In 2017, Study the Doctrine of the Church with Us

Today at For the Church, I seek to answer the question ‘Why Study the Doctrine of the Church?” My essay begins this way:

In the nineteenth century, leading Southern Baptist theologian J. L. Dagg wrote this with regard to the relationship of ecclesiology to other doctrines:

Church order and the ceremonials of religion, are less important than a new heart; and in the view of some, any laborious investigation of questions respecting them may appear to be needless and unprofitable. But we know, from the Holy Scriptures, that Christ gave commands on these subjects, and we cannot refuse to obey. Love prompts our obedience; and love prompts also the search which may be necessary to ascertain his will. Let us, therefore, prosecute the investigation which are before us, with a fervent prayer, that the Holy Spirit, who guides into all truth, may assist us to learn the will of him whom we supremely love and adore.[1]

As evangelical Protestants, we are rightly often first in line to affirm that the doctrine of the church is less important than a heart twice-born. Our Reformation heritage hands us five solas and to think of an additional sola ecclesia is like adding a sixth Istar to the Third Age of Middle Earth, i.e. unthinkable. As such, evangelicals are not as often quick to affirm that wrestling with and arriving at sure ecclesiological convictions, as Dagg suggests, is a worthwhile exercise.

Why should we, then, study the doctrine of the church? To answer that, we need to clarify ecclesiology’s rightful place among and functional posture toward other doctrines.

You can read the rest of the article here.

At Midwestern Seminary, we offer the Ecclesiology PhD Seminar on a regular basis. This is a core seminar for the theology, missiology, ministry and historical theology emphases in the MBTS PhD program.

This Spring, I am pleased to announce that noted theologian and specialist in ecclesiology, Dr. Malcolm B. Yarnell, III of Southwestern Seminary, is joining me in co-teaching this seminar that starts officially on Jan 12 and meets on campus March 13-17.

We will have the students read 11 ecclesiology texts, many from different traditions and prepare reading outlines for discussion, write and present a major research paper, and complete a 12 page statement of their own biblical ecclesiology. Here is the syllabus for Ecclesiology (DR 37337).

Current PhD students can still enroll until January 12, or join us as a late registrant until January 26.

If you’d like to learn more about the Midwestern PhD program so you can join us for the study of ecclesiology in a future seminar, please visit the Doctoral Studies page. We’d love to hear from you.

Also, we have a new residential component of the PhD program starting in Fall 2017. Learn more about ‘The Residency’ here.


[1] J. L. Dagg, Manual of Church Order (Charleston, SC: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1858), 12.

See “Why Study the Doctrine of the Church?” at

Tom Oden’s (1931-2016) Recovery of Classic Christianity

As I was driving home last night, I was disheartened to hear of the passing of Thomas C. Oden (1931-2016). He was a theologian I met and heard in person only once eleven years ago, but like many of his generation, I was trained and influenced more by those he influenced. As he lived in nearby Oklahoma City, I had hopes of meeting him again through a mutual friend, but that will now have to wait for a more glorious day. I am grateful for his life and contribution to evangelical theology, both in word and deed. He was a Gentlemen Theologian.

In recent years, I read his outstanding autobiography, and found it to shed great insight for me on the development of theology in the twentieth century, among both Protestant liberalism and Evangelicalism. For, as the title of the volume suggests, right around the age of 40, Oden experienced a change of heart. This theological transformation he underwent resulted in a new trajectory away from the theological left of his academic training and toward something older and more solid, what he would call classic Christianity. This new path led him to find a warm welcome among evangelicals, as he would say,

“I found the evangelicals to be more welcoming and inclusive than the liberals, who were so frequently speaking about inclusion with a narrower view of inclusiveness largely defined by gender and ethnicity. Evangelical and Catholic inclusiveness transcended those divisions and went deeper into transcultural classic Christianity” [175].

The result has been four-decades of significant literary output that includes the massive and pioneering Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

While there is much to glean and learn from the life and thought of Tom Oden, particularly, I am grateful for the revived interest in early Christianity and Patristic theology he helped to champion. In A Change of Heart he tells the story of how this came to pass:

A Collegial Challenge

In the 1970s, while at Drew University, Oden tells of a confrontation he had with a friend and  Jewish colleague, who informed Oden, at that time a 39 year old Christian theology professor, that he was “densly ignorant of Christianity.” Oden relates,

“Holding one finger up, looking straight at me with fury in his eyes, he said, ‘You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas.’ In his usual gruff voice and brusque speech, he told me I had not yet met the great minds of my own religious tradition” [136].

The Plunge

Following this Oden “plunged into reading the earliest Christian writers,” and what he found there changed his life and soul. Through reading Polycarp, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Augustine, Macrina, John of Damascus, and John Chrysostom he said the “maturing of my change of heart took place only gradually.” Commenting further,

“I was being guided by the Spirit toward and integral sense of Scripture based on the consensus of the early Christian interpreters of sacred Scripture. Every question I previously thought of as new and unprecedented, I found had already been much investigated

Soon I reveled in the very premises I had set aside and rationalized away: the preexistent Logos, the triune mystery, the radical depth of sin passing through the generations, the risen Lord and the grace of baptism.

As I worked my way through the beautiful, long-hidden texts of classic Christianity, I reemerged out of a maze to once again delight in the holy mysteries of the faith and the perennial dilemmas of fallen human existence.

It was no longer me interpreting the texts but the texts interpreting me. I was deeply moved” [137-139].

Nothing New

Oden was relieved by what he discovered and the theological and life-altering change he experienced. He shared that he was “elated to realize that there was nothing new in what I was learning; I was only relearning what had been relearned many times before the apostolic witness.” In reflecting on his life to this midpoint, he assessed,

“My life story has had two phases: going away from home as far as I could go, not knowing what I might find in an odyssey of preparation, and then at last inhabiting anew my original home of classic Christian wisdom. The uniting theme of the two parts of my life can only be providence. For confessing Christians it is a familiar story of a life unexpectedly turned around by an outpouring of grace.

