Journalist Colin Hansen’s groundbreaking 2008 book Young, Restless, Reformed dubbed Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., “ground zero” of the New Calvinist movement in the Southern Baptist Convention, but it was a far different place 35 years ago, according to an early proponent of a grassroots effort to ostensibly return America’s second-largest religious body to its Reformation roots.
Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., said in a June interview posted on the Founders Ministries blog that he didn’t realize how far the flagship Southern Baptist school had drifted from the “Princeton theology” behind the Abstract of Principles doctrinal statement included in its 1858 charter until he read Dale Moody’s 1981 systematic theology The Word of Truth.
Dever, at the time an undergraduate student in Duke University’s unabashedly liberal religion department, said when he first heard about Moody’s book he thought: “Oh, a Southern Baptist has published this. This is going to be helpful.”
After purchasing and reading the book, Dever said: “I felt like a snake had bitten me.”
“There was no affirmation of bodily resurrection,” he said. “Substitutionary atonement was made fun of. And I realized this man has been teaching with my tithe dollars and the tithe dollars of Christians in my church for the last 50 years at Southern Seminary, or 40 at that time. So I knew things were bad, then.”
Dever, founder of 9Marks, a Christian ministry promoting Calvinistic practices such as elder-led congregations and exercising church discipline, said he first heard about Founders Ministries, a Reformed Baptist group within the SBC, when he read a magazine story about the group’s first annual conference in 1983.
“I’m down in the basement,” he recalled. “Connie, my wife, is up on the first floor, and when I’m reading about it I yell up, ‘Hey, Connie! There are some other Calvinistic Southern Baptists.”
Then a first year master of divinity student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Dever said before that day he “thought I was pretty much the only one out there.”
“I said, I don’t know what this is, but I’m going next year,” he recalled.
When he arrived at the 1984 Founders Conference in Memphis, Tenn., Dever said the existing Southern Baptist Calvinistic world “could have met in an elevator booth.”
The movement turned a corner in 1993, with the election of Dever’s longtime friend Albert Mohler as president of Southern Seminary, pledging to uphold the “confessional faith” of founders including Abstract author Basil Manly Jr. and the first president, James Pettigru Boyce.
Dever said when he enrolled at Southern Seminary in 1986, Mohler was a fundraiser for then-president Roy Honeycutt who rejected the “inerrantist” label and supported women’s ordination.
“I think he was just inconsistent in his own thinking when I met him,” Dever said looking back on their friendship. “So much so, that though I knew him very well for a year and a half, when he became the editor of the Christian Index in Georgia I started getting his editorials over in England, where I am a student — I’m over there six-and-a-half years, from ’88 to ’94 — I’m surprised by how conservative his editorials are, and I’m tickled pink, because he’s like nailed his colors to the door. And those weren’t even his colors three years earlier.”
Dever said he understands why people who knew Mohler at Southern Seminary view the change of heart as betrayal, but he doesn’t see it that way.
“Knowing Al well, I realize that is not at all what happened,” Dever said. “What happened with Al is you had an orthodox, evangelical, bright student at 16 or 17 down in Florida. He goes to Samford in Birmingham, and I think he doesn’t have a category for the kind of liberal things he was taught in a Baptist school. So he’s just thinking this is what you do as grownups. Then he goes to Southern Seminary, and that’s exacerbated.”
“I think there, though he advocates things like women’s ordination, I think he begins to feel the tension,” he continued. “Then when he’s in the doctoral studies with Timothy George, and he starts reading people like Augustine and Calvin, he really feels the tension — which I think Timothy George helps him to feel. That’s right when I meet Al.”
“So when I meet Al, he’s not an inerrantist,” Dever said. “He is an egalitarian, but I don’t think he’s comfortable in those positions. When I announce myself to him in our first conversation as an inerrantist, which you say that in 1986 in the office of the president of Southern Seminary, in which Al was the fundraiser, those were fighting words. Those were insulting, dirty words.
“So that was an interesting conversation we first had and continued to have.”
Dever dismissed the half-joking suggestion that he deserves credit for “reforming” Al Mohler.
“I don’t know that Al learns much from living people,” Dever said. “We’re too slow. He learns from books. He learns from things he can read quickly and absorb. His dissertation on God’s providence was on evangelical responses to Karl Barth. He had the kind of appropriators, the critical interactors and the rejecters, and I think what happened over the years that I knew Al, he began as an appropriator and he became a kind of critical friend and ultimately a rejecter.”
“I think as he did those doctoral studies putting him in touch with all of those, including Carl Henry, all of those primary sources, he became convinced that the stuff that Southern Seminary was founded to teach the Bible is actually what the Bible said,” Dever said.
“I think Al’s friends at the time who were more liberal were right that he changed, but they were wrong in understanding how or why he changed. He really did change in what he thought the Bible taught.”