Thursday, August 16, 2012

Can OBU Avoid SBC Seminaries' Influence?

As most of you know, the SBC's six seminaries have changed dramatically over the past 25 years.  Fundamentalists typically believe that the seminaries had been adrift, promoting liberal theology and even secularism, steering Baptists away from a plain, literal reading of Scripture.  The "Conservative Resurgence" helped return the institutions to their sound Biblical roots.  They are now among the best seminaries in the world.  Moderates typically believe that the seminaries were among the best, until the "Fundamentalist Takeover" used political tactics to oust all moderates, end academic freedom, institutionalize creedalism, authoritarianism, and fundamentalism, and turn the seminaries into indoctrination camps for aspiring preacher boys.

We're not going to settle that debate today.  Although I do hope to find guest writers who can do a series of posts describing how each seminary went through the change.  Who knows, there may be important parallels to the Baptist colleges' experiences with fundamentalist takeovers.

The point for today is this: When it comes to circling the wagons, deciding who's in and who's out, excluding moderates, insisting that being on the "right" side of once-secondary disagreements is now primary, exercising power, wielding influence, engaging with the media and the public, and eroding historic Baptist distinctives, the SBC seminaries have been absolutely central.  What's worse, I'm afraid that as the victorious SBC fundamentalists flexed their muscles in the 1990s and 2000s, they looked to the state conventions and Baptist colleges and said to themselves, "We've taken over the largest Protestant denomination in America.  I wonder what else we can conquer."

There's plenty of evidence that some of today's leaders in Baptist higher education actually see the post-Takeover seminaries as models.  In Georgia, college presidents Don Dowless, Emir Caner, and Mike Simoneaux have all instituted policies requiring all faculty (and in some cases, staff) to sign various faith statements.  This practice has long been a hallmark of post-Takeover SBC seminary administration.  I recently found out that Southern Seminary actually has a solemn ceremony every time a new professor signs its Abstract of Principles.  Everyone sits around and watches the guy sign a piece of paper and applauds when he's done.

A new SBTS professor signing the school's
"Abstract of Principles" in a public ceremony

Fortunately, very little of the Georgia Baptist craziness has taken root at OBU.  And even though OBU's academic reputation is presently in decline, we are far ahead of the GBC schools, which aren't really even pretending to be legitimate liberal arts colleges where professors are free to teach and students are free to learn.  They've all been bought and paid for and are now just feathers in the fundamentalists' cap -- a resume line for college presidents aspiring to a higher rung on the ladder of SBC politics.

Still, it's relevant to note where SBC seminary influences are present at OBU -- and where they are absent.

I've already commented that it's a tremendous blessing that we have a president who did not attend a SBC seminary.  Given the alternative -- someone who spent close to a decade (M.Div. + Ph.D.) being formed in a post-Takeover SBC seminary -- this is one case where nothing is definitely better than something.  Now, you can't necessarily tell a lot about a person by where they went to school -- neither Dowless or Caner hold SBC seminary Ph.D.'s -- but I'd say we definitely dodged a bullet here.  Things could be so much worse.  We could have a true-believer, cultural warrior, lifelong SBC climber in the executive suite.

Religion Department
Well, it's not really correct to refer to OBU's "religion department."  For good or ill (or perhaps some of both), the religion and philosophy faculty have been together with the ministerial preparation faculty for two decades.  Some of OBU's newer religion professors have come from SBC seminaries and some have not.  Fortunately, there does not seem to be excessive fondness for the SBC seminaries in the department.  I don't want to put words into anyone's mouth, but it seems that most people realize a vastly superior graduate theological education can be had elsewhere.

In the case of the Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry, I'm actually less interested in where the faculty earned their degrees than where OBU graduates go on to earn theirs.  For aspiring pastors, missionaries, and youth ministry directors, there's a pretty strong pipeline to the SBC seminaries, particularly Southwestern in Fort Worth.  This makes sense and is to be expected.  In terms of OBU graduates who want to do graduate work in theology or biblical studies, however, I'm not sure that any of them go to SBC seminaries.  Why would they?

OBU actually produces a number of graduates who do well at a variety of very fine seminaries and divinity schools.  When I was there, we were sending several top students to Princeton Theological Seminary.  I went to Boston University School of Theology, having been rejected from Harvard Divinity School.  But I know we sent students to Harvard, Duke, Notre Dame and Wheaton in those years.  In the past couple years, I know of students who have gone to these schools and others, including some in the U.K.  I also know that students -- including some of the very best students -- preparing for parish ministry have eschewed the SBC seminaries, choosing instead places like Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, and Brite (TCU).

I would absolutely love to see data on where OBU religion, ministry, and philosophy (or "apologetics")  students go for grad school.  But OBU could never release the data because it would make the BGCO's head explode.  Even in its new incarnation where moderates are an endangered species, the Hobbs College faculty is not exactly a SBC Seminary Fan Club.

The new library dean came to OBU after working at Southern Seminary.  So far, we've heard only good things about him, but it's a little early to tell.  Just remember, that statue of James Ralph Scales has eyes in the back of his head, and he's watching!

Back in the day, when churches had organs and choirs and the like, I'm told the SBC seminaries had great sacred music programs.  I know the current and former fine arts deans had experience with SBC seminary sacred music programs.  Though I'm told they're as different as night and day when it comes to how to run a Christian college fine arts program.  Another story for another day...

Which Direction Does the Pipeline Run?
While it seems generally fair to say that the SBC seminaries influence OBU less than they probably influence a lot of other Baptist colleges, things could be changing.  The normal pattern used to be that Baptist college professors in certain areas (religion, sacred music) would have earned their degrees at SBC seminaries, but would teach their whole careers at the college level.  A few would return to the seminaries to teach later in their careers.

At OBU, we're seeing an influx of recent hires who, whether they attended SBC seminaries or not (most did), they are coming to Bison Hill after having worked at the seminaries.  This is true of the fine arts and library deans, Provost Norman, and the newest religion professor.  As we get more of these kinds of people, we need to watch out.  Whereas most of us think academic freedom is normal and forcing university professors to sign creeds is not normal, these people have been in the ever-more insular world of SBC seminaries.  In that world, it's perfectly normal to force people to sign faith statements.  Academic freedom is not just a novel idea, it's a dangerous one.  Everyone agrees on almost everything.  They think the same, believe the same, and vote the same.  Now, I hope each of these people has something positive to bring to Bison Hill.  My concern is that the more people we get from the SBC seminaries, the less resistance we will muster when administrators decide that a Shorter-style purge is what God wants for OBU.


  1. The SBC seminaries are no longer really Baptist.

  2. I don't know how anyone reared by a village (church) of real deal Christians of sound Baptist and not too right wing theology can think the seminary evolution from appx 1980 til now is positive. I had my head buried in the sand teaching children's Sunday school for years, and emerged to find Calvinism in the SBC which is directly related to the seminaries. I'm probably leaving the Baptist Church.


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