Fall 2021 Convocation Address: “Who Are You?”

September 2, 2021
Fall 2021 Convocation Address

The Fall 2021 Convocation Address may be viewed on YouTube and on Facebook.

On one occasion, Jesus withdrew with his disciples and put to them this question, “Who do people say that I am?” How one perceives and responds to Jesus is of inestimable, indeed primal, importance both in time and eternity. Peter got it right that day in the region of Caesarea Philippi, and we do well to join him in declaring that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (see Matthew 16:13-16).

While paling in comparison to the magnitude of the question regarding Jesus’ identity, I am frequently asked to describe Truett Seminary, not least by those who know or have heard something about us but would like to know and hear more. Some five years ago now, I worked with faculty colleagues to capture and convey Truett’s identity in a succinct statement.

This morning as we begin our seminary’s 27th trip around the sun, I would like to state and then seek to explicate Truett’s statement of identity, which will lead me to speak in turn of that which vivifies and unifies our seminary family.

Our identity statement is as follows: Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary is an orthodox, evangelical, multidenominational school in the historic Baptist tradition embedded into a major research university. Foregoing commentary on the history of our university, seminary, and the namesakes thereof, each of which is worthy of lofty and lengthy treatment, allow me to begin to unpack this identity statement by focusing on a single word—school. Truett is first and foremost a school. But to speak of Truett as a schole (the Greek term from which our English word derives that originally meant—wait for it—“leisure”) begs the question of what kind of school we actually are.

Broadly speaking we are a “graduate professional school.” Accredited by both the Southern Commission of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) and the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS), Truett Seminary offers both masters and doctoral education at the intersection of theory and practice leading to MA, MTS, MDiv, DMin, and PhD degrees. Thus, we are a particular kind of graduate professional school, namely, a seminary, a word derived from the Latin seminarium, meaning “seedbed,” the first known use of which was in 1542.

Those who first envisioned our school in the mid to late 1980s and early 1990s, not least Baylor’s 12th President, Dr. Herbert H. Reynolds, intentionally chose the word seminary in order to emphasize a focus upon ministerial training in concert with and service of churches. Therefore, although Truett Seminary is a school and not a church, we, like Baylor University writ large, are Pro Ecclesia even as we are Pro Texana. In a phrase, one that you will begin to see with increasing regularity, Truett is “A Seminary for the Church in Texas and beyond.”

To speak of Baylor further and to offer yet a thicker description of our seminary, Truett is an embedded school. That is, we are a part of Baylor. Established in 1991, Truett began to offer classes in 1994. As it happens, our seminary is one of the twelve (12) schools and colleges that comprise Baylor University, which was founded in 1845 in Independence, Texas when what is now a state was still a Republic.

What does it mean in practice for us to be embedded into Baylor? Rather a lot. Time constraints preclude a fulsome response to this question, but suffice it to say that our school is both accountable to and buoyed by Baylor. Taken together, to be an embedded seminary of Baylor University is an enormous benefit to and advantage for Truett Seminary. What we might lose in autonomy as a stand-alone seminary is more than compensated for in the opportunity that is ours to be a part of a highly ranked, private, Christian university that will soon become, Lord willing and us working, a Research One, Tier-One institution.

That Truett Seminary is able to offer so much to its students and constituents is due in no small measure to the support and generosity of Baylor University, not least the Board of Regents and the central administration, especially President Livingstone and Provost Brickhouse. So, whether or not you to don green and gold and shout “Sic’em Bears,” it is altogether fitting for each and all of us to say “thank you” to Baylor sincerely and regularly.

Interestingly, Baylor continues to describe itself as the world’s largest Baptist university. Some might wonder how and if this can be done with integrity. Again, this is a multi-faceted matter. Formally, Baylor in general and Truett in particular continue to be affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Beyond Regent representation and financial support, Baylor enjoys a historic, symbiotic relationship with Texas Baptists. Additionally, Truett Seminary works in concert with the BGCT to serve churches, especially Texas Baptist churches. Truett’s living link, then, to the historic Baptist tradition of which our identity statement speaks is primarily through the ongoing partnership and fellowship we enjoy with the BGCT.

