On Theological Elitism: One Professor’s Perspective

I am currently reading Jim Slatton’s new biography of William Whitsitt, titled W. H. Whitsitt: The Man and the Controversy (Mercer University Press, 2009). For those who do not know, Whitsitt was the third president of Southern Seminary and a longtime professor of church history at the school. In a series of articles and finally a monograph titled A Question in Baptist History (1896), Whitsitt debunked the then-popular assumption that the earliest English Baptists (both General and Particular) practiced immersion. Whitsitt’s thesis undermined the Landmark conviction that there have always been Baptist churches since the time of the New Testament. Although Whitsitt was challenged by successionist historians like John T. Christian, virtually all scholars came to accept Whitsitt’s basic thesis by the early 20th century.

Whitsitt’s views became the source of an enormous brouhaha in SBC life. Whitsitt vacated the presidency of Southern Seminary in 1899 in the wake of the controversy. To this day he is considered a pariah in Landmark circles and lauded as a martyr for academic freedom by the Baptist left, which tells you more about the theological assumptions of both of those respective movements than it does about Whitsitt himself. After his death in 1911, most of Whitsitt’s personal papers were sealed for 100 years, meaning that historians could only gain a partial understanding of both Whitsitt personally and the “Whitsitt Controversy” in particular.

Although much has been written about Whitsitt over the years, Dr. Slatton was granted unprecedented access to Whitsitt’s previously inaccessible personal diaries and correspondence (the stuff that was supposed to be sealed for a century). Armed with those sources, he has provided us with the most comprehensive study of Whitsitt to date. It is not my intention in this article to formally review the book, though that would be a worthwhile endeavor. Instead, it is my intention to focus on a topic that has gnawed at me while I have been reading the biography: theological elitism.

One doesn’t get very far in Slatton’s biography before several things become clear. First, Whitistt was likely considerably less orthodox than has been assumed by many non-Landmark conservatives (Landmarkers of course were convinced he was unorthodox for obvious reasons). He was clearly sympathetic to progressive theology in general and Crawford Toy’s views in particular. Second, Whitsitt was a generally mean-spirited fellow, though to be fair it seems like most of his rants were private rather than public. He had very little regard for his fellow professors at SBTS, particularly James P. Boyce. He also disliked, or at least had little respect for, some of the most prominent pastors of his day. While at times some of his gripes seem legitimate, most of what he writes concerning his colleagues smacks of arrogance and pettiness. But what sticks out the most to me, as a professor who like Whitsitt teaches courses in Church History and Baptist History, is Whitsitt’s disdain for grassroots Southern Baptists. Whitsitt was a theological elitist.

Whitsitt’s rejection of Landmarkism, though eventually grounded in a study of primary source material in England, began with his disdain for Landmarkers in particular and Baptist distinctives in general. Not only did Whitsitt disapprove of Landmark doctrines like successionism and pulpit non-affiliation, he also dismissed mainstream Baptist doctrines like close communion and a rejection of alien immersion (he is even OK with Campbellite “baptisms”). In perhaps his most shocking pronouncement, Whitsitt argued that Baptists should dispense with immersion completely! Though he believed immersion was the apostolic practice, he was convinced that Baptists should move past the sectarianism of insisting upon immersion as the only true baptism. In other words, Whitsitt’s problem wasn’t really Landmarkism, it was Baptist identity itself. Landmarkism was a casualty in Whitsitt’s war against historic Baptist beliefs and practices.

Not only did Whitsitt have little use for Baptist distinctives, he had little use for what might be called the “ambiance” of Southern Baptists. After his time pursuing graduate study in Germany, Whitsitt was continually put-off by what he considered to be Southern Baptists’ ignorance and lack of culture. They didn’t read the right books. They didn’t emphasize the right priorities. They didn’t wear the nicest clothes. They didn’t engage in the right type of entertainment. Southern Baptists were the riffraff among whom it was Whitsitt’s lot to labor. At one point Whitsitt spent about a year contemplating leaving Southern Baptists for another denomination. Ironically, all of his complaints about Southern Baptists had more to do with the “flavor” of the people than the doctrines they held dear. To be fair, I suspect Whitsitt probably loved Southern Baptists. But he didn’t really like them, and he certainly didn’t respect them.

Reading this biography has provided me with the occasion to search my own heart. I have often heard men like Danny Akin and Russell Moore speak about seminarians (and pastors) who get a bit of theological education and become condescending toward their home churches. I agree with their concern and have often been convicted and encouraged by their warnings. But this week I find myself more concerned with professors who might be tempted to think they are too smart for the people whom they serve. This was clearly a problem with progressives throughout the 20th century (and earlier), but it would be a tragic mistake to think that conservatives are immune to this temptation.

