Feb 03, 2010 by Mark Young | 1 Comments
On Saturday, January 30th, Denver Seminary installed me as its seventh president. The service that day was laced with wonderful worship and personal affirmation. What follows is the manuscript from which I delivered my inaugural address. If you would like to watch videos from the weekend or look at photo galleries, please click here. Enjoy!
Having you here today touches me in profound and very personal ways. We have come to this day together—family, colleagues, teachers, friends, students, board members, co-laborers for the sake of the gospel. This day is our day, not just my day. What’s happening here today is an affirmation of our lives together, lives poured out lovingly and sacrificially as God has gifted us with the privilege of serving Him. Thank you for being here today.
Thankfully a day like today happens infrequently in the life of an educational institution. (And let’s hope that we don’t have another one of these for a long, long time.) A day like today comes only at critical junctures in the history of a school, when change demands celebration. This day is Denver Seminary’s day, not my day. This is not just a day for us to get all gussied up and strut our academic stuff. Today we gather to confess our love for this institution and to profess our commitment to its mission. Because this year marks a milestone in the history of Denver Seminary, our sixtieth anniversary, it’s also a time to remember and celebrate what God has done through the faithful men and women that have served here. It’s a time to rejoice over our graduates serving in more than fifty countries around the world. It’s a time to retell stories of God’s faithfulness and provision, to reconnect with one another around our common cause and confession.
Board members, faculty, staff, students, alumni, mentors, friends and supporters—this is a day to remind ourselves that what we do together matters. It’s a day to say and to hear that lives have been changed by the lives of those we’ve taught. Let’s not lose sight of that startling reality; let’s not lose that sense of wonder that each and every day God privileges us to be a part of something much bigger than the particular task, problem or challenge that we may face.
I’m often asked, “What’s your vision for Denver Seminary?” It’s a fair question, one that a president must answer. Development officers require their president to answer that question in thirty seconds or so—the infamous “elevator speech.” That’s hard for me to do. You see, I’m an unrepentant academic and I possess the requisite gifts for that role—the gifts of complication and confusion. As an academic I know that any book title without at least one colon and any answer without multiple dependent clauses and rabbit trails simply cannot be sufficiently complex and convoluted to be taken seriously.
But the question stubbornly persists, “What’s your vision for Denver Seminary?”
Nick Carter, president of Andover Newton Theological Seminary, recently said that a seminary president’s vision has to emerge from the school’s own history and culture rather than be imposed from outside. In many ways my vision for Denver Seminary is irrelevant if it is not forged from ore mined from deep within the legacy and values of this place. I’ve spent the last few months talking with dozens of people that have shaped Denver Seminary. I’ve read pages of notes and articles. And most importantly, as I’ve worked and worshiped with this community for the past seven months, I’ve asked myself the question, “What defines this institution? What values center everything that we do and provide a foundation for our vision?”
Five foundations of our vision for Denver Seminary
Biblical authority. To say that we believe the Bible is our final authority for faith and practice places us squarely in the center of global evangelicalism. We take that belief seriously, looking first to the Word of God as our reference point, assessing theories and arguments for congruence with what it affirms.
I fear that squabbles over the language used to describe what we believe about the nature of the biblical text itself have often distracted us from coming to grips with what we believe the Bible truly is. Some read it as a theology textbook, a repository of ideas about the One True God. We believe that the Bible reveals the One True God to us. But it’s not just a collection of propositions about God like a theology textbook. Others want to read the Bible as a handbook for happy living, a set of guidelines for just about every area of life including, but not limited to, parenting, staying married, financial management, leadership, even diet and exercise. Surely we believe that the Bible teaches us how to live in ways that glorify the One True God. But it’s far more than a “how to” guide for a happy life.
The Bible is a story, coherent and meaningful, when read as a whole. It is a story with an introduction, a climax and an ending. But the Bible isn’t just any story. The Bible is THE story of human history and THE revelation of the One True Creator-Redeemer God in that history. Everyone sees their life as a part of some story. Today, like the biblical authors themselves, we live in a world where competing stories vie for loyalty. Secularism, pluralism, consumerism—these stories clamor for attention and have embedded themselves far more deeply into our lives than we can possibly even know. At Denver Seminary we will read and study and live out the Bible as the only true story of human history and existence, THE story that reveals the person of the One True God and His purpose in human history. Our graduates must be able to credibly engage the competing stories of the world with the story of the Bible. We will teach and model that the Scripture frames how we view our lives, our world, and our place in it. We will teach unashamedly that the Bible provides the only real answers to life’s most profound questions.
