SSHAC live blog: Liberalism and Orthodoxy at Southern Seminary, 1870-1910 – Greg Wills

Communications Staff — February 19, 2009

Speaker: Greg Wills

Title: professor of church history at Southern Seminary and director of the center for the study of the Southern Baptist Convention

Wills focused on Crawford Toy, E.Y. Mullins and W.O. Carver in his presentation, with particular focus on Toy and Carver.

Toy and the inspiration of the Bible

When Southern Seminary dismissed Toy in 1879 it became the first American institution to do so over liberal theology.

A new theology known as liberalism or modernism began to emerge around the time of Toy over skepticism over the traditional Protestant approach to the Bible. In particular Christianity’s claims that it arose from historical events. Liberal theologians questioned the claims of Protestantism that the Bible held absolute truth. The parting of the sea, the cursing of the fig tree seemed self-evidently fabulous to them.

The science of historical criticism applied scientific rules to the Bible and in this way claimed to discredit its supernatural elements.

An argument for a mythological reading of the creation account developed. This approach said that God inspired the Bible in such a way that its historical meaning could be false, but its religious meaning could be true. This approach to the inspiration of the Bible allowed liberal theologians to be critical of the Bible’s historical accounts, but still accept the Bible. Toy accepted this theology.

On the issue of geology, Toy accepted arguments of the time against young earth creationism in favor of old earth creationism. Toy also adopted Darwinism. Toy told a student in one of his classes to not deny evolution, for evolution and the Bible were not incompatible.

Under the new liberal view of inspiration, the divine aspect of the Bible was the internal spiritual meaning. The human aspect was the outward meaning of the text, including its history. So Genesis was wrong on science, but right on religion. With this new approach, Toy could retain his faith in a Bible that was true in its spiritual meaning, while also holding to Darwinist evolution.

Toy picked up the teaching of liberal scholars that the ‘spiritual meaning’ of the Old Testament was to promote monotheism.

By 1874, Toy was teaching his students this reconstruction of Genesis (and the rest of the Old Testament, the details of which I was not able to catch). Toy taught his students to teach the Old Testament by focusing on the so-called spiritual meaning of the text.

In 1877, Toy taught his students that the traditional Messianic prophecies in Isaiah and other prophets were not fulfilled by Christ. But Christ did fulfill them in a general way through His work of spiritual redemption. But Christ did not fulfill any prophecies in an intrinsic way.

Toy wrote in a letter to a friend in 1879, he said that the New Testament authors often interpreted the Old Testament in a way not consistent with the text’s original meaning. Toy held that such contradictions did not invalidate the New Testament text because its spiritual meaning stood untarnished.

Toy was a professor at Southern Seminary and all such professors had to agree with, and teach according to, the institution’s Abstract of Principles. Toy was pressured to resign in 1879 due to his abberant theological views. After Toy chose to resign, James P. Boyce, and others, examined his theological views. The board of Southern Seminary voted 16-2 in favor of Toy’s dismissal.

Toy’s efforts to ‘enlighten’ Southern Baptists had largely failed. But a generation of Southern Baptist ministers accepted Toy’s view and sought to propagate what he taught.

A large percentage of Southern Seminary professors in succeeding generations accepted the new liberal view of inspiration, including Mullins and Carver.

E.Y. Mullins

Mullins viewed his approach to theology as both progressive and conservative. Mullins sought a mediating theology between rationalism and orthodoxy. Mullins upheld the priority of personal experience.

Mullins led Southern Baptists to adopt a new approach to theology. Mullins said the Christian doctrinal system arises out of the facts of Christian experience, instead of the facts of the Bible. Mullins based all Christian theology on Christian experience.

Mullins said religious experience is the starting point of religious knowledge. Mullins and the more progressive Southern Seminary faculty sought the middle ground between rationalism and orthodoxy.

Mullins argued for a bifurcation between scientific knowledge and religious knowledge.

W.O. Carver

Carver, a missions professor at Southern, rejected Mullins division between scientific knowledge and religious knowledge.

Carver wrote a defense of missions in light of the developments of liberal theology, which Carver believed would soon be the accepted theology of most Christians. Carver argued that even with liberal theology, Christianity was the only way to save the world. Not people, but the world. Carver said only Christianity could save civilization.

Carver believed the new theology was inevitable. Carver said religion was the experience of God’s love and the power to live for others. That is why Christianity alone could save the world, because when you introduce people to this experience they have power to live for others and save the world.

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