As James Petigru Boyce, founder of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued, “It is with a single man that error usually commences.” When he wrote those words in 1856, he knew that pattern by observation of church history. All too soon, he would know this sad truth by personal observation.

By the time Southern Baptists were ready to establish a theological seminary, many schools for the training of ministers had already been lost to theological liberalism. Included among these were both Harvard and Yale, even as Yale had been envisioned, at least in part, as a corrective to Harvard. Theological concessions in theological seminaries had already weakened the Baptists of the North. Drawing upon the lessons of the past, Southern Baptists were determined to establish schools bound by covenant and constitution to a confession of faith — to the pattern of sound words.

Confessional seminaries require professors to sign a statement of faith, designed to safeguard by explicit theological summary. The sad experience of fallen and troubled schools led Southern Baptists to require that faculty members must teach in accordance with the confession of faith, and not contrary to anything therein. Added to this were warnings against any private understanding with a professor, or any hesitation or mental reservation. Teachers in a confessional school not only pledge by sacred covenant to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to” the confession of faith, but to do so gladly, eagerly, and totally.

We are living in an anti-confessional age. Our society and its reigning academic culture are committed to individual autonomy and expression, as well as to an increasingly relativistic conception of truth. The language of higher education is overwhelmingly dominated by claims of academic freedom, rather than academic responsibility. In most schools, a confession of faith is an anathema, not just an anachronism. But, among us, a confession of faith must be seen as a gift and covenant. It is a sacred trust that guards revealed truths. A confession of faith never stands above the Bible, but the Bible itself mandates concern for the pattern of sound words.

Theologian Russell Reno has noted that confessions of faith serve a dual purpose — to define truth and to isolate falsehood:

“The impulse behind confessions of faith is doxological, the desire to speak the truth about God, to give voice to the beauty of holiness in the fullest possible sense. However, the particular forms that historical confessions take are shaped by confrontation. Their purpose is to respond to the spirit of the age by re-articulating in a pointed way the specific content of Christianity so as to face new challenges as well as new forms of old challenges. As a result, formal confessions are characterized by pointed distinctions. They are exercises in drawing boundaries where the particular force of traditional Christian claims is sharpened to heighten the contrast between true belief and false belief. ... As they shape our faith, confessions structure our identities.”

Confessions structure our identities. If not, they are useless. Within a theological seminary, the confession must function as a living commitment, not as a dead letter. As Reno notes, confessions are characterized by pointed distinctions. They are exercises in drawing boundaries, addressing new heresies and new forms of old heresies. False teachings are always around us. Our task is to make certain that they do not take hold among us.

For many denominations, churches, and seminaries, confessions of faith are kept as references to a faith once believed, but available only in the present as a remembrance of things past. Among us, the confession must guard the faith once for all delivered to the saints as a living faith.

Southern Baptists learned these lessons the hardest way, and we have paid the price of theological controversy for the sake of recovering that which was lost. By God’s grace, we have been granted a recovery, if we will keep it. Now, a new generation must take up this responsibility in the face of new challenges, knowing that these challenges, like the denial of biblical inerrancy, will require the full force of conviction to confront, and the full force of confession to contain.