My life has passed through the core phases of the history of modern social change, politics, technology, philosophy and religion. Some may find that my story mirrors their own experience. Putting that mirror in another’s hands is my motivation to write it accurately just as it occurred. Those societal changes have affected everyone in our times, but at the same time the perennial story of salvation awaits anyone ready to hear it.

I had been enamored with novelty. Candidly, I had been in love with heresy. Now I was waking up from this enthrallment to meet a two thousand year old stable memory” [140].

A Prefigured Epitaph

In 1971 Oden dreamt that he was walking the the New Haven cemetery and came across his own tombstone that read, “He made no new contribution to theology.” For him, this prefigured epitaph was a welcomed relief and a sign of his change of heart. He explained,

“The striking image signaled to me that I no longer had to produce something new in theology in order to find a reliable foothold in theological discourse …. Since the first time I ever thought of becoming a theologian, I was earnestly taught that my most crucial task was to ‘think creatively’ in order to ‘make some new contribution to theology’ ….

But this dream prompted me to begin to try to follow the strict rule of Irenaeus that Christian truth must avoid any temptation to ‘invent new doctrine’ … What the ancient church teachers least wished for Christian teachers is that they would become focused on self-expression or become an assertion of purely private inspiration, as if those might claim to be some decisive improvement on apostolic teaching” [144].

Tom Oden referred to this awakening as his “midlife breakthrough. I was forty,” he said. “My next forty years would be entirely different.” And,

“As with Augustine, it was through a journey of the mind that I had a change of heart. I had to learn than my life was more than my mind, and that my journey had to be experienced without knowing where it was taking me. In the 1970s I learned that it was God the Spirit, prompting, wooing, revealing and guiding the journey” [178].

As many take the occasion in the coming days to reflect on Oden’s life and theological work, particularly his contribution to the theology of the early church, I am one who remains thankful for Oden’s change of heart and his recovery of classic Christianity.

A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir

Thomas C. Oden
IVP, 2014



Our Final Words: Thoughts on the Last Days of Steve Jobs and Henry Jessey

By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.

–Genesis 3:19

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

–Hebrews 9:27-28

For all who live, death is certain. Yet, our level of certainty about what happens after death is shaped by how we live and in what we put our trust.

As regular consumer (and sometimes writer) of biographies, I have found that much can be learned from and about a person’s thoughts on eternity not only from reading about what they said and did in life, but also by examining their final days–and even their final words.

Consider two examples:

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Five years ago in October, the unarguably brilliant genius and entrepreneur, Steve Jobs of Apple fame, passed away. The stuff of legends, the story of Jobs’s life and career has been and can be told by many—and if not by many then there are still many more who were impacted by the things he made. The just 10 year old iPhone alone exists now in global ubiquity and was one of many innovations that contributed to Jobs’s estimated net worth of $10 billion at the time of his death.

To my knowledge, and from what can be read, Jobs did not claim to follow Christ. He was a devotee to Zen Buddhism and allowed that belief system to influence and direct him. Further, in his early career he cited his experimentation with psychedelic drugs as one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life.

On October 30, 2011, the sister of the late Steve Jobs published in the New York Times the eulogy she delivered at her brother’s memorial service earlier that month. In it she gives her recollections and assessments of her iconic, brilliant, and world-changing brother. She speaks of his work ethic, his humility, his love for his children and wife, and his overall happiness. She describes his admirable battle with cancer, fought while the world watched.

But she concludes with the following:

“What I learned from my brother’s death was that character is essential: What he was, was how he died. Tuesday morning, he called me to ask me to hurry up to Palo Alto. His tone was affectionate, dear, loving, but like someone who was already on the beginning of his journey, even as he was sorry, truly deeply sorry, to be leaving us ….

When I arrived, he and his Laurene were joking together like partners who’d lived and worked together every day of their lives. He looked into his children’s eyes as if he couldn’t unlock his gaze …. Then, after awhile it was clear that he would no longer wake to us. His breathing changed. It became severe, deliberate, purposeful ….

He made it through the night …. His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude …. But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.

Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times. Before embarking, he’d look at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.

Steve’s final words were: OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.”

What Steve Jobs saw at the conclusion of his life or what he meant by his “Oh Wow,” I do not know. Nor do I know what he claimed to believed about Jesus Christ in those final hours. But if his belief claims had not changed—as great of a person that he was to society and his family—he sadly was not prepared for eternity (Acts 4:12).

Henry Jessey (1601-1663)

In the 1600s, there lived in London an obscure pastor unknown today and forgotten. By human standards he did not change the world. Although he was brilliant, he never became a billionaire nor had world-wide much less city-wide influence.

Henry Jessey was the pastor of an independent (non-Church of England) church during the years of great political upheaval in England. Out of his church would come the early English Baptists from who many Baptists and Evangelicals can trace our heritage and history today.

Jessey had an affinity for the biblical languages and was even commissioned by Parliament to help produce a new translation of the Bible to replace the King James authorized version. Regrettably, this project was never completed due to political turmoil in London, but it does reveal Jessey’s lifelong devotion to the Bible.

Of Jessey’s Bible affection, one biographer said, “The Hebrew & Greek Testaments he constantly carried about him, frequently calling the One his Sword & Dagger, & the Other his Shield & Buckler …. For by his thorow study of the Scriptures he … became so familiar with its language & phraseology that it was to him like his Mother Tongue, both in Preaching & Conversation: this way of speaking he thought most Savory & best becoming those that professed Christianity.” Another biographer recounted, “Who ever begun to rehearse a place [from the Bible] he could go on verbatim with the preceding and following context: who ever enquired after a Scripture, he could presently name the book, chapter and verse so that he was not undeservedly called by one (a living Concordance).”

In 1663, Jessey grew fatally ill. On the night of his death, he like Steve Jobs, had loved ones gathered and here is the account of Jessey’s final words:

“As for the last night he lived, first part thereof he spent in blessing the Lord, and singing praises to his Name, and fell asleep about 11 a.clock, and waked again between 2 and 3 …. But this good mans memory, which was beyond comparison, for the quotation of the Text, began now to faile him, at which he seemed to be troubled, earnestly calling them to help him therein, which was done, and much please him;

Thus he lay some time calling for more Julip, more Julip, meaning more Scriptures, for he drank in much comfort and consolation from the promises which the Lord had given him, a steadfast Faith and hope to trust his soul, and eternal state upon, for he continued unto the last gasp his praising of God.”