Vigorous scholarship—As a community of learners at Denver Seminary we have the courage to ask tough questions and allow the text of Scripture to take us to answers that we may not want to face. I chose the word “vigorous,” as opposed to “rigorous,” because I like what it connotes: “strong, active and robust.” That kind of scholarship does not blink when the skeptic batters our confidence and makes us seem the fool for actually believing in something absolute. Vigorous scholarship does not shrink back and retreat to the comfortable confines of tried and true axioms that the already convinced repeat to one another in order to avoid facing their own doubts. Neither does vigorous scholarship descend into the catacombs of academic irrelevance, “the knowing of more and more about less and less.” At Denver Seminary scholarship means knowing more and more about what matters—the real questions of real people in the real world. Vigorous scholarship is my term for Dr. Grounds' marvelous phrase, “Freedom to think within the bounds laid down in Scripture.” But I also mean by it, “The courage to think for the sake of the gospel throughout all the earth.”
Theological studies have to become more than an intramural sport—Christians talking to Christians in ways that only Christians can understand. We can no longer afford to focus merely on the finely nuanced differences between competing theological streams in the Christian tradition. I am far less interested in a student being able to delineate and defend Calvinism over against Arminianism, or vice versa, than I am a student being able to articulate the great truths of our faith to an indifferent and skeptical world. The secular and pluralistic context in which we live demands that we engage in credible and thorough scholarship in order to make the gospel an issue in compelling and convincing ways.
Charitable orthodoxy—Our community comes together around our confession of the great core truths of the Christian faith. Around that common core we engage in gracious and serious conversations about many different areas of faith and life. And we disagree with one another on some points. Imagine that—academics disagreeing about something. Sometimes we disagree about the interpretation of a passage of Scripture, sometimes it’s about the understanding and/or implications of a theological truth. At times we disagree about the expression of Christian ethics in public policy, at other times we may disagree about ministry strategies. At all times, however, we must continue to be known as a community that relates to one another charitably, with a penchant to listen before speaking and a desire to learn that trumps the instinct to defend and to tell. The freedom and courage to think is only half the equation for a vibrant learning community; freedom and courage to listen completes it.
Charitable orthodoxy does not mean that we are a community without conviction. Indeed, nothing is further from the truth. We cling to the great core truths of the faith for they frame our understanding of our God and our world. Furthermore, we know that these great truths provide a way forward for those trapped in the mire of indifference and relativism. Yet our conversation with those with whom we disagree, particularly outside the community of faith, must be marked by charity and respect. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, argues that our conversation with the broader society must be characterized by what Martin Marty has called “convicted civility,” a commitment to truth communicated with graciousness and kindness. To put it in stark terms, we must avoid at all costs, the angry and bombastic style of radio and TV talk shows where the goal is to embarrass others and volume is substituted for substance. Paul described it this way, “speaking the truth in love.” (Eph. 4:15)
Redemptive relationships—Our community comes together as humbled and broken people who have found life anew in the redemptive power of the gospel. All of us have driven our lives into a ditch at some point; someone helped pull us out. We come together knowing that Christ has rescued us from the bondage and the penalty of our sin simply because He loves us. And we live like those for whom redemption and grace and reconciliation are more than theological concepts—they are the breath of life that sustains us each and every moment of each and every day.
True redemption comes only on the basis of brutal honesty with oneself. Our community will continue to nurture interpersonal relationships that drag us out of our hiding places so that we can finally move into the light of Christ’s searing gaze of love upon us. Because all of us are so adept at self-deception, if we want to come to grips with the real issues that keep us from pursuing Christ, truly redemptive relationships are the only pathway forward.
Our redemptive relationships must go beyond our own community of faculty, staff, and students and reach into the lives of those among whom we live. Indeed, one of the most important learning outcomes of theological education must be the development of a grieving compassion for those who do not yet know Christ. Redemptive relationships seek nothing but the others’ good because they are driven by nothing but genuine concern. I recently read an interchange between a gathering of conservative Jewish rabbis and a well-known Christian preacher. Most in the audience were highly critical of the preacher’s presence in their meeting. During the question-and-answer session that followed his address, he was asked from the audience, "What do you want from us?" He answered, "I don't want anything from you. I have everything I need and want. I've come to tell you that I am going to be your friend. Even if you don't want me to be, I'm still going to be your friend. I've come to tell you that I love you. Even if you don't want me to, I'm still going to love you. That's the only reason I came." Even if you don’t want me to, I’m still going to love you. That’s exactly the posture and the engagement that I want our community to have with everyone, particularly those who have not yet tasted redemption in Christ.
Global concern—Denver Seminary was birthed by a group of Conservative Baptist pastors in 1950. Their primary concern was the perceived erosion of commitment to the gospel in their former national denomination and in the seminaries affiliated with that denomination. In many ways the establishment of Denver Seminary followed on the momentum created by the founding of the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society in 1943. From our inception we have been a community committed to a global perspective. During the very first conversation that I had with Dr. Grounds after I had been appointed as president he told me that the seminary’s first motto was “Majoring in Missions.”
