Truth, legacy, vision: SBTS remaining faithful to founders vision

Communications Staff — June 5, 2009

(The following article originally appeared in SBC Life)

On a sultry July day in 1856, an up-and-coming professor at Furman University stood before his faculty colleagues and delivered his inaugural address.

In his presentation, the 29-year-old James Petigru Boyce set forth a comprehensive vision for theological education in terms of “three changes in theological education;” it’s seismic impact upon the Southern Baptist Convention could hardly have been imagined on the day nearly 153 years ago.

A robust theological education, Boyce argued, must be open to all men who are duly called to and gifted for ministry without a prerequisite course of study, it must produce the best-trained men in the world and it must be lashed to a clear, fulsome confession of faith.

Boyce’s three-pronged vision continues to reverberate through the halls of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2009. Boyce founded Southern Seminary in 1859 in Greenville, S.C., upon those three changes and as it celebrates its sesquicentennial anniversary this year, the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention is walking firmly in the footsteps of its founding president.


At its modest beginnings, Southern’s faculty consisted of four professors—Boyce, the famed preacher John Broadus, Basil Manly, Jr., and William Williams—and a handful of students. To serve the third, and perhaps most foundational, factor in Boyce’s three changes, Manly penned and the seminary adopted a confession of faith in 1858, the Abstract of Principles.

The Abstract is a summary of historic Christian doctrine based upon the Second London Confession of Faith of 1689, a statement that was itself derived from the venerable Westminster Confession of Faith. At 20 articles, the Abstract is both pithy and robust, expounding all the core doctrines of historic Christianity.

As a safeguard to orthodoxy, the first administration established a requirement for faculty members that remains today: each professor must sign the Abstract, thereby agreeing to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to” to the doctrines contained therein.

With the anti-confessionalism of Alexander Campbell afoot in the antebellum South of his day, Boyce, who had been educated at Princeton Theological Seminary at the feet of stalwart theologian Charles Hodge, knew all too well that the slippery path to heterodoxy often began with the slightest compromise of biblical truth by a single charismatic figure.

“It is with a single man that error usually commences,” Boyce argued in his 1856 address. “Scarcely a single heresy has ever blighted the church which has not owed its existence to one man of power and ability whose name has always been associated with its doctrines.”

It took precious little time for Southern’s confessional commitment to be put to the test. In 1869 the seminary hired Hebrew scholar Crawford Howell Toy,, a man whom Boyce and Broadus saw as possessing no small amount of genius, but a man who, unbeknownst to administrators, was falling under the influence of Darwinian thought and German higher critical methods.

The seminary moved to Louisville in 1877 after the Civil War left it untenable to remain in South Carolina. By this time, Toy’s flirt with higher critical scholarship had begun to manifest itself in the classroom; he rejected the Genesis account of creation and insisted that evolution was compatible with Christianity. And the Bible, while not entirely true from a factual standpoint, Toy asserted, is nonetheless rife with spiritual truths.

Boyce asked Toy to refrain from such teaching because it conflicted with the Abstract of Principles. In 1879, Toy resigned from the faculty and the board of trustees voted 16-2 to accept his resignation.

The seminary continued on in good health until the dawn of the 20th century. Boyce died in 1888 and trustees in 1889 elected Broadus as Southern’s second president. He guided the school for six years until his death in March 16, 1885.

Church history professor William H. Whitsitt succeeded Broadus and led the seminary until 1899 when he was forced to resign, not for holding liberal theological views, but for his authorship of a book, “A Question in Baptist History.” Whitsitt’s work argued against the prevailing Landmarkist views of Baptist church succession, asserting that believer’s baptism by immersion first emerged among Baptists in England in 1641.

Southern’s next president, Edgar Young Mullins, took the school in a decidedly different direction than its founders intended.


Baptist historians in both conservative and liberal camps agree that Mullins was one of the most important 20th century figures in the SBC, but they agree for different reasons.

In many ways, Mullins was a theological conservative; he served as SBC president from 1921 to 1924 and as chairman of the Baptist Faith and Message Committee in 1925, helping the denomination to adopt the confession in the face of creeping rationalism. On the surface, he held to historic orthodoxy; Mullins contributed to “The Fundamentals,” a four-volume defense of historic evangelical doctrine against higher criticism and liberal theology published in 1915.

But underneath, Mullins was a theological progressive, privileging the experience of the individual believer over dogmatic truth through his articulation of the doctrine of soul competency. Gregory A. Wills, professor of church history at Southern, has written a history of the seminary, due later this spring from Oxford University Press.

Mullins, Wills said, was such a towering figure on the SBC landscape that he gained the trust of the denomination’s rank and file. Because of this, few noticed his affinity for progressive theologians. This combination conspired in Mullins to set the seminary adrift from historic orthodoxy, Wills said.

“Mullins was profoundly credible as a leader because he upheld virtually all of the traditional conclusions of orthodoxy,” Wills said. “So, he was trusted by the denomination and this gave him the freedom to recruit a faculty that was progressive.

