History conference kicks off SBTS sesquicentennial celebration

Communications Staff — February 25, 2009

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary began celebration of its sesquicentennial anniversary last week with a conference that the school’s place on the landscape of American church history.

Noted historians such as Timothy George, Grant Wacker, Stephen Nichols, Darryl Hart and Gary Dorrien joined several Southern Seminary faculty members to unpack the theme, “Southern Seminary & the History of American Christianity.”

The conference, sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Southern Baptist Convention, is the first of several events related to the seminary’s sesquicentennial celebration. Greg Wills, professor of church history at Southern, who serves as director of the center organized the conference.

George, who is dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., opened the conference with an address on the meaning of theological education. George was professor of church history at Southern Seminary from 1978 to 1988.

George identified seven different approaches to theological education in church history from a “school of the prophets” that saw itself as prophetically communicating the Word of God to the “militia of Christ” which viewed itself as training ministers for spiritual combat.

“The founding of Southern Seminary represents the transference of all seven into North America,” George said.
“Each of these seven has been taken up into the history of Southern Seminary.”

Contributors from Southern’s faculty included President R. Albert Mohler Jr.; Russell D. Moore, dean of the school of theology and senior vice president for academic administration; Wills; Tom Nettles, professor of church history; and Mark Dever, chairman of the board of trustees at SBTS and pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

Mohler examined the life and legacy of Southern’s fourth president, E.Y. Mullins, who was something of a transitional figure in the seminary’s history. Mullins sought to bring a mediating position to theology between the classical orthodoxy of founding president J.P. Boyce and the new thinking of modernism, Mohler argued. The result was an embrace of experience as the final arbiter of theological truth, a departure from the theology of Southern’s founders, he argued.

“The big question with E.Y. Mullins was: How did he understand liberalism?” Mohler said. “There is no clear answer. He was no liberal, but thought one could incorporate different thought streams into Christian theology…He left many questions unanswered.

“Mullins is an example of the failure of a mediating system between sterile orthodoxy and anti-supernatural liberalism.”

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