Reformed Resurgence 3: Southern Seminary
Continuing our series through Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, Reformed, we turn to the chapter on Southern Seminary. Provocatively titled “Ground Zero,” Collin’s chapter on SBTS has already ruffled some feathers. The chapter deals with the Reformed Resurgence at Southern through the eyes of three Southern students, seminary president Albert Mohler, and then the backlash against Calvinism evident in the wider Southern Baptist Convention.
Collin describes the Conservative Resurgence at Southern before he shows how the Conservative comeback has morphed into a resurgence of Calvinism across the denomination. He then shows how many Calvinists are in between a rock and a hard place within the SBC. He tells the story of Steve Lawson, whose Dauphin Way Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama split over Calvinist teaching. He quotes Founders Ministry leader Tom Ascol on the Calvinists being forced into a “no-win” position. Collin does a good job of going back and forth between the opposing Southern Baptist views on Calvinism, moderating fairly between them as he makes his case for the Seminary being “Ground Zero.”
Collin rightly notes how the Conservative Resurgence’s emphasis on doctrinal confessions necessarily led back to a resurgence of Calvinism at Southern Seminary. We can celebrate the fact that Southern Baptists are increasingly returning to their confessional heritage. The fact that many young Baptist pastors are reading and learning from our Baptist forefathers should cause us to rejoice. In order to know where we’re going as a Convention, we need to know where we’ve been.
The emphasis on evangelism is encouraging. Collin shows how influential some Reformed authors’ books on missions and evangelism have been. He shows how one Southern student won an evangelism award at Liberty University. He points to the number of Calvinist missionaries who are serving with the International Mission Board and the Calvinistic leanings of many contemporary church planters.
Compare the Southern Seminary of today with the Seminary thirty years ago and the reasons for rejoicing become clear. Southern now hosts a world-renowned faculty of conservative Bible scholars who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, and who sincerely affirm the Abstract of Principles as a confessional guide. Southern has come a long way, and we can rejoice in the fearless leadership of Albert Mohler in guiding the Seminary back to orthodoxy.
By only focusing on the Reformed resurgence at Southern, Collin does not do justice to the diversity among Southern’s faculty. I’ve written about the common misconceptions about Southern Seminary elsewhere, but some of the more important facts deserve to be mentioned again. Not one of the deans currently serving at the seminary is a five-point Calvinist. Calvinism is not the main topic of discussion at the seminary among students. Mohler’s focus is the gospel, not Calvinism per se.
Furthermore, the three students Collin highlights were all of Calvinist persuasion before coming to Southern. In other words, they came to Southern because they were Calvinists. They did not become Calvinists because they went to Southern.
Collin devotes several pages to telling Timmy Brister’s story. I sometimes wonder if Timmy Brister and I attend the same seminary. Collin writes about Timmy “giving seminary leaders an earful when they welcome chapel speakers who have elsewhere derided Calvinism.”
It saddens me that for some Southern students, inviting to chapel a Baptist brother with whom we share strong ecclesiological ties, but who doesn’t subscribe to Calvinist soteriology would be more controversial than listening to someone like R.C. Sproul or Ligon Duncan. Where is the ecclesiology in this movement? If we can learn from those who disagree with the Abstract on a doctrine as important as baptism, surely we can learn from someone who disagrees with unconditional election. There’s a double standard at work here. The Calvinists welcome paedobaptists to chapel, overlooking that ecclesiological difference. Yet they protest fellow Baptists who do not toe the line on Calvinism. Personally, I am thankful that Southern Seminary administrators have chosen to welcome a variety of godly Christian men to the pulpit with whom we might strongly disagree on certain issues, but with whom we share a strong commitment to the gospel.
Another concern that rises to the forefront in this chapter is in Steve Lawson’s story about Dauphin Way Baptist Church. Lawson, after two years of preaching at Dauphin Way still describes his former church as having a “biblical literacy” that was “amazingly low. Many people weren’t even bringing Bibles to church.” Two things bother me here: first, that two years into his ministry, Lawson still saw his church as biblically illiterate. Secondly, the ease with which Lawson speaks condescendingly of his former church.
A common thread that seems to unite both the Emerging Church movement and the “young, restless, Reformed” crowd is that both seem to be most attractive to young, disaffected evangelicals. In other words, the same angst (some may call it “young” or “restless”) that drives one from his theologically-light home church into an “emerging” church is often the same attitude that drives one from his theologically-light home church into the Reformed camp. I cannot help but wonder if pride and elitism forms the foundation for many of the people in both movements.
Some of those quoted in Hansen’s book seem to have adopted a kind of dismissive, condescending attitude toward their home church—churches in which they were loved, heard the gospel preached, were saved, and discipled. Ironically, many of today’s restless Reformed students came to faith in the “biblically illiterate” churches they so quickly criticize. Instead of showing a humble appreciation for the local churches that nurtured them into the faith, some Calvinists return to their churches, armed and ready to “reform” their theology.
I pray that Southern Seminary will continue to be a light in an increasingly dark world. But this will only come about if those of us who believe in God’s unconditional, unmerited grace serve the church in humility. Satan would love nothing more than to have the arrogant snobbery of Old Southern’s liberalism turn into the arrogant snobbery of New Southern’s Calvinism.
Tomorrow, I’ll be back with some final thoughts on the rest of Collin’s book.