Wills says Southern trains pastors in ‘scandalous scholarship of the gospel’
Faithful Christian scholars must be prepared to accept the scandal of the gospel, even at the cost of academic reputation, said Gregory A. Wills in a Sept. 3 installation service at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“It is right to step back and hear from the one who will take this office about what he sees in the future of the school and the reason it was established,” seminary president R. Albert Mohler Jr., said, introducing Wills as the new dean of the seminary’s School of Theology.
Wills preached from 2 Corinthians 4:1-12 about the scandal of the gospel and its relation to Christian scholarship.
Wills, professor of church history and the author of several books, including Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: 1859-2009, called the seminary community to suffer the scandal of humility in the service of the gospel.
“I want us to reflect upon this message and its role in our scholarship and in our study of Scripture, the truth of Scripture and all things that belong unto the study of Scripture,” Wills said. “The scandal is inescapable. The scandal of the gospel is that we must repudiate our confidence in glorious human knowledge. We must acknowledge Christ’s righteousness and abandon our own. We must die if we would live.”
Wills applied this scandal to scholarship, specifically in seminary training. He said that no scholarly evidence can compel sinners to repent and trust in Christ, but only the gospel.
“It is crucifixion above all that scandalizes sinners. Christ crucified, Paul says, was ‘a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles’ (1 Cor. 1:23). It is the cross itself that offends the heart and the conscience of man,” Wills said.
Wills said that in 1879 the seminary faced the “momentous” question of whether it would stand committed when professor Crawford Toy challenged the seminary’s commitment to divine truth. Southern dismissed Toy as an “act of gospel fidelity and courage that has bolstered Southern Baptist commitment to Scripture to this day,” Wills said.
“Southern Baptists rightly established this seminary for the promotion of divine truth,” Wills said. “And we must never relinquish this task, though at great cost of labor, at great inconvenience and great grief. We must never relent in our determination to promote and defend gospel truth. And so we repudiate tampering with the Word of God.”
The historian noted, however, that the gospel is not about scholarship, but Jesus Christ.
“We are content that our scholarship is employed in the statement of open, divine truth. This means, among other things, that we do not long for the recognition of the academy, but for the ‘well done, good and faithful servant.’ We are trophies of grace, not learning,” Wills said.
Scholarship must serve the gospel, he said, and the purpose of God’s truth is to produce love, resulting in godly living and godly dying. Wills said that students are accountable to knowing the truth and that the aim of truth is love.
Wills also laid out a vision for how Southern Seminary desires to train ministers.
“We are seeking to produce theologians whose theology makes them evangelists,” he said.
Wills charged seminarians to be relentless in their commitment to the task, citing Southern’s founders who, in the aftermath of the Civil War, resolved that they would die before they allowed the seminary to die.
“May we do our duty and change history. Until Christ returns we must attend zealously to theological scholarship for teaching biblically sound and courageous ministers of the gospel,” Wills said. “The church will always need such faithfully trained ministers who are trained in the scandalous scholarship of the gospel. We believe theological education is an obligation. As long as God sustains us, we will never give up.”
Wills is the second of three new senior academic leaders to present inaugural addresses to begin the 2013-14 academic year. The seminary installed Randy Stinson as senior vice president for academic administration and provost, Aug. 29, and will install Adam W. Greenway as the new dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry, Oct. 1.
Mohler presented Wills with a framed certificate commemorating the installation service, and a Bible.
Audio and video of Wills’ message are available at sbts.edu/resources.