Henry Jessey concluded his life by calling for more Bible and his last words were spent praising God.

When compared to the successful and happy Steve Jobs who voiced only uncertain expressions at his end, how was this unknown pastor able to rest in something more certain?

Jessey’s ability to rest in peace with God at the end of his life derived from the surrendering of his life to God many years earlier. When preparing his last Will and Testament, Jessey included the following preface that explains:

“I Henry Jessey of London, a servant of Jesus Christ in the ministry of the Gospel, do declare, that form the Lord’s most gracious manifestation of his most free love in his Son to me the chiefest of all saved sinners, I have committed my soul to him, as to a faithful Creator and Redeemer being assured by the witness of his good Spirit, that Jesus Christ hath loved me and washed me from all my sins in his precious blood, and that he will save me everlastingly.”

For all those who live, death is certain, and our certainty of what happens after death is determined by how we live and in what we trust. Facing eternity uncertain of God, trusting in someone or something other than God, or even opposing his existence in word, deed, or indifference is something the Bible says we should fear (Matt 12:36-37). However, by learning from other lives (Matt. 11:29), when we come to our end our final words do not have to convey a fear of death or uncertainty of what is to come after death.

Jesus Christ came to earth to destroy death by sacrificing himself so that all who oppose or are uncertain about God could find peace with God (Rom 5:1). Jesus did this loving act to help the helpless no longer to fear death (Heb 2:14-18), but rather to find deliverance from fear and uncertainty at death and, instead, eagerly wait for him.

For more of the life and thought of Henry Jessey, see this newly released volume from BorderStone Press.

On Appreciation for the ERLC

Every year at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Resolutions Committee presents at least one annual resolution expressing appreciation to the host city for their hospitality and service while the Convention has met in their midst. These “On Appreciation” resolutions are brief but do provide the opportunity for the Convention to give thanks where thanks is due (1 Thess 5:18).

As the national presidential election comes to a conclusion, I am reflecting on the journey undertaken by our nation and, particularly, by evangelicals in terms of public debate and discourse over the last eighteen months. While I join many in expressing gratefulness simply that the election has come to an end, I am especially thankful for the Kingdom-focused and service-oriented work of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Thus, herein express my own statement “On Appreciation” for them.

While not surprised or even alarmed by the often strident confluence of church and culture, Christianity and secularism, and the multiplied opinions of how they should relate, the brothers and sisters of this Convention Commission have the assignment of living at these crossroads and helping all of us to “understand the moral demands of the gospel, apply Christian principles to moral and social problems and questions of public policy, and to promote religious liberty in cooperation with the churches and other Southern Baptist entities.”

Given the tone of the rhetoric and actions in this year’s national election, the task of the ERLC is unenviable and even impossible, yet still remains vital. Since 1907, with the first appointment of the Southern Baptist Convention’s “Committee on Civic Righteousness,” the churches of our Convention have been helped by dedicated leaders and public advocates especially with regard to promoting the Kingdom of God first in the defense of religious liberty.

A. J. Barton, the first chairman of what we now know as the ERLC, said in his 1929 address to the annual meeting of the SBC,

“The Kingdom of God is promoted primarily by preaching the gospel of salvation and bringing the individual to know and trust and love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. Here Baptists have always placed the major emphasis. Here they will place the major emphasis to the end of the age.

But the Kingdom of God has to do with the whole life of the individual and with the whole social order. Life is not divided into water-tight compartments; life is a whole. The individual cannot be one sort of person in religion, and another in politics. The Kingdom of God would win men to personal experience of grace and would permeate all the affairs of men until ‘the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord and his Christ.’ The experience of grace does not remove the individual from this world but leaves him in the world to help save and transform the world.

“It follows that the saved individual has no less duties as a citizen and no less concern for the protection of the weak and defenseless and the establishment of righteousness in all the affairs of men than does the unsaved; indeed, he has greater, for obligation is increased by increased light.

“It follows, therefore, that a Baptist body composed of individuals with no ecclesiastical or political powers or functions is entirely within its rights to express the collective judgment of its members concerning matters involving the public morals and the public good. It follows also that Baptists, whether pastors, presidents of seminaries, editors or non-official members, are entirely within their rights when they become antagonists of evil and the protagonists of good, whether in the realm of private morals or public morals. This is all this Convention and its constituency have ever done; all that we will ever do, but, please God and God helping us, we can and will do no less.”

While no leadership team of the Convention’s public policy arm, past or present, can carry out this task with perfection or to the full approval of every member of the churches they serve–nor should they be held to that unassailable expectation–it is always right to express thanks to them and for them for their service, courage, and efforts. Particularly, that is true during this election year, for I believe the ERLC has embodied well the spirit of both A. J. Barton’s statement as well as their stated ministry assignment.

As a co-laborer in a sister entity owned and operated by the Southern Baptist Convention, I have committed to honor fellow entities in their “day-to-day operations,” and while it is an ongoing joy to do that for all entities of the SBC, on this day it is a particular joy to express thanks to the staff of the ERLC for their unenviable, yet vital labors.

Therefore, to Russell Moore, Phillip Bethancourt, Daniel Patterson, Sam Dahl, Daniel Darling, Barrett Duke, Elizabeth Bristow, Doug Carlson, Joe Carter, Marie Delph, Elizabeth Graham, Matthew Herriman, Matthew Hawkins, Steven Harris, Samuel James, Stacy Keck, Gary Lancaster, Kevin Miller, Trillia Newbell, Bobby Reed, Tom Strode, Lindsay Swartz, Jason Thacker, Jill Waggoner, Andrew Walker, Rachel Wiles, Travis Wussow, and many more, I say—

In the spirit of the words of the Apostle Paul’s own statement “On Appreciation,” for the church of the Thessalonians:

“We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 1:2).


