By Bob Allen
A Southern Baptist Convention seminary president says he foresees a day when the six SBC-owned seminaries may for the first time be more conservative than the churches they serve.
Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a recent series of blogs that he believes Southern Baptists are enjoying a “Golden Era” in theological education.
Allen said Southern Baptist seminaries are more theologically conservative than they’ve been in nearly a century, but “must maintain doctrinal vigilance” to resist public agitation on the great social issues of the day, with same-sex marriage being the focal point.
“Deeper into the 21st century, if acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage gains momentum within SBC churches, the seminaries could find themselves out of theological alignment with the churches — being more conservative than the churches for the first time in the SBC’s history,” Allen said.
Allen said “an uneasy relationship” has existed between Southern Baptist churches and theological education since Southern Baptist Theological Seminary began in 1859, a time when an “intuitive suspicion of higher education in general” was common in the agrarian South.
Those misgivings increased in the 20th century with the fundamentalist/modernist controversy and gradual acceptance of modern critical methods of Bible study by seminary faculty. A 1958 controversy that led to the firing of 13 Southern Seminary professors provided the perfect “work needed/help wanted” scenario, allowing those professors to move to new seminaries being started in Missouri and North Carolina, “thus metastasizing theological liberalism within the SBC.”
By 1979, when theologian Paige Patterson and Houston layman Paul Pressler formally launched the coalition that came to be known as the “Conservative Resurgence,” Allen said, “there was undeniable dissonance between Southern Baptist seminaries and the vast majority of SBC churches.”
The transformation of the denominational culture took two decades, culminating with adoption of a revised Baptist Faith and Message confession of faith in 2000.
“So now in 2015, theological education in the SBC is in many ways where it started in 1859, with uniformly conservative seminaries serving the convention’s churches,” Allen said.
“In each Southern Baptist seminary, uniformly, the professors are inerrantists,” he said. “They covenant to teach in accordance with and not contrary to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 — and they in fact do just that. The BF&M 2000 is by far the most theologically conservative, convention-wide confession ever adopted by the SBC. Moreover, accompanying this confessional standard is a living, actual commitment to it by trustees, administration and faculty.”
Second, Allen said, seminary faculties are notably accomplished. “A faculty can be theologically conservative yet scholastically unaccomplished,” he said. “Thankfully, this is not the case in the SBC.”
Allen said the SBC seminaries are larger than ever before. The total head-count enrollment of the six SBC seminaries is pushing 18,000 students, he said, and each of the six ranks in the top 10 largest seminaries in North America.
He said SBC seminaries are producing a higher quality of graduates than before. Twenty years ago, he said, conservative seminary presidents had to look to institutions outside the denomination to find Baptists to fill faculty slots. Today, he said, the presidents have waiting lists of qualified graduates who desire to teach in their institutions.
The SBC seminaries are complementing institutions, with each seminary maintaining its own identity and culture in alignment with the Baptist Faith and Message. They also remain affordable, thanks largely to support from Southern Baptists through the Cooperative Program unified budget. With the advent of online education, hybrid class options and other innovations, Allen said, “the SBC seminaries are more accessible than ever.”
Allen said there is no guarantee of an extended golden era, nor anything that precludes one, but “continuing our golden era won’t just happen.” He said challenges include a sustainable business model amid escalating costs and declining denominational support, not allowing fiscal pressures to tempt seminaries to compromise their mission and maintaining “confessional integrity.”
He added a scenario of Southern Baptist churches becoming more liberal than the seminaries “would present its own, unique challenges.”
“Nonetheless, our charge is faithfulness to our confessional expectations regardless of from where — and from whom — the agitation to compromise may come,” he said.