Seminary Crackdown

By Leonard, Bill J. | The Christian Century, May 10, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Seminary Crackdown

Leonard, Bill J., The Christian Century

Controversy is nothing new to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Shortly after the school's founding in 1859, Old Testament Professor Crawford Toy was compelled to resign because of his use of modern critical theories of biblical interpretation. In the 1890s president William Whitsitt was forced out when he challenged the popular belief (known as Old Landmarkism) that Baptist identity could be traced all the way back to the time of jesus. During the 1920s, when conflicts raged over evolution and the Social Gospel, some Southern Baptists threatened to cut off funds to the "liberal" seminary. In 1958 conflicts between the faculty and the president led to the resignation of 13 senior professors and temporary academic probation for the school.

But all these controversies pale when compared to those that have dominated seminary life since fundamentalists gained control of the Board of Trustees about five years ago. Trustees moved quickly to impose new doctrinal guidelines (beyond the original Abstract of [doctrinal] Principles) for tenure, hiring and promotion. An impending accreditation crisis led to direct faculty-trustee negotiations and a Covenant of Commitment by which moderate faculty were allowed to remain while new faculty members were required to subscribe to certain tenets regarding biblical inerrancy.

The retirement of moderate president Roy L. Honeycutt led to the appointment of a 30-year-old president, Albert Mohler, in fall 1994. Mohler's tenure has increased the level of conflict. Last fall he forced theology professor Molly Marshall to resign under threat of heresy charges. With her departure the seminary's School of Theology lost its last tenured female faculty member. Mohler also refused to renew the contract of social work teacher Timothy Johnson, the school's first full-time African-American professor.

The tumult was intensified this past March when Mohler demanded the resignation of Diana Richmond Garland, dean of the Carver School of Social Work, following a conflict between him and Garland over a candidate for the social work faculty. While accepting biblical inerrancy and other conservative theological and social positions, the candidate affirmed the ministry of women as ordained pastors. Mohler contends that while women may function in certain ecclesiastical roles, the official seminary position is that they may not be ordained or serve as pastors. Garland suggested that since the issue of women in ministry is not discussed in the Abstract of Principles, faculty members may hold a variety of opinions regarding that matter.

When the two could not agree, Mohler asked for Garland's resignation. He also appointed a committee to study the feasibility of continuing the social work school. Those decisions resulted in a series of student demonstrations, two bomb threats which disrupted chapel services, and a tension-fined faculty meeting in which numerous professors urged the president to rescind his action. He refused. Mohler has been under armed guard due to threatening calls he has received since attacking what he termed the evils of homosexuality in a speech at a March meeting sponsored by the SBC Christian Life Commission.

At their semiannual meeting in mid-April, trustees affirmed Mohler's leadership while approving measures which increase his authority and tighten constraints on the faculty. The board declared its "full support for both the process followed and the actions taken by the president" in firing Garland. It also supported Mohler's belief that women may not serve in the pastoral office, and insisted that it was simply adhering to the position of those SBC churches "which overwhelming reflect this view individually and have expressed this collectively in annual convention by adopted resolutions." This policy now informs tenure and hiring procedures. The trustees also redefined the search process for new faculty in order to give greater control to the president.

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