Theological elitism will always be a potential stumbling block for professors. We have earned advanced degrees. Many of us write books and articles. We probably read widely. We try to think deeply about significant subjects. And, of course, we teach current and future pastors, missionaries, and other Christian leaders. But in each of these duties we must never think we are better than the people whom we serve just because we use all the big words and read all the big books. Our research and teaching need to be seasoned with humility.

As professors we have been charged by the SBC to help equip students how to think and lead theologically. But as important as this task is (and I think it is very important), we have to avoid becoming academic Gnostics. We must never believe–even implicitly–that our theological knowledge makes us superior to all those Southern Baptists out there who read Christian fiction, buy spiritual knick-knacks at LifeWay, and watch TBN. I know my own sinful tendencies in this regard, and I have a strong suspicion I am not the only Southern Baptist professor who has to regularly pray for humility and mortify his “inner Whitsitt.”

It is my prayer that the Lord protects all contemporary Southern Baptist professors–including the man in the mirror–from the temptation to think we have “outgrown” the millions of precious saints who comprise the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. Every form of elitism should be drowned in the baptismal waters, including theological elitism.

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  15Comments

  1. doug munton   •  

    Theological elitism (just pride taking another form) is a real danger and I’m grateful you point that out. Perhaps it is good for us to note the obvious- education does not make us godly. I appreciate the post. Doug Munton

  2. tom ascol   •  

    A regular reading of Edwards on Spiritual Pride will go a long way to breeding the kind of biblical humility you are calling for. Good words, Nathan.

  3. Michael Estes   •  

    Nathan,

    Good word. Not just a danger for you “ivory-tower” profs (just kidding), but a danger for those who man the pulpit. I, for one, struggle with this immensely. It has always helped me to remember what Aquinas said. (This is a paraphrase…and probably a horrible one) All our theology is straw in the end. I (we all do) have to remember that we are fallible humans trying to interpret an infallible text, not an easy task.

    Thanks

    Michael

  4. Mark Hollingsworth   •  

    Nathan:

    I was just at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society at the University of Richmond (Richmond College when Whitsitt taught there) today and observed the prominent Whitsitt displays coinciding with the release of this newest biography. Not difficlut to see, after reading your brief observations, why he would be venerated at an institution which finds its identity in Baptist history in the “soul-competency” stream. Thanks for the observations.

    Mark Hollingsworth
    Pastor
    Liberty Baptist Church
    Lanexa, VA

  5. Dougald McLaurin III   •  

    Nathan,

    This is an excellent reminder for those who live in the academic world.

    I was wondering if you think that some of those who condescend do so because of the way that we approach education in the church. I know in the past, at least for me, some of the frustration has been that pastors think that academic (theological) discussions have to be “dumbed down” for their people or removed all together. The church, in their thinking, just doesn’t care about these issues. I’ve found the opposite to be true (and obviously our church is a bit of a difference). Put in a few generations of not educating your people with deeper theology (and hopefully calling them to live their lives accordingly) and bam, you’ve got a large gulf between the church and the academy.

    I guess, in short, I wonder if that gulf were closed would the elitism lesson.

    However, I don’t want to take away from your point. Humility is an important trait to have when in the academy. Personally, when I’ve fought this in myself, I’ve tried to look at it as serving the body and loving them. I do the ground work, relay it to them and let it work amongst the body, letting it encourage us in our walks and in turn encourage one another. And, also, allow myself to be corrected by them.

    I’ll end with a quote that I love: “The Church is more than a school, but it should never be less than one.” Jarislav Pelikan

    Dougald

  6. Kevin S   •  

    Nathan, well framed and well worded. I appreciate the reminder and call to follow Jesus humbly.

  7. Heath Lloyd   •  

    Nathan: I always thought there was a little flavor of “Whitsittism” in the fundamentalist –moderate debate in the SBC. I always wondered how much was theological and how much was style. Educated vs buffoon; university vs Bible college. I could certainly be way off base, but I felt some of that.

    Also you are wise to point out the same happening amongst professors (and I might add amongst my fellow pastors). May we walk humbly before our God.

  8. Roger Simpson   •  

    Dr. Finn:

    I think the SBC is on the cusp right now. There are several camps vying for daylight. We have Calvinists, non-Calvinists, BI guys, “neo-Landmarkers”, etc. I think it is possible to detect some cleavage in the SBC by noting who has and who has not signed on to the GCR document.

