Southern Seminary and Calvinism
Southern 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.
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.