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The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: A Review by Tom Nettles

Category Book Reviews
Date August 21, 2009

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: 1859-2009
By Gregory Wills
New York: Oxford University Press, 2009
592 pages, hardback, $35.00.
ISBN: 978 0 19537 714 9

This long-anticipated history of Southern Baptists’ oldest Seminary will not disappoint those who have savoured its coming with heightened interest. Greg Wills has given the kind of historical investigation and narrative that this storied institution deserves. The writing style is tight, clear, smooth and fluid. The depth and sophistication of the content will keep everyone involved. The style of presentation will exclude no one. Wills synthesizes material with a facility that readily deceives the reader. Such a charmingly told, easily read, and tantalizingly interesting story must just flow from the mind as easily as an uncle Remus story did from my grandfather. Not quite. Wills has mined the archives of several colleges, seminaries, historical societies, city libraries, and public and private collections, has conducted multiplied hours of interviews, looked at thousands of pages of digitally photographed and criminally boring letters, books, and financial records, and rolled through miles of microfilm collections to gather the raw material for telling this story. Then he has selected the most pertinent of the piles of usable quotes (some of the most amazingly apt from infinitely obscure sources), synthesized them sentence after sentence into coherent ideas that flow easily one after the other, and produced – imagine, imagine the irony – a history book that is a nail-biter and page turner. From Boyce to Mullins to McCall to Mohler with the other presidents and their respective theological dramas, Wills rolls out a pleasing narrative from highly complex and maddeningly varied material.

Beyond that, however, the story is of convicting importance. The great distress of early disinterest and opposition, the stories of sacrificial heroism, the pride, the intense drama of interpersonal relationships, the stories of theological deceit and decline, and the startlingly frank political aspects of the story give one a sober picture of both the humanness of the institution and its potential for destructive influence alongside the reality and hope for its positive spiritual contribution.

Each reader will find an episode in the story that he considers most pivotal and compelling, and there is no scarcity of options. Some will find their deepest satisfaction in the true grit demonstrated by Boyce, Broadus and others in that early time that Wills calls ‘the heroic age’ [chapter 4], or in Will’s short but intense description of the Calvinism of Southern Baptists in the nineteenth century, a task he undertakes at least twice, and touches upon a third time. Some will look to Wills’ account of the Toy controversy as definitive. Indeed, it introduces the dynamics that produced increasing stress for a full century following. Others will be intrigued by the struggles of the Whitsitt controversy and its implications of the tension between legitimate denominational interests and academic freedom.

Whitsitt’s personal traits exacerbated the controversy over history, according to Wills, with his ‘sneering’ attitude toward Southern Baptists, his belief that his opponents ‘were misled by ignorance or prejudice rather than guided by reason,’ and his sense of superiority even toward his faculty colleagues. Wills’ hard-hitting evaluation of Whitsitt comes partially from his judgment that under Whitsitt’s leadership arose the progressive attitude [190] that made the seminary less and less reflective of Southern Baptist concerns through more than nine decades of the twentieth century. This theme, along with the theme of academic freedom, appears more than once. He also uses a phrase in analyzing Whitsitt’s apparent obliviousness to his context, i.e. ‘The justness of popular authority in denominational concerns,’ [197] that could be provocative of many useful discussions.

Some will find the years of Mullins (two chapters) the most pivotal in discussing his early encouragement of progressivism including a major section on W. O. Carver, and a second chapter on Mullins’ conservative comeback, at least in convincing appearance. Wills discusses Mullins’ part in the Southern Baptists’ repudiation of ecumenical alliances, the theory of evolution, and in the adoption of a creed, the ‘Baptist Faith and Message’, to discipline Southern Baptist agencies. Perhaps more significant than any of Mullins’ conservative or progressive stances was the introduction of the patient ‘realist’ approach to denominational change as opposed to the conscientious ‘idealist’ approach taken by Whitsitt

. An example comes in the shadowy events of 1911, prompted by books from Carver and Robertson, to restrain the faculty’s publication of ideas that encouraged liberal thought [278-80]. Patience was needed, and an aggressive, unvarnished promulgation of undiluted scholarly/theological idealism was sure to bring down the wrath of the denomination on the institution.

The growing pressure from many faculty members toward neo-orthodoxy during the Sampey/Fuller years of the ‘thirties and ‘forties will be eye-opening to many readers. Wills tells the story forcefully but carefully and fairly. Among the most poignant episodes is the virtual rupture of friendship between Sampey and Carver over Carver’s apparently duplicitous stance toward a disturbingly liberal graduate student named Daf Kelley Barnett.The McCall era is one of high drama and the personalities come alive through the multiplicity of interviews, letters, and official records that Wills weaves into a fascinating story. Much of McCall’s energy was spent trying to nurture the realist policy of slow, virtually imperceptible change while negotiating rapprochement between the denomination and a faculty that ‘promoted an ideal of theological education as a community of scholarly pursuit free from the restraints of the popular traditions and superstitions current in the churches.’ [359] The reader will be keenly interested in Wills’ description of the growing tension between McCall and a group of thirteen young and radical dissidents, nicknamed the ‘dirty dozen,’ who proposed a distinctly different vision of the immediate purpose of theological education from McCall’s view. The continued emphasis Wills gives to the ‘realist’ [e.g. 274, 325, 336, 338, 345, 359, 389 et al.] diplomacy necessary for denominational relations goes a long way towards explaining the accumulating layers of distance between seminary theology and denominational viewpoints. The dismissal of the thirteen by no means solved the theological difficulties of Southern; according to Wills, it merely gave a false impression that the president had taken a stand for conservatism as opposed to encroaching liberalism. Plenty of opportunity to remove that brief impression would follow.

The Honeycutt years proved to be filled with tension from beginning to end due to the dynamics of the conservative resurgence. Wills’ documentation and synthesis of a highly complex era, which includes the story of Dale Moody’s eventual dismissal, gives the reader some substantial mental food to chew.

The chapter on R. Albert Mohler, Jr., ploughs deep furrows into the theological and denominational dynamics behind the radical reversal of trajectory at Southern Seminary both in theology and in its perception of its relation to the denomination. Wills goes into depth in his discussion of the dismissal of Molly T. Marshall and in the events leading to the closing of the school of social work. Mohler’s commitment to the Abstract of Principles, a Calvinistic orientation to theology, to evangelicalism in general, and to the Southern Baptist Convention in particular, are handled with a deft and intriguing brevity and understatement and with a clarity that every reader will appreciate. Wills’ last sentence is ‘Under Mohler’s leadership, Southern Seminary was once again Boyce’s seminary.’

This book will provide a laboratory for discussion of the relationship between theological education and denominational expectation for many years to come. Wills has been neither too harsh nor too accommodating with his subjects. Conservatives have no unassailable veneer placed around them and progressives are allowed to say their piece and explain their raison d’etre. No one will be bored, and no one will fail to find much instruction. This is a must read for this year.


With permission from The Founders Journal, Issue 77, Summer 2009.

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