“Not every person he hired was progressive, but many of the persons he hired were progressive and he gave them freedom to develop theology along more progressive lines.”

Thanks to the G.I. Bill, which financed the education of many soldiers returning from World War II, Southern received a large influx of students in the 1940s. This created the need to hire additional faculty. Ellis Fuller, Southern’s sixth president, had little choice but hire progressives. Thus, Southern became thoroughly liberal.

“The persons who were getting trained in higher education were being trained by liberals and being taught according to liberal epistemology, according to liberal methods of research, the interpretation of Scripture,” Wills said, “and so virtually all the persons who were available and qualified to teach had more or less embraced liberal thought.”

“Fuller had to settle for persons who seemed to say most of the right things, but whose methods and assumptions troubled him—the fact that they had embraced historical-critical assumptions and methods worried him—but he didn’t have any alternative because there wasn’t anybody else out there.”

Liberalism held sway at Southern into the early 1990s until, following in the wake of the Conservative Resurgence of the SBC, conservatives regained a majority on the board of trustees. Armed with a newfound conservative majority, trustees in 1993 elected a 33-year-old Baptist journalist named R. Albert Mohler Jr., as the ninth president. The flower of reformation budded quickly.


In his opening convocation, Mohler began the difficult work of restoring the founders’ vision with an historic address, calling for a return to faithfulness to the Abstract of Principles: “Don’t Just Do Something; Stand There!”

“The Abstract is a reminder that we bear a responsibility to this great denomination, whose great name we so proudly bear as our own,” Mohler said. “We bear collective responsibility to call this denomination back to itself and its doctrinal inheritance. This is a true reformation and revival only a sovereign God can accomplish, but we must strive to be acceptable and usable instruments of that renewal.”

Profound controversy followed, but by 1997, much of the liberal faculty had resigned and professors who held to the classical orthodoxy of Boyce, Broadus, Manly, Williams and the Abstract, replaced them. Within five years of Mohler’s election, the seminary added to its faculty such noted scholars as Tom Nettles, Tom Schreiner and Bruce Ware.

By the dawn of the new millennium, the restoration of Boyce’s confessional vision was complete. It was an Egypt-Canaan reversal accomplished in a short time, one that only God could bring about, Mohler said during the 10th anniversary of his election in 2003.

“This runs contrary to the wisdom of the world, which says that even to attempt such a change risks scaring many persons away,” Mohler said. “Still, God’s truth as revealed in Scripture overcomes the risk and draws many to an institution that stands faithfully upon its authority.

“You (do) scare many people away. But you look on this campus and at this faculty and the students and the trustees and the others who are gathered here, and you will see how God’s truth is like a magnet pulling persons who love God and His truth to a place.”

Today, as it marks 150 years of Gospel service, Southern possesses a faculty that is among the foremost in the evangelical world; it’s total enrollment exceeds 4,500, making it one of the largest seminaries in the world. Boyce’s vision is in full bloom.

Russell D. Moore, dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration, said Southern is once again focused intently on carrying out its mission of serving local congregations of the Southern Baptist Convention; Southern students correctly see the local church as ground zero for the advance of Christ’s Kingdom.

“Southern Seminary has always been the ideas center of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Moore said. “’What happens in the classroom at Southern Seminary has filtered down quickly and decisively across the convention, for good and for ill, in our long and storied history.

“Southern Seminary is in sync with the churches and also aware of and leading in the theological and missiological issues facing the churches of the future…Often when I talk to colleagues at non-Southern Baptist seminaries, I‘m surprised by how few of their students are planning to be preachers and pastors. It is a sign of God’s blessing that our students are called to preach and serve in local congregations.”


Mohler marked his 10th year as president in 2003. During fall convocation that year, he preached a sermon that appropriately turned his inaugural address on its head: “Don’t Just Stand there; Do Something!” he told students. The Gospel had fully emerged from eclipse; now, it was time to challenge students to act upon it.

“The theology defined and confessed in the Abstract of Principles and the Baptist Faith & Message is a missionary theology that is transformed into Great Commission passion,” Mohler told students and faculty. “If you lack that passion, you do not understand the theology. It is a head game and not a heart reality.”

This year, the seminary is celebrating its sesquicentennial with numerous events, including the dedication of a new pavilion and student enrollment continues to grow in spite of less than ideal economic times.

If the Lord tarries, Mohler hopes the seminary will continue to stand firm upon the foundation of biblical truth and through it, God will be pleased to raise up a vast army of—as the Manly-written seminary hymn calls them—“Soldiers of Christ in Truth Arrayed,” over the next 150 years.

When the seminary placed a time capsule recently within its new pavilion, Mohler included a letter to the next president, to be opened in 2059.

“What I basically did was write in such a way that if this institution isn’t theologically where it needs to be whenever that thing is opened, they’re going to know it,” he said. “It’s going to be the most embarrassing letter ever read if indeed this institution is not preserved in that way. That is our prayer—that it will be.”

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