Reflections on My Time at Southern Seminary: Part 2

December 4, 2013

by Dr. Eric Hankins, pastor
FBC, Oxford, Miss.

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Read Dr. Hankins’ previous post, HERE.
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As I shared in my previous post, speaking recently at Southern Seminary pulled together several dynamics and discoveries I’ve made during the last year or so of my involvement in the Southern Baptist discussion of Calvinism. My participation has afforded me the opportunity to get to know a number of the leaders of our Convention, men of tremendous character, conviction, and vision. I’ve been able to dialogue at length with Frank Page, Paige Patterson, Danny Akin, Russ Moore, David Dockery, Mark Dever, Johnny Hunt, Jerry Vines, Ted Traylor, Thom Rainer, Kevin Ezell, Timothy George, Steve Lemke, Ed Stetzer, David Allen, Robby Gallaty, and so many others God is using mightily to shape the SBC. Certainly, of our leaders, no one has been more influential than Dr. Al Mohler, and my visit to Southern only reinforced that fact. Because he espouses Reformed theology, because he has strengthened that theological identity at Southern, and because his influence has played a significant role in the rising popularity of Reformed theology in the wider evangelical world, he is often considered to be the architect of a master plan to “Calvinize” the SBC. This argument typically includes the charges that this master plan has been executed unbeknownst to and against the will of most Southern Baptists. Often these arguments include supposedly covert activities of the leaders of other SBC entities as well.

This line of reasoning is incorrect. First, I seriously doubt that Dr. Mohler intends to do anything against the wishes of Southern Baptists. He was hired at Southern to bring the Conservative Resurgence to bear at a very troubled Southern Baptist entity, and he accomplished that mission through the exertion of incredible strength, courage, focus, and vision. For the Lord and for Southern Baptists, Dr. Mohler has led Southern to be one of the preeminent theologically conservative seminaries in the world. Now, he made it clear from the beginning that an emphasis on the Reformed theology of Southern’s founders was going to be part of the process. It was no secret when he went to Southern that he was a Five-Point Calvinist. In his first chapel sermon, he set forth his strategy for Southern to be a confessional institution, and that the confession was the Abstract of Principles, which is more Calvinistic than the BFM. He chose faculty that would take the Abstract seriously and that has resulted in professors who are decidedly Calvinistic* (It is of note that professors who fit the vision usually had to be found outside the Southern Baptist orbit or developed from within the institution). So, it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that the graduates from this seminary are decidedly Calvinistic.

Therefore, a great conspiracy has not taken place. Dr. Mohler is a very effective leader of an institution tasked with equipping ministers with a theological grid for ministry, a leader who has always had a particular theological point-of-view that informs his decision-making at an institution that is confessionally structured to facilitate that perspective. The Southern of 2013 is the inevitable result of the leadership change at Southern in 1993. Many Southern Baptists may not have understood the totality of that vision then, but anyone paying attention should have.

Tensions exist, however, because most Southern Baptists don’t share Dr. Mohler’s Reformed soteriology. But that’s not his fault. He’s doing the job he set out to do, and he’s having tremendous success. He wasn’t told to produce graduates who identify with the majority soteriological position in the SBC; he was told to produce graduates with a high view of Scripture, graduates who would be taught by those with a high view of Scripture circumscribed by the Abstract of Principles, graduates who fit within the BFM. Tensions also arise because Calvinist graduates are heading into a Convention full of churches that aren’t Calvinist, that haven’t been led by Calvinist pastors, that aren’t necessarily looking for a dramatic change in their soteriological identity, and are frequently uninformed about the Calvinism of prospective pastors. The young-Calvinist-creating-conflict-at-a-non-Calvinist-church is an all-too-common plotline lately, as the T5 articulated. And so tensions exist for two-thirds of Southern Baptist pastors because they’re not sure they want the shift toward Calvinism and its implications that they signed up for twenty years ago.

