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Prescott, Marshall discuss key distinctives of their schools

LIBERTY, Mo. (BP)–How should theological education be done?
Panelists from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Central Baptist Theological Seminary and William Jewell College offered their perspectives May 27 during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Historical Society.
Addressing the topic of “Seminary Education in Kansas City: A Model of Diversity in Southern Baptist Life” were Stephen Prescott, assistant professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., and Molly Marshall, professor of theology and spiritual formation at Central Baptist Seminary in Kansas City, Kan.
Prescott named two areas of focus in the philosophy of seminary education at Midwestern: confessional integrity and ministerial preparation for the seminary’s parish of the Midwest and Great Plains. Describing the seminary’s stance as “self-consciously a Southern Baptist institution,” Prescott noted the importance of aligning the instruction and teaching of the seminary with Southern Baptist doctrine and heritage.
“At Midwestern we believe that confessional integrity has three elements: strict adherence to the formally adopted doctrinal positions of the Southern Baptist Convention, freedom in those areas in which Southern Baptists have not taken a position, and integrity and clarity about what the doctrinal commitments of the institution are.”
Prescott, while examining the origins of the seminary, noted some historical connections between Midwestern and Central Baptist Seminary. When the Southern Baptist Convention in 1953 established a committee to discuss the possibility of the creation of a sixth seminary, Central Baptist Seminary asked the SBC to consider financial assistance to Central, Prescott stated. However, the SBC rejected the overture and eventually voted, in 1957, to establish a new seminary — the present Midwestern Seminary — in Kansas City.
Prescott suggested the seminary’s explicit Southern Baptist convictions to be the reason for its use of the Baptist Faith and Message — the statement of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Every elected faculty member in the history of the institution has had to acknowledge the Baptist Faith and Message in writing,” Prescott said. “This is not regarded as a formality.”
Prescott went on to explain that in areas in which the SBC has not adopted an official position faculty are welcome from a variety of convictions. He named the “points” of Calvinism, millennial systems and worship styles as some examples of areas of diversity within the Midwestern faculty body.
Prescott also spoke of the seminary’s commitment against the problem of “doublespeak,” a term used by former Midwestern professor Ralph Elliott to describe the disingenuous relationship between some seminary teachings and what is actually communicated in churches.
He quoted Elliott as saying, “Professors and students learn to couch their beliefs in acceptable terminology and holy jargon so that although thinking one thing, the speaker calculated so as to cause the hearer to affirm something else.”
To the end of preventing aberrant doctrinal teachings, Prescott said Midwestern has developed a faculty questionnaire which would allow potential professors the opportunity to state explicitly in their own terms their doctrinal convictions. “Everyone who teaches in a Midwestern classroom, even adjuncts, complete this questionnaire, and every classroom teacher is appointed by the committee on instruction of the board of Trustees,” Prescott explained.
“Whatever one’s theological convictions, surely the ‘doublespeak’ to which Elliott refers cannot be a good thing, and the cause of truth is better served when all have the integrity to state our convictions with clarity and honesty rather than playing to the gallery,” Prescott said.
Prescott also spoke of the new curriculum which Midwestern adopted during the 1997-1998 academic year. He noted the raising of credit requirements in the master of divinity, master of education, master of church music and doctor of ministry degrees.
He highlighted four emphases in the new curriculum: an emphasis on the minister’s personal piety and devotional life; an emphasis on sound exegesis and the original languages; an emphasis upon expository preaching; and an emphasis upon providing practical tools for ministry in the next century.
“One of the first faculty hires made by the current president was a professor of spiritual formation,” Prescott said. “Midwestern is convinced that eternally effective ministry requires an intimate relationship with God.”
Dealing with the question of women in ministry, Prescott stated the seminary’s conviction that the pastor of a biblical congregation must be male. “Consistent with the overwhelming practice of Baptists throughout history, Southern Baptist Convention resolution, and convention agency policy, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary teaches that the Bible requires that the pastor of a congregation be male,” declared Prescott. He noted the seminary’s affirmation of women in a wide variety of vital ministries, with all of the degree programs — including the master of divinity — open to women.
As evidence of this affirmation, said Prescott, a woman was awarded the theology and the church history awards for best student in those disciplines at the seminary’s recent graduation exercises. “Succinctly stated, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary affirms women in a wide variety of ministries, but not women in the pastorate,” Prescott said.
Speaking generally of Midwestern’s philosophy of theological education, Prescott stated, “Educationally, Midwestern is attempting to meet its educational goals by an emphasis on academic excellence and the classical theological disciplines.”
In his conclusion, Prescott underscored Midwestern’s 30 percent enrollment growth over the last three years and said the new direction and curriculum of the seminary has been well-received by supporting churches and students.
“The trustees, administration and faculty of the seminary are grateful to God for his blessings upon our efforts,” Prescott said. “We would ask consecrated Christian men and women everywhere to pray for us as we undertake the awesome task of training God’s ministers.”
Marshall described the founding vision of Central Seminary as ecumenical in nature. The school’s charter stated that while the seminary was founded primarily for the training of Baptist ministers, it also welcomed students from a variety of educational and denominational backgrounds, she said.
Pointing out the great need for theological education in Kansas City at the time of its origin, Marshall said the seminary began in 1902 with four faculty members and six students. The increase to 45 students within a year is regarded as the most rapid seminary growth on record, she said.
Addressing the question of doctrinal positions, Marshall stated that the historic confession of belief driving the convictions of the seminary has been the New Hampshire Confession (of 1833).
The seminary has recognized this confession, Marshall said, to be a human document, true to historical Baptist principles and in character with what Baptists believe, but not elevated above Scripture. As such, Marshall stated, the attitude of the seminary toward the confession has been “appropriately Baptist.”
Central Seminary has welcomed female ministerial students, Marshall said. At present, she noted, 40 percent of the student body is comprised of women. The seminary also has actively sought African American students. In 1947, Marshall said, the seminary witnessed a significant milestone by awarding a Th.D. to a black student.
“Through the years Central has been intent on reaching out to the black community. It is where we live,” Marshall stated. “The geographical location of the seminary and its deep concern for social justice and the spread for racial equality has prompted attention to this issue.”
Addressing the question of denominational affiliation, Marshall explained that from 1950-55 serious discussions were held concerning the relationship of the Southern Baptist Convention with Central Baptist Seminary. After the SBC withdrew support from Central in 1956, the decision was made for Central to be aligned with the American Baptist Convention, she said. In 1995, the board revised its mission statement to include full support of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Answering the question, “What kind of students are you trying to produce?” Marshall spoke of the seminary’s emphasis on spiritual formation. Marshall defined the term in this way: “Spiritual formation is the growth of all relationships towards wholeness in Jesus Christ. The process is the opening of the human spirit to the Holy Spirit at work in every dimension of human existence: cognitive, affective, physical, integrating all of life to the love and grace of Jesus.”
“Formation is the best one-word description of what we do in theological education,” Marshall said. Formation is the lifelong process of becoming more fully ourselves and more fully like Christ, she said, adding that formation occurs best in community.
“Seminaries are trying to figure out how to be appropriately rigorous intellectual environments,” Marshall said, “while at the same time they are being asked to provide remedial work on what it means to be a believer in God and a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

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  • Kyle Roberts