Reading Christianity Today’s article on Dr. Albert Mohler titled “The Reformer” was genuinely perplexing and, well, disappointing.

Now, I’ll admit that my response is coming from a particular perspective: I’m a student at Southern Seminary nearing completion of my MDiv.

Yet one need not be biased in order to capture accurate history.

The article, largely a profile on the varied roles of Mohler, casts the entirety of his career in the shadow of controversy—controversial seminary president, controversial (Calvinist) doctrinal ombudsman, controversial Southern Baptist statesman, controversial cultural pundit, etc.

Aside from being rightly labeled as “condescending” by Justin Taylor, the article is irksome for its unnecessary jabs. In tune with Taylor’s post, the biases of the author are worth further examination.  Her inadequate handling of Southern, I believe, skews the rest of her article and contributes to the inaccurate “controversialist” label levied against Mohler.

Worthen is obviously an excellent writer with a penchant for the interesting and insightful. She captured Albert Mohler’s love for and contributions to the Southern Baptist Convention. The article spoke, generally, to the intellectual vigor harnessed by Southern Seminary students. And it grasps well the transitional point in which the SBC finds itself, specifically addressing the “tribal identity” that Southern Baptists find themselves in. All well and good.

Southern Seminary

I’m inclined to protest the article because Worthen interprets the history and controversy at Southern Seminary only in part. She’s not altogether wrong, but offers instead a truncated understanding. And one cannot understand  Albert Mohler without a proper backdrop of Southern Seminary’s war-torn past.

Southern’s troubled theological past went far beyond accommodation or “espousing a version of Christianity then alien to the Baptist pew.” This is the way moderates and liberals positioned themselves during the crisis—as the true inheritors of the Baptist tradition. If this were the truth, one would think that the problems at Southern Seminary were only a lurking, latent Presbyterianism.

But what transpired at Southern Seminary was, well, transgression. Past professors are understood to have either implicitly or explicitly expressed radical feminist views, promoted abortion, questioned the inerrancy of Scripture and its inspiration, and also cast doubts on traditional understandings of Christology (Virgin Birth, Resurrection, Deity). Greg Wills, Professor of Church History at Southern Seminary, goes to great lengths in his excellent history book on Southern Seminary by highlighting the “doublespeak” of its professors. Professors were notorious for confessing their true opinions in the classroom and camouflaging them in the pulpits. The controversy lay volatile, yet dormant for years, as professors were difficult to expose due to tenure and forthright reluctance to clarify their positions when asked their true views.  In turn, the presidency of Mohler indicated the apex of controversy and the collapse of an already fledgling liberal minority.

It seemed that Worthen’s article played down the severity of these problems, implying that Mohler went looking for controversy against a beleaguered theological minority. Such was not the case. The controversies as Southern Seminary, found Mohler—who contained the tenacity and intellect to counter progressive waves within a traditionally conservative seminary and denomination. Had Worthen been willing to investigate the severe heresy present at Southern Seminary, I think she would have found an Albert Mohler no so much looking for a fight, but an Albert Mohler willing to confront the problem and correct it. It’s boldness, not controversy, that described Mohler.

As Trevin Wax noted, Worthen also lessened Southern’s commitments to its own charter: The Abstract of Principles. Without a robust understanding of confessional education, one can hardly understand how far Southern had drifted from its first principles. Alas, quotes meant to embolden liberal rhetoric, those from Glenn Hinson (former professor) and Joe Phelps (a liberal baptist pastor in Louisville) are surely inadequate. Both of these men lead churches and movements hardly identifiable with evangelicalism, Southern Baptists, and many traditional components of Christian orthdoxy. Worthen is seeking both sides of the debate, but her presentation of Mohler is far  more biting than are her investigations into liberals and moderates.

It’s in the context of Southern’s reformation, as guided by Mohler, that critics of Mohler wrongly paint tenure, caricature him as an “articulate controversialist” when in reality he represents the epitome and caliber of evangelical social thought and ethics. Seen this way, there’s hardly anything controversial about Mohler insofar as one accepts traditional evangelical views regarding homosexuality, women’s roles, abortion, and the doctrine of inspiration.

