The Southern Baptist Convention’s Conservative Resurgence produced more than a few controversial lines, perhaps none more so than Adrian Rogers’ “pickles have souls.” In 1987, while serving as SBC president, Rogers quipped, “If Southern Baptists believe that pickles have souls, then the Southern Baptist seminary professors must teach that.” What Rogers meant as hyperbole, moderates took as an offense, and a firestorm of criticism ensued.
Rogers’ argument was straightforward—Southern Baptists founded, funded, and governed their seminaries, thus they have the right to determine what is taught in their institutions. Yet, his statement brushed up against an ever-present tension in Christian higher education, especially theological education: balancing confessional integrity with academic freedom.
The Myth of Academic Freedom
In theory, academic freedom permits one to pursue research, regardless of where it leads, and express opinion with impunity. In fact, it is often appropriated as a trump card, a permission slip for progressive views and questionable beliefs.
Upon careful reflection, unfettered academic freedom is more fiction than fact. In the secular university, where academic freedom is most championed, if a professor advocates a Young Earth Theory of creation, suggests gender distinction is right and healthy, or opposes same-sex marriage, he will likely find a chilly reception in the faculty lounge.
Moreover, let a professor get sideways with a leading benefactor, offend the sensitivities of a vocal student group, or draw the ire of a key constituency, and watch the edifice of academic freedom crumble. As long as the political correctness police are alive and well, unmitigated academic freedom is more fiction than fact anyway.
Confessionalism as an Institutional Necessity
In the context of Christian higher education, confessional rigidity is essential to perpetuate Christian belief and witness. Scripture is replete with exhortations for believers to steward and preserve the Christian faith. Appeals like “retain the standard of sound words,” “contend earnestly for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints,” and “guard the truth” stand as theological admonitions, apostolic injunctions for believers.
Moreover, the history of higher education reveals that the majority of schools started as Christian institutions have drifted from their founding beliefs and neglected their original mission. There simply is no way to ensure a distinctively Christian institution without a confessional commitment—one with teeth.
This confessional commitment must include a statement that is as clear and comprehensive as possible; a faculty that keep it with full integrity; a president who vigilantly guards the integrity of the process; a governing board that provides ongoing oversight and accountability; and, most especially, churches that remain engaged with their institutions. Churches who fail to exercise oversight will likely become victims of the very institutions they founded. Dirty faucets always pollute clean basins.
Confessionalism, not Capricious Populism
In the context of the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence, earlier versions of the Baptist Faith & Message served as a denominational reference point that revealed doctrinal drift and as a standard to which the denomination’s entities should submit. Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler awakened Southern Baptists to this theological drift and galvanized a corrective movement, eventually bringing the entities back in line with the churches’ confessional expectations.
At its heart, the Conservative Resurgence was a confessional awakening, not merely a populist reaction. This is not to deny that the Conservative Resurgence was a populist movement, but the movement’s casus belli was doctrinal decline, its arguments were doctrinal arguments, and its end result was a doctrinal recovery. This is the antithesis of reactionary, impulsive populism.
At the same time, a confessional statement not only provides accountability for an entity, but it also adds an element of stability and expectation. It guards the instructional staff from impulsive reaction, doctrinal spontaneity, or pressure from a constituency’s vocal minority. On the one hand, it tethers the school to the theological expectations of the churches, and on the other hand, it protects the school and its faculty from unpredictable or impetuous shifts.
Confessionalism in the Classroom
The classroom is the ultimate intersection of confessional integrity and academic freedom, and it is precisely where the distinction between advocating and informing must be maintained. There is a significant difference between the two.
Old Testament professors should inform their students of the Documentary Hypothesis, and New Testament professors should apprise their students of the New Perspective on Paul. Theology professors should explain Open Theism, and preaching professors should engage reader-response hermeneutics.
There is, however, a huge difference between informing and advocating. By informing, professors are presenting and critiquing thought systems and educating students to do the same. By advocating, the professor persuades the student to believe and defend truth, to reject heterodoxy, and to give the students the equipment to so teach others.
A Prophetic Voice, with Integrity
What if a seminary finds itself out of step with its denomination’s beliefs? The best example might be racial segregation and 20th century Baptist life. Though segregation was not expressed confessionally, the majority of mid-20th century Southern Baptists favored racial segregation. The SBC seminaries, and especially Southern Seminary, found themselves out of step with the denomination.
In circumstances such as this, a seminary can be a prophetic voice to its constituency and can function like a gyroscope, as Southern Seminary’s then president, Duke McCall, famously argued. Here, the moral responsibility is to persuade, with integrity, the seminary’s constituency, like McCall and others did concerning racial integration.
Additionally, there are times when a confession of faith might well need to be amended. Whether to address a newly minted doctrinal aberration or to cogently articulate a belief previous generations could safely assume—such is the burden of leadership in a Christian community. Hence, the BF&M has been revised several times over the past century. That’s not surreptitiousness—that’s leadership.
The Buck Stops Somewhere
Citing Rogers’ “pickles have souls” comment, Mercer University President Bill Underwood criticized confessionalism, arguing, “Under this idea, we would have spiritual masters to tell us what to teach, what to learn, and what to believe.” Underwood presents a naïve view of teaching, and a tendentious reading of Southern Baptist history. Every time teaching takes place, someone is encouraging someone else how to think and what to believe. That is the essence of pedagogy.
Moreover, there will always be thought police. The question is, will it be from an academic society, a vocal student group, an unwieldy donor, pop culture, or some other pressure of influence? The buck should stop with the confessional statement, and in the pews of those who founded, funded, and established the institution, not in the faculty lounge, professional societies, or pop culture.
In hindsight, Rogers’ “pickles have souls” ranks alongside Paul Pressler’s “going for the jugular”—a hyperbolic statement, taken out of context, that proved unhelpful to the Conservative Resurgence. Yet embedded within it, a truth lingers on: academic expression should be subjugated to one’s confessional expectation.
Do pickles have souls? Hardly. But if the churches that founded, funded, and own an institution had codified the belief into their statement of faith, the absurdity would be in the belief itself, not in their right to insist on its adherence.
 II Timothy 1:13–14; Jude 1:3
 Bill Underwood, Address to Baylor University, December 2005.