Last week I visited Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., with my colleague and blogging partner Tony Cartledge who is a new faculty member in the divinity school there. Participating in two classes, including one he teaches with Div School Dean Mike Cogdill, was very enjoyable.
My awareness of Campbell — home of the Fighting Camels — came in 1978 upon entering Southeastern Seminary in the lovely town of Wake Forest, N.C. Campbell grads were well numbered among the student body.
I also learned that Campbell’s president at that time (in fact, for a long time from 1967 until 2003, when he became chancellor) was Norman Wiggins (above). He was spoken of as a towering figure in the state — a respected World War II veteran, lawyer and educator.
Routinely I heard President Wiggins, who died Aug. 1 of this year, described as a conservative — but never with a negative connotation. There was no confusion back then in distinguishing between conservatives and fundamentalists.
It had (and still has) more to do with attitudes than belief systems. Conservatives can cooperate; fundamentalists can only conquer and control.
Campbell and Southeastern had clearly different and complementary roles prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention and its theological seminaries.
After fundamentalist kingpin Paige Patterson rode over from Texas to Southeastern in 1992 — spoils for the victor — things changed drastically. Patterson, among other things, formed an undergraduate program — called Southeastern College at Wake Forest.
It serves the dual purpose of improving overall enrolment numbers used to formulate funding and giving students the unique opportunity from age 18 through doctoral work, if they choose, to have their educational exposure limited to the fundamentalism advocated there.
Of course, formation of the undergraduate program and the fundamentalist reshaping of the overall seminary broke down the old model whereby Campbell and other colleges and universities became natural partners with and feeder schools for the seminary. Instead the seminary was competing — especially with Baptist-related colleges and universities in North Carolina — for undergraduate students.
In 1995, Campbell launched its divinity school. Since the fundamentalist altering of Southeastern, new programs of theological education in North Carolina have emerged at Gardner-Webb University, Wake Forest University and the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School as well. All four have some partnership with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
After my visit to campus last week, I asked myself: Is Campbell a conservative school?
In a sense it retains the classic conservatism of Norman Wiggins. It is proudly identified with and connected to Baptist churches. Under the leadership of current President Jerry Wallace, the next major building project will be a new, large chapel.
The well-rounded and highly-educated, divinity school faculty shows some conservatism in the way they dress in professional attire and are committed to training ministerial students for service in congregations and mission settings. However, the school was started — at least in significant part — due to the fundamentalist takeover of a nearby Baptist seminary. Otherwise, there would be no market share.
Divinity school faculty members are progressive thinkers as well as devoted churchpersons. Most would wear the “moderate Baptist” tag due to their openness to women in ministry, their refusal to embrace creedal statements about theories of biblical authority, and the school’s connection to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Of course, none of that concretely answers the question of whether the school is conservative. The answer can only come in comparisons. Campbell is less conservative than the remade Southeastern Seminary and more conservative than many other theology schools around the country.
While tags like “conservative” and “liberal” are widely used for descriptive purposes, they are usually better understood in terms of comparison. So, in my writing, I prefer to describe something as being “more conservative” or “less conservative” than another.
The same applies to using descriptive terms concerning an individual’s theological perspective. After taking a seat in my first doctoral seminar many years ago, I greeted the person on my right and discovered he was a Unitarian/Universalist minister. Then I shook hands with the man seated to my left — an Assembly of God pastor who taught at Jimmy Swaggart Bible College.
Am I a conservative? Well it all depends on which side of the table I turned to for comparison.