In the end, the article downplays the unflinching, strident heresy present at Southern Seminary prior to Mohler’s tenure. Thus, in Worther’s article, Mohler becomes more watchdog than he does vigilant leader. When one recognizes the recovery that has since taken place, Mohler’s posture becomes that of theological hero more than theological controversialist. If Michael Gerson or Alvin Plantinga were asked their views on such issues that Mohler is routinely confronted on, they too might be labeled “controversialists” rather than that of a well-connected politico/journalist and esteemed Notre Dame philosopher. It’s interesting how a matter of perspective and expertise paint an entire man’s career. The problem with Worthen’s article, however, is that in her view, the turn-around of the seminary is hardly interpreted as a “recovery” inasmuch as it is resurgent Calvinism and political conservatism.

But Why Christianity Today?

This is the question I was left asking myself. Why would the masthead of “big tent” evangelicalism seek to portray Mohler in a backwards, purely controversialist light?

If I were new to Christianity or had never heard of Mohler, Worthen’s article would have left me convinced that Mohler was nothing but an educated and throwback fundamentalist in a Brooks Brother suit.

Consider this quote:

Mohler is not so much an intellectual or theologian as he is an articulate controversialist, a popularizer and spokesman who has branded himself as one who speaks to and for evangelicals. His multimedia finesse makes Francis Schaeffer appear amateur. His books (one is titled He Is Not Silent, a nod to Schaeffer) rehearse familiar arguments about the importance of maintaining a biblical worldview, and offer little in the way of original analysis—though Mohler is capable of nuanced scholarship, such as the dissection of Barth in his dissertation. Ivory-tower discourse is simply not his primary calling.

Really? Is the sum of Albert Mohler that of an articulate controversialist? He’s not an inspiring leader who brought a seminary from the depths of despair to a model of theological education? He’s more controversialist than a stalwart defender of the faith? There’s no original analysis or serious academic scholarship on his part? Worthen is condescending to include his capabilities, but then discredit his output as though it lies outside his specific calling. I did not personally know that lecturing at Princeton and delivering addresses at academic conferences fell outside the scope of prodigious scholarship.

Christianity Today’s vision, the flagship publication of Carl F.H. Henry, gets truncated in the very pages that Henry established. If we were to translate this to secular media, the equivalent would be National Review writing an inflamatory piece on the style and ethos of William F. Buckley Conservatism—that very movement Buckley chartered.

Sadly, the tone of this article reminds me of the articles written by the Christian Century, the publication that sits wide-eyed and askance that there are actually churches that still exist who forbid female pastors. Worthen, whose evangelical commitments I am unsure of, seems to write in the mainline protestant perspective for mainline readers. In this vain, Christianity Today misleads its readership by contracting this article to an author whose evangelical credentials are unknown.

For Christianity Today, the important lesson is not biting the hand that feeds it. The Albert Mohler’s of the world are far more representative of grassroots evangelicalism than are the leaders of the Evangelical left. He’s far more representative of their readership, I would suggest, than the tiny minority of those who have intensely highlighted their copy of Christians for Biblical Equality. It’s the robust conservative seminaries like Southern that are growing while mainline/liberal seminaries rely on endowments. Alienating a base, in the name of investigative journalism splinters an already fractious evangelicalism.

We need help from the Mohlers of the world, not to harm or incite them.

Sadly, what I believe Worthen captured was nothing short of the usual media bias against Mohler. Unfortunately, this time, it came from the very source that Mohler’s theological forbears established.

Updated and edited for clarity.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Andrew Walker

Andrew T. Walker is an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

8 Comments

  1. Wow. Great analysis. Thanks much.

    Reply

  2. It seems one of the underlying issues is how to define “fundamentalist”. Is every inerrantist by definition a fundamentalist? I’d be willing to grant that except that the word has come to include many other connotations that wouldn’t describe someone like Moehler.

    But, yeah, the author sure sounds like she has an axe to grind with conservative ebangelicalism period, and Mohler just happen to be the current spokesperson.

