Renouncing Disgraceful & Underhanded Ways—A Plea to Southern Seminary & Its Defenders

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But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

2 Corinthians 4:2 ESV

There is a godly way to address doctrinal controversy. And there are many ungodly ways of doing so. 

I would hope this much would be uncontroversial, but very few seem capable of objective moral reasoning on these issues of late. I’m referring specifically to the recent controversy over the teachings of certain professors at Southern Seminary, and the surprisingly foolish responses to the controversy which have come from the seminary’s defenders. 

Before getting into the details though, I want to emphasize that the point of this article is not to argue that Southern Seminary is currently experiencing a “liberal drift,” which is one of the implications of the charges which have been brought forward. I do not intend, here, to argue for one “side” or the other of the controversy. Rather, my intention is to point out and warn against the grave danger and the moral evil of the method by which some seem to be operating—and to call the men of the Church to a higher and more godly standard. 

Setting the Context

First, I would like to summarize the current controversy so that the reader can understand the context of the concerns I am raising. Dr. Fuller, a distinguished professor at Southern Seminary for over two decades, recently spoke out publicly about some concerns he has regarding the teachings of other professors at the seminary. Specifically, Dr. Fuller has charged1 that some writings of Dr. Hernandez teach that the author of Job affirms the existence of mythological deities, and that the author of Job contradicts other parts of Scripture. In short, the concern is that Dr. Hernandez has taught contrary to the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. Additionally, Dr. Fuller has charged2 that some writings of Dr. Pennington teach that there is no objective meaning in the text of Scripture, or that it is impossible to arrive at the objective meaning intended by the author. In short, the concern is that Dr. Pennington has taught postmodernism applied to hermeneutics. 

So the two issues in this controversy are the doctrine of inerrancy and postmodern hermeneutics. This is not a controversy over “the color of the carpet.” This is not even a controversy over some “secondary” or “non-essential” doctrinal issue by almost any model of “triage” one could find in conservative evangelicalism. This is a controversy over doctrinal convictions which our historical conservative heroes of the faith have waged theological and institutional wars over. This is not to say that Dr. Fuller’s charges about the teachings of these men is accurate. It is to say that the question of whether or not they are accurate is of profound significance. 

Evasion at the Seminary

And now we are ready to evaluate the way some of Southern Seminary’s defenders have responded to Dr. Fuller’s charges. Did they carefully evaluate the writings of the professors which Dr. Fuller cited, in order to judge whether Dr. Fuller’s charges were accurate descriptions of their writings? Did they offer and argue for some other plausible readings of the texts which Dr. Fuller had cited—readings which were compatible with orthodoxy on the issues in question? Did they at least acknowledge that the writings in question were worded in such a way as to potentially cause confusion on those important issues, and that clarification would be forthcoming? 

No. 

They didn’t do any of that.

In fact, they did not acknowledge the concerns raised by Dr. Fuller at all

Instead, the seminary released carefully tailored interviews with the professors in question (Dr. Hernandez3 and Dr. Pennington4), wherein the professors were not asked a single question about the specific concerns raised regarding what they had written. They were asked about their current convictions on related topics, but never about how their professed orthodoxy squared with the writings in question. 

This, in itself, is an outrage. 

The lesson of the Conservative Resurgence—in particular, the lesson which Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. himself taught us about the Conservative Resurgence within the seminary—is that mere professions of orthodoxy must be tested against actual teachings which may contradict those professions. In fact, Dr. Mohler once explained that the reason the theologically liberal faculty were able to sign the conservative confessions of faith was because they had adopted a postmodern hermeneutic which allowed them to question and twist authorial intent—not only of the Scriptures, but of the confessions as well. This is the very concern raised by Dr. Fuller about one of the current faculty members. That the seminary, under Dr. Mohler’s leadership, thinks it is unnecessary to evaluate the actual writings in question is as strong an indication as any that the seminary’s doctrinal defenses have once again fallen. 

That is a strong claim, so allow me to re-emphasize and to clarify. I am not saying that Dr. Hernandez and Dr. Pennington are actually teaching heterodoxy, and that this is evidence of the seminary’s defenses having fallen. It could be entirely true that Dr. Fuller is mistaken about the teachings of Hernandez and Pennington, and I would still claim that the seminary’s defenses have fallen. Why? Because the seminary has displayed no concern for examining whether Dr. Fuller’s charges are accurate or not. The seminary has communicated, through their hasty interviews with the professors in question, that it does not care to evaluate the specific teachings of those professors5, and that it prefers to instead rely on their mere professions of orthodoxy. The seminary has publicly indicated that it has abandoned the policy once utilized by Dr. Mohler to guard against theological liberalism, and that it has adopted the policy which allowed theological liberalism to thrive prior to Mohler’s presidency.

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But Southern Seminary is not the only party displaying contempt for the sacred charge of “guarding the good deposit” of sound doctrine which has been entrusted to them (2 Tim. 1:14). 

