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.