There are many things in life that we take for granted that we formerly could not. The easy accessibility to the internet, the ubiquitous presence of the mobile phone, and the unhindered ability to take pictures of every single moment in life are just a few examples of things we now take for granted. In Southern Baptist life, we now enjoy the benefit of conservative leadership in our boards and seminaries, but it has not always been that way.
In the summer of 1994, at 19 years old, the Lord called me into full-time ministry. Though it shocked me, it was not a shock to my family. My father and grandfather were South Carolina Baptist pastors and to many, I was simply following in their footsteps. They were both godly, faithful, Bible believing pastors who preached the inerrant and infallible Word of God. However, neither of them were seminary trained. It was not for want of finances or opportunity; it was because the seminaries were “too liberal.” I thought this was my path as well.
I had some hope. In South Carolina, the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention was working itself out in the institutions. Furman University separated from the state convention in 1992 because of the conservative stand that our convention had taken. The convention’s resurgence and some other factors allowed a Baptist junior college in our state, which was about to close its doors, to have a resurgence as well. North Greenville College switched to a four-year institution and decided to build upon the conservative theology of the vast majority of South Carolina Baptists. I enrolled at North Greenville for my ungraduated degree in Christian Studies.
Even though I was in a minister’s family, we did not follow all the details of the Conservative Resurgence. At North Greenville, I learned the details of the 1979 election of Adrian Rogers. I learned of the Dallas convention in 1985, where forty-five thousand messengers showed up in what turned out to be a “watershed moment” with the election of Charles Stanley. I learned how the trustee system worked and how the SBC, unlike other denominations, could be turned around. That is when I learned of Southern Seminary. Granted, I knew of the institution; it was founded in Greenville and streets downtown still bore the names of the original faculty. However, I also knew that the school was steeped in liberalism and would be one of the most difficult to bring back to biblical fidelity.
It was in a conversation with other ministry students when I first heard the name Albert Mohler. We were discussing the future of our education and the possibility of attending seminary when someone said, “It will be interesting to see what happens at Southern Seminary with Albert Mohler as president.” I heard his name several times in the next week or two until I finally asked my professor about him. My professor responded by handing me a pamphlet titled “Don’t Just Do Something: Stand There,” the first convocation address given by Albert Mohler as president of the seminary delivered on August 31, 1993, an action that helped set the course for the rest of my life. I took the pamphlet to a quiet place in the library and spent the next few hours devouring the address and chasing down every reference. I was caught up.
In this address, I would find the foundation to which the seminary would be brought back to its conservative theology and the foundation on which I would build my own ministry. The address, in essence, was a call to return to the biblical and theological foundations of the seminary through a strict adherence to the Abstract of Principles, the seminary’s founding confession. However, there was more to it than that. It was an example of courageous leadership to stand for the truth when many around you would not. It was apologetic for why the seminary exists and what will be considered a true success. It would help shape my life and ministry moving forward.
The beginning of the address is more than just a history lesson; it is a call to understand the school’s founding identity. Mohler refers to James Pettigru Boyce’s 1856 address “Three Changes in Theological Institutions” as the “Magna Carta of Southern Seminary.” Boyce gave the address to the faculty in his first year as a professor at Furman University. He argued that theological education must be available to all who are called to the ministry no matter their level of preparation and that it would offer strenuous programs to produce ministers as “persons of exceptional preparation.” Boyce, raised in the “Charleston tradition,” also believed that theological institutions must be confessional to remain faithful to the Scriptures. As a result, Basil Manly, Jr., a fellow Charlestonian and founding faculty member, drafted the Abstract of Principles, the confessional document for the fledgling seminary. The Abstract was meant to be a unifying document. It speaks “clearly and distinctly as to the practices universally prevalent among us.” This statement indicated that “upon no point, upon which the denomination is divided, should the Convention, and through it, the Seminary, take any position.” In that day, the Abstract was not controversial at all; it was simply a testimony to the general beliefs of all Southern Baptists. This emphasis was essential to Boyce and the other professors; the school belonged to the churches, so it must be trusted by the churches to teach the truth.
To this day, every elected faculty member signs the original Abstract. This act serves as a commitment “to teach in accordance with and not contrary to” the school’s confession, and as the “Fundamental laws” of the Institution state, any professor that does not fulfill this duty must be removed. As Mohler walked through the Abstract, he clarified that he intended to hold the professors to this commitment. The problem, though not stated forthrightly at the time, was that the leadership of the seminary had allowed the professors of the school to sign the Abstract without teaching according to the Abstract. This neglect meant the Seminary had lost its connection to the churches and was no longer trustworthy. Instead, Mohler intended to regain the churches’ trust and hold the professors accountable. This action took courage.
There was no question the seminary would be hostile to Mohler’s firm confessional faithfulness. Even before he took office, two deans resigned because of his “conservative vision for the seminary.” In the coming years, Mohler would be confronted with the reality that many teaching and in the leadership of the school not only held to liberal views of the Scripture but believed that their liberal views could be reconciled with the Abstract. In his address, he walked through the confession and explained what it teaches. He touched on the dangers of heresy and stated very clearly that modernity, or progressive liberal theology, swept away true biblical Christianity and that, “cannot be so here.”
This reality meant he would have to confront the people that were teaching outside the bounds of the Abstract head on. There would be student protests, faculty resolutions, and gatherings of both students and faculty on the seminary lawn to speak out against Mohler. But he stood firm. Courage is doing something daring, even when it means that you will do it alone, and that was the commitment Mohler was making at that first convocation. He would stand on the truth of God’s Word expressed in the Abstract, even if no one else would stand with him. He said, “The Abstract represents a clarion call to start with conviction rather than mere action. It cries out, ‘Don’t just do something: stand there!’”
Mohler knew that the stance he took would be a costly one, especially in the beginning. Many argued that he would kill the seminary, either in existence or influence. However, these were not the criteria by which Mohler was going to measure success. Success will always be conditioned on faithfulness to the Word of God. Mohler stated, “we can never measure our life work in terms of activity and statistics.” The final measure of success is not found in any numbers at all. “We will be judged,” he stated, but it will not be on the “number of courses taught,” the number of “students trained,” the number of “syllabi printed,” or how many “books book published.” The true measure of the success of the school will be found in “whether or not we kept the faith.” Mohler wanted to be able to answer that question with “humble confidence.” All future success of the seminary is measured finally on biblical faithfulness.
The receiving of that first convocation address early in my theological training was a kind providence to me. Confessional faithfulness, courageous leadership, and conditioned success not only became standards for my ministerial training but have also become non-negotiable benchmarks for my ministry. Dr. Mohler has consistently led with and lived out these convictions for the last thirty years. While many of us take conservative Baptist theological education for granted, we must remember that it has not always been this way. I am glad the Lord led me to Southern Seminary under the leadership of Dr. Mohler, and it has been my privilege to commend the school to not only my students but to anyone looking for faithful Baptist theological education. We must not take this for granted but be thankful.