Dr. Bruce Ware interviewed about the transformation at Southern Baptist Seminary
We all know of theological colleges which have left their biblical moorings and gone liberal. But can the reverse happen? Can a liberal college be turned around, back to thorough going biblical evangelicalism?
The answer is ‘Yes’. The remarkable story of what has occurred in the last two decades at Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky shows that, under God, it can be done. EN interviewed Dr. Bruce Ware, Professor of Theology at Southern, and got him to tell the story.
EN: What was the college like 20 years ago?
BW: The college was thoroughly liberal. In the classrooms the theology of Rudolf Bultmann, with its anti-supernaturalism and ‘demythologising’ of the Gospels was taught. There were a tiny number of evangelicals on the staff. But even the ‘best’ of the rest were Barthian, denying that Scripture is God’s Word.
The college had a private policy of ‘double-speak’. In the classrooms liberalism was taught, but whenever professors were speaking at the churches they were encouraged to talk as if they still believed the Bible. This was looked upon as adapting to the ‘culture’ of the Southern Baptist churches. As the theology of the seminary had drifted, many students became more interested in a liberal take on social justice than the gospel and there was a strong lesbian presence encouraged by some of the staff on campus. I have heard first-hand accounts of wife-swapping taking place in the 1980s among students, and the pro-abortion and pro-lesbian movements were strong and vocal.
EN: What happened to change things?
BW: Eventually the secret of what was going on at Southern got out to the churches. There was a furious reaction from the grass roots. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is a democratic institution and ordinary Christians began voting to get conservative evangelicals onto the trustee boards of the various convention agencies, including the trustee boards of the six theological seminaries. This initially began in 1979 with the election of Adrian Rogers to President of the SBC, but it took years to have any real effect. Eventually, in 1993, a young 33-year-old man, Al Mohler, became the new President of Southern as a result.
EN: Tell us about Al Mohler.
BW: Al is perhaps the most gifted, most talented man I have ever known (except in the area of sport for which he has no talent at all!).
His story is remarkable. He had actually been the assistant to the previous President of the Seminary, aiding in such things as writing many of the policies and press releases for him. But Al underwent the most amazing turn around. He came to see liberalism for the betrayal of the Christian gospel which it really is.
One pivotal moment was a conversation he once had walking across the campus with Carl F.H. Henry, in which Henry challenged Mohler’s egalitarian beliefs. When Mohler looked at the Scriptures that Henry brought to his attention and thought carefully about what they said, he changed his position overnight on this issue. At the same time he was reading the Puritans and, encouraged by other strong evangelical voices, he very soon became clear on the inerrancy of Scripture, complementarian views of gender and the exclusivity of Christ and the gospel.
Because of Mohler’s previous position, when he became President of Southern, some liberals thought that nothing would change. But it did!
EN: How did Al Mohler go about changing things?
BW: He did two things in particular which angered the liberal faculty.
The first was he forced the resignation of Molly Marshall who had taught contrary to the doctrinal statement. She was an inclusivist who denied the necessity of people coming to faith in Christ.
Secondly, he closed the Social Works School that was the seedbed of much of the pro-lesbian and pro-abortion sentiment on campus. Within two years the majority of faculty and students left the seminary. The numbers of students plummeted to their lowest level in 50 years. Perhaps only 800 were left. But Al now had the opportunity to rebuild. He had to seek Baptist professors outside of the Southern Baptist Convention and many came with strong convictions that God had led them to assist in rebuilding this historic institution.
In seeking new faculty Al looked for a number of things. They needed to be inerrantists, complementarians, exclusivists and Baptists. They also had to hold that homosexuality is not acceptable as a Christian lifestyle along with unqualified adherence to the institution’s doctrinal statement which is called ‘the abstract of principles’.
Wonderfully there were no real legal battles over the changes. Molly Marshall attempted this, but realised that she could not prevail.
EN: What is Southern like now, nearly 20 years later?
BW: The student numbers have rocketed. In round figures there are now 1,000 at Boyce College, the undergraduate college for the campus and 4,000 post-graduates enrolled at the seminary. Most are in the M.Div. programme for pastoral ministry or missionary training.
The Lord has brought faculty from a variety of places; some from Canada, many from the Northern United States, and others from across the South. Some of the notable staff members would include Tom Schreiner, Professor of New Testament, Michael Haykin, Professor of Church History, and Peter Gentry, Professor of Biblical Languages. Having taught there myself for 13 years, I can say that there is a prevailing earnestness of theological enquiry, humility and longing to see Christ’s kingdom expand in the hearts of both the staff and students.
EN: What do you see as the challenges both for the seminary and for biblical Christianity in coming years?
BW: The major challenge is summarised by Paul in Titus 1.9. We need to be a faculty and student body that holds fast to the faithful word which is in accordance with the apostolic teaching in order to instruct others in that teaching and warn against departures from the truth.
The most important areas to uphold and defend are those that are directly related to the gospel: justification by faith, penal substitution, inerrancy of Scripture, exclusivity of Christ and the gospel.
Complementarianism is a secondary issue, but to reject it involves a hermeneutic which opens the door to interpreting other passages of Scripture which are key for the gospel in ways which undermine the gospel. Headship of the husband in the family may not seem important initially, but actually salvation is only possible because Christ is our head, our husband, who takes responsibility for us before his Father and so can act as our substitute and Saviour.
EN: How can readers find out more about the story of the seminary?
BW: A history of the seminary, 1859 to 2009, written by Gregory Wills, was recently published by Oxford University Press. It is very well written and highly instructive for all involved in Christian institutional life. One feature the book uncovers is how quickly a school can turn from faithfulness to unfaithfulness. Faculty hiring is far more significant to the future fidelity of the institution than is sometimes realised.
Bruce Ware’s lectures and those of a few others from Southern are available free at http://www.biblicaltraining.org