“When I came here as a student, I definitely came wanting to do a Ph.D. I wanted to be, and felt called to be, a theologian and a preacher of the Word. I wanted to be deeply involved in apologetics. And I assumed that would be in the pastorate. But I knew that it could have meant service in higher education, mostly in the theological academy.”
Sitting in his office on the second floor of the historic Norton Hall, R. Albert Mohler Jr. made this comment during a recent, wide-ranging interview about theological education, the Southern Baptist Convention, and his 25-year tenure as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He described how, when he began as a student at the seminary in 1980, he dived immediately into the life of the school at every available level. And this brought him a growing awareness of “the role of institutions in serving the church and in shaping the theological future.”
The years that followed — years during which Mohler graduated with both master of divinity and doctor of philosophy degrees, were pivotal for the Southern Baptist Convention. The theological recovery of the convention was largely decided, but the future of the denomination remained in question.
“I cannot separate myself from the context,” he said. “It’s in the context of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s in the context of big definitional moments within evangelicalism. I think this is a basic principle of God’s call: God’s will is also revealed in specific moments and urgent needs.”
Thirteen years after he first arrived in Louisville, Kentucky, Mohler became a central figure in the life of that same institution and, by extension, a shaper of the theological future not only for Southern Seminary but also for the wider evangelical world. As the ninth president of Southern Seminary, Mohler has spent the last quarter-century guiding the school out of theological crisis, through fast-paced cultural changes, and amid large-scale demographic shifts.
In the August 2018 interview, Mohler discusses these issues and more.
You said you came increasingly to appreciate the role of institutions in the life of the convention. Can you tease that out?
I think many people alive today, and in particular younger people, fail to understand the important role played by institutions. One of the greatest roles of institutions is to accomplish the transfer of stewardship and conviction and mission from one generation to the next.
One of the greatest roles of institutions is to accomplish the transfer of stewardship and conviction and mission from one generation to the next.
The history of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the history of Christianity, points to the endurance of such institutions. For example, Clark Kerr, who was chancellor of the University of California system, pointed out over a generation ago that if you were to go back to the 11th century, there are only three kinds of institutions that have existed from that period to now: the Catholic Church, the British Parliament, and a handful of universities. If you look at the Southern Baptist Convention, you really can’t explain many of our churches without the support of institutions that have trained the pastors and provided much of the content of those ministries — and helped churches together both internally and in cooperation through almost 175 years.
What does that relationship look like, between an institution like Southern Seminary and a local church?
We exist for the churches. Churches have turned to us for ministers. They’ve turned to us for theological assistance. They continue to turn to us for a deeper understanding of their own stewardship. Jesus Christ established the church, and as Baptists, we mean most importantly the local church. It’s to the church Christ promised, “Upon this rock I’ll build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
It is really clear that if you look at the history of Christianity, you can’t tell that story without the important role played by institutions — which by the way can be a role for good or for ill, for health or unhealth, which raises the stakes and makes this kind of stewardship all the more important.
Your presidency roughly coincides with the internet boom, which represents only one of several seismic societal changes. Can you talk about some of those big changes that unfolded during the past 25 years?
The changes are very fundamental and you can see this wherever you look. If you look at the Fortune 500, there are names there that didn’t exist 25 years ago. The driving economic energy in this country is no longer automobile makers but high technology. We talk about life today, and that high-tech revolution is now taken for granted.
Southern Seminary may have had — at least we’ve been told — the very first website for a theological seminary. When a technology like that arrives, it means you’re in one of those few generations, like the Gutenberg generation, that sees the world change before its eyes. We’ve sought to use that kind of technology in the extension of our mission. The internet, for example, is so much a part of what we do now that we can’t imagine life without it.
Gains and losses, dangers and opportunities all are a part of this.
The global world has changed. When I arrived in 1993, it was in the glow of believing that democracy was in worldwide advance — the Soviet Union had broken apart, and we were entering a new age of peace and prosperity. American global leadership appeared unassailable. In higher education, there was a sense that we were experiencing the golden moment. Rising prosperity meant that almost anyone in America had access to some level of college education. Just about everywhere you looked, colleges and universities were building buildings, adding faculty, and expanding programs. It’s a different world today.
When I came here as president in 1993, we were still in the age of the megachurch as the dominant model of aspiration and influence in American evangelicalism. Of course, many of those churches continue to have that influence. But the world has changed. The megachurch was particularly situated at a missiological moment for a culture that was in many ways at peak Christianity, peak church attendance, and peak evangelical interest. But we’re in a situation now where the gospel-believing, Bible preaching churches are on the other side of whiplash in the culture.