Pastoral Evasion

In concert with the release of what seem to be damage-control interviews, a chorus of pastors6 and teachers7 related to the seminary broke out in arbitrary and irrelevant praise of the professors in question. Let me be clear: Such praise would not be “arbitrary and irrelevant” if the concerns raised by Dr. Fuller had to do with the men’s character. But they didn’t. It is not the character of the men which has been called into question, but their teaching. To publicly respond to concerns about a man’s teaching with testimonies about his character is a double evasion. The first evasion is in pretending that the concerns about the teachings are not, in fact, concerns about the teachings. The second evasion is the signal to the watching public that a good character testimony is sufficient for overlooking concerns about a man’s teachings. The severity of the evasion becomes all the more acute when we remember the topic being discussed. 

Dr. Fuller has raised concerns that certain professors teach contrary to the confessions on the topics of biblical inerrancy and postmodern hermeneutics. What is the public response of pastors and teachers related to the seminary? “Those professors in question are nice guys.” 

There seem to be only two possible reasons behind such an answer. The first is that these pastors genuinely believe that being a nice guy somehow makes one’s teaching automatically orthodox, no matter what it is. But this is unlikely. I do not think these pastors are stupid enough or malicious enough to hold such a belief. 

The second, and more likely, is that these pastors have such a low regard for the topics in question relative to their high regard for fraternity with the professors and institution that they prefer to publicly defend the latter rather than carefully examining the former. 

While I sympathize with a commitment to fraternal bonds, it must never be forgotten that the Christian’s highest, holiest, and chief fraternal bond is exclusively to our elder brother and Lord, Jesus Christ. For any Christian to publicly sacrifice his bond to Christ on the altar of lesser fraternal bonds (no matter how holy and appropriate those bonds might otherwise be) is a tragedy. For a pastor to do so, while implicitly instructing others to do likewise, is a grotesque disgrace. 

And make no mistake. That is precisely what these pastors are doing. They do not have to respond publicly to Dr. Fuller’s concerns. They could stay silent with the knowledge that they do not have, or do not wish to give, an honest response at this time. But when they choose to publicly respond, they are assuming full responsibility before the risen Lord Jesus for the nature of their response. And the nature of their response is to distract people away from the topics of concern (biblical inerrancy and postmodern hermeneutics) by bringing up the irrelevant topic of character. These men, who claim to be shepherds of Christ’s flock, are communicating—not just to their congregations, but to anyone in the world who will hear—that concerns about those fundamental issues of orthodoxy are not worthy of examination when compared to the character of the men in question. 

The only appropriate response to such pastors by any man who loves Christ and His Truth is, “Get behind me, you devil—and shut your mouth.”

The Lord’s Calling

I fully realize that these pastors likely have not explicitly thought through the above evaluations, and so they are likely not consciously attempting to downplay the importance of orthodoxy on the issues in question. I also realize, and ask the reader to remember,  that these pastors are fully responsible for their public communication on the topic—whether they have carefully thought through the implications or not. The gross folly of their public responses could be an indication that they do in fact have disordered priorities when it comes to orthodoxy and human fraternity. Or, it could be an indication that they have simply allowed themselves to become negligent when it comes to publicly engaging with doctrinal controversies of this nature. The exact cause is for them (and their congregations) to carefully decipher, but the disastrous and Christ-belittling effect is the same no matter the cause. 

It is not possible for orthodoxy to thrive unmolested by error, or for Christ to be properly adored and honored, in a Church culture which tolerates any form of evasion when dealing with doctrinal concerns—no matter how “innocent,” “well-intentioned,” or “common-place” that form of evasion might be. But worse than merely tolerating such behavior is a Church culture in which the most well-connected and well-respected pastors publicly engage in that behavior. That is a Church culture begging for a “liberal drift”—even if it is not yet experiencing one. 

So I am pleading with my Christian brothers everywhere, and especially with evangelical pastors: Recommit yourselves to the charge of guarding the deposit of sound doctrine which has been entrusted to you. And commit yourselves, perhaps for the first time, to diligently understanding what that charge necessarily entails. That sacred charge elevates the task of public doctrinal discernment above all else. It means that every other concern—whether relational, practical, familial, or other—must always and fully yield to the exhaustive and unrelenting defense of sound doctrine. This is the high and holy calling of the minister of God. I pray that we will joyously embrace it together. 

Footnotes:

  1. http://www.worldviewconversation.com/2020/05/downgrade-at-southern-seminary-higher.html
  2. http://www.worldviewconversation.com/2020/05/downgrade-at-southern-seminary.html
  3. https://youtu.be/yx10NOTO8uw
  4. https://youtu.be/8kl9MXozD_k
  5. Note that I am exclusively referring to what the seminary has publicly communicated. I am not claiming anything about what they may or may not be doing in private. They have chosen to communicate publicly, and they have chosen to communicate publicly in precisely the manner described here. That is the exclusive object of my criticism.
  6. https://medium.com/@jacobbrunton/evasive-pastors-defending-southern-seminary-8396ec4d14f9
  7. https://medium.com/christian-intellectual/continue-exposing-the-downgrade-at-southern-seminary-403b428152df

 

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