The Story of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1950-2010 (Part Two)

Author’s note: This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is the second of four posts commemorating that history.

Seasons of Controversy and Change, 1974-1992

Upon President Binkley’s retirement in 1974, trustees elected Randall Lolley, then pastor of First Baptist Church of Winston-Salem, as the seminary’s third president. The seminary experienced numeric growth during much of Lolley’s tenure. Enrollment reached almost 1300 in 1982, which remained the record until the mid-1990s. In the early 1970s, a fully-accredited Associate of Divinity program was initiated to help educate non-traditional students who already possessed some ministry experience. In 1983, Southeastern launched a new faculty journal titled Faith and Mission. But by the early 1980s, the seminary was engulfed in another theological controversy, this time a Convention-wide imbroglio over theology and denominational politics. The election of Memphis pastor Adrian Rogers as SBC president in 1979 began a succession of conservative presidencies that continues to the present. All of the seminaries were accused of employing liberal professors who denied biblical inerrancy and embraced other left-of-center views. Southeastern was widely considered to be one of the most liberal of the seminaries. In response to conservative criticism, SBC “moderates,” a coalition of theological progressives and other Baptists committed to the pre-1979 status quo, branded the conservative dissenters as “fundamentalists” and accused them of hijacking the SBC through secular political tactics. Lolley publicly sided with the moderates.

Southern Baptists formed a Peace Committee in 1985, which was comprised of representative conservatives, moderates, and those heretofore neutral. That committee issued a report in 1987 that cited doctrinal issues as the root cause of the controversy. Southeastern was among the seminaries where the Peace Committee discovered pervasive progressive theology and open opposition to SBC conservatives. Several incidents raised the ire of conservatives, including a pro-feminist chapel service in 1984, the hiring of a female liberation theologian that same year, a controversial Sunday School lesson written by an Old Testament professor in 1985, and the establishment of a chapter of the American Association of University Professors in 1987. In the fall of 1987, conservatives claimed a majority on the seminary’s trustee board. Controversy reached a head in November 1987 when both Lolley and academic dean Morris Ashcraft announced their resignations. Lolley subsequently pastored moderate North Carolina Baptist churches in Raleigh and Greensboro, respectively.

In 1988, trustees elected Southern Seminary evangelism professor Lewis A. Drummond Southeastern’s fourth president. Drummond was a theological conservative with close ties to Billy Graham. Southwestern Seminary philosophy professor L. Russ Bush was hired as the new academic dean in 1989, despite a vote of “no confidence” from the faculty. Bush had co-authored the influential Baptists and the Bible (1980), a treatise arguing biblical inerrancy was the historic conviction among most Baptists. The already declining student enrollment continued to plummet, though the number of new student applications was rising. The pre-Drummond faculty began to retire or relocate, several of the latter choosing to teach at newly established moderate schools and programs such as the Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond and the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. A Center for Great Commission Studies was founded in 1990, reflecting Drummond’s longtime interests in evangelism and missions. Under the leadership of newly hired preaching professor Wayne McDill, Southeastern began to emphasize the importance of expositional preaching, a trend that continues to the present day. In 1992, Drummond announced his retirement and Criswell College president L. Paige Patterson was elected the seminary’s fifth president. Patterson was a respected evangelical theologian and a key architect of the conservative resurgence in the SBC.

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  1. David R. Brumbelow   •  

    I remember well the years you write about and the controversy at Southeastern. Dr. Lolley was one of the firebrands on the moderate side during the Conservative Resurgence. Thank the Lord for the change, and the biblical stand Southeastern now takes.
    David R. Brumbelow

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  4. Gene Scarborough   •  

    I find this segment to imply the faculty was only “moderate,” when I was a student in 1967-70 and closely related to the Seminary as their representative with Ministers Life Insurance Company.

    As a salesman with “no ax to grind” or I would immediately not be able to sell our products, I assumed the attitude of “silent observer.”

    My personal knowledge of Leo Green / John Wayland / Thomas Bland to just name a few, is of men with conservative theologial views doing their job of presenting the entire picture of church and theology. Dr. Bland, for one, started the Urban Studies Seminar and I was in the first.

    It was a practical survey of churches and denominations in and around Wake County. It was a-political. I never in public or private heard any of these 3 plus others utter a word against CR.

    I recommend you go down the list of faculty at the time and clearly cite how many were “liberal” vs. how many were just plain well-educated men of God with an education to give their students so that we might be fair and balanced in our undertanding of religion.

    Your characterization of Randall Lolley is totally skewed as you imply he was a “liberal.” He was a Pastor’s Pastor and brought the best years of practical theology and “being Baptist” to the Seminary.

    Further, you fail to show how much the student body decreased after he left as well as the academic problems generated for the SACS accrediting agency. For a while they almost lost accredidation for reasons of Administrative activities of the Trustees.

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