    Specifically, I note that there are people from certain of the six seminaries who are (so far) conspicuous by their absence in terms of signatories. Also, a few states, including here in Oklahoma, seem “under-represented” in terms of leadership that have signed on.

    The way to short-circuit this is to reach out to all camps — including people out here in Red River and Missouri River drainage areas — when putting together whatever committee is going to come out of Louisville to study any possible re-org of SBC life.

    I believe that something like the CGR document is a step forward only if 99.44% are on board.

    I think theological elitism and theological one-up-manship are kissing cousins of each other. This works out in practice in the following statement, “The stuff you are doing [and the documents you are cranking out] are great but I have a few minor points”. Translation, “if you expect me to support this overtly you better seek input from the constituency within the SBC that I’m part of”.

    As a proponent of “Rodney King” theology, I like the GCR document. I believe Christianity is very simple: There are only a few core truth claims. I’m too dumb to even understand — let alone passionately expound on — most of the stuff that is at play.

    The key parameter regarding the GCR document is NOT what particular combination of theological / programmatic / organizational / regional / niches gave birth to it. The main thing is that people actually buy into something common — possibly a revised GCR document with everyone’s fingerprints on it — and move forward together.

    Bottom line, unless there is at least a 95% buy-in, I think SBC leadership is not well advised to bring this up in Louisville because it will do more harm than good.

    The tea leaves tell me right now that the buy-in is probably 70% — there is a way still to go in a few short weeks.

    Roger K. Simpson
    Oklahoma City OK

  9. Eric Thomas   •  

    Nathan, an excellent reminder and counsel to those of us (pastors, planters, professors — had to make it 3 for alliterative purposes, not theological / ecclesiological) who strive to lead others for God’s glory. Thank you for the encouragement to remain humble before God and servant.

    Eric

  10. John Inman   •  

    Doubt I will ever read the book. What in particular bothered Whitsitt about Boyce?

  11. David R. Brumbelow   •  

    Very good thoughts. Interesting comments about Dr. Whitsitt.

    One thing that might help is for every professor and denominational leader should, on a regular basis, preach in a small country or city church. Learn to know and love the simple saints of God. And if they don’t understand what you preach, keep preaching there until you are easily understood. My idea of a great scholar is someone who can take deep truths of Scripture and make them so simple a child can understand.
    David R. Brumbelow

  12. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Thanks for the comments. I will interact with some of them:

    Michael Estes, I think that theological elitism is definitely a temptation for pastors as well as professors. I think that’s why Drs. Akin and Moore (and others) press seminarians so hard on this issue.

    Dougald McLaurin, I definitely think that pastors and other church teachers should try and lead God’s people to be as biblically and theologically literate as possible. Of course then the whole congregation may struggle with theological elitism!

    Heath Lloyd, the Slatton biography does a good job of bringing out the factors at play in the Controversy that had little or nothing to do with either theology or historiagraphy.

    Roger Simpson, thanks for your thoughts on how theological elitism might relate the contemporary SBC. I am hopeful that the GCR will eventually birth a consensus with which most of us will be happy.

    John Inman, Whitsitt apparently thought Boyce was a shallow theologian, a poor leader, etc. He referred to Boyce as a “dunderhead” on numerous occasions. We cannot know Whitsitt’s motives, but it is obvious he was not a big Boyce fan.

    David Brumbelow, I agree that professors should preach in small churches with regularity, at least those who are gifted to preach. I think all professors should at least be teaching in a local church context. This keeps us in front of “real” Christians on a regular basis who do not debate theology just for sport, like many collegians and seminarians.

    NAF

  13. Ben Brammer   •  

    Thank you Nathan.

  14. Benji Ramsaur   •  

    Nathan Finn has been a servant in coming to speak at the Neuse Baptist Association Minister’s Breakfast and in the local church sphere.

    I am tempted to pick on him, but I think I will refrain:). However, for those of you who see him, you must ask about “the hat” trick.

  15. Jeff Benfield   •  

    Great article. I don’t know that I want to read the book and know about the movements within the theologically elite, but I can testify that elitism is a turnoff, particularly for people trying to grow as well as those who are new to the church.

    This elitism comes across in several negative ways. People who don’t know the terms decline to participate in discussions where they can grow and be sharpened by iron. To an outsider, these ‘super intelligent’ folks can come across as unapproachable and keep those people who need to grow from thinking they can master the concepts.

    The ironic thing about our Christian belief and its concepts is that in reality, the important ones are so simple. Man, with our ego, tries to make them complex.

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