You won’t see them, but I’m shedding tears as I write this review. Not because author William Hull’s “Seminary in Crisis” is a bad book; far from it. It’s a brilliant and engaging book, a “must” read for anyone who cares as deeply as I do for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
No, I’m weeping deep down inside because, with his unmatchable gift for words, Hull has replayed in a graphic way the tragic story of the diversion of Southern Seminary from the purpose which James Pettigrew Boyce envisioned for it – the uniting of a diverse and divided people calling themselves Southern Baptists.
I’m weeping even more because an awful debilitating disease, Lou Gehrig’s, slowly eats away at the life of Hull and will keep him from the writing of a sequel setting forth in more detail the road Baptists in the American South might travel to make Boyce’s dream a reality in radically different circumstances and with a different set of challenges today.
The major focus of “Seminary in Crisis: The Strategic Response of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to the SBC Controversy” is the contrasting strategies of two presidents – Duke K. McCall and Roy L. Honeycutt – who guided the institution Boyce founded 150 years ago through one of the most critical periods of its history since its rebirth with only seven students at the end of the Civil War.
No one I know can equal Hull – student, professor of New Testament, dean and provost during the McCall years – in his understanding both of the personalities of these two presidents and in his analysis of the strategies they pursued in response to the “conservative resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention, and he, rightly I think, attributes their radically different strategies especially to their personalities and experience in Southern Baptist life.
He portrays McCall, with whom he worked closely from 1958 to 1975, as a hard-nosed “realist” toughened by immersion in denominational life from seminary days onward as pastor of an influential church, president of Baptist Bible Institute in New Orleans (in process of becoming New Orleans Seminary), executive secretary of the SBC Executive Committee, president of Southern, and, before retirement, president of the Baptist World Alliance.
McCall’s strategy, which his retirement in 1982 prevented him from implementing, was to line up financial and other resources that would enable Southern Seminary to survive independently of the SBC.
He portrays Honeycutt, whom he knew as a fellow student but with whom he would not have worked closely as he did with McCall, as an “idealist” who was, above all, a respected academic with some experience in business but none of the intensive engagement in denominational life that set the pattern for McCall’s leadership.
The Honeycutt strategy, which I think Hull has described fairly, accurately and with commendable insight, relied on a confidence in the “covenant” that bound the denomination to the seminary and the seminary to the denomination. When his “holy war” speech failed to rally enough moderates at Dallas in 1985 to wrest control from inerrantists, he chose the route of accommodation as the best way to save the institution and the people who were giving their lives to it.
Hull displays the qualities of a superb historian, objectivity and sympathetic insight, in his evaluation of these two strategies. One can only conjecture whether the McCall strategy to free the institution from denominational control might have worked, for the trustees, who had to make the key decisions, did not try it.
For those who think they should have because numerous colleges succeeded in doing it, Hull astutely notes how different are the constituencies of boards of colleges and the seminary – college boards are largely composed of lay persons with no dependence on the denomination, the seminary of clergy more dependent and far less secure in relation to the denomination.
The outcome of the Honeycutt strategy is clear: it eased the trauma of change and perhaps limited damage to the seminary while putting the reins of it fully in the hands of the inerrantists. Honeycutt did his best to protect faculty and staff, his colleagues for so many years, but by the time the inerrantist trustees eased him out, he had to watch with pain the departure of the majority of them.
You will want to know that Hull did not end his final testament as a scholar on so somber a note. He suggests that Southern Baptists should be able to try still in a new day to fulfill Boyce’s dreams. If they don’t, they should expect to continue the “free fall” that the denomination is now witnessing.
I can’t use space here to outline the ideas he has laid out so carefully in a few pages. He insists that there are no inherent reasons why conservatives and moderates cannot pursue theological education together in one outstanding school. He invokes the example of Fuller Seminary, which brought together conservatives and Pentecostals to become the largest evangelical seminary in the world.
I can only express the ardent hope and prayer that some other scholars and leaders with Hull’s intense concern for an educated ministry for Baptists might take up the challenge he offers in this final chapter.