My Visit to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (March 26, 2015)
Several weeks ago I received a nice letter from President Paige Patterson of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas—the largest seminary in the world. (It is one of six seminaries officially affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.) The letter expressed appreciation for some of my writings. Dr. Patterson also expressed a desire to meet me sometime, so I responded cordially and said I would be happy to come to SWBTS to meet with him and, if he wished, to speak in any venue he deemed appropriate. To make a long story short, last evening (Thursday, March 26, 2015) I dined with Dr. Patterson and his wife at their home on the SWBTS campus and then participated in a forum with Dr. Patterson attended by about two hundred students, faculty and pastors. The subject of the forum was “Soteriology” but it was promoted around campus as a discussion of Calvinism and alternatives.
I was treated very well by everyone at SWBTS even though some of the questions to me were very pointed—especially about some of my “musings” here on my blog. Everyone was respectful, even in disagreement, and the whole event was extremely civil in spite of some areas of clear disagreement (e.g., “inerrancy”). The forum lasted about ninety minutes and then I was off for home—another ninety minute drive. But I was so “pumped up” by the conversation that I had trouble falling asleep when I finally collapsed into bed much later than usual.
I don’t write here about every speaking engagement, but this one was a “historic moment” in at least two senses.
First, it was my first time on the SWBTS campus even though I’ve lived not far from it for sixteen years. (I did drive around it once before—just to see it.) Over the years I have had many “brushes” with SWBTS mainly through its graduates and faculty members. When I attended seminary at least two of my professors were SWBTS graduates who sometimes spoke glowingly of their alma mater. I went to Rice University for my Ph.D. partly to study with John Newport, a Baptist philosopher of religion and theologian who taught for many years at SWBTS. He resigned from Rice just one year after I arrive there to return to SWBTS to become its provost. I kept up a relationship with Dr. Newport for many years and he tried to recruit me to teach at SWBTS. When I was studying with Pannenberg in Germany SWBTS professor Yandall Woodfin was our interim pastor (at Munich International Baptist Church). Later SWBTS professor Bert Dominey left there and became my colleague for several years before his retirement.
I have known of Paige Patterson for many, many years—by reputation. He is a giant in Southern Baptist life and very well-known among evangelical Christians in the U.S. generally. He has served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, of Criswell College (Dallas) and of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina. He is extremely well read. (I was given a tour of the president’s house and saw his private library of twenty-seven thousand volumes mostly in biblical studies and theology.) I appreciate the hospitality he and his wife Dorothy showed me in their home and at SWBTS generally.
Second, this was a historic event because I have moved in moderate Baptist circles for many years whereas Dr. Patterson and SWBTS (at least for the past couple of decades) are decidedly conservative among Baptists. (Some label them “fundamentalist.”) A great gulf has existed between the Baptist circles I move in and those Dr. Patterson moves in and leads. My dining with Dr. Patterson and his wife in the president’s house and then sitting with him on a platform (just the two of us) for a forum with SWBTS students and faculty seems to him and to me a turning point in Baptist relations. Not that we agree on everything; that will almost certainly never happen. But we agreed to disagree in a cordial, friendly manner accepting each other as good Christians and Baptists. This has not always been the case throughout the so-called “Baptist wars” of the past 35 years. (Sometimes it takes an “outsider.” I have never been Southern Baptist.)
Dr. Patterson and I share much common ground. We both love Southern Gospel music and profoundly miss singing of “old hymns” and gospel songs in contemporary evangelical churches. Of course we both love Jesus and the Bible. We agree that Baptist history is rooted in the radical Reformation and that the Anabaptists are Baptists’ spiritual ancestors. I suspect the main agreement that brought me to SWBTS is about Calvinism. Dr. Patterson does not consider himself an Arminian and I do, but we are both critical of especially high, classical, “five point” Calvinism—which is, of course, growing among Baptists and evangelicals generally.
My purpose in appearing at SWBTS was not to “bash Calvinism,” however, but to present alternatives to it—mainly classical Arminian theology. I hope that was adequately accomplished last evening. But my greater hope is that evangelical Christians of all tribes and types can meet and enjoy fellowship and conversation in spite of deep disagreements. I felt that hope growing among us yesterday.