Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 1859-2009
Gregory A. Wills
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009
566 pp General Index Illustrations
Gregory Wills, professor of church history at SBTS, has penned a well-researched and written history of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from its founding in 1859 to 2009. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 1859-2009 can be found here. In fact, this is as level-headed a presentation of the history of the institution as one could possibly expect from a current faculty member. This is a not a criticism. It is its strength. I especially enjoyed reading this as a conservative Bible-believing confessional Presbyterian minister who appreciates much of the recent renaissance at SBTS under the leadership of Dr. R. Albert Mohler. SBTS is on sound footing now, by God’s grace, and institutional turn arounds like this are rare indeed. A seminary history like this is instructional for those of us who value the role of the seminary in the life of the church and who believe in truth. Lessons can be learned and avoided in other contexts. Why reinvent the wheel? As the apostle Paul noted about the experiences of Old Testament Israel (without suggesting that Professor Wills has penned divinely inspired Scripture!), these things are written down for our benefit (1st Cor. 10:11).
The book is comprised of thirteen chapters covering the years from before the founding of the seminary under the leadership of James Petigru Boyce in 1859 through to the remaking of the seminary under Mohler. The SBTS began on a sound Calvinistic foundation under Boyce (who had trained under Charles Hodge at Old Princeton) and others such as Basil Manley Jr. and John Broadus. The school was initially located in Greenville, South Carolina but eventually relocated to Louisville, Kentucky after the Civil War. Much later the seminary moved from its downtown location to its present location in the outskirts of the city. From its present location it has continued to grow and develop into the largest Protestant seminary in North America. The school has faced many a challenge from the beginning. Whether one considers the financial headaches or the upset brought about by the war or the eventual relocation, SBTS has never rested at ease in Zion.
One early controversy was the Crawford Toy affair. Toy was an OT professor who eventually sacrificed belief in the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. As happens so often, those who give up the trustworthiness of Scripture rarely come forward with their views but try to separate the factuality of the Bible from its religious value. Toy was no exception. As I read the account I was reminded of the recent Enns/Westminster Theological Seminary affair. The similarities were eerily familiar. The more things change the more they stay the same. Thankfully Boyce stood his ground and Toy went on to teach elsewhere.
Eventually the Lord called Boyce home and the school began to subtlely drift from its orthodox Calvinistic moorings. There were questions about various professors along the way as the seminary sought to weather the storms of classical Liberalism and scientism (i.e., Darwinian evolution). Under the presidency of Edgar Y. Mullins, the shift from the foundation of sound doctrine to experience occurred and this change was more or less maintained over the course of the next several years. A veneer of Christian piety overlay a critical posture toward Scripture. Over the years various seminary presidents sought to reign in the outspoken Liberalism of various faculty members with a policy of “realism.” Realism was simply the recognition that the rank and file of the Southern Baptist Convention was conservative and that “moderate” or Liberal faculty ought to be careful in how they conveyed their teaching which undermined the integrity of the Bible and theology.
Beginning in the 1970s the conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention sought to regain control of the agencies of the convention which included the trustees of the six seminaries of which SBTS was the flagship. The story of the “battle for the Bible” is fascinating and not without internecine ecclesiastical politics. But truth is worth fighting for (would you expect any other assessment from a self-professed warrior child of Machen such as myself?) and it is gratifying to see truth win out in the context of the SBC as a whole and the SBTS in particular. The story of the nomination and election of Albert Mohler is especially fascinating, although its coverage in the book does not take up as many pages as I expected. Dr. Mohler has recounted his experiences in some detail here.
What lessons does a conservative confessional Presbyterian take away from the history of SBTS? Here are few that occur to me. First, as with Old Princeton, it is often the so-called “moderates” (the squishy middle) who are more trouble than outright Liberals. It was moderates who ran SBTS throughout a good portion of its history. Moderates were double-minded in that they wanted to maintain evangelical experiential piety while dispensing with orthodox doctrinal integrity. In many instances men who were orthodox enough themselves gathered to themselves men and women were not. This is a scenario I find repeated over and over again throughout church history. Second, the policy of “realism” while completely understandable lacked all integrity. This was simply a cover for unbelief and in some instances a cover for anti-Christian and anti-Scriptural sentiment. SBTS sought to convey an image of conservatism and orthodoxy in order to maintain convention funding of the school and to maintain respect throughout the church. I often got the impression that the primary job of the seminary president was to constantly and continually put out brush fires in the convention. Complaints arose about the soundness of various faculty on a fairly regular basis and became routine. Third, we all tend to feel the strength of the instinct to go along to get along. As Christians we want to obey the Lord’s command to love one another. But of course that begs the question. To love our brothers and sisters in the Lord requires a confession of faith and doctrinal standards that assist us in assessing just who are fellow believers. The necessity of judging one another with a judgment of charity sometimes runs amok. Finally, a truth recognized in the political realm is no less true in the theological/ecclesiastical/academic realm. It has been said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. This is just as true, if not more so, with regard to theological integrity. The price of continued faithfulness is eternal vigilance. There is no point at which we can rest on our laurels. This is primarily a matter of maintaining our own integrity before the face of the Lord. At the end of the day, if such an institution as SBTS could drift from the faith once for all delivered to the saints, then any school or church can. Frankly , the experience of OT Israel ought to remind us of this fact.
Professor Wills has produced a readable and fascinating account of the history of one seminary in the United States. While I am not a Southern Baptist, I would be foolish to ignore the lessons learned by others. I highly recommend this book.