A Sincere and Pure Devotion to Christ: The First Anniversary of The Spurgeon Library

When thinking how best to assess and categorize the life of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), a phrase used by the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:3 comes to mind. For the totality of his life as a Christian, Spurgeon had “a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” There are scores of examples of this and, indeed, even dissertations yet to be written on the topic, but as one, consider his first and last words shared at the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

Spurgeon preached his first sermon at the Tabernacle on March 25, 1861. On that occasion he used Acts 5:42 “And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ” to remind his listeners that “the one subject upon which men preached in the apostolic age was Jesus Christ.”

That sermon inaugurated a three decade ministry that would reach every corner of the world. From London went forth the Christ-centered preaching of this Baptist lion with such reverberation that his words are still read and shared.

Upon Spurgeon’s death in 1892, to acknowledge and rightly capture the essence of the preacher’s preaching, memorial cards were printed containing this portion of his first sermon in 1861:

Spurgeon MC

From his first words spoken to the Metropolitan Tabernacle to the last words read on the occasion of his passing, Spurgeon maintained a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.

To this day, Spurgeon remains a regular subject of conversation in homes, churches, and classrooms as his life and legacy have traveled through generations like treasured heirlooms. This is true at Midwestern Seminary & College in more ways than one as both the life of Spurgeon and his heirlooms are a part of his extended legacy in Kansas City, Missouri.

One year ago, Midwestern dedicated The Spurgeon Center that houses Spurgeon’s own library—6,000 volumes first sold to Baptists in Missouri in the early 20th century and acquired by Midwestern in 2006.

Open for research and study, The Spurgeon Library is designed to allow pastors and scholars to look through Spurgeon’s library to find and illuminate Spurgeon’s Christ.

In addition to the physical collection of the books once owned by Spurgeon, curator Christian T. George is in the process of publishing, for the first time, the previously lost sermons of Spurgeon’s early days of preaching. Dr. George also has recorded several introductory videos related to the Lost Sermons project and regularly writes on Spurgeon’s life and ministry at the Spurgeon Center blog.

Photo: C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Vol. III (London, 1899), A3

Happy 40th Birthday Jason K. Allen

This week at Midwestern Seminary, the Board of Trustees, seminary supporters, and members of the Midwestern community gathered to celebrate the upcoming 40th birthday of President Jason K. Allen. At that event, I had the honor of joining several who brought greetings for this enjoyable occasion. Here are the remarks I made on behalf of the seminary community and the President’s Cabinet:

In the introduction to his new collection of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s eulogies of Great Lives of the Twentieth Century, James Rosen recalls a time when he interviewed the influential conservative commentator on the occasion of his 75th birthday:

“I was startled how disaffected the great man seemed. ‘You’re celebrating a milestone birthday soon,’ I began the interview, ‘How do you feel?’

‘Who said I was celebrating it?’ he shot back with a chuckle. ‘You’re celebrating it.'”

So, in the spirit of Buckley, whether he likes it or not, we are here to celebrate Dr. Allen’s 40th birthday.

Yet for the rest of us in this room, his milestone birthday gives us an occasion to celebrate specifically what Dr. Allen has meant to us at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary & College.

I’ve been asked to say a few words on behalf of the Midwestern community and the President’s Cabinet, the senior administrative officers that meet with him regularly and help him carry out his vision for the seminary.

I know I speak for all of us when I say that we are genuinely thankful for Dr. Allen. When the Board of Trustees were seeking to hire Midwestern’s fifth president just over 4 years ago, it was a time in the life of this institution when the seminary needed, more than anything, a visionary president.

Midwestern did not need a coach or cheerleader for a president. Not a CEO or a mentor. Not a maintainer or a consensus builder–even though Dr. Allen does model the best sense of all those attributes. No, what Midwestern needed was a visionary president and we are thankful the Board of Trustees selected Jason K. Allen.

Thus, on this special occasion and in the short time I have to speak for of all of us who work for and serve with Dr. Allen, and who get to learn from him up close, we want to celebrate these four things about him:

First, we celebrate Dr. Allen’s transformative leadership. He has led the seminary both through change and to change. More than that, all those who serve with him have changed as well, and all that for the better.

Second, we celebrate Dr. Allen’s goal driven priorities and how he is relentlessly focused on those goals. In a day where many people are driven by what distracts or the pursuit of leisure, Dr. Allen brings those he leads along to something better and more noble by setting goals. Indeed, if you want to know why Midwestern has accomplished all it has in the last 4 years, you can trace it back to our President’s goal setting.

Third, we celebrate Dr. Allen’s keen pursuit of excellence. Another way of saying this is that nothing slips past him as he is one of the most astute observers of people and events I have known. By raising the standard of expectations for excellence even in the smallest of matters, he has seen Midwestern grow to pursue a culture of excellence in all areas small and large.

Fourth, we celebrate Dr. Allen’s singular vision. His determination to root and establish this era at Midwestern seminary as being “for the church” has been, humanly speaking, the key underlying factor for the seminary’s success. But it would not have happened without his leading and championing this vision on a regular basis.

Dr. Allen,

Four years ago, more than anything else, this school needed a visionary president–and you were that president then and you have been that president every day since. On behalf of the President’s Cabinet and the Midwestern community as we celebrate your 40th birthday, we simply want to express our gratefulness to God for you and for your leadership.

Happy Birthday.

Fall 2016 Courses at Midwestern

The Fall Term is well underway at Midwestern Seminary and I am enjoying getting to know new and returning students again on campus and especially those students taking my classes.

Here are the courses I am teaching this fall in addition to my ongoing academic administrative responsibilities:

Baptist History

This is our required historical theology course for masters students that I enjoy a great deal. While some folks cannot imagine having to teach the same material over and over again, I prefer it.

Since 2005, each semester has given me the opportunity to refine and update my lectures and have another go at appealing to students that ecclesial tradition matters and that, in most cases, it is not what they think it is.

In fact, the history of the Baptist tradition is far more doctrinal, relevant to day to day church life, and helpful for the task of world evangelization than they’ve ever imagined. I have fourteen weeks to convince them of this and I love that challenge.

Here is my syllabus for Baptist History (HT 3110), Mondays at 2:45 p.m. in C157.

