Friday, September 12, 2014

"Southern Baptist Theological Seminary" by Gregory Wills: A Review

For seven years I was a student at Boyce College and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and, Lord willing, I will go back and receive yet another degree.  My years there have shaped my life to say the least.  SBTS has an interesting history nonetheless and last year celebrated its sesquicentennial (that is, its 150th anniversary).  With that celebration came a new seminary history by one of the seminary's history professors Dr. Gregory A. Wills simply titled Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009.

The book accomplishes what one would thing:  it is a simple historical telling of the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention.  SBTS has seen a lot of ups and downs over the years and this book chronicles it all.  Beginning with James P. Boyce and fellow founders William Williams, James Broadus, and Basil Manly Jr.  Boyce sought out to build a seminary in the South that trains future ministers for the SBC that was loyal to Scripture and sound theology.  After 150 years, it seems that Boyce's dream has been realized but it has not come easily and without many challenges.

Wills chronicles all of this.  What I found most interesting was beginning with the move towards liberalism primarily beginning with the presidency of Edgar Y. Mullins.  From Mullins to Honeycut, SBTS slipped further and further into theological liberalism.  From Mullins account, this shift took placed for two main reasons.  First, there was the issue of relevancy.  From Mullins to Honeycut was an age of modernity.  Modernism challenged many of the claims of the Bible like the existence of miracles, a young earth, the virgin birth, etc.  As a result, many in the academia quickly began to rethink and to reject many assumed doctrines of Christianity.

The other source for theological liberalism in the history of SBTS is academic freedom.  It is interesting that when academic institutions call for academic freedom, they are really calling for the school's adiministration, trustees, alumni, students, and society to accept the direction in which they are going.  Academic freedom essentially means to give the faculty the liberty to say, believe, and promote whatever they want.

This was a difficult task at SBTS.  For one, Boyce and the other founding members founded the seminary on the Abstract of Principles.  Every professor was obligated to sign the Abstract agreeing to its theology.  The Abstract is orthodox, Reformed, and slightly Calvinistic.  Furthermore, the SBTS was accountable to the SBC and the churches in the SBC.  Therefore, progressive administrations were politically forced to a more realist approach to promoting theological liberalism.  In other words, any radical or "new" teachings the faculty may promote must be toned down due to the seminary's responsibility to the more conservative churches of the SBC.

I found the deep theological discussion Wills offers into the Mullins theology and leadership interesting and insightful.  It seems that in order to understand the seminary's move towards liberalism (and thus away from the founding of the seminary) one should first learn about Mullins.  Mullins seems to be the Woodrow Wilson of SBTS's move towards theological liberalism.

What is most interesting about this move towards liberalism is that the arguments made by the movers and shakers are the same arguments made today.  The move towards theological liberalism in an age of postmodernism is based on the same foundation as it was during modernism:  cultural relevancy and academic freedom.  In fact, though the culture has changed, the same exact arguments about the Bible, doctrine, theology, the gospel, and the faith are being made.  Anyone who studies liberalism in postmodernity have heard the same arguments Wills records of the more liberal faculty in SBTS's history.

But what interests me most regards the end of Roy Honecutts administration at the seminary and the "conservative takeover" culminating the the presidency of Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr.  As a student at Southern, I've heard the stories, I've seen the documentaries, and I've read the articles from that time.  It is amazing to think about what happened.

Wills offers a good survey of the "takeover."  However, I was a little (just slightly) disappointed by how brief this section seemed to be.  Perhaps my complaint is because I wanted to know everything and Wills certainly couldn't write another 200 pages on events that took place in less than a decade.  However, Wills does offer a fairly thorough, precise history of the events and the persons involved.  Mohler's election led to a major reformation at SBTS and now things look quit different as they did just twenty years ago.

Wills concludes that Mohler has returned the Seminary to its founding roots of Boyce and Broadus and I think he is right.  Mohler's leadership, convictions, and theology is reminiscent of Boyce and not just because of his Calvinism.

In conclusion, there was one thing I was most surprised about this book:  Wills was not as biased as I thought he would be.  Listening to SBTS students talk and former, more liberal students and faculty talk about the book, I was convinced that Wills was bias towards a more Calvinistic, orthodox, fundamentalists, pro-Mohler viewpoint.  But I was pleasantly surprised by how careful Wills was to present the history as it was.  Certainl his conclusion that Mohler has returned the seminary to its roots is significant, but that does not prevent Wills from presenting a real history of the seminary free of needless opinion giving.

Overall, Wills offers an excellent history that persons outside of the seminary will enjoy.  Anyone interested in theology, Baptist history, modernity, or liberalism will find this to be an interesting book.  Though it has many pages, the book moves quickly.  I strongly recommend this book.  Wills was the right choice for this difficult task.  And as a student, I am proud to have learned in the legacy of great men like Boyce, Broadus, AT Robertson, and Dr. Mohler.

Enjoy the book!
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