At Southwestern, Patterson will finish what he started
Paige Patterson's election to the presidency of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary should help Texas Baptists clarify their feelings about the Fort Worth school. If you like what has happened in the Southern Baptist Convention for the past 25 years, you're going to love what's about to happen to Southwestern. If you don't, you won't.
Patterson, after all, was the theological mastermind of the “conservative resurgence” or “fundamentalist takeover” of the SBC. In the early 1970s, young Patterson, then president of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies in Dallas, teamed up with Houston judge Paul Pressler to determine how their kind of Baptists–they called themselves “conservatives”; others called them “fundamentalists”–could control the SBC. Pressler figured out how the legal and political mechanism should work. Patterson supplied the theological rationale. They claimed the SBC leadership needed to be changed, because the “liberals” in charge deny the truth of God's word.
|Paige Patterson helped engineer the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention a quarter-century ago; you can count on him to finish the job at Southwestern Seminary.|
This “don't believe the Bible” ruse worked flawlessly. For their opponents, it became as hard to answer as, “Say 'yes' or 'no': 'Have you quit beating your wife?'” So-called moderates, who struggle with short answers and sound bites, always came off as tentative and defensive. So the assertion stuck. “If they can't clearly respond to the charge, it must be true,” Southern Baptists seemed to think. Consequently, the SBC elected one fundamentalist president after another. This allowed the fundamentalists to dominate the process for selecting trustees to SBC institutions and eventually to gain complete control of the national convention.
Along the way, Patterson thrived. By 1987, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina became one of the first SBC institutions controlled by fundamentalists. When their first choice for president failed and the seminary seemed on the brink of disaster, the trustees called in Patterson, who wore his Texas-tooled Cowboy boots down Tobacco Road and turned the school around. It soon became one of the fastest-growing seminaries in the world, and he launched several initiatives that boosted morale, rounded up students and coralled cash.
Patterson's success at Southeastern Seminary bore fruit in 1998, when he became the first sitting SBC agency head in almost 60 years to be elected president of the convention. For two terms, he stood atop the SBC mountain, articulating his vision for the national convention to SBC audiences and to the public at large through the mass media.
Not coincidentally, the SBC re-wrote is doctrinal statement, the Baptist Faith & Message, during Patterson's watch. Early in the fundamentalist movement, Patterson disavowed any plan to change or re-write the BF&M. However, by 1981, he said it contained “code words” for “neo-orthodox theology.” He specifically cited the sentence, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” Not surprisingly, the 2000 BF&M removed that statement, a step that led many Texas Baptists to believe the SBC exalted Scripture over Jesus. Ironically, the new version did not include the political/theological code word fundamentalists used to rally votes and gain control of the SBC; it did not refer to the Bible as inerrant. Interestingly, the new BF&M did refer to itself as an “instrument of doctrinal accountability.” That mirrors Patterson's notion of a creed–“an iron-clad definition of a doctrine to which all initiates had to subscribe in order to be a part of that particular order.”
As noted here April 14, Patterson has been the odds-on favorite to succeed Ken Hemphill as Southwestern's president. The seminary trustees' unanimous vote last week merely confirmed the inevitable. From their perspective, it's an obvious choice. He's a native Texan and knows how to work Texas crowds. He's successfully turned around a struggling seminary and can be expected to help a large and wealthy school soar. He brings the prestige of the SBC presidency. Moreover, he's thoroughly committed to the fundamentalists' cause of totally overhauling the SBC. And now that the final dissenting foreign missionaries have been fired, the last apparent holdouts are Southwestern faculty members whom a former seminary trustee chairman called “moderates” who have “hunkered down and gone underground.” Patterson helped engineer the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC a quarter-century ago; you can count on him to finish the job at Southwestern Seminary.
Also expect him to work hard to build up the fortunes and membership of the competing Baptist convention in Texas. He's a gifted pulpiteer, affable conversationalist and forceful personality. He will strengthen this 4-year-old convention.
But make no mistake: He will forever change Southwestern Seminary and the Texas Baptist landscape. This has been his goal from Day One. Southwestern no longer is the seminary that trained generations of Texas Baptist pastors. It is a new school. This is a new day in Texas.
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