479231334_89571c4a0e.jpgSouthern Seminary has always held a prominent position in Southern Baptist life. As the oldest and most prestigious of the Southern Baptist seminaries, Southern has long promoted high academic standards and a strong emphasis on pastoral training for local churches. Since 1993, the Seminary has been guided by the leadership of Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., a prominent evangelical thinker and cultural commentator.

Though conservatives are thankful for the return of Southern to biblical fidelity, some people in Southern Baptist life have begun to worry that the Seminary has moved too far to the right – especially in the issue of Calvinism.

Today, a widespread myth exists that the Seminary student and population faculty is made up primarily of 5-point Calvinists.

Of course, Dr. Mohler’s Reformed theology is no secret. Nor is the Calvinism of several prominent professors at Southern Seminary. But one should not mistakenly assume that the entire faculty and student population holds to the Reformed understanding of doctrine and salvation.

Consider this:

Currently, not one of the deans at Southern Seminary is a five-point Calvinist.

Calvinism is not a litmus test for teaching at the seminary; the Abstract of Principles is, and the Abstract leaves room for disagreement on the extent of the atonement and irresistible grace.

Calvinism is not the main subject of interest among faculty members or students. 

In the cafeteria, on the lawn, or in the extension center, Calvinism is sometimes discussed, but not as often as one might expect. As I was discussing this post with a good friend of mine (also a student at Southern), I realized that in all the hours of theological conversation that we had shared, we had never once discussed our own views on the extent of the atonement. I suspect that such is the case for many other Southern students. 

Recent LifeWay Research statistics show that 27% of graduates from Southern Baptist seminaries are likely to call themselves 5-point Calvinists. Despite the alarm sounded in some corners, the fact of the matter is: 73% of Southern Baptist students do not belong to this category.

From my own experience as a student of Southern, I suspect that the majority of Southern Seminary students that I have encountered on campus and at the extension center I attend (Nashville) are not 5-point Calvinists.  

Furthermore, Louisville is not a hotbed for Hyper-Calvinists. (Historically, Hyper-Calvinism is the errant teaching that one should not evangelize, and I have yet to meet a Southern Baptist who believes this.) Those who stand against Calvinistic teaching need to refrain from labeling Calvinists as “Hyper” unless the shoe actually fits.

Perhaps there are some who fit the category of “hyperactive” Calvinists  - students who are still in the proverbial “cage-stage” of Calvinism and who are actively seeking to convert all other Christians to their doctrinal viewpoint. The problem with the hyperactive strain of Calvinism is not theology, but sin, particularly the sin of pride and arrogance. It is the same sin that lies at the root of Church Growth controversies, when a young pastor enthralled with Bill Hybels proceeds to divide a church by throwing out all hymns and organs. Immaturity and selfishness comes in all forms, not merely Calvinist.

But even if a handful of vocal Southern students might fit the ”hyperactive” description, the blame does not necessarily fall on the Seminary. Some students are convinced Calvinists before ever going to Southern, and in any case, the hyperactive are a small minority that happen to get the most press. Many faculty members seek to temper Calvinist fervor of the “hyperactive.”

It is true that most of the student population may indeed be friendly to certain aspects of the Calvinist resurgence. There are many students like myself who, theologically, lean Reformed, even without espousing 5-point Calvinism. Many of us agree with some aspects of church reform (the recovery of church discipline, integrity in membership recording, avoiding manipulation when doing altar calls, etc.). But one should not assume that all Southern students are 5-point Calvinists seeking to push Reformed theology on our churches.

Furthermore, many of the 5-pointers I know are not agressively seeking to cause strife and discord in local churches, and it is unfair to present them in this light. Many of those most passionate about Reformed theology are also extremely passionate about personal evangelism. Some of them evangelize so regularly and so confidently that I am put to shame! Just as it is unfair to present all Southern students as 5-point Calvinists, it is also unfair to present all 5-point Calvinists as being of the “hyperactive” type that care more about debating TULIP than sharing the gospel.

Southern Seminary, like the wider Southern Baptist Convention, contains both Calvinists and non-Calvinists. Next time you hear someone speaking of Southern Seminary as “Calvinist,” I hope you will be inclined to correct the misconception and provide some additional details in order to put an end to some of the false, sweeping generalizations about Southern.

written by Trevin Wax. copyright © 2008 Kingdom People Blog.
Photograph taken by Steve McCoy.