Biblical Ecclesiology

This is a core seminar for the theology, missiology, ministry and historical theology emphases in the MBTS PhD program. I co-taught this seminar with Dr. John Mark Yeats, undergraduate dean and church historian, and we have the students read 10 major ecclesiology texts from different traditions and prepare reading outlines for discussion, write and present a major research paper, and complete a 12 page statement of their own biblical ecclesiology.

Here is the syllabus for Biblical Ecclesiology (DR 37337), that met on campus in Kansas City September 12-16.

The Baptist Tradition

This is a required seminar for the Historical Theology PhD emphasis in the MBTS PhD program. I also am co-teaching this seminar with Dr. John Mark Yeats, and we have the students read 12 major primary and secondary source texts related to the Baptist Tradition and prepare a critical review of one of the works and reading outlines for all the volumes for discussion. They also write and present a major research paper.

This is a seminar we developed after the Baptist Theologians seminar offered for decades at Southwestern Seminary and reflects the influence of many historical theologians who mentored me and have served as dialogue partners over the years including Malcolm Yarnell, Greg Wills, Michael Haykin, Paige Patterson, Thomas White, John Hammett and Nathan Finn.

Here is the syllabus for The Baptist Tradition (DR37370), that is meeting on the campus in Kansas City this week.

The MBTS PhD program was one of my favorite discoveries upon my arrival last year at Midwestern as I think it is uniquely and well-designed to serve the pastor-theologian. By offering the program entirely in a modular format, this degree follows the best of the British system combined with the strengths of a cohort USA model. Each semester-equivalent seminar consists of 8 weeks of pre-work, 5 days on campus in Kansas City, and 4 weeks of post-work. Students complete 10 seminars and need to attend 2 per year to maintain full-time status.

My observation has been that students are able to meet the same standards held by traditional residential programs with the added benefit of building stronger relationships with students and faculty due to their week-long immersion experience on campus several times a year. I am thrilled with and delighted to recommend PhD studies at Midwestern Seminary.  

Preview Conference

Are you interested in taking a class at Midwestern or seeing what degree program might be the best fit for you? Find more information here or make plans to attend our Fall Preview Conference, October 28, 2016. I would love to meet you and welcome you to Kansas City.


The Fall semester marks the return of regular articles and other resources here at or what I have re-titled as Footnotes: the collection of ancillary quotes, remarks and imagery of Jason G. Duesing. I am grateful to have the assistance of Jason Kees joining me again this semester as a Provost Fellow. Kees serves as pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Florien, Louisiana, current MBTS PhD student and regular contributor to For the Church ( You can follow him on twitter at @jpkees.

Where are the Gentlemen Theologians?

The first time I attended the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I was an aspiring-but-not-yet PhD student. A classmate and I made the journey to Colorado Springs to hear scholars we had only read but never seen or met. In those days, scholastic luminaries were debating the nature of God in the ornate ballrooms of The Broadmoor Hotel. Due to the financial limits of seminary students, we spent our evenings in more modest accommodations, and yet, in our three-star hotel we encountered another kind of scholar. There we met two of what church historian E. Brooks Holifield called “Gentlemen Theologians.”

Holifield documented how a segment of clergy in antebellum America were “proponents of clerical gentility.” Spread throughout all denominations, and though often disagreeing among themselves over major and minor issues, these Gentlemen Theologians were the ones who made the decisions that shaped churches. In short, these were the ministers who gave a voice to “orthodox religious thought” (24).

Staying with us in that hotel were the now late Roger Nicole (1915-2010) and a colleague of his from Reformed Theological Seminary. While not chronologically of the class of Holifield’s gentlemen, they carried their same spirit. To come to this assessment, my classmate and I did not spend the evening asking them questions or embarking on a formal mentoring relationship. Rather, we simply observed them at breakfast and that made all the difference.

One morning, as is universal with the hotel complimentary breakfast scene, chaos was in full force as families and other guests were nosily consuming eggs and pastries while waiting in line at the waffle station. In their midst, I noticed Dr. Nicole holding a table while his colleague patiently waited his turn at the toaster, though with a puzzled look on his face.

Someone had left their toast unattended and the professor was at a loss how to maneuver so he could have his turn. Rather than shuffle aside the abandoned and browned slices, he lifted them to a clean plate and proceeded among the grazing throng asking all if this toast might be theirs. Given that most were talking past him and his own aged meekness, not all could hear him, but some did, and soon he was relieved and carried on with his own meal.

While this might not appear that remarkable, how he went about that simple matter with unpretentious care and concern for a stranger’s food, made a lasting impression on a young seminarian. For here were two academics, in town for a meeting at which they were well-known and highly regarded, lodging at a basic hotel and taking the time amid the tumult of the free breakfast to honor and care for those with whom they were eating. It was gentlemanly and spoke volumes.

Polemic Theology and the Trinity Debate

When a pastor friend of mine would later give me a copy of Roger Nicole’s essay, “Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us,” I took notice, recalling that breakfast experience. How fitting it was for a scholar of his stature to write a piece like this, for I had seen a glimpse of how he might model care for another’s words and thoughts in the same gentlemanly fashion his colleague cared for a stranger’s abandoned breakfast. This, I suspected, was a Gentlemen Theologian, and as I have read and learned more, the testimony of Roger Nicole is that he was representative of a generation of such scholars.

Observing evangelicals debate the doctrine of the Trinity over the last few months, I’ve thought about that breakfast room and the essay on polemic theology and wondered what would Roger Nicole think?

Certainly there has been substantive discussion over vital issues of non-negotiable importance. Yet, there has also been a great deal of unhelpful polemics as we have seen a blurring of the distinction between healthy intra-evangelical debate and the attribution of heterodoxy. As I’ve watched and read, I have been hoping for more Gentlemen Theologians to help us know how to proceed. For one can contend in public as a gentleman without having also to condemn.

Contending as Gentlemen without Public Condemnation

Gentlemen Theologians need not hide from controversy or gloss over such with thin platitudes. No, as Nicole made clear:

“We are called upon by the Lord to contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3). That does not necessarily involve being contentious; but it involves avoiding compromise, standing forth for what we believe, standing forth for the truth of God–without welching at any particular moment. Thus we are bound to meet, at various points and on various levels, people with whom we disagree.”

