Mea Culpa: The Heart Confession of a Systematic Theologian / Malcolm B. Yarnell III, PhD
Ed.’s Note: Whereas the editor takes no credit for how God moved in my friend’s Malcolm’s life as he wrote “The Evangelistic Seminary,” I can attest to some personal observations he shared that prompted me to encourage him to write what follows. We are in Dr. Yarnell’s debt for his obedience to the Lord, and are humbled by his passion for the things of God. Malcolm would reply to such remarks most likely in the same manner as he signs his emails: “Jesus is Lord!” (BOLD italics in the essay below are the Ed.’s additions.)
Mea Culpa: The Heart Confession of a Systematic Theologian
A Responsible Faith
First, the distant past. I was led to salvation in Christ Jesus through the evangelistic preaching and teaching of a traditional Southern Baptist church in Louisiana. After being born again through faith in Jesus, and a short time in financial services as an adult, the Lord called me into full-time Christian service as a teacher and preacher. I have always understood that the calling to be a preacher of the Word of God was the greater privilege, while that of the teacher was to serve the task of preaching.
Providentially, God gave me preachers like Wayne L. DuBose to shepherd me. Brother Wayne had and still retains a passion for God’s Word and the application of that Word to the human soul. His desire to see the lost won to Christ and the saved grow deeper in commitment to the Lord is matched only by the incredible integrity with which Brother Wayne has always conducted his ministry. Next, God led me, providentially, to attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where such teachers as James Leo Garrett, Jr., and Roy J. Fish also filled my heart and mind with God’s Word and a passion for lost souls.
Part of the faith I received was that God freely gives salvation to sinners through faith in His Son. Another part of the faith I received was that this gift entails a responsibility for a surrendered life to God in Christ as led by the Spirit through His Word. Through the careful reading and preaching of the Bible, it continues to be my conviction that while salvation is a work of divine grace, it compels a human response. And this is what we must expect and encourage of ourselves and others as we preach the gospel.
Part of our faith response is found in the immediate reception of salvation, but the Spirit also opens our minds to the lifelong vocation that God has placed upon each of our lives. We are called to respond in faith to the preaching of the divine writ, and we are called to respond in faithful living to the particular application of His will to our lives. I have taken the exemplary lives of my mentors and followed them therein to the best of my ability. One of the things I learned through these preachers and teachers is that while the movement of the Spirit through the biblical text is palpable in the instrumental work of biblical proclamation, there are also times when that proclamation may be written, so as to remind future generations of the Spirit’s movement in the past and the hope of perhaps similar movements of grace in the future.
A Seminary’s Legacy
Second, the intermediate past. Over the past several years, I have watched and been amazed at the work that God has done and is doing in and through Southwestern Seminary. To join the faculty of my alma mater has been the career highlight of my Christian life. This has afforded opportunity to reflect upon the direction of our beloved seminary both historically and contemporaneously. The parallels that I have sensed between Southwestern past and Southwestern present began to coalesce around the time of our centennial celebrations. Those parallels have been subsequently reinforced in so many ways.
Conversations with retired faculty such as James Leo Garrett, Jr., Roy J. Fish, Malcolm McDow, and Jack Terry, who retained their love for the seminary; collaborations with scholars such as Thomas White, Jason Duesing, and Madison Grace in researching the history of our fine institution; observations of fellow faculty members such as David Allen, Keith Eitel, and Matt Queen, who have embodied and exemplified the proclamatory, evangelistic, and missionary ethos of our school; and most importantly, the uncanny resemblances between the biblical, evangelistic, and Baptist passions of the first two presidents when placed alongside our current leader, Paige Patterson—these have fed into a growing sense that while the names had changed on the doors at Southwestern Seminary, the nature of the institution remains the same.
A Heresy of the Heart
Third, our denomination’s immediate past. Because of the necessary refocusing of our Southern Baptist seminaries on doctrinal orthodoxy during and after the Conservative Resurgence, we have become a convention concerned with doctrines. This is a good thing, and one that I began to advocate even back when I was a pastor active in local, state, and national Southern Baptist meetings. It is also a focus that I have personally benefitted from as a systematic theologian at one of our leading seminaries. In light of my role as a systematic theologian—a thinker who lives and breathes to engage with Scripture, historical exegesis, and contemporary concerns—what I will say next may seem counterintuitive. However, it must be said, and I hope it is well received.
Our focus on doctrinal orthodoxy becomes unhealthy the moment it begins to detract from the primary task of actually proclaiming the gospel. While theology is important, even fundamental to the Christian task, it is, nevertheless, a third-order activity. The tertiary activity of theological reflection follows upon the primary Christian activities of worship and witness. Theology functions as a servant to worship and witness, providing a necessary critique of those activities according to the standard of Scripture. And when theology leaves its service role behind to demand primary attention, it has risen above its station and grasped for a glory that it may not possess.