Related Articles:
Let Grace Abound in Us, Fellow Seminary Students
Calvinists for Evangelism
The Virtue that Should Best Characterize All Calvinists

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26 thoughts on “Southern Seminary and Calvinism”

  1. Trevin,

    I agree with you that SBTS is a “Calvinism hotbed.” I have found that the outcry against this is not much unlike a vocal minority in a local church. It is a sad day when a secondary issue (albeit important issue) becomes a litmus test for whether or not one is Southern Baptist. It almost seems that this vocal minority leading the charge against the “heresy” of Calvinism are trying to make it similar to that of glossolia (tongues).

    When I was being certified as a church planter in the state of Illinois, I had to answer the question of private prayer language. If I said in the affirmative (I did not) then I would have been disqualified according to a couple of the administrators. I pray this never becomes a problem for 5-pointers. In any event, I should be alright–I am a 5-point Spurgeonist! :)

  2. Steve Weaver says:

    Great post Trevin. I hope many will learn from the information that you have given and cease with their erroneous assumptions.

  3. Nice post. Even if the deans were 5-point Calvinists, I don’t think it should matter. It should not be a divisive issue. I would be interested in seeing a breakdown of Calvinists by school. My gut tells me that most theology students are Calvinists but most BGS and Music students are not. What do you think?

  4. johnMark says:

    I don’t think the average SBCer can clearly define/understand Calvinism or Arminianism. It’s mostly a few talking heads that get the spot light, IMO.

    In some ways pointing the finger at Calvinism is a reflection of what we all tend to do when we don’t really want to deal with the real problems. That is, we blame something or someone else. The SBC at large can’t find 50% of it’s members and some are worried about 10% of our pastors’ and 27% of SBTS graduates?

    Why don’t the critics actually ask the non-Calvinist professors at SBTS about this issue? Why not ask the graduates and ourselves why the attraction to Calvinism?

    Mark

  5. trevinwax says:

    It would be neat to see a breakdown by school. But I’m not sure that the majority of Theology students would be 5pointers. You have to take into consideration the extension centers too.

  6. scott says:

    Trevin:

    I take issue with the notion that Southern is the “most prestigious” Southern Baptist seminiary. What the…? Are the standards more rigid for admittance over the other SBC schools? Is the faculty more erudite? Are they producing better preachers? I would say “no” to each of the above questions.

    I attended Southeastern and had such professors as Russ Bush, John Sailhammer, Andreas Kostenberger, and David Alan Black to name a few. These are men with some outstanding credentials. In your mind what would make Southern more “prestigious”?

    Southern can properly be called the flagship Southern Baptist seminary. But most prestigious? I don’t think so.

  7. Tim says:

    Trevin:

    Thank you for this post. It is an encouragement to me to see you use your platform to get the truth out about SBTS and what it truly stands for. I have previously attended Southern and, to be honest, in a lot of my theology classes I did get the feeling that a majority were Calvinists, but through my actually getting to know those in my classes, the reality was that this was not true.

    I was surprised to see in your post that not one of the deans was a 5-pointer, though. In my sinful assumptions, I suppose I assumed that Dr. Moore was a 5-point Calvinist. Thank you, again, for the correction.

    Blessings.

  8. Tony Kummer says:

    Thanks for writing this. My experience at Southern is very similar to yours. You should make this statement bold in your post:

    The problem with the hyperactive strain of Calvinism is not theology, but sin, particularly the sin of pride and arrogance.

  9. trevinwax says:

    Scott,

    Whether or not Southern is the most “prestigious” is debatable, as you have so aptly shown.

  10. Eric Peterson says:

    It only takes one conversation with a hyperactive Calvinist to turn someone off, too often this leads to prejudice about the seminary and its quite right for you to point this out. Sin is the issue, not only arrogance and pride, but in judging and belittling and condemning others as well. But prejudice about the seminary is not the real tragedy. The audience of the unchurched unbeliever can see the arrogance and will recoil against it. Too bad a zealousness for doctrine divides Christian from Christian and more importantly the Christian from our mission field. May we speak the truth in love, not erring on either side.

  11. Mike Leake says:

    Trevin,

    I very much appreciated your distinction between a hyper-Calvinist and a hyper-active Calvinist. Thanks for providing this.

  12. Trevin,
    What a great post, and a relieving one at that. I am going to be entering Southern Seminary next Fall. Initially, I had completely written off Southern because of its stark Calvinism, but after visiting the campus in October and talking to students and one particular dean, I was glad to see that the caricatures of Southern are not true. I am not an “anti-Calvinist” as much as I am an individual who doesn’t want one’s conscience stifled by the Reformed police. I can wholeheartedly say that I am very much excited to enter Southern. I totally concure with your keen observation.