Having said that, our seminary also works with other Baptist bodies and assemblies who are willing to work with us, such as the Baptist World Alliance, the Baptist General Association of Virginia, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Converge, and the American Baptist Convention. This is particularly true in terms of placement. Furthermore, even as Truett strives to serve students, churches, and organizations beyond the borders of the Lone Star State, we are also beginning to serve with greater intentionality, and, I trust, effectiveness, persons and congregations from other Christian denominations and communions, not least our friends in the Wesleyan tradition.

Dr. John Upton, a Baylor graduate who currently serves as the Executive Director of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, speaks of the need for institutions and organizations to have both “deep roots and green shoots.” Even as Truett is deeply and gladly rooted in Baylor and Texas Baptist soil, we are also pleased to partner with others near and far, both inside and outside of Baptist life, who are willing to walk and work with us. Last summer, for example, the Wesley House of Studies was birthed at Truett. Launched in Christian friendship and nurtured in ongoing fellowship, under the able leadership of Drs. William J. Abraham and Rusty Freeman and with the unflinching support of Rev. Ryan Barnett, the First United Methodist Church of Waco, and those in their collective spheres of influence, this semester no less than nineteen Wesleyan students have come to study at Truett and to become an integral part of our seminary community.

How can this be, one might wonder, given that there are doctrinal differences between Baptists and Wesleyans, some of which are arguably consequential? Many things might be said in response to this query, but two things must be said. First of all, there are theological differences among Baptists, not a few of which are substantial. Secondly, even as the Baptist world has a broad theological spectrum so does the Wesleyan world. Arguably, deep convictional congruence can sometimes eclipse denominational allegiance and shared educational and missional commitments can often enable multidenominational cooperation and collaboration.

While many, if not most, Baptists would maintain that they are not a creedal people, declaring something akin to “No creed but the Bible, no Lord but Christ,” many Baptists would also acknowledge that they are a confessional people. Our seminary, for instance, has historically found its theological moorings in the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message.

In addition that confession is Truett’s succinct Statement of Common Faith, which reflects the consensus of the seminary’s faculty and administration. Were one to read and reflect upon this statement, which appears on our website under twelve (12) headings, one would unsurprisingly discover a distinctly Baptist, Protestant stamp. Therein, one also encounters what might be accurately and fairly labeled “orthodox” and “evangelical” beliefs.

Both the term “orthodox” and “evangelical” can be controversial, confusing, and thought by some to be best avoided. Recognizing the inherent difficulty of employing both terms, I seek to clarify what I mean when using these words instead of foregoing them altogether. When using the word “orthodox,” I have in mind those beliefs and behaviors that most Christians in most places at most times have embraced and espoused; when employing the term “evangelical,” I am informed by the so-called Bebbington quadrilateral, which identifies biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism as the four main traits or qualities of evangelicalism.

Hopefully, Truett’s identity statement and this running commentary upon the same is helpful in understanding our seminary. Be that as it may, I recognize both the statement and my reflections upon the same to be simply the start of beginning to grasp more fully Truett’s necessarily multi-faceted and complex identity. Such shortcomings are rectified, at least in part, by the more expansive document “Vision for Life Together,” which is also prominently displayed for reading and reference on our school’s website.

This piece, inspired in part by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and composed by Truett Professor of Christian Theology Dr. Kimlyn J. Bender in concert with a faculty committee, unpacks more fully that to which our seminary joyfully aspires and willingly commits. If you have yet to read and reflect carefully on this document, I would encourage you to do so soon, though not just now please.

One aspect of our seminary that the aforementioned piece captures especially well is Truett’s commitment to Christian community. Koinonia in Christ is part and parcel of our DNA. Members of our seminary community experience and enjoy this life-giving force variously—in class, in chapel, in conversation, in covenant groups, in prayer, at meal tables, over coffee, in homes, in churches, in study sessions, in student organizations, in faculty and staff offices, in Waco, Houston, and San Antonio, in Zoom rooms, during study abroad and road trips, in waiting and hospital rooms, at athletic contests and concerts, at work and play, and so forth. I truly hope that Truett Seminary will increasingly become for each of us a family to whom we can look and to whom we can turn time and again over the years and the miles.