So, here’s the question: Does Southern need to address her contribution to these tensions in the SBC? This question presupposes a couple of others. First, are these tensions a bad thing? I think the answer is yes and no. As I have noted in other places, much of the critique coming from Reformed circles needs to be heard but not at the expense of partnership, goodwill, and church health, which is too often the case. Second, is Southern duty-bound to address these tensions? The strength and health of the SBC is the reason Southern exists. If Southern is doing something that negatively impacts these things, whether intentionally or unintentionally, I think an effort to address it needs to be made. Third, can the tensions be addressed in a way appropriate to the unique infrastructure and inner-workings of an institution of higher education? I think they can, but that needs to be left to those the Convention has asked to give leadership.

How could Southern go about addressing these tensions? Another series of questions might begin the discussion: Is the breadth of the BFM being represented at Southern in the most effective way? There certainly seems to be more theological diversity at Southeastern, where the Abstract is also the confessional standard. Should Dr. Mohler bring on some Abstract affirming non-Calvinists when the opportunities present themselves? Dr. Paige Patterson has signed both the Abstract and the Traditional Statement, so it stands to reason that a scholar similarly theologically situated could do the same at Southern. Would there be room for a Southern Baptist Molinist in the vein of Southeastern’s Ken Keathley and Bruce Little or Southwestern’s John Laing? It’s one thing to have a non-Calvinist preach; it’s quite another to have some on faculty. If Calvinist graduates were exposed to a robust articulation of non-Calvinism from an actual non-Calvinist, they might have a greater appreciation of it in the non-Calvinist churches they serve, and they might be able to provide more effective correction of weak versions of non-Calvinist belief and practice instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If Southern Baptists want this kind of strategy adjustment, can they find a legitimate, honoring way of communicating those wishes? This seems to me to be a much more useful approach to framing the conversation than the rock throwing and recrimination that too often heads Dr. Mohler’s way.

And the same can be said for the way that rank-and-file Southern Baptists interact with the other leaders of our entities. Thom Rainer is doing a tremendous job at Lifeway, and The Gospel Project is a big part of that success (I will be arguing in a subsequent post that non-Calvinists need to continue to get on board with it). The job Kevin Ezell is doing at NAMB is a cause célèbre. Many of us were nervous at first because of his record on NAMB support and, frankly, because he was from Louisville (I don’t think there is a grand “Mohlerite” conspiracy, but I also don’t think that choosing all of our leaders from the same network of relationships is the best idea). Dr. Ezell, however, is turning NAMB around, he’s making better use of existing partnerships, and he has absolutely re-energized an entity that had lost its way. And though he is close to Dr. Mohler, he’s not a Five-Point Calvinist. Neither is Dr. Rainer. Nor is Dr. Allen. Nor is Dr. Moore, who was the perfect choice for the ERLC. Nor is Dr. Akin (who has invited me to preach at chapel next year). I would encourage all of our leaders to find ways to develop talent and production out of the non-Calvinist stream of Southern Baptist life as they continue to lead their entities to ever more effective Great Commission advancement. We’ve got good leaders. Let’s get behind them, pray for them, encourage and hold them accountable to their BFM-structured tasks as we make the most of our unique contribution as Southern Baptists to the kingdom of God.

*I am aware that there are many faculty members at Southern who would not consider themselves to be Five-Point Calvinists.

 

 

 

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Rick Patrick

Eric,

Thank you for this extraordinarily gracious and statesmanlike article certain to build bridges with our brothers on the other side of the soteriological aisle. I certainly agree with you that (1) there is no conspiracy, (2) we need some Traditionalists teaching at Southern, and (3) we should pray for, encourage and hold our leaders accountable.

I do consider your use of the term “Non-Calvinism” in this article to be unfortunate, for you have expressed many times your aversion to it. I prefer what you wrote in May 2012: “We propose that what most Southern Baptists believe about salvation can rightly be called ‘Traditional’ Southern Baptist soteriology, which should be understood in distinction to ‘Calvinist’ soteriology.”

