This essay comes from my friend Jason Allen, President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, at which I have long served on the Board of Regents. You can read the original at JasonKAllen.com.
Are Southern Baptists Enjoying a Golden Age in Theological Education?
by Jason K. Allen
Recently I had the honor of delivering presentations at the Midwest Leadership Summit in Springfield, Illinois on: “What Hath the Seminary to Do with the Local Church?” and “Theological Education in the 21st Century.” I reflected on the broad narrative of theological education in the SBC and argued that we are currently enjoying the Golden Era.
As I made the Golden Era assertion, I—and those in attendance—realized the magnitude of the claim. My assertion, and the dialogue it generated, prompted me to further reflection. After doing so, I am all the more convinced of the validity of my claim.
This thee-part series will substantiate this claim and reflect upon how to extend our Golden Era. Part I will serve as contextual prologue, Part II will consider our current era versus previous ones and in light of the broader evangelical context, and Part III will offer considerations and suggestions for the future.
A Seminary is Founded
Since the SBC’s founding in 1845, the convention’s primary—and most unifying—effort has been collaborative missionary efforts. That was our raison d’etre in 1845, and it remains so today. Yet, even during the SBC’s earliest years, theological education was an accompanying concern. Early SBC luminaries such as R. B. C. Howell, W. B. Johnson, Basil Manly, Sr., Basil Manly, Jr., and, most especially, James P. Boyce called for a common theological institution in the South.
By the mid to late 1850s, Boyce had arisen as the effort’s most prominent and successful leader. Boyce’s Three Changes in Theological Institutions, delivered as his inaugural faculty address at Furman University in 1856, called for a dramatic reconceptualization of theological education that would produce a clergy abundant in number, well learned, and doctrinally sound. Boyce’s vision was realized in three short years with the founding of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1859.
For nearly 50 years Southern Seminary enjoyed sole status within the SBC. Given its uniqueness as the only Southern Baptist seminary and the celebrated status of its faculty, it is difficult to overestimate Southern Seminary’s influence on the SBC during the first 50 years of its existence.
Yet, even in the early decades an uneasy relationship existed between SBC churches and their seminary. An intuitive suspicion of higher education in general—common in the 19th century agrarian South—intensified when concerns related to higher criticism, Baptist origins, and, into the 20th century, the fundamentalist/modernist controversy arose. By the early decades of the 20th century, modern biblical criticism had moved from occasional occurrence to more common acceptance by Southern Seminary’s faculty.
Southern Baptists Move Westward
Nearly 50 years after Southern Seminary’s founding, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was birthed. Under B. H. Carroll’s leadership, Southwestern Seminary emerged out of Baylor University. Carroll, the pastor of the prominent First Baptist Church of Waco, was a titanic figure in Texas and Southern Baptist life. Southern Baptists, like the rest of the country, had moved westward, and by the early 20th century the need for a complementing institution was apparent. Texas Baptists—and their financial and demographic strength—were more than ready to support Southern Baptists’ second seminary.
During the interwar years in Southern Baptist life, the SBC morphed from a loose collection of churches into a more functioning denomination, as witnessed through the establishment of the Cooperative Program, the adoption of the first convention-wide confessional statement, and the formation of the Executive Committee. This era also saw the more formal engrafting of Southern and Southwestern Seminaries into the SBC, wherein they reaped the benefits of the Cooperative Program and came under more direct SBC control.
Under Carroll’s leadership and that of his notable successor, Lee Scarborough, Southwestern Seminary’s rise was meteoric. So much so, by the 1960s its enrollment rivaled—and then surpassed—that of Southern Seminary. By the latter decades of the 20th century it was Southern Baptists most influential seminary in terms of enrollment, prominence of alumni, and broad popular appeal due to its comparatively conservative faculty.
Post War Expansion
The post War era, especially from 1945–1960, was a period of dramatic denominational expansion. By now the SBC had congealed into a more structured, operationally mature, and nationally ambitious denomination. SBC annuals from this period reveal a sense of near-unbounded optimism.
During these 15 years, Southern Baptists added four seminaries. New Orleans seminary, which began as a Bible institute in 1917, was formally converted into Southern Baptists’ third seminary in 1946. Over the next decade, Southern Baptists would imagine and found three more theological institutions: Golden Gate Seminary (1946), Southeastern Seminary (1950), and Midwestern Seminary (1957).
Intramural theological disputes appeared almost without end in state papers throughout the SBC’s first century of existence. Yet, wide-spread theological controversy, which could potentially lead to significant schism within the SBC, occurred only episodically, most especially in the Toy Controversy, the Whitsitt Controversy, and the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy.
Nonetheless, by the mid-20th century theological liberalism was well entrenched—if not widely perceived—in Southern Baptist seminaries. Higher criticism, the Documentary Hypothesis, naturalistic explanations for Scripture’s miraculous events, and a denial of the historical accuracy of the Bible were all commonly held among SBC professors.
During this era, seminary leadership tended toward the managerial, not the theological. Like the SBC as a whole, programmatic and administrative concerns tended to displace doctrinal ones at the seminary level. In fact, this is clearly reflected in Trustee minutes from the 1950s, where enormous energy is given to the tedious, administratively mundane, all the while faculty additions occurred with little attention given to theological matters.
These realities, the need for faculty members at the newly launched seminaries, and Southern Seminary’s 1958 controversy coalesced to spread heterodoxy. Dubbed the Lexington Road Massacre, 13 theology professors were dismissed from Southern Seminary in 1958. The establishment of Southeastern and Midwestern Seminaries provided the perfect “work needed/help wanted” scenario, leading these professors to relocate to Wake Forrest and Kansas City, thus metastasizing theological liberalism within the SBC.
By the end of the 1950s, a pronounced theological divergence existed just under the surface between Southern Baptist seminaries and the churches they ostensibly served. This dissonance continued to grow in scope, public awareness, and convention-wide concern. This can be seen most especially through the Elliott Controversy of the early 1960s, the Broadman Commentary Controversy of the late 1960s, and, as an artifact, the Hollyfield Thesis of 1976.
Denominational Controversy & Institutional Recovery
By 1979, when the Patterson-Pressler coalition formally launched what has come to be known as the Conservative Resurgence by mustering enough votes to elect Adrian Rogers SBC president, there was undeniable dissonance between Southern Baptist seminaries and the vast majority of SBC churches.
What began in 1979 took nearly three decades to play out fully: electing conservative SBC presidents, appointing conservative trustees, securing conservative seminary presidents, and building conservative faculties. The culmination of the Resurgence was the SBC’s adoption of the Baptist Faith & Message 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. And that is, in part, why I argue we are now enjoying the Golden Era of theological education in the SBC.
On what basis can one argue Southern Baptists are now enjoying a golden era of theological education? When considering the current state of theological education in the SBC, especially in light of its historical context and theological education’s broader landscape, eight particular strengths emerge that buttress the case.
First, SBC seminaries are more theologically conservative than they have been in a century. In each Southern Baptist seminary, uniformly, the professors are inerrantists. They covenant to teach in accordance with and not contrary to the Baptist Faith & 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, the SBC seminaries’ faculties are notably accomplished. A faculty can be theologically conservative yet scholastically unaccomplished. Thankfully, this is not the case in the SBC. Southern Baptist professors are a cottage industry of publishing and academic output. They are widely respected throughout, and even beyond, the broader evangelical world. For instance, SBC personalities now account for nearly 1/3 of presentations at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, and often provide leadership of the same.
Third, the SBC seminaries are larger—in actual and relative numbers—than ever before. Indeed, the SBC seminaries are massive in size, with total head-count enrollment pushing 18,000 students. Each one of the six SBC seminaries ranks in the top ten largest seminaries in North America—of any and all denominations. Even the smaller SBC institutions are some 10 times larger than the average ATS-accredited seminary in North America. Our footprint has never been larger.
Fourth, the SBC seminaries are producing high-quality graduates. Twenty years ago, when conservative SBC seminary presidents looked to fill faculty slots, they often had to hire Baptists serving in institutions outside of the SBC. In other words, we had more open professorates than qualified candidates to fill them. Now, the opposite is true. Midwestern Seminary, and each of the Southern Baptist Seminaries, has a waiting list of highly qualified graduates who desire to teach in our institutions.
Fifth, the SBC seminaries are complementing institutions. While each SBC seminary operates in alignment with the BF&M 2000, each institution has its own identity, culture, strengths, and ministry emphases. This variety is good and right, and both reflects and serves the unity in essentials, diversity in non-essentials nature of the SBC.
Sixth, the SBC seminaries remain affordable. Affordability is not a newly realized strength of SBC seminaries. Thanks to Southern Baptists’ relentless generosity through the Cooperative Program, affordability has long been a mainstay. What is remarkable is how SBC institutions remain affordable in light of the relative weakening of the Cooperative Program and the escalating costs of higher education. Indeed, most comparable evangelical institutions charge more than twice what SBC seminaries charge Southern Baptist students.
Seventh, the SBC seminaries are more accessible than ever. The advent of online education, modular and hybrid class options, and the near round-the-clock scheduling of residential education means one can literally receive theological education from anywhere on the globe, anytime. Moreover, resources beyond the classroom, like conferences, intensive classes, free publications, and online content, all have forward deployed theological education.
