Ben Cole And The Intellectual Integrity Of Southern Baptist Seminaries

Southern Baptist dissident Ben Cole has been questioning the intellectual integrity of our Southern Baptist Seminaries. I would like to draw your attention to the substance of his arguments and offer a brief response.

Cole titled his June 21, 2007 article, “On intellectual inbreeding and Southern Baptist education…” He begins by stating, “Southern Baptists are perhaps inordinately fearful and thoroughly ignorant of Liberation theologies.” Then he describes his own encounters with Liberation theology under Baylor professor, Marc Ellis. He writes:

I will never forget the day Ellis assigned me to a small group with two students, one of whom was a Roman Catholic and the other a lesbian. In what seemed like the introduction to a joke – three students walk into a bar, etc. – we engaged one another in collegial conversation about the ethical and moral questions raised by Christian higher education. For once, on a Baptist university campus, I felt like the minority.

I think that was Ellis’ point: to force Christians to sense some degree of oppression, harassment, and ridicule that other religious and irreligious groups feel on the campus of a Christian university. You don’t get that in a seminary education, and it is understandable that a confessional institution would limit such free exchange of ideas.

Cole then infers that the Southern Baptist insensitivity to minority perspectives is due to “cultural isolation that inhibits meaningful dialogue with these groups.” This narrowing of experience leads to fear and a desire for culturally separate educational systems:

In fact, so concerned are Southern Baptists to limit exposure to these cultural influences that we are forced to consider the perennial efforts to remove our kids from public schools. Southern Baptists are so increasingly fearful of non-Southern Baptist college education that all of our seminaries have launched colleges to provide a confessional uniformity and indoctrination program to further avoid intellectual cross pollination. Once we keep them from a university setting by attending our Bible colleges, we enroll them in our Southern Baptist seminaries for more intellectual inbreeding. Those that keep their grades up are encouraged to apply for Southern Baptist doctoral degrees. Most of our professors are graduated and hired from Southern Baptist schools, primarily because they can’t get academic jobs outside of Southern Baptist contexts with their seminary doctorates.

He continues by criticizing several perceived weaknesses of Southern Baptist Seminary Education:

  1. The increase of non-academic courses of study. Cole questions the proliferation of seminary degrees in “silly” disciplines such as homemaking, sports evangelism and jazz music – along with a brief mention of the elitism of pursuing the D.Min degree.
  2. Seminary students are not equipped to understand secular cultures. Quote: “How Southern Baptist seminary administrators and educators expect to influence the culture without training their students to understand and even appreciate (gasp!) the cultural influences with which they will contend is beyond me.”
  3. The Seminary system divorces students from the life of the local church. Quote: “It seems to me that more harm than good is done to Southern Baptist churches by ministers who are trained in environments divorced from service to the churches.”
  4. Baptist leaders from a diverse educational experience have more to contribute. Quote: “Those pastors and professors who contribute most to Southern Baptist life are those who have explored more diverse philosophical and theological perspectives than their counterparts of limited interaction with the mainline academy.”
  5. Our Baptist Education system is little more than “intellectual inbreeding.” Quote: “We may have created a vortex of ministry unpreparedness and biblical illiteracy from which we cannot extract ourselves, unless drastic measures are taken — and taken fast.”

I will briefly answer these concerns from my own limited experience. I am a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a graduate of Boyce College, the undergraduate school of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – I am exactly the kind of learner Ben Cole finds wanting.

  1. I cannot answer for the specific courses of study Cole mentions. However, the D.Min and other professional degrees programs should not be dismissed as examples of ministerial elitism. These programs allow pastors to continue formal education while serving in the local church. Such study moves toward the ideal of the pastor as theologian.
  2. At Boyce College and Southern Seminary, I took several required classes that teach worldview and cultural engagement. All degrees at Boyce College have an emphasis on understanding worldviews. Many Seminary students must work in secular environments. A large number of students at Southern Seminary work at UPS side-by-side with students from the University of Louisville. These real world encounters are more helpful than Cole’s experience as an “academic minority.”
  3. I agree. The artificial relationship that many students have with the local church is unacceptable. Even those who serve or attend local churches often relate mainly to other seminary students. There are some ways to alleviate this problem, but it seems an unavoidable flaw of the seminary model.
  4. Men like Dr. Mohler are an exception to Cole’s point.
  5. I disagree. It is preferable to learn God’s Word firsthand and learn cultural context secondhand. Wayne Grudem seems to argue against Cole’s point in his 1972 letter to a young seminarian.

What do you think? Has your Seminary education seemed overly narrow?

What can Seminaries do to prepare future pastor-theologians to minister in a post-Christian world?

Is the Cooperative Program payroll the appropriate context for worldview diversity?

Posted By Tony Kummer

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9 Responses to Ben Cole And The Intellectual Integrity Of Southern Baptist Seminaries

  1. without commenting on the rest of his points ( i havent read the article yet), i will say mr. cole has left out one major reason our seminaries are starting colleges…

    $$$$$

    -stephen

  2. Chris Huff says:

    I’m a student at SBTS also. From my perspective, the academic aspect of the seminary is right on. They have a well-rounded curriculum, teaching theology and how it can be lived/taught/explained/etc in the real world. This is exactly what they ought to do.

    As for the criticism that students are disconnected from churches, this is more of a criticism of the students than the seminaries. It’s silly to blame the school for what some students do or don’t do. That’s like blaming police officers because there’s crime in their cities. I hear tons of encouragement from our professors to be involved in our churches now. I’ve never heard a professor say, “Now, don’t get involved just yet. Wait until you graduate.” Cole is seems to be implying that they at least suggest exactly that. And that’s just silly.

