This summer, Broadman & Holman released a new textbook on theology entitled A Theology for the Church. The book was edited by Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and it has contributions from some of the best known names in Southern Baptist life in the field of theology. This is the first compendium of theological topics produced by Broadman & Holman and written by Southern Baptists in more than fifty years. What follows is an interview between SBC LIFE and Dr. Akin. SBC LIFE wanted to know why Dr. Akin and the contributors to this book believe theology is important for the church and why it is especially crucial at this particular juncture in Southern Baptist life.
SBC LIFE Why do you feel it is necessary for churches to focus on theology?
Akin Theology enables God's people to think correctly and live rightly. What we do always flows from what we believe, and a sound theology helps us think clearly, rightly, and, most importantly, biblically about God.
SBC LIFE What difference does theology really make? Is it not enough that we worship the Lord with our hearts and enjoy warm and affirming fellowship?
Akin It is important that we love God with our heart, but it is also imperative that we love the Lord with our mind as well. Most of the time, Southern Baptists do a good job of loving God with their heart. However, I am not sure that we always do a good job at loving God with our mind. Peter reminds us to set apart the Messiah as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15). Jesus instructed us in Matthew 22:37, that you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. Theology is one means whereby we love God with our minds.
SBC LIFE How would you respond to those who suggest that studying theology tends to reduce God in the Christian life to an "ivory tower" academic exercise?
Akin Studying theology can certainly run that risk, but we do not have to fall into this trap. That is why Jesus challenges us to love the Lord both with our heart and with our mind. I am convinced that the best theology is done within the context of a passion for the Great Commission. I often tell our students that the model in this area is the Apostle Paul who was both the great missionary and the great theologian. When you wed solid theology to a commitment to the Great Commission, you will bring a balance to your theology that will be healthy and fruitful. We must remember that the best missionaries are capable theologians, and the best theologians are passionate missionaries. The two must never be separated. This is imperative for the future of our convention of churches.
SBC LIFE Many people believe that theology is a discipline best left to seminary professors and the seminary classroom. They would say that pastors and their churches are better served to be about Kingdom priorities of spreading the Gospel and not getting distracted by all of this "heady" material. How would you respond to that?
Akin The title of this book explains what we believe is the case. Theology is a discipline for the church, not just the academy. Indeed, it is primarily a task for the church. The fact of the matter is that defining the Gospel is inherently a theological task. You cannot define the Gospel without doing theology. You cannot define the Kingdom of God without doing theology. You can't really even define the Great Commission without doing theology. In other words, we do theology whether we realize it or not. Therefore, we are either going to do theology well or we are going to do theology poorly. Pastors need to set the standard in this area by emphasizing and modeling the importance of good theology for their people.
Further, I believe pastors need to regain a renewed understanding of what it means to be a pastor/theologian and to challenge their people likewise to grow in the discipline of studying theology. Reading popular Christian works is fine and good, but it is certainly not enough. Just as a child (and adults for that matter!) needs to have a balanced diet to grow and stay healthy, we also need to take in spiritual food from various sources to ensure that we have a balanced diet. I am personally convinced, as are all the contributors of this theology, that our people are far more interested in, and capable of, thinking theologically than many of us believe. My experience has been when people are challenged to study theology, they respond in a wonderful manner. This has especially been true in what I have seen in teaching high school and college students over the last decade. Let's raise the theological bar and see what happens! I think the response will be awesome to behold.
SBC LIFE So you believe a pastor could take this work, A Theology for the Church, and lead his people through a study of it over an extended period of time with great fruit resulting.
Akin Absolutely! I know of a Southern Baptist church in which the pastor began five years ago working through a basic systematic theology textbook with ten men. This past year there were 480 men and women who met weekly to study theology! I am convinced more than ever that there is a deep hunger in Southern Baptist churches for a steady diet of good, sound, biblical theology. I also believe that the need has never been greater. It is the prayer of all the contributors of this work that this book might bring about something of a revival and renaissance of the study of theology within the Southern Baptist Convention. Given so much of the conversation and controversy recently in our Convention over the Baptist Faith and Message, I believe the need is self evident.
SBC LIFE Theologians are sometimes viewed as being out of touch with the churches. Further, sometimes they can even come across as being almost "papal," speaking down to the common people in the pew concerning what they should believe and how they should think. How would you respond to someone who raises this concern, as well as to those who even hold that the doctrine of the Priesthood of all Believers would argue against the validity of theological instruction?
Akin That is a really good question. I would begin by saying that we as Southern Baptists affirm wholeheartedly the doctrine of the Priesthood of Believers. We also believe that this doctrine is primarily one of accountability and responsibility which fits perfectly into the study of theology. We are responsible to hold one another accountable in defending the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
It is also the case that God raises up men in the body of Christ to be pastor/teachers to lead us and to help us in thinking biblically and theologically. Some of these men find their place of service in our seminaries and colleges. However, even these men are accountable within and to the churches.
There is no place for a Baptist pope or ecclesiastical magisterium in Southern Baptist life. There is also no place for sloppy and unbiblical thinking either. I can say this. Southern Baptist seminaries are not interested in being theological peeping-toms nor are we interested in conducting theological witch hunts. Rather, we honor all those that God raises up who have the ability to help us think well theologically, and we also recognize that every believer in the body of Christ is responsible to be a capable and competent theologian. Therefore, when a Baptist church, and for that matter a convention, is functioning as it ought, there is a wonderful and healthy accountability that exists between the academy and the local church. Our six Southern Baptist seminaries serve the churches. We are accountable to the churches. We recognize that we will do a better job because of that accountability and responsibility. It is not something that we wish to negate or run from. Rather, it is something we gladly embrace. We are partners in service to King Jesus.
SBC LIFE In looking at the list of contributors, it is clear that there is a broad spectrum of representation among the authors. Some are known for being Calvinistic in their theology, while others are not. Was that intentional and did it present any problems?
Akin You are accurate in your observation. I believe the contributors to this volume represent the best thinkers in Southern Baptist life. And it is true that the contributors are not lock step in all of their theological positions. However, and I think that this is crucially important at this particular time in our history, each of these men is a confessional Baptist committed to evangelical theology and the Baptist Faith and Message. We are in 100 percent agreement on the essentials of the faith, as well as those distinctives that mark and identify us as Baptists. There may be differing views on the number of points of Calvinism, plurality of elders versus a single pastor, or a particular perspective on eschatology. Yet, we are united in what constitutes historic orthodox Christianity, and we are united in the distinctive marks of what constitutes a Baptist. I think A Theology for the Church models well what could be a consensus for Southern Baptists in terms of confessional theology. At least that is a hope that I believe the Lord has placed deep within my heart.
SBC LIFE Is there anything else you would add to our interview?
Akin I would simply want to challenge pastors to take the lead in helping their people once again become good students of theology. I would challenge them to start a study group focusing on theology. Use this book and see what God does. I think many will be pleasantly surprised. I think they will also discover that they will cultivate better listeners of their preaching as well as a cohort of fellow followers of Jesus Christ who will come along side of them to ensure that their people are not tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, but instead they are growing up in Christ to a mature man who is capable of rightly dividing the Word of Truth and holding in trust the wonderful mysteries of the Christian faith.