When Southwestern Seminary was recently queried regarding its overarching concern for evangelizing the lost, I really wanted to ignore it. I was and am very tired after years without a break, capped off with an especially grueling teaching year; the semester was ending and the grades were due; Masters-level students required last minute details and Doctoral-level students required guidance into the summer; preparations for the Oxford program demanded my administrative attention; and, personally, I just wanted to finish all of that and go home and sleep for a few days, then begin to write what I had long delayed. However, the approach of a beloved mentor on a different matter reminded me of the need to wait upon the Lord, submitting my every moment to Him, and so I did.
But that mentor’s request actually needed to be put on the back burner, because something more critical had arisen. The critical issue that came to my mind was not about the presence of one PhD student in our archaeology program, nor was it about the policies of the seminary. The critical issue that came to my mind, and stays there, is that we Southern Baptists have allowed ourselves to be subtly side-tracked from remembering what the main thing is regarding our theological institutions. The main thing for the churches is worship and witness, and the seminaries were founded to serve the churches in fulfilling their Christ-given commission.
The seminaries’ primary mission is not the teaching of archaeology, nor is it philosophy, history, languages, commentary, nor theology, music, educational theory. And yet, each of those things may be and often are helpful in meeting the primary mission. The Southern Baptist seminaries’ primary mission is not the formation of academic teachers, nor is it the production of cultural commentators and book editors. And yet, each of those people may be helpful in fulfilling what is primary. Our primary mission is the formation of Christian ministers to serve the churches so that the churches may faithfully proclaim the saving gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world.
Our primary mission, moreover, must be driven through our primary passion. When our passion becomes cultural commentary, political activism, or academic excellence, we seminarians have made a major mistake. When the subsidiary, the secondary, the tertiary replace the primary in the place where it really matters, in our hearts, we have a problem. When the cravings for doctrinal definition and cultural conflict supplant the passion for biblical proclamation through preaching, evangelism, and missions, then we have embraced a heresy of the heart.
Do not misread me—remember, this is a systematic theologian writing this. I am not arguing for the acceptance of heresy or error. I despise heresy and lament error. Remember who this is—Malcolm Yarnell has been, and hopefully will remain throughout his life, a fervent advocate of a Christian orthodoxy that is evangelical and Baptist to the core. Rather, I am arguing about subtle and sometimes deceptive relations between the head and the heart. I am arguing that human doctrine must serve the proclamation of the Word of God and not rule over it. Dogmatics has a necessary role in reflecting upon our proclamation, with Scripture as the norm, in order to aid preachers, evangelists, and missionaries in their primary task of proclamation. But dogmatics is not what preachers, evangelists, and missionaries should be preaching. The gospel of Jesus Christ—the incarnate Son of God who became a man, died on the cross, and arose from the dead, so that whosoever will believe may be saved, and the heartfelt desire for all to hear and believe—yes, that gospel! That is what we should be preaching!
When preachers, evangelists, and missionaries lose the imagination of the people and systematic theologians, philosophers, and culture warriors rise up to become their exemplars instead, we may have a heart problem. When a seminary president is questioned, even attacked, regarding his overarching passion to win people to Christ, we have a heart problem. And when a systematic theologian like this author, who knows better and whose entire life has been providentially guided to remind him that the ministry of the Word is primary—when that systematic theologian has allowed secondary reflection on proclamation to replace the primacy of proclamation through public sermon and private counsel, we have a heart problem. Southern Baptists, we have a heart problem.
As a result of this concern for our mission and our passion about it, one evening I brought some essays by Southwestern’s heroes home and read them carefully. As I read their powerful thoughts, my heart was lifted up to remember who we are as teachers of preachers, and my heart was brought low by the realization that too many of us, including me, have been forgetting who we are. The next morning, I was led in conscience to the office very early, and I stayed incommunicado therein for eight hours without even the basics of life. The flesh cried out for sustenance, but there was a palpable sense of God-given direction that this cannot be delayed—here are the books you need and there is the idea that needs to be elucidated. By 3:00 that afternoon, the work was done. I daresay that I have never written anything that required so few self-corrections.
What I rediscovered for myself that evening and day was that most of us theologians, especially among the academics but also among the pastoral theologians, have walked away from the older Southern Baptist view of the seminary’s purpose. We have forgotten how our fathers treated and even spoke of the seminary as a military bunker for training soldiers to engage in spiritual warfare through biblical proclamation. We have forgotten our fathers’ purpose for the seminaries and have convinced ourselves that the seminary is an ivory tower intended primarily to defend orthodox Christianity against the encroachment of a depraved culture.