  3. Andy Atkins says:

    I attended Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary at the same time as Ben Cole. I found John Hammett to be insightful as a professor of both Baptist history and systematic theology. I was challenged to consider other points of view. It was my time in Dr. Hammett’s classes that challenged me to read views with which I disagreed. I did not feel “indoctrinated.”

    Further, I am currently a Doctor of Ministry student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. My studies in the field of church growth (which I believe is a legitimate academic discipline) have carried me across the spectrum of philosophy and theology. My training is specialized, the requirements are demanding, and the expectations are high.

    Finally, I still believe the bottom line in ministry is the work of God in the life of the believer. A guy who is a jerk (please pardon the commonness of that term) will be a jerk whether he’s at UPS or Podunk Baptist Church. An inquisitive, open mind given to the glory of God is a powerful force, regardless of the educational environment.

    - Andy Atkins (Micah 6:8)

  4. Cole wrote:
    “We may have created a vortex of ministry unpreparedness and biblical illiteracy…”
    -We would be better prepared for ministry and more biblically literate if we went to an institution in which Roman Catholicism and homosexuality were unchallenged by biblical truth? I think not.

  5. I have to agree w/ Ben Cole to some extent. My fav profs at SBTS (May 06 grad) were Dr. Garrett and Dr. Chancellor. They didn’t seem like they came from the typical reformed baptist camp. You didn’t know what they were going to say before they said it. I think Garrett did his PhD at Baylor and Chancellor did his at Duke (could be wrong).

    I think part of the problem is that a lot of the profs at Southern aren’t skilled classroom instructors. I don’t know if it’s the preferred teaching philosophy or just the result of very large class sizes, but I don’t think the information transfer method of teaching is ideal.

    A lot of profs. hand out their class notes ahead of time and then read the notes/powerpoint(with an expansion here and there). Then the tests are rehashing of the notes.

    There’s not really true interaction with ideas just repetition. About the only thing worse than sitting under a monologue lecture is listening to a bunch of seminary students spout off their ignorance. So I’m not sure what the solution would be. I don’t know how hiring of profs works, but I wonder if classroom skill is evaluated. I think Southern needs professors who are creative in the classroom and not just top scholars. I’m rambling a bit(quite a bit), but my personal experience is that once I got over reformed theology, the profs at southern just weren’t that engaging in the classroom.

  6. Perry McCall says:

    As usual, Ben Cole’s tone, attitude, and spirit has ruined a good conversation that we probably need to be having. We do need to concerned about becoming disconnected from culture. We do need to be concerned about not being exposed to non-evangelical and heretical voices. However, I think he is missing the reality that we grow up in culture. The most “protected” of us (which few are that protected) have still been saturated in American culture from our births. I pastor beside a Christian Academy and I can assure you that the kids are not isolated from culture. Furthermore, I studied liberation, feminist, openess, and Catholic theologians from their primary sources while at NOBTS. I think are seminaries do need to focus more on the academic but they are far from broken.

    I do share his concerns with the undergrad programs at the Seminaries (although not his attitude). I encourage my kids and others I come in contact with the to go to public Universities and earn non-religious degrees. I especially encourage this if they are intending on going into the ministry as a vocational calling. I would much rather a student go to a state university that is openly hostile to the biblical worldview than to go to a “Christian” institution that holds to a biblical worldview in name only. Of course, to all those that I have deep affection for I try with all my might to convince them to make the sacrifices needed in order to go to Union University. We finally have a seriously Christ centered University that we can send our best and brightest.

  7. Adam Winters says:

    Although I think Bro. Cole raises some legitimate potential pitfalls (emphasis on potential), I think he has made some gross generalizations. The point about “intellectual inbreeding” would likely condemn the entire tradition of Princeton Seminary from 1812-1921. It is indeed a rare generation that our SBC schools have maintained general doctrinal stability. I am content to simply enjoy this gift from God as long as it lasts.

    If history is any indication, ambitious academics will inevitably grow hungry for respect of culture and left-leaning scholars. The outcome is generally the same; conservative institutions resemble their more liberal contemporaries. For example, Mullins followed Schleiermacher, Wayne Oates followed modern psychology, Dan Fuller followed Barth, etc.

  8. Tony Kummer says:

    Cole seems to forget one important fact – a godly minister must know and love the God’s Word. Learning new perspectives may be helpful, but without a serious knowledge of the Bible the church will fail.

  9. Steve G says:

    Thanks for the article :)
    I am an older pastor and had a different experience to yours:
    20% of my Seminary college lecturers were Liberation theologians.. I found it boring and hasn’t got much to offer to the spiritual life of believers. Not only that, I have never had to engage with a Liberation theologian since leaving seminary. I have however conducted evangelistic funeral services for the Communist Party in my country, however, I found that my seminary experiences with Liberation theology were counter productive to evangelising these people. I guess you don’t have many Communist Party memebrs in the Southern states do you? I wonder how useful engaging with Liberation theolgy would then be to you? Maybe useless, or worse!
    20% of my seminary lecturers were universalists. They held to final a final restoration of all mankin outside of the gospel. We ll that was very useful to me for.. umm ..well, .. umm nothing.

    20% of my seminary lectuers held to JEDP,
    and a further 20% were right into John Macquarrie’s ummm “theology?”
    Well this was very useful. I found that these books associated to the lectures were great door stops, and I felt no distress at all when I sentenced these books to the flames from which they had first sprung!
    And the other 20% of my seminary lecturers were just moderates. They taught me to read and think, because these guys sure didn’t.
    Maybe that’s why I am the only one in my year group still pastoring a Baptist church.
    Steve

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