There has never been a generation more globally aware and connected than the current generation of students. There has never been a generation more comfortable with multiple cultural perspectives and complex ethnic and racial realities. Thankfully, the world I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. In today’s world little Johnny goes to church on Sunday with children that look like him and sing the same worship songs that he sings, but when he goes to school on Monday he builds friendships with children who do not look like him and sing songs to other gods. There has never been a time, there has never been a generation, better oriented to global engagement than this generation. As a seminary we must take advantage of this tremendous development and turn their comfort with ethnic and racial diversity into a passion for mission. Just as individuals find comfort hiding from their own personal challenges, so seminaries can easily become so self-focused that they lose sight of the great big, bad, broken world that our Savior loves. That must never happen to us.
Even more importantly, Denver Seminary must make its mission the very mission of God. Our passion must be God’s passion--that people from every nation, every tribe, and every language worship Him alone. We believe that God is sovereignly guiding all of human history to the end that He ordained from eternity. In Revelation 21 we see the end of that history. In John’s grand vision of that time yet future God dwells on the earth with his people. Everything that was wrong in the world has been made right. Everything that was broken in the world has been made whole. And everything that was ugly in the world has been made beautiful. The curse has been removed and life abundant, life as it was intended from the beginning flows from the very presence of God. And who do we see there with God? The nations—people from every tribe and tongue and ethnicity and culture—worshipping the One True God. If that is the end ordained by God in eternity, if that is the end toward which God directs all of human history—how can our sense of destiny and purpose be anything else?
Biblical authority, vigorous scholarship, charitable orthodoxy, redemptive relationships, global concern—that‘s the seminary created by those who’ve come before me. From this grand legacy our common vision for Denver Seminary emerges. These marvelous characteristics serve our students well. Their learning experience at the seminary is rich and full, as is our own experience co-laboring with one another as faculty and staff. If we’re not careful, however, we can make the preservation of these traits our primary purpose. And that will strangle us.
Any vision for Denver Seminary is incomplete without a clear statement of rationale for our existence. If the five preceding characteristics define who we are, our vision must help us determine “why we are who we are.”
Traditionally seminaries have framed the rationale for their existence by two constituent groups. Some schools find the rationale for their programs in students. Indeed, the core activity of a seminary is to help students learn, change, and grow. This approach defines the seminary as “Christians helping Christians become better Christians.” Other seminaries argue that they exist for the sake of the Church, as a ministry that helps prepare students for the work of ministry in a church. Given our typical understanding of a church, this approach defines the seminary as “Christians helping Christians learn how to help Christians become better Christians.” What’s missing in all of this? The world! The world that God loves. (Jn 3:16) That big, bad, ugly world for whose sins Christ died. (1 Jn. 2:2)
What would happen if a seminary were bold enough to say, “We exist for the lost”? That seminary would surely continue to do everything possible to help students learn and change and grow. That seminary would help guide students to places of service in the church for which they are well-suited and competently trained as pastors, teachers, counselors, chaplains, leaders, etc. But a seminary that takes the lost world seriously would seek to do more than that. That seminary would help every student, no matter what degree program or career aspiration they may have, develop a consuming grief for the lostness of those who do not yet know Christ, a lifestyle of compassionate movement toward those who do not share our adoration for Jesus, and the courage to compellingly communicate the life-changing gospel to any and all that need to hear it. That seminary defines itself as “Christians helping one another learn how to create a more compelling testimony of the risen Lord.” Oh, how I long for Denver Seminary to become that kind of place.
And so as we move forward as a community that loves Denver Seminary, let’s resolve to make it a place where we never lose sight of the lost. Let’s pursue a vision of a place where our commitments to biblical authority, vigorous scholarship, charitable orthodoxy, redemptive relationships and global concern move us and our students into meaningful involvement in the very mission of God—the redemption of all peoples. Frankly, I’m not interested in just training pastors, teachers, counselors and leaders. Denver Seminary will be a place that prepares men and women to address the needs of the world with the life-changing truth of Scripture. Some of our students will become pastors, some counselors, some teachers, some leaders; all of them, however, must frame their lives and ministries as an expression of God’s love for a world that does not yet worship him alone. Let’s train those who yearn for a world transformed by the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. Let’s train those “naïve” enough to believe that the power of Spirit brings about real change. Let’s train world changers.
A major state university (Hook ‘em!) promises without apology, “What starts here changes the world.” A friend told me recently that they will embark on a capital campaign to raise $3 billion dollars. The proposed slogan for that campaign is, “We change people. They change the world.” As those who have tasted the life-transforming power of the gospel and who, empowered by the Spirit, have been entrusted with it for the sake of all humanity in the grand mission of God, can we not say and believe the same with even more conviction and hope than a secular institution of higher education. God changes people and that changes the world!
May we leave this place with the model of our Savior, as described in Phil 2:6-11, etched permanently on our souls:
- Submitted to the will of the Father
- Moving always toward the lost
- Suffering for the sake of their salvation
Trusting that, after the last fist has been raised in defiance and violence against the very Son of God, “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.”