Since the term “Traditional” was used by Fisher Humphreys in his book “God So Loved the World: Traditional Baptists and Calvinism” as early as 2009, I think it is fair for us to use the word in this manner, referencing of course what Adam Harwood has aptly described as the “Hobbs-Rogers theological tradition.” I believe that yielding on this terminology, even in kind deference to our Calvinist friends, merely perpetuates the term “Calvinist” as our soteriological reference point, ironically the very thing the Traditional Statement labored to avoid. If we truly wish to move beyond Calvinism, I believe it is imperative that we stop using any form of the word to describe our soteriology.

Once again, thanks for your superbly written article. You are a gentleman, a scholar and a friend.

    Griffin Gulledge

    Are we totally averse to using the term “General Baptists”? It seems to be a pretty well known and easily understood term.

      Rick Patrick

      Griffin,
      Thanks for the suggestion. Historically, it’s right on target, in light of the General Baptists and Particular Baptists in England in the 1600’s. Each name clearly identified their views of the atonement. I find two problems with the name today.

      First, our differences theologically are much greater than merely the issue of the atonement. Differing views on the irresistibility of grace, the nature of election and whether or not our depravity means inability cannot be ignored as we focus on only one petal.

      Second, there exists an entire denomination known as the General Baptist Convention. Identifying a wing of Southern Baptists by such a moniker would be extremely confusing. Having said that, I truly appreciate your effort to find an acceptable name for our position. http://www.generalbaptist.com/#/identity

        Griffin Gulledge

        That makes sense.

        I don’t necessarily agree with you on your first point, though I don’t want to belabor the issue on this forum.
        The second, however, makes a great deal of sense. Granted, many Calvinists I know are uncomfortable with that term. It seems that we will never find terms that make everyone comfortable on either side.

Ben Simpson

I appreciate so much about this article, which seems to go in a different direction from some of the things we’ve heard in the past from “Traditionalist” brothers.

1) Dr Mohler is not conspiring to Calvinize the SBC
2) Dr Rainer is doing a fine job
3) Dr Ezell is doing a fine job
4) NonCalvinists should increasingly use The Gospel Project material

Some may feel that Dr Hankins has sold out, but he has not. He’s simply gotten to know the other folks on the others side of the debate, torn down some walls and misconceptions, and found that we’re all SBC’ers who love the Lord and are committed the Bible and the gospel. This makes me very happy!

I do wonder though about one assertion from Dr Hankins, which was subsequently affirmed by Dr Patrick. Dr Hankins asserted that Dr. Mohler should bring on some Abstract affirming NonCalvinists when the opportunities present themselves. Dr Patrick interpreted NonCalvinist as “Traditionalist.” How would a NonCalvinist, especially a “Traditionalist,” teach at SBTS?

We have to keep in mind that every professor must sign the Abstract of Principles and agree to “teach in accordance with, and not contrary to, the Abstract of Principles hereinafter laid down, a departure from which principles on his part shall be considered grounds for his resignation or removal by the Trustees.” As Dr Mohler said in his conversation with Dr Hankins, one only has to affirm 3 points of 5-point Calvinism to sign the Abstract, namely Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, and Perseverance of the Saints. One does not have to hold Irresistible Grace or Limited Atonement. Nevertheless, the T, U, and P must be affirmed. How could a Traditionalist “teach in accordance with, and not contrary to” these doctrines?

Yes, I know Dr Patterson signed the Abstract of Principles at SEBTS and later signed the Traditional Statement, but I just don’t see how reconciled the two. I feel assured that Dr Mohler wouldn’t allow the reconciling of the two at SBTS.

How could a “Traditionalist” do this?

    Norm Miller

    Ben:

    Thank you for your comment. It is a pleasure to have you here.

