an academic institution we will try to fairly represent, engage with, and explore contrasting positions on such things that are held by professing Christians who serve in other denominational and ministry contexts. However, we frame such discussions against the backdrop of our own convictions. This allows students an opportunity to consider their own beliefs based on Scripture in a safe, respectful, and confessional context.
Each of these statements are also freeing to me as a professor charged with the sacred trust of stewarding the theological education of the next generation of gospel workers. Since these four statements summarize my personal convictions, they loose me in the classroom to lean into those beliefs without fear of retribution or punishment. In our current climate of political correctness and cancel culture, these statements, alongside the relevant trust we maintain with our convention of churches through our trustee system, affords me the freedom to speak confidently and boldly. In fact, I have an open-ended invitation for other faculty, my administration, and our trustees to come sit in on any of my classes. Since all my teaching is offered based upon my personal adherence to these confessional statements, this leaves me freed to do what God has called me to do and what Southern Baptists have tasked me to pursue in my work. I pray that through those labors our students will grow in their knowledge and love of God, and that our churches will be well served. Soli Deo Gloria!