Theological education in North America: Crises and faithful creativity, Part 4
Dr. Philip E. Thompson
July 18, 2019
In the three previous offerings, I have briefly delineated the crisis facing theological schools in North America and introduced Sioux Falls Seminary’s Kairos Project as one response to the crisis. In this final installment, I will examine the Kairos Project’s resonance with, and faithfulness to, the Baptist expression of the Christian faith. This is not an insignificant question, an afterthought to the rest. It is, rather, at once integral to the seminary’s identity and a complex matter.
Sioux Falls Seminary’s roots go deep into Baptist soil, specifically German Baptist soil. The school began in 1858 as a department of Rochester (NY) Theological Seminary expressly for the purpose of educating ministers for German-speaking Baptist congregations. For a short time in the mid-1930s, the school, which was by then moving toward a more independent existence, was named German Baptist Seminary. Much change has taken place since. The school changed its name to North American Baptist Seminary in the 1940s, reflecting the gradual process of assimilation into English-speaking culture that went on among German Baptists during that period. It relocated in 1949 to Sioux Falls, SD as the concentration of German population in North America shifted westward. The school changed its name again in 2007, to Sioux Falls Seminary.
The last name change occasioned considerable discussion concerning the school’s Baptist identity. It also is emblematic of an ever more denominationally diverse student body. This diversity has only increased with the advent of the Kairos Project. In addition to having students from around twenty denominations, Sioux Falls Seminary now is home to houses of study for Methodist/Wesleyan and Lutheran students, and has formal partnerships with several non-Baptist schools and denominational bodies. Thus now we intentionally ask: In what ways do Sioux Falls Seminary and the Kairos Project reflect and share in a Baptist character?
Of course, the seminary can neither impose a Baptist identity as a condition of partnership (since to do that would be antithetical to Baptist heritage) nor simply set aside its Baptist identity as a relic of earlier days (since Baptists still comprise a plurality of the student body and majority among core faculty). We seek, rather, to be deeply Baptist in our new situation while receiving from all the traditions that together make up the Sioux Falls Seminary community. But what does this mean?
Baptist educators, theological and otherwise, tend to approach the question of Baptist identity in one of two ways. One is to shape educational process in keeping with certain “Baptist distinctives,” particularly freedom and/or soul liberty or competency. Thomas Graves has argued that authentic theological education must be driven by freedom of inquiry. He defined this freedom negatively, that is, by lack of constraint by creeds and other forms of tradition on the development of personal viewpoints, all of which he identified as “Baptist concepts.”[i]
This is not our way at Sioux Falls Seminary, for two reasons at least. In the first place, we affirm the ecumenical creeds as basic to our understanding of the Christian faith. This is both in keeping with early Baptist witness and has emerged as a matter of consensus within our diverse student body.[ii] Further, we have students who must work within the parameters of the Book of Concord, the confessional standards of various Presbyterian and Reformed churches, and the United Methodist Book of Discipline.
In the second place, an approach centered on some “Baptist distinctive(s)” is questionable. Mikeal Parsons has observed that “Baptist distinctives by themselves . . . are not enough to sustain the religious commitments of a Christian university.”[iii] We might say the same analogously with reference to the manner of providing theological education.