We have traded a view of the seminary as an offensive organization for a defensive view of the purpose of the seminary. In our hearts, we have made our educational institutions, both colleges and seminaries, an increasingly remote fortified tower on a hill rather than a light set on a hill that is constantly finding ways to help the churches shine light into the culture. We have transitioned the seminaries, in our attitudes regarding their purpose, from being exemplars of evangelistic outreach to being havens from the harrowing of heresy. Yes, the exposure of heresy and error in home, church, and culture is part of our role, but it is not the purpose of our existence.
Again, theology serves proclamation. There is a reason that W.T. Conner, the systematic theologian, receives third place in any proper historiography of Southwestern Seminary. The systematic theologian rightly has a place of honor alongside the preacher and the evangelist, but problems arise when the philosophical commentator upon God and culture overtakes and supplants the place of the pastor and the missionary. The theologian Conner is third; the preacher Carroll and the evangelist Scarborough are first.
It apparently takes the example of a president like Paige Patterson, who is as adept as any sophisticated systematic theologian yet who has the heart of a country evangelist and the legacy of a preaching pastor, to remind us that the Great Commission ought to remain our passion. Why are Patterson’s moves in this regard controversial? Not because he is wrong in wanting the seminary to be a shining city set on a hill, but because most of the rest of us have forgotten what Patterson has, by divine grace, remembered.
Fourth, the present. When I was a pastor responsible to proclaim the divine writ, there were moments in the life of a church that prompted a real spiritual struggle. Those moments have continued into my ministry as a theologian in the employ of the churches through Southwestern Seminary. On the one hand, I am speaking of the spiritual struggles that occur within a preacher or teacher. These internal conflicts of the heart are very real and very necessary. I have been intimating to you my own struggles. On the other hand, the greater vocational purpose for the preacher concerns his utility as a divine instrument of spiritual growth, which ought to grow out of his own experience as the object of divine grace.
I am speaking, latterly, of that sense that God has led you to see that this moment in the life of the congregation demands this sermon from His Word be directed gently but unfailingly to address that crisis. These are typically not immediate crises, but long-term communal crises that have reached a watershed and now demand the preacher to surrender His every thought, every word, every desire to the direction of the Holy Spirit as He illumines the Word through this preacher, who remains His unworthy instrument. Such events in my own experience include the peaceful understanding of being compelled by the Spirit, along with the knowledge that there is a God-given rebuke of the adversary, and the draining of every last vestige of strength from the preacher’s personal being. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, there are times that the preacher or teacher must simply hold on to God and be thrown about like a rag doll, learning to surrender to the divine will, learning to respond faithfully to the God who is living, loving, guiding, and using the unworthy instrument before Him. And God provides a message from His Word through His servant. After such an event, there is elation (God has deigned to speak to me and through me!), awe (I have survived an encounter with the almighty and holy God!), and pain (What He has shown me demands change not only in our people but in me!). There is also the interesting phenomenon that such an encounter can lead me to be exhausted physically.
But the greatest sense of exhaustion is not physical—it is spiritual. It is the knowledge that, while you know that this is the ideal for the preacher and teacher of God’s Word, you have not always met that ideal. And this is where Norm’s request is really bothersome to me, personally, for now I must confess. Mea culpa: this is my problem. Yes, I am a systematic theologian in my passion, which is not bad, but I ought to be even more passionate about going with the Lord Jesus Christ (and L. Rutland Scarborough and L. Paige Patterson) after the lost. Being a systematic theologian is a good and necessary thing, but being a preacher, evangelist, and missionary is the better part. Sitting at the feet of Jesus, repeating His words to the lost around me—this is the better part.
Oh, Lord, forgive me! I am a systematic theologian with misdirected passion, and in this way an unclean heart, and I live amongst a group of seminaries with professors and administrators with unclean hearts. Send your messenger with your coal to cleanse our lips and make us worthy to speak your Word to the lost and dying sinners of this world. Grant us not the idea that proclamation is our secondary role but grant us an eager knowledge that proclamation is our primary role. Lord, help our seminaries and colleges not only to be intentionally biblical and Baptist, and evangelical, all of which we claim, but help us to be evangelistic, too. Perhaps, then, when our hearts are right, we theologians may help the churches and their beloved pastors, our beloved pastors, properly see that all of us need to be more committed to sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Malcolm B. Yarnell III
Professor of Systematic Theology | School of Theology
Chair | Department of Systematic Theology
Director | Center for Theological Research
Director | Oxford Study Program
Managing Editor | BaptistTheology.org
© Malcolm B. Yarnell III. For reprint permission, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org