However, care should also be given to how one engages. Another observation Holifield made about his nineteenth century Gentlemen Theologians related not just to what they believed, but how they wielded their theology and how their actions were received in their culture. He explained,

“The theology was used, among other purposes, to attract and reassure men and women … that ‘reasonable’ behavior—restraint, order, refinement, self-control, self-improvement, and similar virtues that sometimes seemed alien in [their] culture—was congruent with the deepest nature of things” (206).

Holifield described men who exercised self-control with their thoughts and words in service of others. This restraint sometimes seemed alien to the watching world, but it was consistent, not inconsistent, with what they say they believed.

Along these lines, Nicole also offered,

“One method that I have found helpful in making sure that I have dealt fairly with a position that I could not espouse was to assume that a person endorsing that view was present in my audience (or was reading what I had written). Then my aim is to represent the view faithfully and fully without mingling the criticism with factual statements. In fact, I try to represent them so faithfully and fully that an adherent to that position might comment, “This man certainly does understand our view!” It would be a special boon if one could say, “I never heard it stated better!” Thus I have earned the right to criticize. But before I proceed to do this, it is only proper that I should have demonstrated that I have a correct understanding of the position I desire to contest.”

Earning the right to criticize seems like it should be a vital mark of a Gentlemen Theologian and is one that many in the current Trinity debate have labored to honor. However, some have gone further than criticism to question publicly a brother’s orthodoxy without significant care or personal interaction.

Civil Kindness as a Virtue

If one truly feels that their brother or sister in Christ has moved beyond substantive difference of opinion to a place of heterodoxy, then I question the wisdom of addressing that first in an instantaneous, public, and non-peer reviewed environment.

The issue for me is not necessarily one of accuracy or need, for heterodoxy should always be addressed. The issue for me in this debate is one of public civility and kindness.

Richard Mouw, in his 1992 book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in and Uncivil World, affirmed that God has a concern for public righteousness, necessitating that Christians are to be agents of God’s righteousness. Yet, he argued that “our efforts at public righteousness must be modest ones” for the “world has already been visited by one overwhelmingly adequate Messiah” (37-38).

While it is helpful to frame what I am thinking through in terms of Mouw’s modest civility—for we know we do need more of this—I think that Russell Moore’s term “convictional kindness” put forward in his recent book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel is a more helpful descriptor. Moore says, “Civility is passive; kindness is active and strategic” (194). Moore points us to the example of Christ, referring to Jesus as a “gentle steamroller” who not only “rebukes and exposes” but also “seeks to save, not condemn” (196).

If we consider someone a brother in Christ, and come to think what they’ve written or said denies a major standard of Christian orthodoxy, then, in the spirit of civil kindness, I think first a face-to-face meeting or phone call is advisable instead of a citation of condemnation in one’s public musings. Here are two reasons why:

First, to post online such a weighty conclusion about a brother seems to under-dignify the seriousness of the claim. I have to think that the Gentlemen Theologians of Nicole’s generation would have a hard time watching such take place as it has in our public venues.

How much better would it be for such weighty claims first to be expressed in private and in person. There are more biblical and churchly ways of handling such matters rather than laying them before a watching world (1 Cor 6:4).

Second, I think Nicole’s “earning the right to criticize” is a most appropriate point of slowness in this recent debate that has seemed to rush to draw up Axis and Allies of digital articles in this crowded theological theater.

Personally, I agree with Albert Mohler that much of the citations against Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, and also Denny Burk and Owen Strachan are nonsense, not just for what those concerned claim, but especially for how they claim it. I can’t help but wonder that if those convinced of their brother’s heterodoxy were slow to speak and sought to earn the right to criticize in private, much of the negative impact of this debate could have been avoided.

As I mentioned, I am not implying that essence of these discussions are not extremely important or not worth addressing at length. Yet, I am questioning some of the chosen polemical paths with regard to how one brother attributes heresy to another.

Hoping for More Gentlemen Theologians

When it comes to ongoing theological discussion and the right assessment of orthodoxy, whether in this debate or the next one, the present generation has an opportunity to see Gentlemen Theologians arise from their ranks and lead with kindness and civility—to show us what careful scholarship looks like and to model slowness of speech (James 1:19). To be sure, there are many who model this way of evangelical scholarship and care for fellow brothers and sisters. I am merely hoping their tribe will increase.

In the meantime, the present Trinity debate feels a lot like that crowded breakfast room in a three-star hotel with family members and strangers talking past one another or at one another—but worse when we consider the public claims of heresy. Where are the Gentlemen Theologians who will lead us with care, civility, and kindness amid the chaos?


E. Brooks Holifield, The Gentlemen Theologians: American Theology in Southern Culture, 1795-1860 (Duke University Press, 1978).

Russell D. Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel (B&H, 2015).

Richard J. Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (IVP, 1992).

Roger R. Nicole, “Polemical Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us,” Founders Journal 33 (Summer 1998), 24-35.

A Health Issue: Why I (Still) Think a 90+hr MDiv is Too Long

A year ago this week I wrote the following article on the history and future of the Master of Divinity degree in theological education. One year later, I stand by these words and remain convinced that we serve churches best when students can aim to complete a rigorous professional masters degree that focuses on the high quality biblical and theological core of what a student needs to prepare for pastoral ministry in three years. Since avenues for further specialized study beyond this foundational degree exist in the form of MDiv concentrations, the ThM degree, and doctoral degrees, a three year MDiv is ideally designed as the healthiest MDiv for the church.

