From the very beginning, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has been a confessional institution. Every professor must sign our confession of faith, the Abstract of Principles, agreeing to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to all that is contained therein.” This pledge has remained unchanged since 1859, but the history of Southern Seminary is a history with many twists and turns.

The men who founded Southern Seminary understood themselves as confessional Protestants standing in a line of theological orthodoxy that found its quintessential shape in the Reformation of the 16th century and the Princeton Theology of the 19th century. They were also unapologetically Baptist, and they perceived the need for a Baptist seminary in the South that would serve as the great central theological institution for the expanding Southern Baptist Convention. Though the convention was established in 1845, the dream of a seminary would be deferred until 1859.

Basil Manly Sr., long pastor of First Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, had urged Southern Baptists to establish a seminary, but it was a young man from his own congregation, James Petigru Boyce, who would become the driving force in Southern Seminary’s founding and, for many years, its very existence. On July 31, 1856, Boyce, then a new professor of theology at Furman University, would deliver the address that became the Magna Carta of Southern Seminary, “Three Changes in Theological Institutions.”

Boyce called for a central theological institution that would serve the entire denomination and beyond. He drew upon his experience at Princeton Theological Seminary, but he went beyond the Princeton model in calling for one school that would offer all ministers some level of theological education and would also offer the highest level of academic achievement available anywhere in the world. Such an institution would require, Boyce advised, an excellent faculty and adequate support, including a great theological library.

But Boyce’s third major point in his address was a warning that theological education must be guarded by a clear confession of faith, required of all faculty. Already, a host of theological schools had been lost to various heresies and the influence of theological liberalism—starting with Harvard Divinity School, founded in orthodoxy but largely lost to Unitarianism by the end of the 18th century. Basil Manly Jr., another of the founding faculty, had been urged by his father to leave the Newton Theological Institute, a Baptist school in Massachusetts, and to enroll at Princeton, a Presbyterian school, because Princeton was more orthodox and held to a higher view of the Bible. Boyce saw a theological crisis on the horizon:

A crisis in Baptist doctrine is evidently approaching, and those of us who still cling to the doctrines which formerly distinguished us, have the important duty to perform of earnestly contending for the faith once delivered to the saints. Gentlemen, God will call us to judgment if we neglect it.[1]

Boyce called for a confession of faith, clear and explicit, that would define the theological commitments of the school and its faculty. Every faculty member would be required not only to sign the statement but to believe that it contained, without reservation. In his words:

But of him who is to teach the ministry, who is to be the medium through which the fountain of Scripture truth is to flow to them—whose opinions more than those of any living man, are to mold their conceptions of the doctrines of the Bible, it is manifest that much more is requisite. No difference, however slight, no peculiar sentiment, however speculative, is here allowable. His agreement with the standard should be exact. His declaration of it should be based on no mental reservation, upon no private understanding with those who immediately invest him into office; but the articles to be taught having been fully and distinctly laid down, he should be able to say all from his knowledge of the Word of God, that he knows these articles to be an exact summary of the truth therein contained. If the summary of truth established be incorrect, it is the duty of the Board to change it, if such change be within their power; if not, let an appeal be made to those who have the power, and if there be none such, then far better is it that the whole endowment be thrown aside than that the principle be adopted that the Professor sign any abstract of doctrine with which he does not agree, and in accordance with which he does not intend to teach. No Professor should be allowed to enter upon such duties as are there undertaken with the understanding that he is at liberty to modify the truth, which he has been placed there to inculcate. [2]

Boyce had learned that pattern of confessional subscription at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he was influenced by the example set by that institution and the arguments taught by Professor Samuel Miller. Miller warned especially against the right of a professor to sign the confession with reservations or by a private understanding with those who assign him to teach. [3] Princeton Theological Seminary’s own historic charter and bylaws required the professors to “solemnly promise to engage not to inculcate, teach, or insinuate anything which shall appear to me to contradict or contravene, either directly or indirectly, any thing taught in the said confession of faith or catechism … while I shall continue a Professor in this Seminary.” [4]

All this should indicate beyond question that confessional subscription was to be without any “hesitation or mental reservation,” in Boyce’s words, and without any private understanding between a faculty member and the president or Board of Trustees.

