For the first time in eight years I am not the president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Early last November I initiated a process of transition that came to completion at midnight on June 30.
Why leave the presidency? I have both positive and negative reasons. I shall mention just two.
On the positive side, I have for some time experienced an increasing concern for a different area of ministry. My training and gifts are more academic and literary than they are organizational and political. While both kinds of gifts and functions are important, the community that I serve (Baptist fundamentalism) has a far fewer number of writers than it has politicians.
This imbalance has resulted in a network of individuals, churches, and institutions that has been much more effective at perpetuating (and sometimes enforcing) loyalty to slogans, organizations, and leaders than it has been at explaining ideas and working through their implications. Flaccid thinking has led, first, to a very tenuous grasp of core principles and, secondarily, to an increasing inability to apply those principles to new and changing circumstances. This is the situation that I most wish to address, and I have slowly become convinced that I cannot address it effectively from the position of president.
When I accepted the presidency of Central Seminary, I entertained rather a facile notion of how the position would function. In my naivety, I thought of a seminary president as a senior faculty member, an institutional coordinator, and a theological anchor. I believed that I had seen this model exemplified in presidents like Rolland McCune and Douglas McLachlan. During and since the era of their presidential service, however, the expectations and official functions of a seminary president have changed.
The environment of higher education in Baptist fundamentalism has also been changing rapidly. For one thing, mainstream, historic fundamentalism has been shrinking, and the hemorrhaging has increased over the past decade. Many young men are abandoning fundamentalism for what they perceive as the more vital theology of conservative evangelicalism. Some older leaders are being sucked into a vitriolic theology (the various permutations of King James Onlyism) and a corrosive vision of Christian life, ministry, and leadership.
Caught between these two forces (conservative evangelicalism and hyper-fundamentalism), mainstream fundamentalism has not only dwindled, but has also begun to fragment. The fissures have been noticeable for some time, but they have widened into noticeable fractures during the past two or three years.
While mainstream fundamentalism has been dwindling, it has also been multiplying educational institutions. The result has been a needless but general dilution of educational integrity coupled with a sharp rise in each institution’s attempts to differentiate itself from competitors in the marketplace. As institutions become more concerned with markets than with real effectiveness, they unavoidably make choices that are designed not so much to help students as to appeal to them. These choices, if widely adopted and fully implemented, will almost certainly prove disastrous in the long run. Fundamentalists have taken educational shortcuts before, and we are still paying the price.
All of this brings up my negative reason for leaving the presidency of Central Seminary. It is simply this. Institutional presidents are poorly placed for the articulation of ideas, and yet my burden and my skills are precisely to flesh these out.
For one thing, fundamentalists have witnessed too many generations of leaders who were willing to use the power of their organizations to manipulate the loyalties and behaviors of pastors and churches. Consequently, many have come to expect that any pronouncement from a president is also a demand for conformity. Typically they assume that such demands will be enforced through deployment of whatever power has been centralized in the institution.
For another thing, fundamentalists are accustomed to institutions in which personnel walk in lockstep. When the president expresses an opinion, he is assumed to be delivering the official view of his organization. Certainly disagreement would never be expressed in public. Indeed, in many fundamentalist circles it would be unthinkable for a president to expect and accept (let alone encourage) vigorous dissent within his staff or faculty. For ideas to be refined, however, they must also be graciously challenged.
What complicates this situation is that some of my opinions and even convictions are rarely held within mainstream fundamentalism. Some personnel at Central Seminary agree, while others think that I am simply stodgy. Outsiders, however, do not see this internal disagreement or the cordial ways in which it is argued. They assume that whatever I do or say must be the official position of the seminary, and that some sort of institutional power will be deployed to enforce conformity.
In short, I have discovered that the political dimension of fundamentalism dominates virtually every observation that a president offers. Contrary to popular opinion, there is a fundamentalist network. Maintaining one’s institution as a viable entity within that network involves keeping certain gears well lubricated, and disagreement is usually taken as an affront. The president of an agency like a seminary can hardly make a pronouncement or offer an observation that does not have political overtones.
This means that no one is less free to express an opinion than a seminary president. Many (perhaps most) fundamentalists cannot imagine a president whose overriding concern is simply to persuade others on the strength of ideas alone. This is especially a problem when that president’s ideas represent a deviation from (and therefore a threat to) their institutional ethos as they perceive it.
The fact is that I can say more, and risk less misunderstanding, as a research professor than as a president. The only power that I want is the power of instruction and persuasion, the power to make the truth evident. Die Wahrheit ist untödlich.
In short, there are books and articles that need to be written. God willing, I intend to write at least some of them. Some of the writing will be critical, but most of it will aim to articulate and defend the concerns that ought to propel us. My burden has resonated with the board of Central Seminary, and those good men have sacrificially created the opportunity for me to devote myself to teaching, reading, and writing. For their step of faith I am deeply grateful.
Ere the Blue Heavens Were Stretch’d Abroad
Isaac Watts (1674 –1748)
The deity and humanity of Christ. John i. 1-3, 14; Col. i.16.
Ere the blue heav’ns were stretch’d abroad,
From everlasting was the Word;
With God he was; the Word was God,
And must divinely be ador’d.
By his own power were all things made;
By him supported all things stand;
He is the whole creation’s head,
And angels fly at his command.
Ere sin was born, or Satan fell,
He led the host of morning stars;
(Thy generation who can tell,
Or count the number of thy years?)
But lo, he leaves those heavenly forms,
The Word descends and dwells in clay,
That he may hold converse with worms,
Dress’d in such feeble flesh as they.
Mortals with joy beheld his face,
Th’ eternal Father’s only Son;
How full of truth! how full of grace!
When thro’ his eyes the Godhead shone!
Archangels leave their high abode
To learn new mysteries here, and tell
The loves of our descending God,
The glories of Immanuel.