A Century’s Oak

In an effort to ensure the health of the types of trees that outlive most humans, often the best course of action an arborist has is counterintuitive. Instead of leaving a century old oak tree alone to weather the elements as it has for decades or attempt to survive encroaching modernity, the life of the tree is best prolonged after careful pruning or even replanting.[1] Yet, such preventative maintenance is sometime misunderstood even by those who want to see the life of the tree prolonged. In communities where a tree of such age exists, the oak represents memories and experiences worth preserving, almost at any cost, but even then replanting might seem like a threat to the integrity of the tree and thus the viability is questioned.[2]

In the last 50 years of the world of theological education, the Master of Divinity degree has served as the oak of a seminary’s curriculum—and with good reason. As Jason Allen notes, “In it one finds the complete toolkit for ministry service: Greek and Hebrew, New Testament and Old Testament, theology, church history, preaching, pastoral care and counseling, evangelism, missions, and much, much more.”[3] Yet, as Allen shares, as the MDiv crossed the millennium, it fell on hard times. What was once the universally agreed upon standard, now has it’s challengers in the form of “shorter and less rigorous Master of Arts degrees.”[4] Thus, for this mainstay degree that has trained thousands, to reach the century mark of further effective training and formation, the time has come for it to be carefully pruned and replanted. For the MDiv to have new life extended for the 21st century and function as the century’s oak, revitalization must occur.

The MDiv: A History of Strength

For the first half of the 20th century, the standard theological degree offered by the seminaries was the Bachelor of Divinity. The term “divinity” was chosen as it reflected for centuries the formal study of theology in the Western tradition. By design, this theological degree was conceived and offered as a second undergraduate degree for those called to ministry and in many traditions served as the basic degree required for ordination.[5] There were graduate degrees available, such as the ThM, but such were designed for academic preparation in research and scholarship. However, by the middle of the century, many pastors and faculty members realized that what was taught and required had migrated toward graduate level education with a professional, rather than research, focus and, further, many pastors were starting to inquire about the creation of professional educational options provided at the doctoral level.

Thus, in 1964, a committee of the American Association of Theological Schools embarked on a two year study to recommend an appropriate name for the basic theological degree offered by the seminaries. After several listening sessions and surveys, the committee drafted an 80 page study document reviewed by 5 consultants, which led to a formal recommendation at the 1966 biennial meeting of the AATS [now ATS]. The committee gave member schools the option of either retaining the Bachelor of Divinity degree or adopting what they termed the Master of Divinity degree for programs that “have genuinely raised the quality of their work to the level appropriate to a master’s degree in a reputable university.” They recognized that study at the graduate level should have a “curriculum flexible enough to allow for adequate education for the diverse ministries emerging in our time, while at the same time providing required discipline in the basic fields of theological study, such as biblical study, church history, theology, and arts of ministry.”

In their explanation for the selection of this nomenclature, the committee explained that (1) they did not think they should use or co-opt an established masters degree, as the ThM already indicated advanced research study and Master of Arts degrees typically focused their work in one department and were more specialized. (2) They desired that the terminology function as both useful and clear, thus adequately connecting with the contemporary trends in theological education. (3) Finally, they sought to retain the use of the term “divinity” as they wanted to maintain a connection with the long-standing tradition of the study of theology for ministry. In short, following 1966 the new Master of Divinity arose as the agreed upon term for the basic professional degree offered by seminaries.[6]

Many schools immediately adopted the MDiv nomenclature and among them were the seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention.[7] These schools offered conversion plans whereby pastors with the BDiv could change their degree to the MDiv and, in addition to the change in name, the seminaries changed the content seeking to make the MDiv a more flexible three-year degree that “recognizes the importance of the individual student’s own choices.”[8] What this meant was a reduction in the required core courses in favor of a sizable number of elective courses while maintaining roughly the same number of total hours (95-100 credit hours).

Throughout the decades that followed, schools would amend this ratio of core courses to elective courses as well as experiment by adding several MDiv concentrations that increased the total number of required courses. By the turn of the century, there settled a common understanding that while, in theory, the MDiv is a three-year degree, rarely does one or is one able to complete it in less than four years or longer. The advent and expansion of distance education through technology that culminated in what is now online education, has aided in making a three-year completion more realistic in terms of course offerings, but the 95+ required hours continue to make a three-year graduate an exception rather than the rule.

Replanting the MDiv for Future Strength

In recent years, professionals in the field of church revitalization and church planting have started to use the term “replanting” to recognize the unique work required among legacy congregations to ensure their days of ministry effectiveness continue for future decades.[9] These churches once were highly effective for a season, but due to various factors, whether neighborhood transition, leadership dysfunction, or simple effects of longevity, these churches are no longer looking toward a future of renewed effectiveness without some kind of revitalization. However, they are not yet in danger of closing their doors, but rather need a renewed look at their core function and purpose, perhaps some operational pruning, and a net overall replanting for a future season of ministry.[10]

When it comes to the theological degree with long standing proven effectiveness, the Master of Divinity has and should retain its place as the oak among the more specialized curriculum willows. However, for ensured effectiveness in the 21st century, a pruning and replanting of this degree is required. Rather than minimize the theological and biblical studies core, which comprise the essence, or tip of the spear, of what students training for pastoral ministry need, the replanted MDiv should prune the number of free elective courses. While elective selection is important to students wanting to gain further language study or explore areas of interest for future doctoral study, the requirement of a dozen or more elective hours can actually serve to distract and prolong the student’s preparation. Less hours does not have to mean less quality.

With the growing pressures for today’s ministry student that include incumbent educational debt, the need to work while pursuing a seminary degree, and the urgency of the ministry task, the MDiv degree needs to come with an achievable and regular three-year completion rate. The replanted MDiv should provide the aspiring pastor with the core of theological training in the form of a professional graduate degree attainable in a window of time that keeps them from ever feeling like a professional student.

Further, with the increased desire and feasibility of pastors pursuing professional or research doctorates, a three-year MDiv can both prepare them well for advanced study and help them begin that study sooner. While this pruning and replanting might appear risky or even counterintuitive to even the most ardent supporter of high quality theological education, the future viability of the MDiv planted in a world of shortened Master of Arts degrees, requires at least steps of preventative maintenance, if not more holistic revitalization.