    I, too, am appreciative of Dr. Hankins’ article. Apparently Jim Smith — spokesperson for SBTS — is as well, as he re-tweeted the post early this morning.

    Per your question, I think academic freedom, and, in particular, fostering an environment where a variety of opinions could/should be offered/taught, informs at least part of an answer to your question. An institution with only one position embraced and taught appears to become doctrinaire. We Baptists like our buffets. A single-item menu is, well, boring.

    Relative to your question, though, is one Dr. Harwood raised on SBCToday earlier this year wherein he noted the Abstract of Principles affirms what the BFM does not, and does not affirm what the BFM does. In my view, and yours as well, I am sure, all CP-supported professors have a duty to teach in accord with and not contrary to the BFM. As yet, to my knowledge, there is no answer from SBTS to Dr. Harwood’s question: “Does Southern Seminary have an institutional commitment to a theological position which is not affirmed in the BFM and excludes many Southern Baptists?” Read Dr. Harwood’s entire post HERE.

    In like manner to your comment, I would note these parts of Dr. Hankins’ post as questions deserving of answers, esp. #6:

    1) Does Southern need to address her contribution to [the] tensions in the SBC?
    2) Are these tensions a bad thing?
    3) Is Southern duty-bound to address these tensions?
    4) Can the tensions be addressed in a way appropriate to the unique infrastructure and inner-workings of an institution of higher education?
    5) How could Southern go about addressing these tensions?
    6) Is the breadth of the BFM being represented at Southern in the most effective way?
    7) Would there be room for a Southern Baptist Molinist in the vein of Southeastern’s Ken Keathley and Bruce Little or Southwestern’s John Laing?

    Thank you for your input, Ben.

    Norm

    Johnathan Pritchett

    Ben,

    I doubt anyone feels Dr. Hankins has sold out. If they do, they shouldn’t. Dr. Hankins is spot on that no one should expect Dr. Mohler to not promote theological rigor. This is what it should have been about from the beginning, and both Mohler and Hankins stated as much in their conversation at SBTS.

    I know I am all for putting the politics of all this to bed, including the politics about who teaches where. Mohler can hire all five-pointers if he wants. We have six seminaries. Why not make the buffet the seminary buffet rather than all the seminaries be buffets? I’d rather see this than a theological mish-mash everywhere scattered throughout each of them. While that mish-mash approach may lend itself to diversity, it lacks internal coherence. I would rather see the diversity exist at the seminary level rather than within the seminary level. If that makes sense.

    As for getting the other theological side, that is what books and public discussions and debates are for. Why not have the seminaries be more engaged with one another in this manner? SBTS is the “Calvinist” seminary as far as perception goes, and Southeastern is not for behind (less diverse than estimated by Dr. Hankins). I see no reason for them to become in fact what they are in perception. Two out of six seminaries isn’t the end of the world.

    Anyway, it is great to see Dr. Hankins dismiss this conspiracy business. Conspiracy theories are silly. No one forces people to assent to this or that theology, go to this or that church, or this or that seminary. So, what does it matter how many Baptists become Calvinists or not?

    Some of us have wanted this to be about discussing and debating theology from the beginning, and stay on that issue. Granted it gets testy, but as you point out Ben, it becomes better when brothers treat one another like brothers and get to know one another. Look at you and I, we don’t fuss anymore, we just discuss. So while there may be a few kinks that need ironed out in talking theology for everyone along the way, discussing theology, for me anyway, has been the only thing worth discussing, certainly not politics.

    In any case, one more thing I will say as one who has always wanted this to be about theological discussion and rigor, I am ready to get past talking about talking about theology, and to actually start talking about theology. Sadly, I feel this will never become popular. … But, let’s have the theological discussions already. :)

      Ben Simpson

      Johnathan,

      That’s an interesting approach to the whole thing: let’s “make the buffet the seminary buffet rather than all the seminaries be buffets.” In other words, let’s not worry so much about diversity within a seminary as much as worrying about diversity between seminaries. Norm, what do you think about that, given that you came up with the analogy of a seminary being a buffet? The only question that comes up in my mind has to do with the role that seminaries play in catering to a geographic location with lots of diversity.

