Designations of golden eras tend to occur long in hindsight, aided by nostalgia and abetted by old souls viewing history through rose-colored glasses. This is to say, in actual terms golden eras rarely—if ever—exist. But in relative terms, the early 21st century may well be the SBC’s Golden Era of theological education.
On what basis can one argue Southern Baptists are now enjoying a golden era of theological education? When considering the current state of theological education in the SBC, especially in light of its historical context and theological education’s broader landscape, eight particular strengths emerge that buttress the case.
First, SBC seminaries are more theologically conservative than they have been in a century. In each Southern Baptist seminary, uniformly, the professors are inerrantists. They covenant to teach in accordance with and not contrary to the Baptist Faith & Message 2000—and they in fact do just that. The BF&M 2000 is by far the most theologically conservative, convention-wide confession ever adopted by the SBC. Moreover, accompanying this confessional standard is a living, actual commitment to it by trustees, administration, and faculty.
Second, the SBC seminaries’ faculties are notably accomplished. A faculty can be theologically conservative yet scholastically unaccomplished. Thankfully, this is not the case in the SBC. Southern Baptist professors are a cottage industry of publishing and academic output. They are widely respected throughout, and even beyond, the broader evangelical world. For instance, SBC personalities now account for nearly 1/3 of presentations at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, and often provide leadership of the same.
Third, the SBC seminaries are larger—in actual and relative numbers—than ever before. Indeed, the SBC seminaries are massive in size, with total head-count enrollment pushing 18,000 students. Each one of the six SBC seminaries ranks in the top ten largest seminaries in North America—of any and all denominations. Even the smaller SBC institutions are some 10 times larger than the average ATS-accredited seminary in North America. Our footprint has never been larger.
Fourth, the SBC seminaries are producing high-quality graduates. Twenty years ago, when conservative SBC seminary presidents looked to fill faculty slots, they often had to hire Baptists serving in institutions outside of the SBC. In other words, we had more open professorates than qualified candidates to fill them. Now, the opposite is true. Midwestern Seminary, and each of the Southern Baptist Seminaries, has a waiting list of highly qualified graduates who desire to teach in our institutions.
Fifth, the SBC seminaries are complementing institutions. While each SBC seminary operates in alignment with the BF&M 2000, each institution has its own identity, culture, strengths, and ministry emphases. This variety is good and right, and both reflects and serves the unity in essentials, diversity in non-essentials nature of the SBC.
Sixth, the SBC seminaries remain affordable. Affordability is not a newly realized strength of SBC seminaries. Thanks to Southern Baptists’ relentless generosity through the Cooperative Program, affordability has long been a mainstay. What is remarkable is how SBC institutions remain affordable in light of the relative weakening of the Cooperative Program and the escalating costs of higher education. Indeed, most comparable evangelical institutions charge more than twice what SBC seminaries charge Southern Baptist students.
Seventh, the SBC seminaries are more accessible than ever. The advent of online education, modular and hybrid class options, and the near round-the-clock scheduling of residential education means one can literally receive theological education from anywhere on the globe, anytime. Moreover, resources beyond the classroom, like conferences, intensive classes, free publications, and online content, all have forward deployed theological education.
Eighth, the SBC seminaries are on mission. The conservative redirection of the seminaries brought with it a renewed emphasis on the Great Commission and serving the local church. In the final analysis—and as I’ve argued elsewhere—these priorities should set a seminary’s agenda. Thankfully, for Southern Baptist seminaries these are primary, not secondary considerations.
In light of these realities, and many more, I believe the SBC is in its golden era of theological education. But I am hoping, and laboring, for it to be an already/not yet reality. I pray that our seminaries will be ever strengthening, and ever expanding, so this golden era is a protracted one. But for now, where does this leave us? In Part III we shall consider observations and suggestions for SBC theological education in the 21st century.topicsSouthern Baptist Convention, theological education