Many Southern Baptists remain skeptical that there is any significant problem with "Reformed" theology within the Southern Baptist Convention. Often times those of us who lament the undeniable saturation of Reformed thinking in a free church convention of local congregational churches (i.e. the SBC) are chided as being either divisive (arguing for non-essentials), deluded (making issues where none exists), or dead-wrong (just plain ignorant). Indeed sometimes we're told we're all three! I think it's important to offer tangible evidence, evidence we did not produce. Rather, there is abundant evidence from the inside of the Reformed movement itself...>>>
Below is the final section of an unpublished book review I wrote about a year and a half ago. The book is, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists by Colin Hansen. The section I'm posting here reviews chapter four (pp.69-94) and is entitled, "Ground Zero: The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Lousiville, Kentucky."
Finally, we move on to chapter four which stands as perhaps the most notable example of Hansen losing his objectivity as journalist and instead proposing an apology for the rising, restless young Calvinists with whom he gladly dwells. “Ground Zero,” as Hansen has called it, is a chapter given exclusively to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky. SBTS is Southern Baptists’ oldest theological school and often referred to as their “flagship seminary”. Hansen rightly observes that when the Conservative Resurgence was fully armed with enough trustees to take the school over, they wasted no time in replacing the old regime with a new one. The pick of the trustees was a young, energetic theologian from Georgia who served as editor of The Christian Index, Georgia Baptists’ denominational state paper—R. Albert Mohler, Jr. (p.69).
The trustees knew Mohler’s unflinching commitment to the keystone doctrine of the Conservative Resurgence, Biblical Inerrancy. And, according to Hansen, the trustees were impressed with Mohler’s “vitality and plan to restore the seminary’s confessional identity” (p.72). Hansen raises the question whether the trustees knew what Mohler meant by “confessional identity.” That is, were they aware Mohler would not only insist upon their keystone doctrine of an inerrant Bible, but would further insist the seminary’s doctrinal position would embrace a rigid Reformed understanding of soteriology which included a robust five point Calvinism? Apparently not, for Hansen writes: “Some of Mohler’s inerrancy allies might have not fully foreseen one small twist. Mohler’s fidelity to the Abstract of Principles has steered the seminary back toward Calvinism” (p.73).
Tom Nettles, a leading theologian in the inerrancy movement and a professor of historical theology at SBTS, is one of the “top sources” Hansen taps to offer perspective on the SBTS move toward Calvinism. Nettles himself is no stranger to Calvinism, having penned the popular textbook on Calvinism’s historical roots among Southern Baptists, By His Grace and for His Glory: A Historical, Theological, and Practical Study of the Doctrines of Grace in Baptist Life (1986). For Nettles, Mohler’s appointment as President of SBTS was sovereign. Hansen quotes Nettles: “I saw his [Mohler’s] selection as providential. I saw it as something that could not be generated by any human instruments. God Himself was doing something that we could never have thought of twenty years ago” (pp.75-76).
Hansen offers no pretense to holding back his apparent glee that SBTS has shifted to a rigid Calvinistic training center. With SBTS being perhaps the largest seminary in America, “Many of these graduates will take Calvinism to the pulpits throughout the SBC,” Hansen explains (p.74). The many graduates* include student Timmy Brister, who, according to Hansen, had been released from his first two churches for his vocal disturbances concerning Calvinism (pp.78-79). It seems the pastor and other staff where he served was not Calvinistic enough, and Brister attempted to correct it.
In addition, according to Hansen, Brister had been warned by seminary officials for his blistery blogging in offending many leading non-Calvinists with his firebrand critiques. Brister apparently boycotted chapel because chapel speakers included non-Calvinist speakers. Hansen writes: “[Brister’s] blog writing doesn’t endear him to the executives at Southern Seminary…He gives them an earful when they welcome chapel speakers who have elsewhere derided Calvinism.” To which Brister responds: “It bothers me that I get reprimanded for doing the very thing I’m taught to do” (p.77).**
Since the writing of Hansen’s book, Brister has moved to Florida and began serving as associate pastor with Tom Ascol, another personality Hansen mentions in “Ground Zero”—albeit for unknown reasons, since Ascol neither teaches at nor graduated from SBTS. However, Ascol is no stranger to Calvinism. Ascol is head of Founders Ministries, the largest network of Calvinists among Southern Baptists and also is good friends with Tom Nettles, who is officially connected with Founders Ministries. Hansen got Ascol’s take on the controversies within Southern Baptist life over Calvinism. “We’re going to see a lot more emphasis on church planting,” Ascol said. “God is using the climate in the Convention and hostility against Calvinism to send a lot of our choice young men overseas. The International Missions Board is flooded with Calvinists. It’s great” (p.93).
According to Hansen, Ascol seems to view the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC as flawed. Quoting Ascol, Hansen writes: “The conservatives have been in charge now for a couple of decades and our convention is no better off on basic issues than when the liberals were running things. That’s because inerrancy isn’t enough. We have to actually understand and apply what the Bible says. The conservatives thump the Bible but are unwilling to just obey the Bible in the most basic ways. How can you be an inerrantist and not practice [church discipline according to] Matthew 18? You might as well be a liberal. What difference does it make?” (p.77).
Given the statements above, one has to wonder if Hansen wrote Young, Restless, Reformed as a journalist attempting to explain a movement or as a young Calvinist attempting to promote a message. One surely must wonder about the implications if Hansen is correct concerning the convention’s largest and oldest theological institution. If he is, it remains doubtful whether Southern Baptists at large know how radical things have become at their treasured, flagship seminary. Also one suspects if they did, they would understand better the root cause of why so many churches are facing problems with Calvinism.
As one can easily observe, our understanding that Reformed thinking has gained an unhealthy foothold within Southern Baptist life is not ill-founded. The same understanding--albeit not expressed as lament but as celebration--comes from within the young, restless, and reformed community itself. What more evidence does one need?
Make no mistake: what Al Mohler has accomplished at "Ground Zero"--The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary--is being systematically overlayed onto the entire infrastructure of the Southern Baptist Convention. As I suggested elsewhere, the Reformed moorings abundantly flowing from Southern seminary take us back to pre-1979. Just as nine of 10 Southern Baptists embraced biblical inerrancy while our seminaries were teaching an alternate and unacceptable view of biblical authority, so does "Ground Zero" teach an alternate and unacceptable view of "Reformed" theology which nine of 10 Southern Baptists reject today.
With that, I am...
*it is not entirely clear Brister graduated from Southern but only attended without earning a degree
**seems Timmy Brister is claiming I've misread Colin Hansen's account of him. He just tweeted:
|Tim Brister (@timmybrister)
4/7/11 10:07 AM
To my SBC peeps, if you read anything from Peter Lumpkins about my life and ministry, his account is (not surprisingly) inaccurate & false.
I'd be happy to retract if he or another can demonstrate I skewed Hansen's words