SSHAC live blog: American culture and the reshaping of Southern Seminary – Russell D. Moore

Communications Staff — February 19, 2009

Speaker: Russell D. Moore

Title: Senior vice president of academic administration and dean of the School of Theology at Southern Seminary

The social, political and cultural work of Jimmy Carter mirrored the efforts of the leaders of Southern Seminary in the late 1970s to impact the culture in these ways.

The Conservative Resurgence was a welcome return of the seminary to its foundation.

But the efforts of liberals were not totally a failed endeavor. Instead, we have much to learn at which the points of the institutional and personal heroism of some of the liberal figures of Southern Seminary’s last generation. We must look at where this liberal attempt at prophetic populism succeeded and why and where it failed and why.

Duke McCall did not endorse a candidate in the 1976 election. But he came close to doing so. McCall noted that, outside the South, the Southern Baptist Convention did not have good standing in the culture.

McCall said Southern Baptists were known for their red-faced outbursts against gambling, but were not known for their work in developing public schools. McCall said the idea of a Baptist in the White House sent some Americans into a panic, because of the focus in culture on the former and not the latter.

Carter’s open public piety was important. But his accent was important, too. The accent was important to northern, Midwestern and eastern America. Many conservatives pointed out that Carter’s positions had little difference from George McGovern’s positions. The only difference was Carter’s Southern flavor.

The project at Southern Seminary in the mid-twentieth century proved that the most influential Southern Seminary professors were those who could quote German scholars and lead an evangelistic revival service.

The leadership of Southern Seminary saw itself as needing to have a prophetic voice in the Southern Baptist Convention for the need for progressive involvement in culture that they saw as healthy and providential.

Without the efforts of Henlee Barnette and others like him in the civil rights movement, though Moore differs from them significantly theologically, the SBC would have a very different position on civil rights today. Those who made a big impact on the SBC’s position on civil rights were largely moderate or liberal theologically.

Barnette said the civil rights issue involves personal regeneration. That Christ died for people of every single race. He did not argue that racism was simply a social justice issue, but was more fundamentally a sin against God.

Progressives prophetically forced conservatives on the basis of the authority that conservatives already expressed to a choice between Jesus Christ and Jim Crow. The conservatives chose Jesus.

The impact of progressives was not positive on other issues. For example, Southern Seminary professor Molly Marshall was a proponent of feminism. SBTS professor Paul Simmons compared the pro-life agenda with the witch hunt as part of the Salem witch trials, a position that is reprehensible.

The progressive agenda was frustrated by the populists in the SBC. Southern Baptists increasingly saw Southern Seminary as being disconnected from church life. One student wrote that SBTS professors had no experience in pulpits and thus were not helpful to him in handling different situations in pastoral ministry.

If the moderate resurgence at Southern Seminary looked something like Jimmy Carter then the Conservative Resurgence looked something like Ronald Reagan. Just as Reagan was portrayed as an anti-intellectual, amiable dunce, so were the leaders of the Conservative Resurgence. Just as Reagan proved himself to be highly intelligent and competent, so did Adrian Rogers, Jerry Vines and Paige Patterson.

The Conservative Resurgence restored to the SBC the confessional basis upon which Southern Baptists have agreed to cooperate throughout the history of the denomination. But other issues are still with us. We still have declining baptism numbers. Denominational organizations have replaced mega churches as the face of the SBC.

In this era, Southern Seminary must again have a prophetic voice among the populists (as moderates did on the issue of civil rights in the 1970s). A temptation to Southern Baptists in the next generation will be to speak to issues because of how well received they are in the culture around them.

The issue of the care of the environment is one such issue. Should the church speak to environmental stewardship: yes. Can such a discussion lead to discussion about evangelism and the Gospel: no.

Southern Seminary must understand that Southern Baptist churches will be increasingly odd. What we mean by conservatism cannot be Fox News with prayer requests. Conservative graduates can have so a view of doctrine or devotional purity that they give up other issues.

To be a prophetic institution, Southern Seminary must recruit and develop professors who can preach and pastor. It means that Southern Seminary must recruit and develop professors who can teach students to love people even if they can’t correctly parse every verb.

We must create Southern Baptist churches that stand out from the culture, lest we become just like the culture and lose our influence.

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