And yet, by the time I arrived at Southern Seminary as a student in 1980, that understanding of confessional commitment was absent from the majority of the faculty. Indeed, some professors openly expressed their disagreement with the Abstract of Principles. In my second year I took Systematic Theology with Professor Dale Moody, a titanic figure, who passed out his own revision of the Abstract early in the term.[5] Moody considered himself a biblicist who would not defer to any human confession of faith over his own interpretation of the Scriptures. He also claimed to have entered the faculty in the 1940s by a private understanding with President John R. Sampey over Article XIII, “Perseverance of the Saints.” As a student, I was surprised by Professor Moody’s candor, to say the least. At the same time, I was also aware that many other faculty members contradicted the confession without Moody’s candor.

By the early 1970s open theological warfare broke out within the Southern Baptist Convention, and by the time I arrived as a seminary student, Southern Seminary was a prime battlefield. The Abstract of Principles was once again the focus of controversy, as Dale Moody was terminated from his teaching contract by President Roy L. Honeycutt due to Moody’s open contradiction of the Abstract of Principles. Nevertheless, the majority of the faculty expressed opposition to the Abstract as a regulative confession, and many argued in public that the statement of faith was open to individual interpretation. In essence, the argument was that the only way a professor could be found in conflict with the confession of faith is for the professor to declare that conflict.

That argument was made repeatedly in a book by retired Southern Seminary professors published in 1993 by Review & Expositor, then the Seminary’s faculty journal. Professor Dale Moody directly addressed the Abstract of Principles yet again. He recited the controversy that led to his termination and claimed that three successive presidents of Southern Seminary (John R. Sampey, Ellis Fuller, and Duke K. McCall) had allowed him to offer revisions or footnotes to the Abstract when signing it. Professor Willis Bennett, who had also served as provost of the seminary, looked back to his interview with the Academic Personnel Committee of the Board of Trustees: “In 1959, when I was interviewed by a trustee committee before my election to the faculty, I was questioned about the confessional statement of the seminary, the Abstract of Principles. I provided my own interpretation and my comments satisfied the trustees. They viewed the Abstract, as did I, as a broad statement which provided room for differences of opinion while still accepting the parameters.” [6] The problem is that while differences of opinion were certainly allowed, open conflict with the clear language of the Abstract was also allowed, and sometimes celebrated.

The issues of biblical inerrancy, inspiration, and authority were central to the controversy that so reshaped the Southern Baptist Convention in the last decades of the 20th century and into the 21st, but the controversy also ranged across the full spectrum of theological issues.

When the search committee looking for a new president came to me in 1993, a conservative majority on the Board of Trustees was looking to elect a conservative president. By that point, a majority of trustees had come to understand and affirm the necessity of reforming the seminary and of recovering theological orthodoxy. Many did not yet understand the centrality of the Abstract of Principles to that process. Early in 1993, the search committee identified four candidates to be interviewed. I was one of the four. In preparation for the interview, we were each asked for a statement on the Abstract of Principles. In response, I submitted a 42-page commentary covering each article of the confession. In the many hours of interview, I made clear that orthodoxy would require confessional correction, as understood by James P. Boyce and the other founders. The search committee eventually invited me to accept their nomination, and I made the same presentation over many hours with the full Board of Trustees. I was elected president on March 26, 1993.

I understood that one of my most significant responsibilities as the new president was to make the confessional nature of the seminary unmistakably clear. I also understood that the convocation message traditionally presented by the president for the opening of the new academic year was the right moment for such a public declaration.

