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.”

Celebration

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.

Concerns

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.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2008 Kingdom People blog

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8 thoughts on “Reformed Resurgence 3: Southern Seminary”

  1. Andy Atkins says:

    Trevin,

    Good perspective.

    Arrogance is a dangerous cancer in our hearts that can distort our character and re-form us as tools of Satan in an instant. Although the enemy cannot possess believers, I believe he often discredits our testimony through this very sin.

    You’ve aroused my curiosity. I may have to buy and read this one for myself.

    – Andy

  2. I’ve really enjoyed reading this series. Keep up the good work.

  3. Adam Winters says:

    I appreciate your thoughts, Trevin. This needed to be said:
    “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.”
    -We are the “Southern Baptist” Seminary, are we not? ;)

    “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.”
    -That’s a convicting word to me. Dr. Moore has voiced similar concerns on different occasions and I think you both are absolutely right.

    “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.”
    -I hope that will be the legacy of this book, the SBTS chapter, and our seminary.

  4. trevinwax says:

    Thanks, Adam. I’m glad you found the posts helpful and edifying.

  5. Okay, great post! I am one of those “not 5-pointers” but I’ve always considered myself some what “Reformed.” But when I listen to many Calvinists, some of whom you mention in this post, I have to say “gosh, I didn’t realize there was that big of a gulf between us.” To me, the biggest “sticking point” with what is usually called “calvinism” is not in what is denied, but in how much is affirmed without being explicitly taught in the Bible etc. That’s not to say something might not still be true, it’s just that the absolute dogmatism that many hold on to things like so-called “limited atonement” (for example) and the degree to which they do not handle it with due pastoral care makes me wonder at their chosen profession, regardless of which side they are on. Oh well. Great post (I know it’s old now). Looking forward to the Gospel Project ;-) Your (non-calvinist) friend, John.

  6. Kevin Mathis says:

    I don’t see how someone could be a four point Calvinist or any other number other than zero or five. Outside of any biblical interpretation, it doesn’t make logical sense that you could believe some of the points and not believe others.
    Calvinism is a bit hard to swallow. It goes against our grain as hard working, independent, “I worked for what I have” thinking people. But if you have as your strongest conviction to read the bible in the most straightforward way (like Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 and others) and not work it around some pre-existing conceptions you have about God to where it seems comfortable and “fair” to yourself, and to believe it even if it doesn’t seem “nice”, Calvinists simply do not see how anyone could deny that all five points of Calvinism are true. The anger and resentment toward them comes in the frustration of trying to prove otherwise.
    I do know that it can be very true and damaging when Christians gain knowledge (whether accurate or inaccurate) and then get prideful and belligerent. It may be helpful to notice and acknowledge this across the spectrum from Calvinists, to you, to Freewill Baptists. Nobody likes a know-it-all and we could all use a dose of humility and kindness.

    1. Hi there Kevin, I think your problem with seeing how someone could be somewhere between 0 or 5 is that you are approaching “TULIP” as a closed system, it’s not. It’s simply a (reactionary) representation of some people’s understanding of the Bible. Take, for example, “Limited Atonement.” There’s no scripture that explicitly teaches it. If someone takes the position that they will not positively affirm any position not explicitly taught in Scripture, then there you go, a 4-point Calvinist. Dealing with what I call “closed systems” presupposes we can understand everything about God, which I don’t think is true. We know what he has revealed to us. Once we move a step (or two or three) on to our own deductions (even if based on scripture) we cannot account for the unknown variables. Most (actually all 5-point) Calvinists calculate the “L” on the assumption that if Jesus died for someone, then they MUST be saved, then they work back to say that then Jesus MUST have died for only the elect, and so on. But that’s clearly not taught in Scripture, in fact I believe several verses (such as 1John 2:2 as most convincing to me) explicitly teach that Jesus died for the whole world. “Logically” (as you say) that doesn’t make total sense to me, but in order for me to say something does or doesn’t make “logical sense” I have to assume that I have accounted for all the variables, and we are including GOD in this equation. I simply believe the 5-point Calvinist God is too small, he has to be, because the system is closed and it makes “Logical Sense” – I believe in a God who must reveal himself for us to understand him and anything outside of his revelation we will not understand (and history tells us many things he does reveal we don’t understand either). Just my 2 cents. I don’t approach the Bible to prove or disprove the 5-points. I think it would be odd for someone as studied and faithful as Calvin and his followers to get it either 100% right or 100% wrong, but I’ll just stick with verse by verse Biblical Studies that avoids “closed systems” where I (seemingly) understand God. :-)

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin 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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