If Truett is animated and vivified by being a caring Christian community, it is simultaneously characterized and energized by a mutually reinforcing commitment to rigorous academic instruction and intentional spiritual formation. Ours is a school of faith and learning that values, in the words of J.B. Lightfoot, both “the highest reason and the fullest faith.”

Truett’s faculty is comprised of gifted scholar-teachers and engaged pastor-practitioners who both stretch and support students as they prepare for the ministries into which the Lord is calling them. In addition to sharing with students what they think and believe, Truett’s faculty teaches students how to think so that they will be able to grow up more fully into Christ’s image and likeness. Rigid indoctrination leading to lock-step uniformity? Certainly not! Careful instruction leading Christ-like conformity and skillful ministry? Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

Truett students are blessed to read and to consider sacred Scripture, often in Hebrew and Greek, with expert guides even as they are able to examine with learned professors and skilled instructors writings from the likes of Ignatius and Tertullian, Augustine and Calvin, Luther and Wesley, Schleiermacher and Baur, Barth and Bultmann, Newbigin and Bosch, Gupta and Gaventa, Gonzalez and Jennings, Brueggemann and Yong, Mitchell and Myers, Craddock and Robinson, Wright and McCaulley, Foster and Bolsinger, and the list could go on and on and on, including many works written by our own faculty.

Students, as you read and read and read, and think and think and think, and write and write and write, and meet and meet and meet, and listen and listen and listen, and talk and talk and talk, and pray and pray and pray, you will grow and grow and grow and before you know it you will be increasingly equipped for the gospel work and witness to which God is calling you. As some of our students are wont to say, “This is how we Truett.”

Speaking of the way, ethos, or habitus of Truett, we not only value sound doctrine, Christian community, and wholistic pedagogy, but we also desire for our life together to be characterized and energized by curiosity, magnanimity, humility, fidelity, piety, and charity. Questions are both welcomed and encouraged here. Difference and disagreement, though not discord or demonization, are anticipated and wanted at Truett, as is a gracious, humble, longsuffering spirit and a habit of heart that seeks and speaks the truth in love.

Speaking of love or agape, Paul describes it in the rightly praised text that Dr. Lefever read earlier as a more excellent way (a hyperbolen hodon). It is the way that gives rise to and brings forth the fruit of the Spirit, which begins with love and then branches out to include joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control against which there is no law.

When asked by a Scripture scholar to prioritize and in effect summarize the 613 commandments that comprised the Law, Jesus responded with a two-fold command to love: To love, that is to value and esteem, the one true God with every fiber of one’s being (based upon the Shema set forth in Deuteronomy 6:4-5) and to love one’s neighbor as oneself (based upon Leviticus 19:18).

In the stairwell closest to the Paul W. Powell Chapel—Dr. Powell was Truett’s third dean, you will see hung on the walls these twin commands. My hope is that we would hide these commands in our hearts so that we might manifest them in our lives.

Ultimately, who Truett is and what our seminary does collectively is predicated and contingent upon who we are and what we do individually. Prior to the purple passage Paul composed now known to us as 1 Corinthians 13, he compares the body of Christ, the church, to the human body. While, as noted earlier, Truett Seminary is not a church, we do well as Christ-followers in a community committed to study and to ministry to aspire to care for and to be concerned about one another, to suffer with and to honor one another.

As with the human body, we all have a part to play in our seminary community. We will not, or at least I will not, play our part perfectly. We will form discordant chords; we will take misguided steps; we will speak inapt words. Resultantly, we will need to forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven us.

As we do so, we will also need to forge ahead together to be what we are becoming—a community of faith and learning being formed more fully into the image and likeness of Christ Jesus, realizing full well that now we see in a glass dimly, but then face to face; recognizing that although now we know in part when Completeness comes we will know fully even as we will be fully known. And then, “All shall be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

You will soon see that this convocation address and our seminary hymn composed and led by Dr. York end similarly. As we seek and strive to be all that we might be both collectively and individually, may the End mark our every beginning until God brings all things to culmination and completion through Jesus Christ our Lord by the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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