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Theology dean comments on SWBTS prayer language stance

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–When theology dean David Allen sends a memo informing Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary faculty of the Oct. 17 trustee statement regarding the neo-Pentecostal/charismatic practice called a private prayer language, he doesn’t expect any surprises. Prospective faculty members have been quizzed on the subject for years, Allen said.

If a current faculty member practices “a private prayer language” as one trustee alleges five of them do, then the pertinent question becomes whether that view is advocated in the classroom. “I would not bring that professor in and say, ‘You cannot say that outside of class.’ I’m not going to restrict anyone in that way.”

Allen reminded, “The [trustee] statement said we will not knowingly endorse private prayer language,” taking that to mean advocating that practice.

The newly passed statement reads: “As it concerns private practices of devotion, these practices, if genuinely private, remain unknown to the general public and are, therefore, beyond the purview of Southwestern Seminary. Southwestern will not knowingly endorse in any way, advertise, or commend the conclusions of the contemporary charismatic movement including ‘private prayer language.’ Neither will Southwestern knowingly employ professors or administrators who promote such practices.”

Allen draws a distinction between the statement by which a seminary operates and the freedom of an individual pastor. “A pastor at a local church is not an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention. They are by definition autonomous, as is their pastor.

“However, a seminary is a different animal,” Allen said, regarding the responsibility the seminary has to its churches through trustees elected by the SBC.

Prior to joining the seminary’s faculty and administration, Allen served as a trustee throughout previous President Ken Hemphill’s administration and takes issue with McKissic’s characterization that the newly passed statement represents a theological and philosophical shift that will exclude many private prayer practitioners.

“During the entire Hemphill time, as a board member, if a person articulated to me that they had charismatic leanings and inclusive of that was a private prayer language, it would be very unlikely I would have been supportive of faculty status.” However, a faculty member who privately discloses a sympathetic view toward the practice of a private prayer language won’t be hauled into the dean’s office, Allen said.

“I would not bring that professor in and say you cannot say that outside of class. It’s not going to restrict in that way. If we have people who do that here, we’re certainly not going to try to move for their dismissal,” Allen said.

Nor should the statement pose a problem for any SWBTS students, he added. “We have lots of students who aren’t Southern Baptists and some are charismatic. We do not expect our students to affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. Under no conditions would any such student be unwelcome here,” Allen said.

“On the other side of the coin, we can be careful in whom we do hire. We will not hire anyone knowingly who affirms that which the vast majority of Southern Baptists disavow.”

Southwestern President Paige Patterson agreed. “As long as it remains private, it’s not problematic to me because I don’t know,” Patterson said. “If it does become known to some people, but is not a matter that is advocated or advertised and the reputation of the school is not harmed thereby, then it’s not a problem.”

While the focus of the statement was placed on the hiring process, Patterson said he questions whether there’s even one professor who advocates the practice of a private prayer language.

Patterson also questioned McKissic’s claim that the seminary has abandoned its commitment to the inerrant Word of God by banning a practice that the Apostle Paul said should not be forbidden. He called it a disagreement with McKissic’s interpretation, not a denial of God’s Word.

“We don’t forbid tongues. We said what we are going to do in the seminary as a direction,” Patterson said. “He is confusing our disagreement with him as a disagreement with inerrancy.”

Patterson said a variety of interpretations are held by Southwestern professors, including cessationists like Vice President Craig Blaising and those would view some legitimacy to what was happening at the church at Corinth while regarding it as “implicitly dangerous.”

“I have never been a cessationist. I believe the sign gifts ceased with the coming of the New Testament. I do not think that the scriptural grounds for arguing that are persuasive, but I do believe that if it is an actual case of the gift of tongues that it will be the experience of Acts 2 where people speak languages they have never formally studied in order to present the Gospel.”

While he does not believe there is “a lot of necessity” for that type of situation anymore, Patterson said nevertheless, “God is God and it could happen, but if it happens, I believe it will be that,” speaking in known languages previously unknown to the speakers.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter