Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Introducing Seminarians to Peacemaking

I spent today in Lexington, Kentucky (1 1/2 hours from my home in Louisville) at The Baptist Seminary of Kentucky, staffing a resource table for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. The seminary is a progressive alternative to the The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, the mother seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC, as most people probably know, underwent an internal feud (c. 1979-1990) which left this largest Protestant denomination in North America completely controlled by rightwing fundamentalists and creedalists. The mother seminary of the SBC, SBTS in Louisville, resisted complete fundamentalist takeover (although there had been creeping incursions since c. 1987) until the retirement of President Roy Lee Honeycutt (1926-2005) and the selection by seminary trustees of R. Albert Mohler, Jr. as his successor in 1994, after which the school made an incredibly sharp turn to the theological and political rightwing. Like many similar efforts, BSK is a free-standing theological seminary in partnership with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. (BSK is also working to develop relationships with other Baptist groups, especially historic African-American groups such as The National Baptist Convention, USA, The National Baptist Convention of America, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.)

Baptist Seminary of Kentucky shares the campus of Lexington Theological Seminary , a seminary of The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and is across the street from the Law School of the University of Kentucky. Thus, BSK is part of a growing trend in centrist-to-progressive Baptist theological education: a commitment to historic Baptist distinctives (including academic freedom and liberty of conscience) but taking place in ecumenical settings or partnerships and in university contexts. This seems to me to be right and proper: the spiritual formation and theological education of ministers is not isolated but connected to other expressions of Christian faith and the wider world–just as ministry is.

At any rate, this was an orientation for new and returning students and I was one of many people staffing tables where students found internship possibilities (e.g., Kentucky Hospice, Kentucky Baptist Fellowship’s rural anti-poverty program, the Kentucky Council of Churches’ environmental, racial justice, or prison ministry programs), mission and ministry opportunities (e.g., CROP Walk, Habitat for Humanity, Coalition for the Homeless, and me with the BPFNA), as well as resources to help students connect to the wider world of theological scholarship (e.g., journals such as Interpretation, Theology Today, & The Review and Expositorjournals of serious scholarship but aimed at working pastors rather than requiring advanced technical skills to read & comprehend) and ministry (e.g., Baptists Today, The Christian Century, Preaching, The African American Pulpit.).

It was a fun experience to meet these students, most of whom had never heard of the Baptist Peace Fellowship, introduce them to some of our resources and opportunities and get them excited about attending the 2007 Summer conference (“peace camp” as the children and youth call it) next July in nearby Berea, KY on the campus of Berea College. (Berea College was founded in the 19th C. by Christian abolitionists, was the first integrated college in the South, and is committed to the education of rural Appalachia.) It was also fun to meet with fellow exhibitors and connect with the wide array of ministry opportunities in my adopted state. Since several of my former teachers (before the fundamentalist takeover of SBTS) are, in retirement, part-time faculty at BSK, it was also fun to be reunited with the likes of Wade Rowatt (psychology of religion and pastoral counseling) and E. Glenn Hinson (one of the finest church historians Baptists have ever produced and also a longtime leader in the renewal of contemplative spirituality and devotion among Baptists).

I came away excited about the possibilities before this young seminary (although the legal and financial groundwork was laid in the 1990s, BSK only opened its doors in 2002 and graduated its first class in 2005) and its students. The world is changing quickly in this new millennium, with unique opportunities, challenges, and dangers. But these students (most twentysomethings, but some older) seemed eager to do ministry in such a context, prepared by grounding in spiritual and ministerial formation, intense study of Scripture, the historic traditions of the church (including, but not limited to, Baptist distinctives), exposure to the wide range of contemporary theology and ethics, and hands-on ministerial opportunities. It was good to represent BPFNA and present students with the challenge of seeing Jesus’ call to justice seeking and peacemaking as a vital part of their education and ministry. I hope it will be the beginning of many opportunities to connect to the work of this and similar schools and the current renewal in theological education in North America.

August 19, 2006 - Posted by | Baptists, church, peacemaking


  1. I am all for, um, enthusiastic discussion, particularly in the seminaries. What puzzles me is that there seems to be no shortage of well endowed, centrist-progressive seminaries that were formerly conservative – but today would accept the Dalai Lama as a professor before accepting a fundamentalist. The only historically identifiable outrages that have occurred, however, were done by fundamentalists! Something doesn’t make sense.

    Comment by Looney | August 21, 2006

  2. I never know whether to ignore some remarks or not. I probably waste quite a bit of time that could otherwise be spent profitably trying to answer comments like this, Looney. But here goes, anyway.

    Your concerns seem about 25 years out of date. These days, once solidly liberal seminaries are moving much more to the right–even without hostile takeovers like with the SBC. Yale Divinity School now has about 25% of its professors that almost ANYONE would identify as evangelical (some came to Yale directly from places like Calvin College and Fuller Seminary!) and more who are definitely at the conservative end of the “mainline-liberal” spectrum. Harvard Divinity School, founded by Unitarians for crying out loud, now has zero Unitarian professors, and, although it does have some representatives of other religions, also has more conservative faculty and is in the process of funding a chair for evangelical theology and a center for the study of American evangelicalism. That already happened at the University of Chicago Divinity School!
    Duke University Divinity School is now almost as theologically conservative as Fuller Theological Seminary and Princeton Seminary is more conservative than in decades.

    As for “well-endowed,” most non-evangelical seminaries are in great financial trouble. Union Theological Seminary of NY had to sell its library to nearby Columbia University in order to pay off some debts. It has shrunk faculty numbers as retirements have come around. Colgate-Rochester Crozer Seminary (home to Rauschenbusch, Martin Luther King’s alma mater, etc.) had to sell off its library, too, and is still tottering on an economic knife’s edge.

    That story could be repeated around the country.

    Seminaries are either becoming more conservative or facing financial trouble or both.

    New seminaries are having the usual start-up troubles of new schools everywhere.

    Its not just in the U.S., either. In Canada, McMaster Divinity College in Ontario was considered to be at the liberal end of Baptist life for much of its history. When Clark Pinnock was added to the faculty in 1980, he was the only evangelical on faculty. Yes, Pinnock moved to the left theologically afterword (taking many evangelicals with him), but the school moved right, also. As liberal professors retired or left for other positions, they were quietly replaced with evangelicals until now MacDiv openly calls itself “Canada’s university-based evangelical seminary.”

    In the UK, Oxford and Cambridge, once considered “dangers to evangelical faith” are now evangelical strongholds. Even Tuebingen University in Germany, the home of Bultmann and Kasemann, is now home to more conservative than liberal scholars.

    So, I am not sure why you are complaining. It’s like with the political scene: evangelicals and especially fundamentalists now practically run the country (though they are NOT the majority) but still talk constantly about how they are marginalized and under attack. No sense of reality at all.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 21, 2006

  3. >The SBC, as most people probably know, underwent an internal feud (c. 1979-1990) which left this largest Protestant denomination in North America completely controlled by rightwing fundamentalists and creedalists.

    To better understand what was going on at the SBC during that time, it would be a good idea to hear from someone who was in the center of it all.

    Love Worth Finding: The Life of Adrian Rogers And His Philosophy of Preaching

    There’s a chapter on that topic.

    Comment by Roger | August 21, 2006

  4. Yeah, that’s a hugely objective account–not! Adrian Rogers was one of the worst evil toads working to destroy all that was good about the SBC–and mostly succeeding. I met the man several times during those years and he was so foul and so stupid, he made Bush look rational and moral! Shudder.

    Anyone REALLY interested in knowing what went on then (those of us who lived through it feel emotionally like we were in a war zone the whole time) should consult the following:

    1) Nancy Ammerman, _Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention_(Rutgers University Press, 1990).

    2) Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., ed., _Amidst Babel, Speak the Truth: Reflections on the Southern Baptist Convention Struggle_ (Smyth & Helwys Publishers).

    3)Grady C. Cothen, _What Happend to the Southern Baptist Convention? A Memoir of the Controversy_

    4) Grady C. Cothen, The New SBC: Fundamentalism’s Impact on the Southern Baptist Convention.

    5) Carl Kell and L. Raymond Camp, In the Name of the Father: The Rhetoric of the New Southern Baptist Convention.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 21, 2006

  5. Michael, I appreciate the time you spent and will give careful consideration to what you wrote. I agree that things are trending more conservative. My family was pushing for the conservative takeover of the SBC, so I am not completely uninformed. Our general view is that any denomination that sings songs by Harry Fosdick needs a shakeup, although perhaps not the amount of shaking that was actually done.

    Still, I think you missed the main point: Fundamentalists aren’t the only extremists in this country and liberals, for the most part, remain in denial.

    Comment by Looney | August 21, 2006

  6. >Yeah, that’s a hugely objective account–not! Adrian Rogers was one of the worst evil toads working to destroy all that was good about the SBC–and mostly succeeding. I met the man several times during those years and he was so foul and so stupid, he made Bush look rational and moral! Shudder.

    By your understanding (and you sound confident), Adrian was power hungry, not aware of what he was doing, and a bad influence. That’s hardly the qualifications for a man of God. Are you sure about that? You should get some input from more people before you make such public accusations. Is your understanding based on personal feelings or the truth? Adrian stood upon the principles of God’s word. Therefore, he would not give into pressure – political, cultural, or religious. That’s where he stood and that’s what explained his actions. What are you standing on to make those accusations? Even if you were right in principle in regards to your view of Adrian (which I don’t understand how you can be), I don’t see how the right thing to do is to slander the man by calling him an ‘evil toad’ and ‘stupid’. I recommend to you and your readers to do a self-check and examine these attitudes. They are not Godly and they are not grounded in the truth.

    Comment by Roger | August 21, 2006

  7. Out of curiosity, do you consider “fundamentalist” to be the belief in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible? Or does “fundamentalist” have political connotations as well.

    Comment by Chance | August 21, 2006

  8. Hi, Chance:

    There are definitions of inerrancy that I do not consider fundamentalist. I do consider the obsession with constantly trying to prove Scripture to be inerrant (no matter how many twists in logic one must take) to be a sign of fundamentalism. I mostly understand fundamentalism to be a reaction to the rise of modern science, to historical awareness, and to the complications of modern industrial life and the many pluralisms of the world. It is usually both rationalist and obscurantist simultaneously.

    In the past (pre-c. 1978), most fundamentalists were apolitical, but I don’t think today that one can separate fundamentalism from a political agenda: Outlawing abortion, restoring teacher-led prayer and Bible reading in public schools, banning evolution or giving equal time in science classes to non-scientific theories like creationism or “intelligent design,” government funds for churches and ministries, support for capital punishment, for heavy military budgets, for uncritical military support for Israel, work to undermine gains of feminism and to restrict the civil rights of gays and lesbians, etc. There may be an unconscious racism in much of the movement, too, although NOT any kind of overt racism such as was seen prior to 1965 (although it is telling to note that many fundamentalist leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Adrian Rogers, Pat Robertson, and others were strong opponents of Brown v. Board of Education and strong defenders of segregation).

    Some of the above things would be supported by others who are not fundamentalists, but fundamentalists seem to link their theology to such an agenda rather strongly.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 21, 2006

  9. “the rise of modern science, to historical awareness, and to the complications of modern industrial life”

    Actually, here is where your history seems badly in error. These accusations were deliberate slanders made up by the liberals in earlier times to shut the conservatives up. The name I gave you, Harry Fosdick, being of one of the worst offenders, but Henry Van Dyke and Andrew Dickson White are also at the top.

    That is why I said that the liberals are still in denial and unrepentent, which is why the fundamentalists are about to let their guard down.

    Comment by Looney | August 21, 2006

  10. “are about” should be “aren’t about”!

    Comment by Looney | August 21, 2006

  11. Thanks Michael. That makes sense. It seems like such a term is so loaded now. I would consider myself a fundamentalist in that I believe the entire Bible and nothing but as the ultimate source of truth, but then again “fundamentalist” may not apply to that belief. Perhaps “theologically conservative” is a better term.

    Comment by Chance | August 22, 2006

  12. Sorry to distract from your original post. I do think many Christians have a tendency to blindly trust those in authority. While different conclusions may abound, it is still important to be loyal to principles, not people (thank you Star Wars III).

    Comment by Chance | August 22, 2006

  13. Chance,
    We connect more often than you realize. I’d like to gently challenge your idea that the Bible is your only source of truth–you get your libertarian leaning economics elsewhere, right? As for “theologically conservative,” it depends on where someone is standing. For an Adolf Harnack, Karl Barth is a conservative, but for Cornelius Van Til, Barth was a liberal heretic!

    By many standards, I am a theological conservative–as would be more apparent if I spent more time on this blog speaking only of theological matters. (It’s purpose is elsewhere.) Sure, politically I am a socialist-leaning Democrat: but so was the early 20th C. fundamentalist leader William Jennings Bryan! (Bryan’s opposition to evolution was thoroughly rooted in his belief that biological evolution and Social Darwinism–a.k.a., laissez-faire capitalism–were inextricably linked. He was not the intellectually challenged lout depicted in the play and movie, Inherit the Wind. He was a champion of the poor and a pacifist–who resigned as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State because Wilson broke his promise to keep us out of WWI.)

    I don’t believe in inerrancy–a word I think distorts the Bible’s own stated views of Scripture–but I do hold to a strong view of biblical authority. I learn, for instance, from contemporary liberals like Marcus Borg, but we have many places where we disagree!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 22, 2006

  14. “I’d like to gently challenge your idea that the Bible is your only source of truth–you get your libertarian leaning economics elsewhere, right? “

    Good point. I guess what I mean is, concerning theological truth, I see the Bible as the only source of inspiration. That is, I don’t see an authority figure such as the pope or the “church” as having equal footing as the Bible. When it comes to theological thinkers, I would weigh their opinions against the Bible.

    Concerning philosophy in general, well, that’s a tough call. I would like to think any beliefs I have are ultimately derived from the Bible, but that is probably not the case. Since the Bible talks so little in the NT about how to apply our beliefs in the domain of government, I do the best I can based on what I believe works. Most of my political beliefs use freedom as the underlying philosophy, but is freedom the goal? I don’t know right now, but its the best I can think of at the moment.

    Comment by Chance | August 22, 2006

  15. The New Testament is not actually quiet about Goverment. It tells us to be obedient to those whom God places over us. Our subjection to them displays our subjection to our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 13 is good place to start. Which would dismantle most christians who are involved in leftist and rightist politics. It is interesting to note how no epistle in the New Testament expounds about the Goverment and politics. Its amazing to read a letter from Paul deal only with the Gospel of Christ and all its implications and practical outworkings. John Winthrop speaks of this relationship of civil obedience and quietness in “On Liberty” its good read.

    Comment by Steven | September 23, 2006

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