  13. Charles says:

    Trevin,

    People have to remember what a pit of iniquity SBTS was as recently as the 80′s to appreciate it now.

    In those days, evangelical Southern Baptists were going there and being torn to shreds by the liberals… they might as well have been going to a liberal mainline seminary.

    At least now the professors are more likely to believe the Abstract of Principles than in the 80′s when it was doubtful any really cared what they said and one professor, Dale Moody, was actually teaching against the perseverance of the saints (not that the doctrine of “eternal security” as believed by many doesn’t need to be challenged… but by the biblical concept of perseverance!)and in my estimation flaunting the abstracts.

    That’s why the school of social work moved in toto to Samford… they knew they could never operate in an environment with an orthodox Christian profession or be required to operate from Christian presuppositions.

    Southern Baptists have a number of seminaries… if they don’t want to go there… plenty of places are available.

    I though consider SBTS to be significantly better and delivered from being another mainline apostasy factory.

  14. brotherhank says:

    It should be duly noted that I’ve heard an exponentially greater number of conversations about “women” and “marriage” at Southern than any Reformed doctrine. But I’ll admit, when it comes to marriage, single seminarians cling quite fervently to the idea of divine meticulous sovereignty…lol.

  15. Keith Walters says:

    I too was suprised that “not one of the deans at Southern Seminary is a five-point Calvinist.” I would assume that they would be four-point Calvinists and the debatable issue would be limited atonement; is this correct?

  16. Charles says:

    Internet Monk responded to my comment on his blog and I will say here what I said there in essence that I should not have been quite so critical as to say “nobody cared” about what they taught.

    I think things are better in many ways however.

  17. Frank Turk says:

    More beer-drinking will create more calvinists — in name at least.

  18. Trevin,

    Good post! I graduated from Southern 2 years ago. I’ve never considered myself a 5 point calvinist, although I’ve come close in becoming one:)

    Blessings,
    Lou

  19. Andy Atkins says:

    Trevin,

    It was a great experience for me to sit and listen to Dean Moore talk about Reformed Theology in January 2007. You’re right on target.

    And regarding the “prestigious” comment – I, too, earned a degree at Southeastern before coming to Southern. I’ll let you slide.

    - Andy

  20. Cal Wallace says:

    Trevin,

    I pimped your post as a post on my blog (with due credits and links).

    Scott,

    I am an SEBTS grad too, but there is no need to take issue with Trevin over his “prestigious” comment. Brothers in Christ should be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he intended no ill by it. There is a question I have for you though. In your comment you stated, “What the…?” What does “…” represent? It wouldn’t be some some kind of profane impure word that Scripture admonishes us not to let pass through our lips would it? Come now, let’s take Philippians 4:8 to heart.

  21. Dr. James Willingham says:

    Sirs: I read with interest your (Trevin’s) article & the related comments. I was ordained to the ministry by a Supralapsarian, hyper-calvinist, and he would tell you so from the pulpit. He had a Ph.D. from Bob Jones and was the only legally required preacher for the funeral of Dr. Robert G. Lee. Dr. Lee put it in his will that Dr. Ernest R. Campbell was to preach his will. None of the other 4 ministers was in the will for that purpose. Dr. Campbell was evangelistic. He was on the committee of ministers of Columbia, SC who invited Billy Graham to conduct his next crusade after the first Los Angeles Crusade. He was also the founder & first president of the American Race Track Chaplaincy. He pastor many FBCs, including Hialeah. He was my oraining pastor at Calvary in St. Louis. I once preached a revival in a church in Georgia where he had preached some 30-40 years before. He had had 100 converts in that crusade. One of the converts in that revival had become a deacon in FBC Augusta by the time I preached there. He came to one of the services and I spoke with him about that revival. WHAT A LOT OF PEOPLE DON’T REALIZE IS THAT DR.CAMPBELL’S POSITION COULD BE MOST LIBERAL. In deed what a lot of people do not realize is that the Sovereign Grace preachers of Baptists from the 1640s-1820s were some of the most liberal, radical, etc. They could work with deists, etc. to secure religious liberty and be so winsome that George Washington would request and receive baptism at the hands of Rev. John Gano during the American Revolution witnessed by 60 people. Gano also preached on the same platform with Elder Shubal Stearns, and their cooperation set the stage for the union of the Separates & Regulars. And yes they were all believers in PARTICULAR REDEMPTION. THE EXCEPTION IN 1787 WAS MADE FOR SOME
    IN VIRGNIA, TO WIT, “that tTe preaching that Christ tasted death for ever man shall be no bar to communion.” The reason for this was simply the text in Hebs.2:8 They really didn’t know that it was speaking in context concerning those for whom He died. But they were able to do this due to a liberal mentality that comes from biblical orthodoxy which seeks to win people by persuasion from thE facts of truth & not by manipulation. THEY HAD THAT MUCH CONFIDENCE IN GOD. AND ALL OF THEIR DOCTRINES WERE AS DR. EUSELDEN (?) STATED IN HIS INTRO. TO HIS TRANSLATION OF WILLIAM AMES “MARROW OF DIVINITY” THAT PREDESTINATION IS AN INVITATION TO BEGIN ONE’S SPIRITUAL PILGRIMAGE. THAT IS TRUE OF ALL THE DOCTRINES OF GRACE INCLUDING REPROBATION, MT. 15:21-28. WHAT WE ARE GETTING READY FOR, I THINK (I DO NOT KNOW FOR SURE), IS THE THIRD GREAT AWAKENING WHICH SHALL COME TO THE WHOLE EARTH. I found in history that Peter Peterson Vanhorn & Benjamin Miller persuaded some general baptists in NC in 1755 to accept paticular redemption & Phila. Assn’s position. 46 yrs later that group baptized 872 (1801). I have been praying for a great awakening, since 1973. Another minister I know has ben praying for one since the 50s. Gentlemen, I think, I hope, I pray, that it is coming. It will be both terrible & terrific.
    Get ready for some soul-stirring times and more.

