Originating From a Secret Bunker Dug By William Hosea Holcombe and J.B. Gambrell Somewhere Off the Square in Oxford, Mississippi
In 1986, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, was the largest seminary in the world with over 4,000 students. At the time, the inerrancy of Scripture was the hot-button issue in the Southern Baptist Convention. Southwestern benefited in no small measure because it was viewed as the most conservative of the six SBC seminaries. Consequently, many students went to Southwestern because of its perceived commitment to inerrancy, at least in a relative sense.
Fast forward 32 years, and all six SBC seminaries are now considered conservative – they all have an extremely high view of Scripture. So the hot-button issue today is no longer inerrancy, but rather a bubbling conflict between two doctrinal statements with two markedly different soteriological positions. The first statement is the historic Abstract of Principles, which is the confessional statement at both the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. The second statement is Dr. Eric Hankins’ Traditional Statement (TS). Although it has no official status, the TS has been signed by both Paige Patterson*, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary mentioned above and Chuck Kelley, president of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana. The issue in this controversy is the soteriological direction of our denomination. Shall we return to our roots (the Abstract) or shall we progress in a new direction (TS)? Dr. Hankins, in his 2017 speech at the Connect 316 Banquet made his position clear. He said unequivocally, “I believe that we need to call for the removal of the Abstract of Principles as the confessional statement of Southern and Southeastern.”
But why the concern? In 1986, Southwestern was perceived as the best seminary and students flocked to it because it was the inerrancy school. Today, however, both Southwestern and New Orleans are viewed differently. They are now seen as the TS friendly schools while Southern and Southeastern are seen as the Abstract seminaries. So what do the 2017-18 enrollment figures tell us. Well, according to the Association of Theological Schools’ most recent statistical report, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, is now the largest seminary in the world with 3,157 students. That’s a 36.3% increase from 1986. Southeastern’s enrollment has also climbed an impressive 99.4% in the same period. But Southwestern’s enrollment, while still large, is considerably smaller than it was 32 years ago. It’s enrollment has dropped 36.8% since 1986; New Orleans’ has fallen 17.2%.
So then why are students now flocking to Southern and Southeastern? It’s definitely not because it’s cheaper. In 2017, the estimated price for a married student to attend Southern was actually the highest of all SBC seminaries (74% higher than Southwestern). So what is the attraction? 32 years ago students went to Southwestern because of inerrancy, and inerrancy won the day. Could it be that students today want a school where historic Southern Baptist doctrines (the Abstract) are actually believed and taught? If so, then the Abstract could possibly win the day. No doubt about it, if Southwestern and New Orleans were growing like Southern and Southeastern, the Hankinists would not be nearly as alarmed.
*It’s interesting to note that Paige Patterson also signed the Abstract of Principles when he was president at Southeastern. What mental gymnastics he used to affirm two irreconcilable statements is anyone’s guess.