On Southern Baptist Seminaries and Seminaries for Southern Baptists: Thinking about Southern Baptist Identity

Yesterday I received the most recent edition of Southwestern News in the mail, the official magazine of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. As 2008 marks the 100th anniversary of the Texas seminary, Southwestern has published a Centennial Edition of their periodical. It is a great collection of short articles and photographs that recount the rich history of SWBTS. Join me in wishing them one hundred more years of fruitful service, should the Lord tarry.

Thinking about Southwestern’s history has got me thinking about the nature of Southern Baptist identity, particularly as it pertains to cooperation. It may surprise you to know that Southwestern was not originally an official entity of the Southern Baptist Convention. Southwestern was originally birthed from the theological department at Baylor University, relocating to Fort Worth in 1910. Though Southwestern was founded by Southern Baptists and trained Southern Baptists for ministry, it was not until 1925 that the school formally came under the banner of the convention. New Orleans and Golden Gate seminaries, respectively, followed a similar route into the convention, while Southern, Southeastern, and Midwestern Seminaries were actually established by the convention at their inception.

The Cooperative Program, which was also established in 1925, created a new definition of cooperation within the Southern Baptist Convention. Prior to the creation of the CP, Southern Baptist cooperation was an informal combination of theological commonality and shared ministry endeavors. Many historians note that the SBC did not adopt a confession of faith in 1845, arguing that this proves that Baptists were skittish about statements of faith. But the reason Baptists in 1845 did not adopt a confession was because they enjoyed considerable agreement on the core essentials of the faith. Furthermore, almost all churches that claimed the name Southern Baptist did adopt confessions, often either the Philadelphia Confession or, later in the century, the New Hampshire Confession.

The 1925 SBC annual meeting marked a turning point in Baptist cooperation. The adoption of the CP (and official absorption of SWBTS into the convention) signaled a new, ingenious way for Southern Baptists to work together in shared ministry endeavors. But shared endeavors comprised only half of the pre-1925 formula for cooperation. The theological commonality that was assumed fifty years earlier was clearly eroding by the 1920s–there were, after all, theological issues that led to the adoption of the first convention-wide confession of faith, The Baptist Faith and Message. Which, by the way, also took place in 1925.

As Samuel Hill and Bill Leonard have argued, over the next generation the commitment to shared ministry endeavors, defined through the CP, emerged as the central aspect of SBC cooperation. Southern Baptists were united by CP-funded missions. As Greg Wills and Tom Nettles have argued, during this same period financial cooperation also replaced theological unity as the basis for identifying as a Southern Baptist, at least in the eyes of denominational leadership. By the post-war years, being Southern Baptist meant attending a church that (in theory) held to basic Baptist distinctives and generously supported the Cooperative Program. Mostly the latter.

So back to Southwestern–here’s the $64,000 question: Was Southwestern Seminary a Southern Baptist school before 1925? I think we must answer this question in the affirmative. But after 1925, if Southwestern had not come under the CP umbrella (and allowed the convention to elect her trustees), Southwestern would have no longer been a Southern Baptist school. The rules of the identity game had changed.

This very issue of what it meant to be a Southern Baptist institution (and even church) was raised in the latter half of the 20th century. Flash forward to the 1960s and 1970s. When Luther Rice Bible College and Seminary was established in 1962, it was formed by Southern Baptist churches to educate Southern Baptist ministers. All of the faculty members had to be active members of cooperating SBC churches. They also had to affirm a theologically conservative Baptist confession of faith. The same was true of the more traditional Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary when it was formed in 1971; every professor at Mid-America was a member of a Southern Baptist church and signed a conservative confessional statement. The formation of these two schools represented a clear assault on the idea that the CP rather than theological fidelity defined authentic Southern Baptist identity. But in the post-Cooperative Program era, neither Luther Rice nor Mid-America were really Southern Baptist because neither of the schools received CP money. Their theology did not matter; in fact, it was questioned by the more theologically progressive denominational bureaucracy.

For the record, the question of what makes an entity Southern Baptist could have been asked of institutions besides seminaries. From the 1960s to 1980s a number of periodicals were produced by pastors and others who, for a variety of reasons, had concerns about Baptist Press and other CP-supported organs. These periodicals, almost all of which were devoted to conservative dissent within the SBC, were published by Southern Baptists for Southern Baptists. But because they had no connection to the CP, they were never considered (at least by critics) to be genuinely Southern Baptist.

Southern Baptist conservative dissenters revolted against the idea that CP-induced denominational loyalty trumps theological integrity. And while they did so, SBC moderates complained that the conservatives were not real Southern Baptists because they read Southern Baptist Advocate instead of The Baptist Program, went to Criswell instead of Baylor, graduated from Mid-America instead of Southern, supported Campus Crusade instead of BSU, and allocated the bulk of their missions money to clearly conservative ministries rather than the CP.

Thank goodness things have changed. Or have they? Maybe we can ponder that together in a future post.

14 Responses to “On Southern Baptist Seminaries and Seminaries for Southern Baptists: Thinking about Southern Baptist Identity”

  1. Nathan,

    Great points, although I think it a stretch to attribute the founding of Southern to the SBC institutionally. I recently said in a comment on one of my posts that the SBC is Microsoft, not Apple—our great strength lies in taking over what other people have started, not in starting things ourselves. I say that not to disparage the Convention. We do a great job at funding, organizing, and growing healthy ministries that have already been started. The SBC would not have started SWBTS, but SWBTS wouldn’t be what it is without the support of the SBC.

  2. Brother Nathan,

    Great new digs. I like the drop in the water ripple effect.

    Help me understand something please. I do not believe anyone that I know ever referred to LR or MABTS as Southern Baptist Seminaries. Have I missed something? When was this started?


