At SBTS, Fidelity Matters: A Friendly Response to Dave Doran

At SBTS, Fidelity Matters: A Friendly Response to Dave Doran June 30, 2009

For those of you who did not follow my post about the Southern Seminary sesquicentennial and the subsequent discussion it sparked, Andy Naselli put together a nice blog about the two sides related to the McCall Pavilion controversy at Southern.  I’ll skip a lengthy summary and say this: Greg Gilbert and Mark Rogers agreed with my take on SBTS naming a pavilion after professed SBC “moderate” Duke McCall, and fundamentalist leader Dave Doran disagreed with it. 

I read the remarks of all and have chewed on them for a few days now.  I wanted to offer just a few thoughts by way of response to Dr. Doran, who is by the accounts of several friends a godly man and an excellent Christian leader.  I do not know him (though I would love to), and I am not interested in anything other than friendly, stimulating discussion over things that matter.  I write as a young man conversing with an elder and better.

First, very briefly, Mark has some great thoughts that relate to how we Christians of all stripes can be terribly blind to our own sins even as we challenge others for their own alleged problems.  Mark shows that even as some fundamentalists have warned their brothers and sisters about potential sins, these same people (not Doran) tragically served and defended a flagship fundamentalist school that perpetuated unbiblical teaching (a legacy graduates of this school, dear friends of mine included, utterly repudiate).  This is not an indictment of all or even most fundamentalists.  But Mark does make a great point, one that sounds a cautionary note for all of us who sometimes see faults in our brothers and sisters without recognizing our own significant sins.

Second, in Doran’s response to Greg Gilbert’s 9Marks post supporting SBTS’s decision to name the pavilion after McCall, he wrote this:

“Why does expressing disagreement and asking a question about an action qualify as “carp[ing] at Al Mohler”? I am disappointed by this line of response, but it seems to be standard fare for our culture these days. I don’t think Greg would accuse Mark Dever of “carping at” whomever simply because Mark expressed disagreement with some action by or idea of that person. Why make this about Al Mohler?”

I have no comments on the “carping” language.  I would, however, say that with all due respect, I think that Greg (and Mark) is right to make the Pavilion decision about Al Mohler (and, by proxy, the cabinet he represents).  One cannot abstract SBTS’s decision from Mohler’s character and theological vision, after all.  As with all matters relating to Southern Seminary, especially important ones, Al Mohler and his theological platform is deeply involved. 

Why is this important?  Because Greg shows in his post that Al Mohler has proven himself to be concerned with the proclamation and defense of truth to the most serious extent.  Over and over again in his presidential career, Mohler has defended orthodoxy at personal cost.  Though I see room for disagreement on this point, and concede that Dr. Doran thinks well and speaks persuasively for his case, I believe that this point is about Al Mohler, and have to respectfully disagree with him.

Let me illustrate.  If another president had undertaken the same action as Mohler, but did not have a track record of sacrificial defense of orthodoxy, I would share Doran’s reservations.  This is not to say that Mohler is infallible–nothing of the sort.  But it is helpful as a thought experiment to consider how differently I would feel if the president in question had a track record of vacillating on difficult questions.  Al Mohler, to be blunt, does not.  Whether or not one agrees with every decision he has made, no Christian who seeks a posture of fairness and historical credibility can claim that he has not faithfully and at great personal cost defended biblical orthodoxy at Southern and–furthermore–that this defense (or defensive offense, as I would prefer to say) has not been remarkably blessed by God such that SBTS has turned out thousands of graduates who love the Word and want nothing more than to be faithful to the Lord of it. 

Al Mohler and all other Christian leaders are sinful, fallible, and in need of accountability.  I do not think that Dr. Mohler, a personal mentor, is above making mistakes, even grievous ones.  None of us is.  We all depend more than we will know in this life on the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit.  With that said, Al Mohler has earned the trust of conservative Christians.  Not an unthinking trust, but a robust trust nonetheless.  Indeed, Mohler’s decision speaks not of theological compromise, but of graciousness of a sort that most of us lack.  In the sesquicentennial ceremony, Mohler did not state agreement with McCall’s theology.  He did not go back on previous statements.  Rather, he honored a man who served Southern Seminary.  This man did not have the kind of ministry that conservatives seek.  But neither, for that matter, did a number of Southern’s presidents.  Naming a pavilion after a president does not signal endorsement of his theology.  It signals a gracious recognition that, for better or worse, this person served SBTS in an executive capacity.  In McCall’s case, he did so for over three decades. 

Shifting gears, Doran is right that the neo-evangelical leaders of Fuller Theological Seminary started out strong and quickly lost their theological bearings.  As with Doran’s distaste for theological liberalism of the kind that infected SBTS for decades, I share his concerns about the early years of Fuller.  Furthermore, Doran is right, I think, to sound a note of caution about all institutions that seem biblically faithful.  The academic and ecclesial world is chock full of groups and churches that started strong but drifted away from the truth of the Word.  None of us can assume that because we stand today, we will stand tomorrow. 

With those important caveats noted, Fuller does have some important differences from SBTS.  I am studying the neo-evangelicals in my doctoral work and thus am comfortable offering at least a tentative word on the matter.  E. J. Carnell, second president of Fuller, was a far less stable man than Al Mohler, both spiritually and constitutionally.  Fuller itself had a vastly weaker doctrinal and theological base than Southern.  It struggled to find a confessional home in its early years, a fact which immediately separates it from SBTS.  Of course, a school still has to adhere to its confession, but the point stands. 

Fuller was poorly managed in some cases, with a distance president (the subject, dv, of my future dissertation, Harold John Ockenga) and a founder, Charles Fuller, who knew little about academic theology (at a day when it could be very difficult to tell the difference between Barthians and evangelicals).  In addition, the Fuller faculty worked themselves to the bone in large part because the school–at great cost–set out from its inception to singlehandedly mount the great intellectual defense of Christianity.  This played into hiring decisions.  Subsequently, a large part of the faculty that Fuller attracted cared far too much for secular credibility and far too little for biblical fidelity. Examples abound on this point–see Rudolph Nelson’s fascinating The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind, on E. J. Carnell, and the recent biography of G. E. Ladd, A Place at the Table

Southern Seminary is not immune to such drifts.  I stress this yet again because I want it to be clear that I believe it.  However, the Southern faculty, a group with which I am personally well acquainted, has a different orientation than the Fuller faculty.  The school constantly stresses in chapel and in print that it is seeking to be faithful to Christ above all other ends.  The faculty is, as a whole, richly talented, but they seek to build the church, not to please the academy.  Many professors pastor churches or are elders in churches, a point of huge divergence between Southern and Fuller (and many contemporary evangelical seminaries).  This naturally makes it a little harder for some faculty members to publish as much as they otherwise would, but the seminary’s leadership celebrates its theologian-pastors, its scholarly churchmen.  SBTS could drift again, as Doran rightly points out, but the seminary in my view is on an excellent course at present.

Dave Doran is clearly a man concerned with truth and the Word.  I stand proudly beside him on these points.  I do disagree with his conclusions about the pavilion decision, but I want very much to take his words seriously and to be constantly wary of my sin.  That is not Doran’s emphasis, after all, but Scripture’s.  Though we may disagree on the matter discussed above, I am quite certain that we agree on this last point, one that shapes our faith and guides our steps.

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