Let the history, when written, tell only of the toils and trials and sacrifices, and wisdom and purdence and foresight, and prayers and tears and faith, of the people of God to whom the institution will have owed its existence and its possibilites of blessing. (vii)
-James P. Boyce
I had a professor in seminary once comment that most biographies and historical books fall into one of two categories: hagiography or critical analysis. To err on either side does not make a book worthless. But it is important to be aware of the bias of the author going into the book. The facts of history are what they are, but they must be interpreted and presented . And in there lies much of the bias.
Consider the 1959 book A History of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary by William A Mueller. The book was published on the century anniversary of my alma mater, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I have read most of the sesquicentennial history of SBTS by Gregory Willis published in 2009 simple entitled Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009. The two books tell the same history (at least regarding the first one hundred years) yet they read like two different stories.
I was alerted to this a number of years ago in conversation with an older minister who graduated from SBTS prior to the conservative resurgence at Southern. He was bitter about the latter volume and criticized it for rewriting history. That comment has remained with me ever since. Therefore, I picked up Mueller’s history recently to investigate how the original history was written and the liberal bias is overwhelming.
Southern Seminary opened its doors in 1859 in Greenville, South Carolina. Due to the Civil War, it temporarily closed its doors and eventually moved to Louisville, KY where it remains today. Its founding faculty are key to understanding the history and legacy of the school. This is both the strength and the weakness of Mueller’s volume. All four men, James P. Boyce, John Broadus, William Williams, and Basil Manily, Jr., were ardent Calvinists who defended orthodoxy vigorously while promoting academic excellence.
In Mueller’s history, we are given that portrait with extra paint. Throughout the story, especially regarding the founding faculty, the author struggles to make the first four faculty members to be more liberal than what they actually were. It is important to note that throughout the book, the comments are slight, yet the agenda is clear.
Prior to establishing SBTS, Dr. Boyce insisted the school be founded on a confessional document as a means of protecting it from heterodoxy. This document, written by Basil Manly, Jr., is known as the Abstract of Principles and is still in force today. Regarding this confession, Mueller notes, “The Abstract of Principles is still in force. Dr. W. O. Carver has suggested that if it were composed today, certain changes might be made in this instrument . . .” (31-32) Though he would go on to largely praise the document, it is comments like this that liter the text.
His survey of Boyce, which dominates a chapter and a quarter, has consistent liberalization of the record. Regarding his systematic theology textbook, the author writes, “one will understand the vigor and persuasiveness of his position despite its evident methodological limitations.” (58) He then notes “Boyce’s high regard for textual criticism” and his “insight into the peculiar problematic of interpreting the Scriptures.” (58)
Or consider the following comment:
Whatever may have been the limitations of James P. Boyce’s theological outlook, one fact seems clear: his thinking had not yet been eroded by the impact either of liberal or romanticizing tendencies of his age. Dr. Boyce’s theology still had some of the “intellectual defenses of historic Puritanism” which, according to Dr. Hudson, had been dismantled by the work of men like Horace Bushnell, Mark Hopkins, an other neoromantic evangelicals. (61)
The author lays his cards on the table here. He places Bushnell ahead of Boyce. That is problematic as Bushnell was a heterodox liberal.*
Regarding John Broadus, the second president of the seminary, the author highlights his commentary on Matthew. Mueller almost seems surprised that Broadus would interact with some of the chronological challenges of the Gospels. The author unnecessarily walks the reader through a number of these and explores what Broadus had to say on each of them.
Likewise, Mueller highlights Broadus’ apparent hesitation to interpret “righteousness” in the Gospels in the Pauline sense. He writes:
It is highly illuminating to observe how Dr. Broadus was careful not to read Pauline ideas back into the Synoptic Gospels. At least four passages in the Gospels dealing with the idea of righteousness . . . come under Broadus’ critical review. In all these passages he rightly held that the idea of imputed righteousness, so evident in Paul’s writings, is absent. (73)
For those familiar with liberal theology, this is a crucial distinction.
Likewise, he informs the reader that “Dr. Broadus came to the conclusion that the Lord’s Prayer need not be considered original.” (74) Even more striking is when he asserts, “Dr. Broadus firmly yet modestly stated the case for Jesus the Christ, Son of man and Son of God. The language he employed was chaste and simple.” (75) What an odd way to report Broadus’ orthodoxy. He was not an orthodox Baptist full of doubt. He was an ardent defender of the faith!
Finally, consider the following:
But – and this is a most significant point – Broadus also made it clear that while the Word of God is true, “it does not follow that our interpretations are infallible.” Dr. Broadus affirmed himself to be an advocate of progressive orthodoxy. (81)
No he wasn’t. The writer wants us to associate Broadus with the word “progressive.”
This same pattern is followed regarding the biography of Manly. For example, he is described as being “solid though often overly cautious conservative without, however, ever being bereft of his critical faculties.” (87-88) So conservative believers refuse to use their mind?
This is the pattern throughout the book. Mueller inserts his liberal bias even if it requires him forcing it. Regarding the Crawford Toy controversy, his sympathy to the fired faculty is evident. He emphasizes the boards hesitancy in accepting his resignation and Boyce’s famous meeting with him afterward. Throughout the narrative, however, Mueller describes his theology in shocking ways. For example, while discussing the biography of Manly, Toy’s theology is described as being “advanced.” (96)
Overall, I appreciated Mueller’s approach to writing the story of the first one hundred years of Southern, but am disappointed by the clear bias of its writer. Having considered Mueller’s history of Southern, I disagree with the man I met a number of years ago. The story had to be rewritten and updated and I would recommend Willis’ volume. The liberal hijacking of Southern Seminary is its saddest chapter. Unfortantely, this book was written as those days were just beginning.
*Later, Mueller favorably references Friedrich Schleiermacher. See page 85.