  3. SWBTS’s history is interesting. I think Carroll was involved in the Whitsett controversy. He threatened to remove financial support from SBTS. Within a decade, he started a seminary. Did he not move the Baylor Theological Department to Ft. Worth when the Baylor president was sailing to Europe?

    When I was a student at NOBTS, I had professors that served as colleagues of Dr. Allison during his service at NOBTS. They thought Dr. Allison started MABS because he did not get his way on some issue at NOBTS.

    Perhaps individuals that started institutions had legitimate issues, but big personalities and egos may have been involved as well.

  4. Bart,

    Agreed that the idea for the seminary did not originate with the convention in session. But the convention jumped on board from the very beginning, giving it official support in a way that it did not give official support to Southwestern or the Bible Institute in New Orleans. Very much agreed that Southwestern (and other others) would likely not have achieved much of what has been achieved without formal SBC support.


    It started at the beginning. It is very possible that you have not met anyone who refers to Luther Rice or Mid-America as Southern Baptist schools–most Southern Baptists did not and do not. But those schools did refer to themselves in that way in their early literature and advertisements. And their respective faculty did–and do–consider themselves to be Southern Baptist schools primarily committed to educating Southern Baptist ministers. But they were equally adamant that they were not Cooperative Program schools, which in the minds of most Southern Baptists meant they in fact were not Southern Baptist schools. The basis of SBC identity had shifted to where it was almost totally defined by CP support. This is something that was not lost on early leaders of the conservative resurgers, including Patterson and Rogers.


  5. Pancho,

    I am sure there are always a number of motivations for starting new endeavors, though I try to give folks the benefit of the doubt about their egos. For the record, “not getting one’s way” typically meant “was upset that we tolerated so much non-conservative theology” back in the day. Allison–and a number of other professors at the seminaries–was concerned about the types of things being taught. Grassroots Southern Baptists eventually agreed.


  6. Theology yes, but Maybe more than theology. Appointment to a position. Remember NOBTS had a conservative inerrantist president – former missionary Leo Eddellman (sp) who taught at Criswell College after his NOBTS days. (I assume Paige hired his former seminary president.)

    NOBTS was in an uproar during Edellman’s presidency due to the faculty opposing the Pres. They also had a young inerrantist named Clark Pinnock on the faculty at the time.

    Early in its history, MABTS received strong support from Bellevue. Although R. G. Lee had been retired for slightly over a decade, Lee had a history of giving support to institutions outside the SBC. Perhaps Lee had an impact on Bellevue’s support of MABS.

    Interesting that you did not mention Criswell along with MABS and LR.

    No comment about Carroll and the Baylor pres?

  7. Correction: Former NOBTS President Leo Eddleman was the first full-time president of Criswell. In addition to an inerrantist President, inerrant Pinnock, NOBTS also had theologian Samuel Mikolaski on the faculty during the time Gray Allison served at NOBTS. Not a bad conservative listing of profs. Yet, these conservative stalwarts left by 1970.

    Apparently, Allison’s departure from NOBTS coincides with Gray Cothen’s assumption of the presidency.

  8. I dunno, as a layperson I wonder, what does denominational loyalty buy me especially when any arguments on behalf of Christ are derailed once I mention “Southern Baptist Convention” or “Cooperative Program?”

    Neither one resonates the concept of fulfilling the great commission. Same goes when I mention seminaries.

    Let me put it to everyone in simpler terms. When I taught Sunday school for 11th & 12th graders at two different churches over a 15 year span … I could count on one hand the number of kids preached to and educated by graduates of such seminaries who had an inkling of a clue as to what the Faith & Message was … let alone what it meant to them.

    Moreover, I ask “what identity?” as I see more and more SBC churches, lead by SBC seminary grads, attempting to be different like everyone else – especially the ‘Warren-istic’ community churches.

    Just like this new, not so readable and slow-to-load “new look” of this website – I’m afraid Southern Baptists continue to crush themselves under the weight of their own conveyances, be it seminaries and/or their graduates.

  9. Pancho,
    I did not mention Criswell because we were talking about seminaries. The pattern fits. As for differing motives, I have no doubt that there are always a number of reasons why individuals do what they do, including Gray Allison. As for R. G. Lee, he was a fascinating figure who was too Independent Baptist for the bureaucrats and too CP-committed for the Independents!

    Mean Dean,
    I see little reason to mention one’s denomination when sharing Christ. As for the role that the SBC and especially the CP can play in helping fulfill the Great Commission, I would disagree with you–I think the Lord has used us, and I hope he continues to do so. As for the question of what identity, I’m asking it too. Which is one reason I posted this. As for my thoughts, I am saving them for a future post.


  10. You need to re-chek the history to discover that NOBTS was actually created by the convention. It is the oldest seminary that was actually brought into existence by means of convention action, instead of adopting a current institution into the convention. Check the facts and you’ll story will be more convincing.

  11. Trey,

    I think Nathan is correct. NOBTS came into existence by convention vote, but NOBTS did not become a convention entity until 1925. In the beginning NOBTS operated under the authority of state conventions (LA and MS) .

  12. Trey,
    What Pancho said. Check your spelling and your comment will be more convincing.

  13. Nathan,

    I know this is ancillary to the point you are making/question you are asking. But, something you say here raises another question with me. Should those today who would still support Campus Crusade (and other similar interdenominational efforts) be considered loyal and consistent heirs of the Conservative Resurgence? Or, have the rules changed now that “we” are “in charge”?

  14. David,

    Good question–it depends upon who you talk to. Personally, I think you can support interdenominational stuff. Others would disagree with me, but you probably already knew that.

    Thanks for asking.


Discussion Area - Leave a Comment