There was more to the story. I also perceived that many of the seminary’s faculty and the vast majority of the students had virtually no idea of the founders’ vision of the Abstract of Principles and no real understanding of the school’s confessional history—much less an awareness of the confessional subscription and fidelity that was so central to the seminary’s founding and still required by contract of all faculty.

Boyce had actually added to the precedent of Princeton by requiring that the Abstract of Principles be signed
by every professor, and not merely affirmed verbally. So every single member of the faculty in 1993 had signed that very statement, agreeing to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to” all that it contained. At the very least, I was going to remind them of that commitment to which they had affixed their name by their own hand. Beyond that, I wanted to make very clear the path I would take as president, bringing the school into consistency with the confession of faith.

I entitled my address, “Don’t Just Do Something; Stand There,” using an expression I remembered from reading a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. That address was my manifesto of Southern Seminary’s identity, taking us back to the crisis in Baptist doctrine that James P. Boyce saw on the horizon in 1856 and making the argument that we were then engaged in that very crisis. That address is included in this issue.

More than 25 years later, I can only thank God for what has happened at Southern Seminary in this generation. The theological recovery for which we had longed, prayed, and worked has come to pass. This very volume is evidence of that. In this generation, every professor elected to the faculty gladly signs the Abstract of Principles in full public view during a convocation and gladly teaches all that it contains. Confessional fidelity is made clear at every stage in the hiring process and is a living and public commitment held in trust by the president, the faculty, and the Board of Trustees.

Every faculty member makes the sacred commitment to teach in accordance with and not contrary to the Abstract of Principles and the Baptist Faith and Message as adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000. We elect to this faculty only professors who are eager to teach our confessional beliefs, not those who would be merely willing to do so. Our determination is to maintain this school for evangelical orthodoxy and Baptist faithfulness for generations to come.

In 1874, James P. Boyce recalled the establishment of the seminary and the adoption of the Abstract of Principles, reminding the Southern Baptist Convention that the confession of faith had been adopted not only by the seminary’s Board of Trustees, but by the special action of the 1858 Education Convention of the Southern Baptist Convention. He also reminded Baptists that the Abstract had been adopted as a statement of doctrines held nearly universally among Southern Baptists at the time.[7]

The Abstract of Principles was instrumental in the recovery of this seminary. We were able to point to the moral and contractual obligation agreed to by every professor, and to the very language that the founders used to frame this sacred commitment. Thus, this commitment is more than a doctrinal exposition or devotional exercise. It is the display of public fidelity to a confession of faith, to the faith once for all delivered to the saints, and to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

1. James P. Boyce, Three Changes in Theological Institutions: An
Inaugural Address Delivered to the Board of Trustees of the Furman University, July 31, 1856 (Greenville: C. J. Elford’s Book and Job Press, 1856), 34.
2. Boyce, Three Changes, 35.
3. See Samuel Miller, “The Utility and Importance of Creeds and
Confessions: An Address Delivered at Princeton Theological
Seminary,” 1824.
4. “Of the Professors,” Charter and By-Laws, Princeton Theological
Seminary, Article III, Section 3.
5. The fact that Professor Moody passed out this revision to stu-
dents in his classes was denied by some seminary authorities at the time, but copies are contained within the Moody papers in the James P. Boyce Centennial Library, and Moody provided the same revision to the Board of Trustees in 1982. Interestingly, it later became known that President Duke K. McCall had asked at least some members of the faculty to provide proposed revisions to the Abstract of Principles in 1979, presumably in a more liberal direction. Moody responded with a long, multi-page letter, also found in the Moody papers collection. See also Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 1859-2009 (New York: Oxford University Press), 438-44.
6. Willis Bennett in “How I Changed My Mind: Essays by Retired Professors of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary” (Lou- isville: Review & Expositor, 1993), 88.
7. James P. Boyce, “Two Objections to the Seminary,” Western Recorder, June 20, 1874.