Spring 2019 Convocation Address: Via, Veritas, Vita

January 17, 2019
Convocation Spring 2019

In August of 2018, as we began our current academic year, I shared a convocation address entitled “Post Tenebras Lux.” This Latin phrase, literally meaning “after darkness light,” was a slogan of the Protestant Reformation, not least in John Calvin’s Geneva, about which Dr. Brian Brewer can tell you far more than I. In that address, I sought to link that Reformation motto to the #BaylorLights messaging, which has now coalesced with the promotion of a $1.1 billion comprehensive fundraising campaign for the future of Baylor known as Give Light.

Parenthetically, at Truett Seminary we have been tasked to raise roughly 5% of that total amount, some $50 million over the course of the next four years. Thankfully, due to the generosity and magnanimity of many of our supporters during the so-called silent phase of our campaign, we are already over half way there. That being said, if you know or know of people who would like to and are able to invest in theological education through our seminary, please let me or my development colleague Kelli Edmond know. These newly raised funds will increase scholarships, endow professorships, and support existing and new programming.

This past fall, I tied “Post Tenebras Lux” and #BaylorLights to the biblical texts printed on the banners before us. “I am the Light of the Word,” Jesus declares in John 8:12; “You are the light of the world,” Jesus instructs his disciples in Matthew 5:14. Those who have embraced the Light that is Jesus can carry the Light, letting their lights shine so that others might see the Light and so that God might be praised. What the moon is to the sun, we are to be with respect to the Son of God and even the LORD himself. We are to reflect the one in whom there is no darkness at all (so 1 John 1:5).

At times, I will walk into this Chapel, this sacred space, when it is empty, and even dark, and will leave full and more fully alive. I will gaze upon the welcoming Christ, who is front and center, first and foremost, the Light of the world. Upon departing, I realize afresh that I am to walk in the light and am to steer clear of darkness and the deeds associated therewith.

In this morning’s Spring Convocation Address, as signaled in the title “Via, Veritas, Vita” (a Latin phrase literally rendered, “way, truth, life”), we will weave our way to yet another of the seven “I AM” + predicate statements in the Fourth Gospel. It will take us a bit of time to get there, however. Please join me on what I hope will be both an educational and inspirational journey.

Baylor’s $1.1 billion comprehensive fundraising campaign (Give Light) is linked to and animated by our university’s academic strategic plan entitled Illuminate. I do not have the time, and this is not the place to consider Illuminate in any degree of detail. I do hope, however, that you will go online and read the plan in its entirety. Doing so will help you to know more fully who Baylor is and who she aspires to be.

As some of you may already know, the George W. Truett Theological Seminary, which was established in 1991 and began offering classes at the First Baptist Church of Waco in 1994, is one of the twelve schools and colleges of Baylor University, which was established in 1845 in Independence, Texas and was moved to Waco in 1885. Truett is Baylor’s seminary. Our namesake, George Washington Truett, who lived from 1867 to 1944, was over the course of his well-lived life a Baylor employee, graduate, trustee, and beloved son.

Truett is best known for having served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas for 47 years. Dr. Joel Gregory, the George W. Truett Professor of Preaching and Evangelism at our seminary, also served as pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas for a season. Interestingly, for 37 of Truett’s 47 year tenure at First Baptist, Truett would travel each summer to the Davis Mountains in far southwest Texas to a place called Paisano, which is located between Alpine and Marfa, to minister to cowboys and their families. Dr. Levi Price, a now retired Truett faculty member, served as President of the Paisano Baptist Encampment for many years. This coming summer will mark my seventh year to serve as a teacher and preacher at Paisano. Truett prayed that the Lord would give him a shepherd’s heart, and God answered his prayer in spades.

I could talk about our namesake for a good bit longer, but at this point allow me to note that Truett Seminary, like some 45% of the schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, is a so-called embedded school. I often say that we are a part of big “B” Baylor. Additionally, we, like some 45% of the schools accredited by the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, are also an evangelical school.