      LOL, I’m certainly glad, Johnathan, that you and I are discussing instead of fussing. That’s the way theological discussions need to be. Blessings!

        Norm Miller

        Johnathan’s idea looks okay on paper, but it’s not practical for at least the reasons you noted. (no offense, J-man)

        Any SBC seminary student should expect to graduate with a decidedly Baptist theology. And since our historical Baptist ‘river’ is the confluence of more than one theologically nuanced stream, then all of our seminaries ought to reflect that homogeneity. However, as was the case at my Criswell College alma mater, many creeks of theology ought to be studied, thus exposing students to the murky theological waters that flow from strange rills, e.g.

        What I am sure would have been a huge surprise to ‘Moderates’ years ago, at Criswell College, there were reasons we studied the ‘Bad News Bs’ — Bultmann, Bullinger and Barth — and that was for exposure to various theological positions for the sake of knowing those approaches. Such study actually enriched and reinforced the theology we had learned in our respective home churches.

        I take heart in that I can know the truth, and it can set me free. Whereas I understand what that means contextually, I also embrace it as a principle of spiritual life, generally. I try to discover truth and embrace the truth knowing that the truth ultimately is the winner. If I cling to it, the I win, too. Such a truth I attempt to apply to my own theological sojourn.

        To bring my seeming meandering back to point, I so much appreciate Dr. Hankins’ sermon at SBTS, and particularly its title: “A Great Commission Hermeneutic.” Knowing Dr. Hankins, I am certain the that title bears his heart’s convictions and is not merely a title that ‘trades’ on the emotion, or even the sometimes political football the words “Great Commission” can be. The truth of God’s Word in juxtaposition to the sermon title means that we can know the (exegetical) truth about all that is entailed regarding our Lord’s Great Commission. What God intended when he breathed out his word has specific meaning. It is not open to individual interpretation, per se. Thus, as my friend Johnathan said, let the theological discussions begin. And may we discover the truth; let us gather around God’s truth appropriately exegeted. Such an activity ought to unite us all.

Kendal Droddy

I enjoyed your article but just wanted to point out one thing. You ask, “Would there be room for a Southern Baptist Molinist” at SBTS? The answer, of course, is yes! Bruce Ware, professor of Systematic Theology at SBTS, holds to the Molinist position. I took ST1 with him last spring. He did a great job of presenting many viewpoints that all fall under the umbrella of the BFM. He gave positive and negative evidence for many of these views, and then gave use as students the freedom to discuss and work through these positions ourselves. Your not at the bottom of the article is helpful. Many professors at SBTS don’t hold 5 points. In fact, the number of professors who don’t hold to 5 points is probably much higher than many people believe.

Thanks again for this article. It is encouraging to see brothers striving toward unity. Looking forward to any upcoming posts on this topic!

    Eric Hankins

    Kendal,

    Thanks for your encouragement. My hope is that we can continue our denominational conversation in a constructive manner.

    As I understand it, Ware affirms middle knowledge but not libertarian freedom, which negates the usefulness of Molinism (which is to free theology from the problems of compatibilism), as Ken Perszyk notes in the introduction of Molinism: The Contemporary Debate. John Laing of Southwestern demonstrates that Ware’s position does not work in “The Compatibility of Calvinism and Middle Knowledge,” JETS 47 (September 2004): 455-67 (see esp. his conclusion, 467) http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/47/47-3/47-3-pp455-467_JETS.pdf. So, when I speak of a “Molinist in the vein of Southeastern’s Ken Keathley and Bruce Little or Southwestern’s John Laing” that would be in significant distinction to Ware’s “Molinism.”