So you put all that together, and you look at the incredible changes generation by generation in expectations and identity, it is as if 25 years later we are in a fundamentally different world.
What have these changes meant for Southern Seminary?
What has surprised me is that my job continually seems to get harder. Our mission as a seminary is more complex and more difficult to accomplish. I think it’s likely to get more that way with every passing year. This seminary and its denomination really came of age in the great day of denominational expansion. This is not that same age.
The denomination whose name we proudly bear has undergone, and is still undergoing, its own crisis of identity and generational change.
I am convinced that in God’s providence, one of the reasons why Southern Seminary is so strong in the present is because, just as all of these things were happening, we had to go through a great theological crisis that served to remind us why we exist and to clarify our convictions at just the right time. So while everyone else is having identity crises, that’s the one crisis we won’t have. Our identity and conviction questions, our mission as an institution — all that is settled.
That’s given us enormous strength going into this challenging age.
You’re a public leader; you speak and write and podcast. Before that, you hosted a national radio program. Where does that form of leadership come from?
On one level, I cannot not do this. I do this when I’m on vacation. I do this wherever I’m traveling in the world. I was doing this in high school and college, and as editor of the Christian Index. I’m seeking to define, to teach, and to defend the inerrancy of Scripture, the exclusivity of the gospel, the nature of confessional Christianity, and the truthfulness and the comprehensiveness of the Christian truth claim, applied to every dimension of life. That’s what I was doing. And when the trustees at Southern Seminary interviewed me, I remember one of the most gratifying aspects was when they said, “Don’t stop doing that.” And with every technological mechanism, I’ve tried to do that.
I do think we should challenge people’s intellects and try to inspire them and treat them like they are image bearers of the world’s Creator. At the same time, I’m trying to speak to them where they are.
On another level, I had a rare opportunity when I was a young man to be invited by some of the most powerful conservative institutions in the United States into leadership development programs that allowed me to see first-hand what Peter Drucker defined as a massive, constant, multiphasic communication culture. The world is dotted with schools and seminaries and universities and institutions and institutes, and the school with the best argument wins. And that school has to make that argument loudly, constantly, multiphasically in every way possible.
The same thing was true in his own day for [Southern Seminary’s fourth president] E.Y. Mullins. James P. Boyce in his own day, too, but particularly E.Y. Mullins. And I think public argument is an essential part of the leadership and historic role of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: The presidents of this institution have often fulfilled, in their own generation, that kind of role. And when I understood the responsibility I was asked to take on, I was determined to try to represent, to the best of my ability, the very best of that tradition at Southern Seminary.
In terms of theological education, what do you see coming? What might the future look like?
Wherever you find Christ’s church growing and thriving, you’re going to find the need for people to have more ministers, you’re going to find the need for more churches. A big challenge for us is that higher education has become so much more expensive. We’re in a culture that’s in open opposition to what we believe and what we teach. We’re in a day of declining institutional commitment on the part of many Christians. And we’re in a time of denominational transition. All that goes together to mean that our job is a lot more complicated than it was 25 years ago.
The great news is I don’t have to wake up in the morning and try to figure out what Southern Seminary’s mission is. The big story is continuity.
Can you tease out what you mean by ‘denominational transition’?
We’re undergoing the greatest period of transition in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention. That’s quantifiable and real. There are big questions about, who will lead where, what the future’s going to look like, what kind of character the Southern Baptist Convention is going to have, and how we are going to define our cooperative work together. There’s no way around those questions. There’s no minimizing how difficult some of these questions are going to be.
We should be thankful to be part of a denomination that’s still alive and kicking and convictional enough to ask and deal with these questions. We also can’t abstract that from the fact that the entire nation is in a very difficult and complicated identity moment. Both major political parties are trying to figure out who they are and in either case are markedly different than they were just five to 10 years ago.
I’m thankful we’re not in that kind of moment. Southern Baptists have regained a great opportunity and stewardship for the future. Our core theological convictions are settled. But what we’re also discovering is that beyond those core theological convictions, there are some questions that have to be answered.
You said recently that, amid all these cultural challenges and transitions, you want the seminary to be characterized not by outrage, by a confidence. What does that look like?
I hope to lead as president in a way that helps the Christians and the churches around us more joyously and confidently address real challenges to the gospel, to build Christianity to moral faithfulness. I hope that we operate without fear of confronting the enemy but also that we avoid making constant warfare our own aim. That means we operate with a minimum degree of outrage and a maximum degree of faithfulness.