For us, this means that as a seminary we gladly and freely embrace core commitments of evangelicalism, not unlike those outlined by Dr. David Bebbington, who will once again be teaching at Truett in the fall of 2019, in what has been dubbed the “Bebbington quadrilateral.” The four corners are: 1. Biblicism—a high regard for the Bible with respect to doctrine and practice; 2. Crucicentrism—a focus upon the atoning work of Christ Jesus on the cross; 3. Conversionism—the belief that human beings are sinful and separated from God, cannot save themselves, and thus need to be converted or “born again”; and 4. Activism—a commitment not only to believe the gospel in principle but also to apply the gospel in practice. Our own Dr. Roger Olson is also a leading contributor to the ongoing conversation regarding evangelicalism. Particularly important are his insights regarding what he labels “post-conservative evangelicalism.” I would contend that the Bebbington quadrilateral pairs nicely with the Wesleyan quadrilateral that starts with Scripture and then moves to tradition, reason, and experience respectively.

Truett understands itself to be “an orthodox, evangelical school in the historic Baptist tradition embedded into a major research university.” As a seminary that cherishes such Baptist distinctives as religious liberty, soul competency, the priesthood of all believers, and the separation of church and state, we exist “to equip God-called people for gospel ministry in and alongside Christ’s Church by the power of the Holy Spirit,” and it is our vision “to prepare thoughtful, faithful ministers—who are servant-leaders—for a twenty-first century church and world.”

Taken together, the overall aim of Illuminate is to situate better and accelerate further Baylor as a preeminent Christian research university, moving our university toward tier-one, research-one status. To be sure, this is easier said than done. However, it is the start that stops most people, and if you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time. At Truett, we, as a graduate professional school, want to and will do all that we can to assist our university in this steep, steady climb. Our launching of a PhD program in preaching this coming fall, directed by Dr. Scott Gibson, is one concrete step in that direction.

There are four pillars that are foundational to Illuminate, even as there are five signature, interdisciplinary initiatives that drive this five-year, academic strategic plan. The pillars are these: an unambiguous Christian environment; transformational undergraduate education, not to mention graduate professional education; research and scholarship marked by quality, impact, and visibility; and nationally recognized programs in human performance through the arts and athletics. Our Sports Ministry Program, directed by Dr. John White, is able to help undergird and guide the latter. Meanwhile, all of our professors are actively engaged in research and scholarship, and we as a seminary community can continue to contribute to and help to shape the Christian ethos of our university.

Meanwhile, the five so-called signature initiatives that animate Illuminate are health, data sciences, material science, human flourishing, leadership, and ethics, and Baylor in Latin America. Part of my role as dean is to help interpret Illuminate for us even as we seek to situate ourselves within this academic strategic plan and its accompanying fundraising campaign. Over the course of this calendar year, our seminary community will fashion a strategic plan, tentatively entitled Truett @ 25—The Next Five Years, that will both seek to accentuate Illuminate and to elevate Truett.

One can envision any number of ways that our seminary can contribute to the signature initiatives set forth in Illumniate, though it is admittedly difficult to imagine how we can make any truly significant contribution to data sciences and material science. This is not to say, however, that Truett is disinterested in the intersection of science and theology. Drs. Kimlyn Bender and Robert Creech on our faculty are particularly interested in such. If you are likewise interested, please speak to them sometime about the Ramm Scholars Program, which they help to lead. Moreover, Dr. Bender has recently applied for a grant that would enable our community to become increasingly mindful of and conversant with the interaction between theology and science.

Of the five signature initiatives, the one with which Truett Seminary most naturally and immediately aligns is human flourishing, leadership, and ethics. I would like to focus the remainder of my remarks this morning upon but one aspect of the fourth signature initiative—human flourishing.

Although the word flourish is not especially common in Scripture, the picture painted in Psalm 1 of the prospering tree planted by streams of water captures this notion. Speaking of the Psalms and of flourishing, Baylor in general and Truett in particular have serving on her faculty world-recognized Psalms scholars. Among us, we have Dr. Steve Reid, who read Scripture earlier, and Dr. Dennis Tucker, who prayed earlier.

As some of you may know, I will be serving as a Barclay Fellow at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, where I took my Ph.D. in the mid-1990s, beginning this coming Saturday for a period of 8 weeks. Although I will very much miss being here, I am looking forward to the opportunity. If interested, you can follow my toings and froings on Facebook and/or Twitter.

If I had any concern about being away from Waco for the first half of the Spring 2019 semester, my anxieties were allayed and assuaged this past Saturday when second-semester student Adam Jones, who is a student worker in the Dean’s Office, posted the following on Facebook: “Dibs on being Dean while Dr. Still is in Scotland. Feel free to call me Dean Jones or his Most Excellent Deanyness.” Thank you, Adam, for your willingness to serve. You are a very present help in time of need.