    Reply

  3. […] Andrew Walker, focusing on the article’s truncated understanding of Southern’s history and controversy, writes that “one cannot understand the genius of Albert Mohler without a proper backdrop of Southern Seminary’s war-torn past. Southern’s troubled theological past went far beyond accommodation or ‘espousing a version of Christianity then alien to the Baptist pew.’ This is the way moderates and liberals postured themselves during the crisis—as the true inheritors of the Baptist tradition. If this were the truth, one would think that the problems at Southern Seminary were only a lurking, latent Presbyterianism. What transpired at Southern Seminary was, well, transgression. Past professors are understood to have either implicitly or explicitly expressed radical feminist views, the outright promotion of abortion, questioning not merely the inerrancy of Scripture along with its inspiration, but also casting suspect claims on traditional understandings of Christology (Virgin Birth, Resurrection, Deity).” […]

    Reply

  4. Chris Nitzschke October 6, 2010 at 10:54 am

    Well said Andrew.

    Reply

  5. Great work bringing this to our attention. Smart. Critical. Thinking.

    Posts like list are why I read this blog every day.

    Cheers! And keep up the good, evangelical, work.

    Reply

  6. Contrary to Mr. Walker’s protests, I think Molly Worthen is correct in this assessment: “Mohler is not so much an intellectual or theologian as he is an articulate controversialist, a popularizer and spokesman who has branded himself as one who speaks to and for evangelicals.” For the Christian Right, Dr. Mohler is the successor to James Dobson. His intellectual and theological credentials are more impressive than Dr. Dobson, but a leopard cannot change its spots: he has adopted the same discourse of negation and narrative of injury. Moreover, Dr. Mohler has not distinguished himself as a leading evangelical theologian on par with Kevin Vanhoozer.

    Dr. Mohler should be admired for rescuing Southern Seminary from heresies as long as we keep in mind that heresies are related to essential issues like “the inerrancy of Scripture and its inspiration” and “traditional understandings of Christology (Virgin Birth, Resurrection, Deity).” Let’s not make the mistake of conflating heresies with non-essential issues like like the role of women in church and the relationship between science and religion. Regrettably, Dr. Mohler makes complementarianism and creationism acid tests of orthodoxy, which strikes me as hubristic and manipulative. On these non-essential issues, why not extend liberty rather than demand unity? If Dr. Mohler thinks evolutionary biology is incompatible with biblical Christianity, so be it. But to insist, as he did in his 2010 Ligonier Ministries address on the origins of life, that Christian discipleship entails creationism is misguided, resulting in controversy when there should be little or none. Here, we should incline our ear to Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury:

    Ours is a time in which it is depressingly easy to make this or that issue a test of Christian orthodoxy in such a way as to make wholly suspect the theology of anyone disagreeing on the issue in question; in other words, the possibility is neglected that Christians beginning from the same premises and convictions may yet come to different conclusions about particular matters without thereby completely voiding the commonness of their starting-point. It is really a matter of having a language in which to disagree rather than speaking two incompatible or mutually exclusive tongues.

    Mr. Walker seems surprised that Christianity Today would publish a critique of Mohler, as if “big tent” evangelicalism is identical to “resurgent Calvinism and political conservatism.” I am grateful that the editors permitted Ms. Worthen an opportunity to voice criticism. Perhaps, in the name of being “fair and balanced,” they should have also permitted someone else an opportunity to voice praise. I do not think it is appropriate to make inferences about Ms. Worthen’s “evangelical credentials.” Criticism of Dr. Mohler does not mean participation in mainline Protestantism or progressive evangelicalism.

    Reply

    1. “Let’s not make the mistake of conflating heresies with non-essential issues like like the role of women in church and the relationship between science and religion.”

      I didn’t.

      Andrew

      Reply

      1. no, you didn’t. but Mohler does. That seems to be the sticking point for some people.

        My parents are YEC’ers and complementarians and generally embody the “grassroots” character of evangelicalism you describe.

        They were deeply offended by Mohler’s assertions.

        Just something to think about.

        Reply

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *