Southern Seminary, Southern Baptists, and the Two Religions- notes from a lecture by Dr. Greg Wills

[Introduction: Normally this blog is dedicated to providing a responses to a virulent form of anti-Calvinism that is a "strange fire" within some Baptist circles. In past generations, the most significant "strange fire" within Baptist life was liberal theology, which undermined biblical authority and thus central doctrines of the Christian faith. Liberal theology continues to be a threat in Baptist life, and so it is important to review the history of how the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention returned to a commitment to biblical fidelity from the threat of encroaching liberalism. The following post contains notes from a lecture given by Dr. Greg Wills at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary today. This lecture traced the drift toward and the recovery from liberalism at SBTS. Dr. Wills is currently writing a book on the history of SBTS.]

“Two religions have shaped the Southern Baptists since the 1870s” the older religion was evangelical orthodoxy, the newer was liberalism. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) became liberal in the mid-20th century and became in some ways the headwater of liberalism in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Dr. Wills mentioned the Toy controversy to demonstrate that SBTS had been a defender of orthodoxy. In the mid-20th century, SBTS was liberal, whereas the majority of the SBC was evangelical. Only through rigorous self-censorship could the administration and faculty of SBTS not be ousted for their progressive views.

Liberals in the SBC were not anti-supernatural naturalists, but they limited the scope of the supernatural and questioned doctrines like the penal, substitutionary nature of the atonement. Liberals in the SBC accepted science and history based on evolutionary models, but sought to also embrace the Bible. The presuppositions of naturalistic evolution and the biblical witness were, however, incompatible, making the liberal experiment inherently unstable.

[Return to the Toy controversy.] Most of the liberals in the SBC were young ministers trained under at SBTS. In the 1870s Toy accepted evolutionary geology and biology, and he divorced the supernatural truths of the Bible from the historical claims of the Bible. For holding and teaching these views, Toy was dismissed from the faculty of SBTS.

E.Y. Mullins, the fourth president of SBTS, practiced an “evangelical liberalism.” Mullins allowed liberal views to be taught be the faculty of SBTS, but sought for the “progress” of liberalism to be implemented slowly. Mullins advocated the “realist approach” by which liberal educators sought to promote “progress” in the SBC, while maintaining denominational diplomacy with an SBC that largely held to traditional orthodoxy.

Liberal scholars longed to share the findings of evolutionary science and the findings of the historical-critical critiques of the Bible with Southern Baptist ministers. Liberal scholars believed that the future of the SBC– the ability of SBC ministers to reach modern men and women with the gospel– depended on the acceptance of a liberal Christianity. Due to this conviction, scholars accepted the “realist approach.” Many liberal scholars did chafe under this approach, however, feeling that they should be able to freely teach in accordance with “modern scholarship.”

In the 1950s, Duke McCall, president of SBTS, dismissed 13 liberal faculty members who were unwilling to follow the “realistic approach.” McCall was therefore seen by the SBC as being a champion of orthodoxy, though he did not disagree with liberalism. McCall’s actions caused the SBC to have renewed confidence in denominational theological education. Meanwhile, liberalism progressed in Southern Baptist seminaries under the “realist approach.”

Ironically, SBTS remained a symbol for evangelical orthodoxy, even at the highest tide of liberalism among the faculty. SBTS founder James P. Boyce and the other founders of SBTS set a commitment to evangelical orthodoxy at the heart of SBTS through the Abstract of Principles, through the Toy Controversy, and through their example of self-sacrifice.

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