  22. Mike says:

    Calvanist tried unsuccessfully to take over our church. They split off carrying a great number of non-calvanist with them through peer pressure. For God so loved the world that WHOSOEVER believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

  23. Dr. James Willingham says:

    It is truly sad to see splits over doctrine. The real aim is the Third Great Awakening, the one that reaches the whole earth in one generation and for a 1000 generations (after all see how many are the seed of Abraham by faith). NOW THE THEOLOGY OF THE FIRST AND SECOND GREAT AWAKENINGS WAS SOVEREIGN GRACE. THE SAME CAN BE SAID FOR THE THEOLOGY AT THE BEGINNING OF THE GREAT CENTURY OF MISSIONS. Most people who believe the doctrines of grace don’t realize just how liberal and flexible and balanced and creative and winsome it really is. Look at Spurgeon;s Evening devotion for Dec. 24 and I quote: “We anticipate the happy day when the whole world shall be converted to Christ” And for Aug. 6, evening, on Ps.72:19, “For the cannibal as well as for the civilized, for all climes and races this prayer is uttered: the whole circle of th earth it encompasses, and omits no son of Adam. We must be up and doing for our Master, or we cannot honestly offer such a prayer.” Hummnnn! velly interesting! One old fellow in KY once asked me: “have your ever thought that at any one time every last soul on the face of the earth could be the elect of God?” I had to answer no, and 7-8 yrs later in NC that question and Jonah 3 blew my eschatology all to pieces. The fellow I consider the wises man I ever met, and i quoted him in my M.A. thesis in American Social & Intellectual History on the subject, “The Baptists & Ministerial Qualiications: 1750-1850.” My conclusion from such writings and years of intensive research led me to the conclusion that the real secret of the best and most winsome evangelism is the old sovereign grace teachings rightly understood and preached. As proof I offer all of the really great Baptists from 1720-1820. Along with them I offer all the Presbyterians, Congreationalists, Anglicans, Reformed, and others who held to such teachings in the best sense of the word. I actually know of a Presbyterian family whose ancestor was convered under George Whitefield. I also know of a Baptist Preacher whose ancestor was as the brother of the fellow just mentioned in the preceding sentence. He, too, was converted under Whitefield along with the mother of both men. I could go on, but let me also add that as Dr. Goen pointed out in his work on the Great Awakening 255 Congregational Churches became Baptists in that period. One of my friends preached in one of those churches…in the mid-1900s. Now, I do not have any confidence in manipulation or in trying to yank or force someone into my views. I like what one Spurgeon (a Southern Baptist ad a friend of mine) discovered. He won woman to Christ who told him why she responded so readily. She said, “Oh, it was so wonderful that I could not resist it.” About 40 years later that Spurgeon came to agree with his more famous relative that grace was irresistible. That is the way it ought to be. This slam, bang, knock them over the head with a billy club is phoney baloney; it is not the appointed means to winning the day for our Lord Jesus. Just wait on Him, pray, be faithful, compassionate, and one of these days the whole world will get a glorious surprise in the most wonderfully winsome way that grace can muster.

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Trevin Wax


‚ÄčTrevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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