An Oak for a Century

These are wonderful days to pursue theological education as a tool to aid in the preparation of a call to gospel ministry. These are also days of great need and urgency for a generation of pastors equipped with the best possible academic training available. The Master of Divinity degree has served for the last 50 years as the very best degree available to aid and equip the one called to serve churches as pastor. To ensure that it remains so for another 50 years, the degree needs careful pruning and replanting. When that work is done well, this oak of a degree can stand strong and see the day when churches see it as their own healthy and thriving Century Oak.[11]

Midwestern Seminary engaged in an extensive curriculum revision during 2013-2014 that resulted in the pruning and replanting of the MDiv degree. The new 81 hour Midwestern MDiv retains a 72 hour core curriculum, but has reduced the number of electives to 9 hours, thus allowing students to complete the degree in 3 years while providing them with the solid theological foundation needed to engage in pastoral ministry.[12] If students desire they can still pursue more specialized MDivs by adding an additional 9 hour concentration.[13] The Midwestern MDiv is truly a professional masters degree replanted for the church.    

[1] “Pruning trees and shrubs,” University of Minnesota Extension.

[2] “Ghirardi Compton Oak,” League City Parks and Recreation.

[3] ‘Why We Must Recover the Master of Divinity Degree,” Jason K. Allen.

[4] ‘Why We Must Recover the Master of Divinity Degree,” Jason K. Allen.

[5] “3 Seminary, 4 College Years Before Ordaining,” Baptist Press, December 10, 1960.,10-Dec-1960.pdf

[6] “Report on Degree Nomenclature,” AATS Bulletin 27.

[7] “Golden Gate Seminary Changes Degree Name,” Baptist Press, February 7, 1967.,07-Feb-1967.pdf; “Midwestern Seminary Changes Degree Name,” Baptist Press, January 5, 1967.,05-Jan-1967.pdf; “New Orleans Seminary Announces New Degree,” Baptist Press, March 15, 1967.,15-Mar-1967.pdf

[8] “Minutes of the Fall Faculty Retreat, August 24-25, 1970,” Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. See also “Southern Seminary Will Exchange Bachelor’s Degree for Master’s,” Baptist Press, June 12, 1967.,12-Jun-1967.pdf

[9] “Legacy Church Planting,” North American Mission Board.

[10] Mark DeVine and Darrin Patrick, Replant: How a Dying Church can Grow Again (David C. Cook, 2014).

[11] Many thanks to Robert J. Matz, Assistant Director of Online Studies and Institutional Effectiveness and Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at Midwestern, for his valuable research help for this article.

[12] “Midwestern reviews first year of 81-credit-hour MDiv,” Baptists Press. September 14, 2015.


Why Attend Chapel Services in Seminary?

Since the first seminary was founded in this country in 1808, seminaries have held chapel services. By the twentieth century, virtually all denominations had their own seminary or seminaries—and while all of them had chapel services, not all were effective or meaningful.

One 1934 study revealed, for example, that what a seminary president chooses to do with a chapel service proves to make a world of difference in the spiritual life and formation of its students. For the seminaries that presented dry, formal services full of perfunctory rituals and “brief talks” from faculty, many students resisted and chose not to attend. One student commented, “Most of the chapel talks by professors are hardly worth hearing. They sound like random comments made on the spur of the moment, or worse, like condensations of old sermons.”[1]

However, for schools that have sought to use the chapel service as a central part of their spiritual life, the chapel service has been used of God demonstrably and effectively for great things.

Southern Baptist seminaries have historically prioritized the chapel hour for good. Almost one hundred years ago, one SBC seminary president gave five “spiritual marks” that a seminary should place on the character and life of its students. Under the second mark, spirituality, he said:

A theological seminary should not be a cold-storage for the preserving of theological eggs, but rather a warm incubator for the hatching of live, burning, shining preachers of the Gospel with souls hot with zeal and full of power. A seminary should not be a florist’s glass-covered hot-house, in which to grow delicate ministerial plants for perfumery purposes, but rather a training camp and naval station …. Our men should find God as well as his truth in their seminary studies …. Their hearts as well as their heads should grow. We need great souls with spiritual power in our pulpits and pastorates far more than we need great scholars with profound learning but innocent of the power of God.[2]

Fast forward a few decades to the year that I first enrolled at a seminary. Though I never heard of any vision for a seminary like just described, I found exactly that in the late 1990s at Southeastern Seminary in North Carolina. Aside from my local church, the place where I often found God at work in my heart as a student was in the seminary chapel. In fact, I found it of equal importance to all of the enriching education I was receiving from the classroom.

It was there I learned theologically rich hymns and songs that were both singable and memorable—and I learned what real congregational singing sounds like. To me, there still is nothing quite like hearing hundreds of students singing with all their hearts to the One to Whom they’ve surrendered their lives.

It was there I heard preaching from men who loved the inerrant Bible and believed in its truth and showed how God uses His Word to change your life.

In seminary chapel, I regularly was pushed to consider my role in taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth while making sure I was also taking it across the street. In short, rarely was I comfortable in chapel, but my life was changed.

Like the psalmist, in Psalm 73, who was troubled and wrestling with sin until, he said, he “went into the sanctuary of God,” gathering with God’s people under God’s Word always did remarkable things to my soul and life while in seminary.

For students preparing for the ministry, the seminary chapel can never replace the value of local church service, nor does it try to do so. Yet, for those who are serving on Sundays during their days of theological preparation, the seminary chapel provides another venue for spiritual sharpening. While in training, these soon to be preachers, missionaries, counselors, and educators need more of the Word, not less.

And the same applies for those of us who are doing the teaching and training. In fact, to this day, it is the regular discipline of gathering in chapel services, in addition to the services of my local church, that continue to refine, redirect, and refocus my life and ministry.

This is why I am very much enjoying this fall semester here at Midwestern Seminary & College. Students and faculty have the opportunity to come together on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to hear from some incredible preachers among whom God is mightily at work.

As we meet together, may God be pleased to visit us and see fit to stir up many more “living, burning, shining preachers of the Gospel” to go forth from this chapel to the churches and from there to the ends of the earth.


[1] William Adams Brown, The Education of American Ministers, Vol. 1. (New York: Institute of Social and Religious Research, 1934), 157-158.

[2] L. R. Scarborough, “The Primal Test of Theological Education: The Inaugural Address of President Scarborough, May, 1915,” in A Modern School of the Prophets (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1939), 175-176.