Evangelical centrifuge: president Mohler builds a faculty
When R. Albert Mohler Jr. assumed office as the ninth president of Southern Seminary, he brought with him a desire to bring the theology taught in the classrooms into conformity with the heritage of the institution’s founding faculty members — James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly Jr. and William Williams. In 1993, few of the faculty members then-employed shared the vision of their president and trustees, and many prominent professors soon departed from the institution during the mid-1990s. Their departure left an instructional void, but also gave the new president his opportunity to recruit a new wave of conservative Baptist scholars who were then employed at other evangelical institutions.
An especially notable strategy to this end was Mohler’s establishment of the Billy Graham School of Evangelism, Missions, and Church Growth. Made possible by a gift of $3 million by A.P. and Faye Stone, Mohler announced the new school — in the presence of Graham himself — during his inauguration ceremonies, Oct. 14, 1993.1 The Graham School opened in 1994 under the deanship of Thom Rainer, whose published studies on personal evangelism and church ministry established him as a recognizable name in the field. The newly endowed Graham School not only expanded the seminary’s ministry potential but the size of the faculty as well; when the school opened for the 1994-1995 academic year, it featured six new academic departments: missions, evangelism, church growth, communications, church and community, and world religions.
The public support of Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry — perhaps the two men who embodied the best of the heart and mind of evangelicalism — gave credence to Southern’s renewed theological commitment under Mohler’s leadership. While Graham’s name adorned the new school for world-wide gospel outreach, Henry aligned himself with Southern through his role as senior professor of research in 1995 and through the establishment of the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement in 1998.2
The end of Mohler’s fourth year at the helm, 1997, proved to be a landmark in his faculty recruitment process, as the board of trustees elected an array of renowned Baptist scholars during their spring meeting. Headlining this list, which included such names as Tom Nettles and Hershael York, was world-renown New Testament professor Robert Stein. Happily employed at Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., at the time, Stein was reluctant to uproot his family and join the faculty at a Southern Baptist institution long reputed for its progressive theology. A few years prior, Stein interviewed for a teaching job at Southern, but he cited the faculty’s displeasure with his conviction against women’s ordination to the pastorate as a discouragement to his confidence in the future of Southern Baptist institutions as evangelical witnesses. But a phone call from Mohler challenged him with the question, “Would you be open if the Lord led you this way?” Stein — understandably befuddled — later recalled his response: “I don’t want to preclude what God might be wanting me to do in life.”3 A phone call from Danny Akin, then dean of the School of Theology, soon followed, and Stein eventually relented, accepting Mohler’s nomination to Southern Seminary’s faculty. He helped organize a required course in hermeneutics, and he brought along with him his younger colleague at Bethel, another New Testament scholar named Thomas Schreiner.4
As Moher’s presidency entered its second decade, some notable senior professors stepped aside and passed the torch to their younger colleagues. When Stein retired, Schreiner and Mark Seifrid continued to bear his mantle in the New Testament department. As leading Old Testament professors such as Daniel Block and Paul House finished their careers at the seminary, Peter Gentry, Duane Garrett and Russell Fuller kept the course. Akin and Craig Blaising, professors of theology hired during Mohler’s early years, were followed by Russell D. Moore and Bruce A. Ware. And with a list that includes extensively published scholars Nettles, Michael A.G. Haykin and Gregory A. Wills, Southern possesses perhaps the greatest coalition of Baptist historians ever assembled.
During the past 20 years, the seminary has attracted many of the finest Baptist scholars from across the nation’s evangelical institutions, who by signing their names to the Abstract of Principles pledged to teach in accordance with and not contrary to its stated doctrines without mental reservation or private understanding, as James P. Boyce himself wrote in 1856.5
Under Mohler, an unprecedented evangelical centrifuge of Baptist professors came to call Southern Seminary home. Mohler’s burgeoning evangelical faculty, perhaps more than any other single reason, allowed the seminary to weather the storm of its transition between presidential administrations. Over the course of Mohler’s tenure, students have enrolled at Southern in record numbers and the seminary’s budget has more than doubled.6 Though Mohler’s early years as president were filled with difficulty and criticism concerning his expectations for the faculty, the results speak for themselves.
Those interested can learn more about some of the most notable professors in the seminary’s history by visiting the Archives and Special Collection on the second floor of the James P. Boyce Centennial Library.
Endnotes 1 Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (Oxford University Press, 2009), 544. 2 David Porter, “Southern Seminary Trustees Establish Henry Institute, Hire New Faculty” SBTS News Release (February 6, 1998) 3 “Dr. Robert Stein Reflects on Thirty-Three Years in Theological Education: An Interview” (March 20, 2002) 4 James A. Smith Sr., “Southern Seminary Faculty Takes ‘Quantum Leap Forward’ with Additions” SBTS News Release (April 22, 1997) 5 James P. Boyce, Three Changes in Theological Institutions (Greenville, SC: C. J. Elfords Book and Job Press, 1856), 34-35. 6 Bruce Schreiner and Travis Loller, “Head of Southern Baptist School Marks 20 Years.” Newser.com. Associated Press, 2 Sept. 2013. Web. [http://www.newser.com/article/da8ias180/leader-of-southern-baptist-seminary-marks-20-years-helped-make-school-more-conservative.html] Accessed 19 Sept. 2013.