Sioux Falls Seminary’s “Baptistness” lies not in the application of some “Baptist principle” or set of principles. Rather, we seek to be resonant with the historic genius of the Baptist ethos, one grounded in the Baptist conviction of Christ’s lordship that leads to a decentering of all things human, including institutions. This does not, however, lead to their elimination. Also originating from this genius is commitment to the priority of God’s work in local communities and contexts. In the embodiments of ecclesial life throughout Baptist history, locality and the autonomy of local churches have been the dominant realities rather than the diocese, synod, or presbytery. “Christ hath here on earth a spirituall Kingdome, which is the Church . . . which Church as it is visible to us, is a company of visible Saints . . .” noted The London Confession of 1644.[iv] Similarly, as discussed previously in this series, students in the Kairos Project serve and learn in particular contexts which we believe to be “epistemologically revelatory.”[v]
A second important aspect of Baptist life historically that has helped shape the content and structure of The Kairos Project is the belief that discipleship is not an individual quest, but takes place in koinonia, in life shared together. While many Baptists, at least in North America, have tended to individualize the Christian life, earlier Baptists understood the local community to be the primary locus of God’s work in forming persons into the image of Christ. As the “Somerset Confession” declared concerning the work of the Holy Spirit:
[T]eaching, opening, and revealing the mysteries of the kingdom, and will of God unto us . . ., giving gifts in his church for the work of the ministry, and edifying the body of Christ . . ., that through the powerful teachings of the Lord, by his Spirit in his church, they might grow up in him (Eph. 4:15), be conformed to his will (Ezek. 36:27; I Pet. 1:2), and sing praises unto his name (Heb. 2:12; I Cor. 14:15).[vi]
The words of Heather Henson are fitting:
Together, these are the ways in which (The Kairos Project) is most baptistic. (They) take the concept of the autonomy of the local church and embed it into the process of theological education and development of people. Others might include the fact that Kairos does away with the model of theological education where the academy ‘hands down’ something to the church and replaces it with the long held Baptist belief that scripture is (best) read and interpreted in the context of the local community. In a sense, Baptist theological education should fully embrace the communal discernment that happens in Kairos. . . . Theological education in the Baptist tradition shouldn’t be about training professional clergy. Rather, it should be about developing all people because all people have something significant to bring the life and ministry of a local congregation.[vii]
The Kairos Project is a work in progress. We do not expect this to change because the conditions under which theological education is carried out continue to change. We continue to learn and seek to discern as, to echo the words of a nineteenth-century Baptist hymn, the Spirit leads in paths before unknown.[viii]
Dr. Philip E. Thompson is professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Heritage at Sioux Falls Seminary, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
[i] Thomas H Graves, “Freedom of Academic Inquiry Drives Authentic Theological Education,” Baptist History and Heritage 39, no. 1 (2004): 36–42.
[ii] William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, ed. Bill J. Leonard, 2nd Revised edition (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2011), 337–38; Thomas Grantham, Christianismus Primitivus: Or the Ancient Christian Religion . . . . (London, UK: Francis Smith, 1678), Book II, part 2 59–74 (pagination begins new in each Book); Thomas Grantham, St. Paul’s Catechism . . . . (London, UK: np, 1687), 23–33; Hercules Collins, An Orthodox Catechism: Being the Sum of Christian Religion, Contained in the Law and Gospel. (London, UK: np, n.d.), np. See also Philip E. Thompson, “Creeds and Freedom: Another Baptist Witness,” in Gathering Together: Baptists at Work in Worship, ed. Rodney Wallace Kennedy and Derek C. Hatch (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013), 63–83.
[iii] Mikeal C. Parsons, “Building the Faculty at a Christian University: The Significant Contribution Model,” in Donald D. Schmeltekopf, et al., eds. The Baptist & Christian Character of Baylor (Waco, TX: Baylor University, 2003), 64, quoted in Douglas V. Henry, “Can Baptist Theology Sustain the Life of the Mind?: The Quest for a Vital Baptist Academy,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 33, no. 2 (2006): 207.
[iv] William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith ed. Bill J. Leonard, 2nd Revised edition (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2011) 153-54.
[v] Elizabeth Newman, “Who’s Home Cooking? Hospitality, Christian Identity and Higher Education,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 26, no. 1 (1999): 15.
[vi] Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions, 191-92. Emphasis added.
[vii] Heather J. Henson, Gregory J. Henson, and Philip E. Thompson, “Reconnecting to Our Roots: Shaping the Future of Theological Education Through Historic Baptist Convictions” (Young Scholars in the Baptist Academy, Regent’s Park College, Oxford, UK, 2018), 25–26.
[viii] Baptist Hymn Book (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1871), hymn 288.
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