The Development and Role of the Abstract of Principles

Abstract of Principles

Abstract of Principles

“But of him who is to teach the ministry, who is to be the medium through which the fountain of Scripture truth is to flow to them—whose opinions more than those of any living man, are to mold their conceptions of the doctrines of the Bible, it is manifest that more is requisite. His agreement with the standard should be exact. His declaration of it should be based upon no mental reservation, upon no private understanding with those who immediately invest him into office; but the articles to be taught being distinctly laid down, he should be able to say from his knowledge of the Word of God that he knows these articles to be an exact summary of the truth therein contained.” (1)

Southern founder James P. Boyce spoke these foundational words in an 1856 address to the Southern Baptist Educational Conference in Greenville, South Carolina. They preserve Boyce’s conviction that the seminary stand upon a statement of faith. Boyce knew that as the head of the seminary, he would give an account to God for his handling of the instruction of God’s church. For this reason, he ascribed great importance to the seminary statement of faith, the “Abstract of Principles.” The “Abstract” acted from the first as a means of theological self-definition and as a safeguard against doctrinal error. This attention to orthodoxy endures at Southern in the current day.

After the idea to found a seminary caught on among Southern Baptists in the late 1850s, Boyce called on his fellow Princetonian Basil Manly, Jr. to draw up the “Abstract of Principles,” as Boyce termed it, in 1857. Manly, Jr. and Boyce shared a mind on the necessity of such a statement. Manly took up the task with vested diligence, working for much of the spring of 1858 on the document.

When he had authored in draft form the twenty articles that comprised the Abstract, Manly presented his work to the SBC Committee charged with formation of the statement. The group met in May 1858 at the Plan of Organization meeting in Greenville prior to the main Convention meeting. For five intensive days, Manly, Boyce, John Broadus, E.T Winkler, and William Williams hammered out the document, working from the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, the Westminster Confession, the Philadelphia Confession, and the 1833 New Hampshire Confession. Manly later remembered the occasion with fondness: “Those were memorable days to some at least of those who engaged in them. In the freedom of brotherly discussion, in the warmth occasioned by the contact and collision of ideas of the younger and the older, there was keen stimulus to thought. Every great topic in theology was handled earnestly, freely, and yet reverently.” (2) Following the revision sessions, the committee commended the reworked document to the convention. In 1858, a year before Southern opened its doors, the convention accepted the Abstract and instituted it as the seminary’s official creed.

Though groups like the Campbellites publicly opposed the confession of faith, the Abstract proved over the years to be critical to the seminary’s design of faithful service to the churches. It served as an essential safeguard against error and helped assure donors that their gifts would sustain only those faithful teachers whose instructions accorded with the Scriptures. Southern was the lone school of its kind to operate by a comprehensive confession. Even stalwart Princeton, in some ways the inspiration for the Abstract, used only a brief charge to professors to teach according to the Bible and the doctrines of salvation.

Every Southern professor, upon election to the faculty by the Board of Trustees, has subscribed his or her name to the Abstract, signifying agreement with the document. Current President R. Albert Mohler, Jr. expressed the seminary’s lasting commitment to the Abstract: “Let there be no doubt that in the years to come Southern Seminary will be unashamedly and unhesitantly committed to these same doctrinal convictions as set forth in this incomparable document.” (3) As in 1859, so today. The gospel foundation remains firm. Under the banner of the Abstract, Southern serves the church, prizing the heritage of those who devoted their lives to guard its truth and declare its doctrine.

(1) R. Albert Mohler, “Don’t Just Do Something: Stand There!,” 11.
(2) Danny West, “The Origin and Function of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s “Abstract of Principles,” 22.
(3) R. Albert Mohler, “To Train the Minister God Has Called.”
Sources: Danny West, “The Origin and Function of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s “Abstract of Principles,” 1858-1859.” Th.M. thesis, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1983.
R. Albert Mohler, “Don’t Just Do Something: Stand There!” Convocation Address at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, August 31, 1993.
_______, “To Train the Minister God Has Called.” Available from http://www.founders.org/FJ19/article4.html; Internet.