Eighth, the SBC seminaries are on mission. The conservative redirection of the seminaries brought with it a renewed emphasis on the Great Commission and serving the local church. In the final analysis—and as I’ve argued elsewhere—these priorities should set a seminary’s agenda. Thankfully, for Southern Baptist seminaries these are primary, not secondary considerations.
In light of these realities, and many more, I believe the SBC is in its golden era of theological education. But I am hoping, and laboring, for it to be an already/not yet reality. I pray that our seminaries will be ever strengthening, and ever expanding, so this golden era is a protracted one.
But for now, where does this leave us?
Predicting the future of theological education—and higher education in general—is daunting. Theological education, if anything, is fluid. In fact, a recent study on theological education recommended an institution’s master plan should be no more than a three-year projection that will likely need updating after 18 months.
General Dwight Eisenhower once mused on the unpredictability of warfare: the plan is nothing, but planning is everything. That aphorism holds true for seminaries as well: the less predictable we know theological education to be, the more we must work to predict it.
From what we know of ourselves, our past, and in as much as we can predict the future, Southern Baptist seminaries must exhibit five marks of health to flourish in the 21st century.
A Sustainable Business Model
The escalating costs of higher education, a shrinking offering-plate dollar, tapering national demographics, diminishing confidence in the value of higher education, and a weakened Cooperative Program all coalesce to undermine the business model of the past. At the same time, affordability remains a pressing concern for prospective students.
These challenges, and more, create a consumerist and competitive context in higher education. More and more institutions are spending more and more money to recruit fewer and fewer students. These dynamics explain why a recent survey of “turn around institutions” revealed that entrepreneurial leadership is a consistent trait of successful turn-around schools.
Southern Baptist seminaries are not immune to these challenges. Will Southern Baptists renew our collaborative ministry efforts and strengthen our giving through the Cooperative Program, or will it continue to soften? Though recent indicators are encouraging, this is an open question with significant consequences.
The mission of Southern Baptist seminaries is clear: to train pastors, missionaries, and ministers for Southern Baptist churches and for the mission field. However, financial challenges tempt institutions to mission compromise, and seminaries often succumb that temptation.
In fact, many seminaries structure their curricular offerings like a shopping mall, offering nearly every program imaginable in order to cobble together a sufficient enrollment to pay the bills. In so doing, they compromise their mission and dilute their institutional emphasis. The seminary that focuses on everything focuses on nothing.
Funding challenges have been a primary—if not the primary—propeller of mission compromise. Just as plants grow towards light, so institutions bend toward their sources of funding. Herein is an added reason for strong Cooperative Program support, for the most assured way to maintain ownership and influence is to hold the purse strings.
Southern Baptist seminaries are more theologically conservative than they’ve been in nearly a century, with the Baptist Faith & Message 2000—the most conservative and comprehensive statement of faith ever adopted by the SBC—serving as the primary instrument of accountability. Theological trust was hard earned, but can be lost easily. SBC seminaries, and the SBC as a whole, must maintain doctrinal vigilance.
Public agitation will only intensify on the great social issues of the day, with same-sex marriage being the focal point. Accrediting agencies, the federal government, and other belligerents will likely continue to increase pressure on evangelical institutions.
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.
This scenario 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.
Agile & Adaptable
Modern delivery systems have upended traditional models of higher education. Online, modular, and hybrid delivery formats have all become conduits to distribute theological education. When these delivery means supplement residential education—forward deploying theological education for those who cannot travel to seminary—it is healthy and praiseworthy.
However, residential education will always be primary and preferred, and should always be most incentivized by the SBC, the seminaries, and our funding models. This prioritization is in the best interest of the students, the seminaries, the church, and the entire SBC. That being said, innovation is a wave to be ridden, not a curse to be avoided, for it can greatly extend a seminary’s reach.
Serving the Churches
Southern Baptist seminaries exist to serve Southern Baptist churches. As long as Southern Baptist churches exist they will need prepared ministers. Therefore, the mandate for theological education will persist as long there is a Southern Baptist Convention.
The seminary most conscious of the New Testament understands it has a right to exist inasmuch as it serves the local church. Out of mission, opportunity, and necessity, now is the time for theological education to be wedded to local churches. The decades ahead should be a season of great partnership between the seminaries and the church.
Theological education, at its core, is timeless. In many ways, theological education in the 21st century should resemble theological education in any century—transmitting the classic disciplines to pastors, ministers, and evangelists for the church.
Are Southern Baptists enjoying a golden era in theological education? Absolutely. But present health does not guarantee future health. The 21st century demands seminaries be strategic with resources, intentional in serving their constituency, and unquestionably faithful to the Word of God and the classic disciplines of theological education.
As we are strategic and faithful, our churches will be strengthened and our golden era will be extended.