November 8, 2013

The Story of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

by Wyatt Graham

Ideally, churches and seminaries work together in a mutually beneficial way. Like minded churches start a seminary. In turn they send their ministers to that seminary so that their future pastors receive rigorous theological education. When this relationship works, churches thrive. But when a schism cuts between a seminary and its churches, the churches wither.

This unfortunately happened in the 1960s when liberal theology cut a schism between the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) and the Southern Baptist Convention. While the convention stayed its conservative course, its flagship seminary drowned in Liberalism. SBTS had abandoned its confessional roots, which date back to its founding in 1859. This meant that it had also shirked its ties to the churches who founded and supported SBTS.

During this liberal domination of SBTS, teachers disavowed the bodily resurrection of Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, and other key tenets of the faith. Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, anecdotally remembers that there was a vivid opposition against the Gospel at Southern.

However, an opportunity arose to reverse the seminary’s course. In 1993 Roy L. Honeycutt retired from his presidency of the seminary. This gave the board of trustees a chance to choose a new president, who could steer the seminary back to its confessional roots. The board all agreed that Albert Mohler was just the man for the job.

This new and young president declared war against the seminary’s liberal theology, teachers and students. He did so by upholding the Seminary’s original confessional statement called the Abstract of Principles.

This all came to a head in 1995 when Dr. Mohler pressed the issue. He required all professors to sign with good conscience the Abstract of Principles. By doing so, he both returned the school to its biblical convictions and ousted liberal faculty members who could not sign it.

The opposition was furious. Dr. Mohler even recounted a time when a student spit on him out of disgust. But the trustees believed in Mohler and his vision for the seminary. Eventually, Mohler’s grit paid off. Liberal students graduated and left, while liberal faculty moved on to browner pastures. (I’d summarize how the battle went down, but the video at the bottom of the post does a way better job!)

Over the past twenty years, Albert Mohler has continued to lead the SBTS. SBTS used be known for denying the resurrection and disavowing the inerrancy of Scripture. Now, SBTS is known for its passion for the glory of God and its concern to edify the local church.

Actually, beginning in the spring of 2014, I will pursue my Ph.D at Southern Seminary. I do so with confidence, because I know where Southern has come from, gone to, and returned again.

I have purposely left many details of the story of Mohler’s battle with the liberal faculty at Southern, because SBTS released a video chronicling just that. Check it out. You won’t be sorry.

Recovering a Vision: The Presidency of R. Albert Mohler Jr. from Southern Seminary on Vimeo.


Wyatt Graham

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Wyatt is the Executive Director of The Gospel Coalition Canada. He also blogs at Follow him at @wagraham.
  • Wyatt, thanks for sharing. Helped me to see that Dr. Mohler’s serious commitment to the authority of Scripture and the saint’s mandate remain pure to its truths. Praise God! Blessings to you as you study at SBTS!

    • My pleasure! And thanks for the kind words.

  • Johnny

    This is an awesome story. Hard to imagine there could be a time when there was “a vivid opposition against the Gospel at Southern.” Praise the Lord for His using Al Mohler as an instrument of reformation at Southern.

  • Drew Sparks

    Awesome story.

  • Thanks Wyatt!!! That video was incredibly encouraging! I love hearing of men with such resolve and unwavering commitment to sound doctrine. I hope the best for you there!

  • Richard

    Many thanks to you, Wyatt, for this post that’s so encouraging in these days of rampant liberalism. If I may, I’d like to share two messages by Dr. Mohler that relate to this marvelous work of God. They come from Sovereign Grace Ministries and in them Dr. Mohler tells of his experiences in becoming the new president of Southern Seminary. They can be downloaded from the links below.

    • Thanks! This looks great.

  • Richard Lucas

    Wyatt, thanks for drawing attention to this video and Dr. Mohler’s courageous leadership to bring Southern Seminary back to the historic gospel message.

    One small point of correction. It wasn’t that Dr. Mohler forced them to sign the Abstract, its just that he forced a clear interpretation of it as the guidelines for doctrinal fidelity among the professors.

    All tenured-track professors sign the Abstract, so most of the liberal professors had already signed it, they just reinterpreted the words to be consistent with their heterodox beliefs. The video even displayed a picture of Molly Marshall’s signature of the document.

    Again, this is a minor point, and you are correct with the thrust of what you wrote. But it is a sobering reality to observe all the signatures on that document of men and women who have not held firm to the faith. It was always a special moment in chapel when a new professor was invited to come on stage and join his name to the many other professors who have gone before him in undertaking the trust to instruct the next generation of gospel ministers at Southern Seminary.

    I hope you enjoy your studies there as I have. Can I ask, what discipline are you studying and who is your supervisor?

    • Thanks for the correction!

      My concentration is OT studies, and Jim Hamilton will be by mentor.

  • Matthew Abate

    This was very inspiring…thank you.