American Christianity just got an Engine Boost of Gospel Commitment

I believe that historians of American Christianity will see August 22, 2023, as a truly significant day in the history of 21st-century Christianity in America in two decades.

Why? Dr. David Dockery delivered his convocation address on August 22, 2023, after being installed as the 10th president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) in Ft. Worth, Texas.

Dr. Dockery’s address is of pivotal significance for two reasons. First, SWBTS is an institution of critical importance to the future of the largest Protestant denomination in America, the Southern Baptist Convention. Founded in 1908, SWBTS has, over the past 115 years, become one of the two flagship theological seminaries among Southern Baptists, along with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky, founded in 1858.

Southern Baptists have four formal seminaries in addition to SWBTS and SBTS: New Orleans Baptist Seminary, Southeastern Baptist Seminary (Wake Forest, North Carolina), Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Kansas City), and Gateway Baptist Seminary (Ontario, California). While all six seminaries have played and continue to play an important role in Southern Baptist society, traditionally, SWBTS and SBTS have been the flagship institutions, with SBTS leading east of the Mississippi River and SWBTS leading west of that great river.

For example, I am a graduate of New Orleans Baptist Seminary, but being a native Texan who grew up in Southern Baptist churches in the Lone Star State, I, like most Texas Baptists, consider myself a “Southwesterner” and SWBTS as “my seminary” in a very proprietary sense. Until I was a college senior, I never even considered going somewhere besides SWBTS for my theological training (I believe God sent me to New Orleans seminary so I could meet my wife of 52 years, whom I met on my 23rd birthday in the seminary cafeteria—the best birthday I ever had).

It is doubtful that the Southern Baptist Convention can continue to be the driving engine that it has been historically in evangelical American Christianity unless SWBTS is thriving, pledging deep allegiance to core biblical values, and committing to serving the local New Testament church.

In other words, what happens in Fort Worth reverberates throughout North America and beyond. Where Dr. Dockery made his declaration of commitment to the first gospel principles is truly strategic.

The second reason Dr. Dockery’s address is a truly significant moment in American evangelical Christianity is provided by the content of his address, namely what he said.

So, what did he say? He began by revealing that this academic year commences his 40th year of service in theological higher education (in the interest of full disclosure, 40 years ago I offered Dr. Dockery his first full-time professorial appointment at Criswell College, and he has been making me look good ever since).

Dr. Dockery declared at the outset of his message that he was leading SWBTS to a basic reaffirmation of the foundations of the historic Christian faith, “once delivered to the saints. As SWBTS’ president, he declared, “each day, each week, each month, each semester, and each year,” SWBTS will be seeking to fulfill its “primary mission of providing theological education that encourages the priority of the Great Commandment and the fulfillment of the Great Commission.”

Dockery acknowledges that “theology” can be threatening or suspicious to some because, in church history, it “has been the path down which some have traveled to open the door to liberalism, heterodoxy, or wrongheaded thinking or practice. ” He acknowledged that Christians “must never allow theology to devolve into some kind of intellectual aloofness or uncommitted intellectual curiosity, which, as Francis Schaeffer warned in The God Who is There, can wrongly become some kind of game or mere intellectual exercise.”

Such past abuses must not turn us away from “theology,” which derives from two Greek words, logos (words) and Theos (God), i.e., words about God. Dockery contends that “theology done correctly is essential for the transmission of the Christian faith and is foundational, fundamental, and basic for theological education. At its most elemental level, theology is, in essence, “thinking rightly about God.

In this foundational role, all Christians are “theologians. Dockery correctly emphasizes:

The Christian faith is much more than a personal and subjective experience. While Christian faith is an active and dynamic dependence on God for our daily walk with Him, a full understanding of the Christian faith recognizes that it is also ‘the body of truth’ delivered to the saints once and for all (Jude 3).

Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary focuses on the church, with ecclesial theologians helping others reflect on the Triune God, His Word, His Work, His Will, and His world.

The study “The Great Dechurching” by Davis, Graham, and Burge highlights the decline of evangelical Christianity in America since the early 1990s.

The failure to emphasize discipleship, worldview formation, and the importance of theology has played a major role in evangelical decline.

President Dockery pledged to set the pattern of Christian truth, grounded in the inspired Word of God and based on the regenerated mind, and expose the radical difference between Christianity and insufficient worldviews and philosophies.

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