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.