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.