Interestingly, the present motto of the city of Glasgow is, “Let Glasgow flourish.” This is a shortened, secularized version of the plea of St. Mungo, a Christian minister as well as the founder and patron saint of Glasgow who died in 614, that the Lord would “Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of thy word.” Some 1,000 years later, Mungo’s prayer was expanded, when in 1637 a bell was cast for Tron Church on Trongate in Glasgow on which was inscribed, “Lord, let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of thy word and the praising of thy name.” Not a bad motto, I would have thought, especially if it were yet again expanded to read: “Lord, let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of thy word and the praising of thy name and the practice of thy will.”

Even as the city of Glasgow has a motto, the University of Glasgow, founded in 1451, has a motto. (As it happens, Glasgow is not the oldest Scottish university. St. Andrews is, as Dr. Wilhite, who earned his PhD from there, knows full well. St. Andrews University was founded in 1413. Latterly, Glasgow [1451], Aberdeen [1495], and Edinburgh [1583]) were founded. The English universities in Oxford, founded in 1096, and Cambridge, established in 1209, are more ancient still. Should you ever forget, they will happily remind you.)

Not unlike other ancient and modern universities, including our own, Glasgow’s motto is expressed in Latin. Whereas Baylor’s motto is “Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana” (“For the Church, For Texas [which has become short-hand for the world]”), the University of Glasgow’s motto is “Via, Veritas, Vita” (typically rendered, “the Way, the Truth, the Life”). Although one will search in vain on Glasgow University’s website for an explicit mention of or connection between their motto on the one hand and John 14:6 on the other, one need not necessarily be a New Testament scholar to see it.

Were one to ask the author of the Gospel of John the key to human flourishing, he would point to none other than he who self-describes as ego eimi and who is “the way, the truth, and the life.” In order to flourish, we need to do what Pilate instructed a hostile crowd to do in the Gospel of John with respect to a scourged and scorned Christ: “Behold the man” (famously ecce homo in Latin) (John 19:5).

In the words of Isaac Watts: “See from his hands, his head, his feet, sorrow and love flowed mingled down; Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, Or thorns compose so rich a crown?”

Furthermore, John would tie flourishing to fidelity and fidelity to freedom. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to his followers, “If you hold to my teaching, you are truly my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” And “if the Son sets you free, then you will be free indeed” (John 8:31-32, 36).

To flourish, to prosper like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in season, believers in Jesus must abide in Jesus; we must remain in Jesus. In the final of the seven “I AM” + predicate sayings in John’s Gospel, Jesus declares, “I am the true vine.” “I am the vine; you are the branches,” he asserts. “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing,” he contends (15:5). A sobering thought. Meanwhile, we do well to recall with Paul that we can do all things worth doing through the one who is strengthening us (Phil 4:13).

As we remain or abide in him and his love, we are able to abound in love and joy and to bear lasting fruit. In him, who is the “resurrection and the life,” we have the hope of life eternal (John 11:25-26), even as we have guidance of the Good Shepherd who leads us (John 10:1-21) and the presence of the Bread of Life who feeds us (John 6:25-59). “For by his hand, we have been fed, and by his Spirit, we have been led.”

Jesus enables and empowers us to have abundant life. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; [he has] come that [we might] have life, and have it to the full.” “The man from heaven,” in Johannine parlance, is the one who allows and aids human flourishing. The one true human enables and equips us to be truly human.

As I contemplate Illuminate in general and the Signature Initiative of Human Flourishing in particular and how such might be applied at Baylor, at Truett, in our lives, and in the lives of those we love and would seek to serve, my mind often returns to the lyrics of a song written by the son of a British Baptist pastor that we sang regularly when I was pastoring Uddingston Baptist Church near Glasgow as I was pursuing my doctoral studies, namely, “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” Let’s allow the chorus of that song written by Graham Kendrick to be our prayer as I conclude this address. Kendrick writes,

Shine, Jesus, shine
Fill this land with the Father’s glory
Blaze, Spirit, blaze
Set our hearts on fire
Flow, river, flow
Flood the nations with grace and mercy
Send forth your word
Lord, and let there be light. Amen.

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