Ray

Dr. Hankins,
Thank you for a thoughtful post. From what I can tell most SBC colleges do not have Calvinists as professors. Some of the colleges seem to be a bit anti-calvinistic. Would you suggest to those colleges that they bring on board professors who are Calvinists? After all, Calvinists (though perhaps not the majority) do make up a significant number of folks in the SBC.
Thanks again for your post. R

JimP

The last chapter of Romans, verse 17, the Apostle Paul speaking to the entire church there, urges them ‘to note those who are contrary to the doctrine which they learned.’

The passage suggests that all the believers were capable of identifying contrary doctrine. This was before Calvin, Luther, or Zwingly.

It would be a great blessing to understand exactly the essential a believer needs to know to have the ability to identify incorrect doctrine. Or maybe it wouldn’t. It would upset too many

A thought.

    Max

    “It would be a great blessing to understand exactly the essential a believer needs to know to have the ability to identify incorrect doctrine.”

    JimP – Dr. Mohler has promoted a “theological triage” to address the essentials in which he refers to certain first-order, second-order and third-order doctrines. First-order doctrines would be those critical issues of faith for which all Christians would be in agreement (e.g., the trinity, full deity and humanity of Jesus, justification by faith, and authority of Scripture). He contends that second and third order doctrines provide theological wiggle room which would allow us to agree to disagree, go along to get along, unity in diversity, etc. He does not consider a common soteriology in belief and practice as a first-order essential to the Christian faith. And that, sir, is a matter which many Southern Baptists are struggling with right now, as we make room for a proliferation of New Calvinism. The 500-year debate on the atonement of Christ will not be settled this side of heaven; but, as a 50+ year Southern Baptist, I’m troubled by the mixed message on God’s plan of salvation in our ranks as we seek to strike a balance for evangelism and mission going forward. I hear what Dr. Hankins is saying about Southern Baptist’s “unique contribution” to the Kingdom (and applaud his efforts to effect genuine unity), but I just don’t see the changes coming on us as the same unique identity Southern Baptists have had in my lifetime.

Griffin Gulledge

Eric,

It is worth noting that there is a tad bit of irony in the post. You ask what Dr. Mohler could do to increase the theological diversity at Southern within the breadth and covering of the BFM. Then you proceed to name off Thom Rainer, Russell Moore, Danny Akin, and Jason Allen as excellent, prominent leaders in the SBC who are not 5 point Calvinists and implore them to do the same. Of course, the irony is that Thom Rainer, Russell Moore, Danny Akin, and Jason Allen have all served with Dr. Mohler as either Deans or Associate Vice Presidents at Southern as well as teaching classes there (with the exception of Kevin Ezell, whose church Mohler was/is a member of). If the call to diversify is a call to “continue”, then fine. But if it’s a call to “begin”, then it’s simply misleading. SBTS has not been, nor is currently, a monolithic theological institution. The presence of a Molinists or three at SEBTS is no great gap. It seems to me that SEBTS seems more ‘diverse’ because it’s leader is the ‘diversity’ you want. I mean no insult by this; I only mean to observe that as long as Mohler is the leader (and he is, in my opinion, one of the best and most deserving leaders in the SBC), SBTS will ‘seem’ more Calvinistic, even if in reality not everyone there is. Thanks for writing this. I enjoyed reading it, and enjoy your work for peace in efforts such as the T5 Document.

Robert Hutchinson

“Tensions exist, however, because most Southern Baptists don’t share Dr. Mohler’s Reformed soteriology.”

At the local church level, I perceive the tension to be more about ecclesiology, and less about soteriology.

    Max

    Church history has demonstrated that there is always a shift in ecclesiology following a drift in soteriology.

Alan Davis

Enjoyed this article. Dr Hankins has put a lot of effort into having the proper conversations in the proper way as has Dr. Moler. I have been reminded and have learned a lot from all their efforts on this. Thank you.

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