Who is a conservative?

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.


  1. Well JP, might as well jump into the fryin pan here.
    What influence will the Campbell Div community have on the direction of Snyder Memorial BC, a nearby congregation of the sort one would have to imagine products of Campbell and or GWebb would one day find a home in.
    Are Campbell div students becoming versed in the musings of Charles Kimball at nearby Wake Forest, Charles Marsh not far away at UVA, and Randall Balmer who was grand this year at BJC luncheon in DC.
    And if they are, when do they get notice in the Snyder newsletter for a January Bible Study dialogue or some such?
    Is a church reputed to be “progressive” in that region of NC, Snyder Memorial, to have the best and brightest parishioners; is there any homework there with the likes of Marsh, Balmer and Kimball; are they keeping up with the discussions at faithinpubliclife.org, the religion discussion at Newsweek; are they even group plan subscribers at Baptists Today.
    Without some depth beyond staff into the guts of a congregation, withoust some conversational knowledge of progressive Baptists engagement of the social political culture questions of our time beyond abortion; just where will Campbell Div products find a pastoral home without overwhelming headache.
    Or is John Buchanan right in the current issue of Chritian Century. Billy Graham’s Gospel was innocent, but also pure, and the kinds of thought, the bar I have raised above is to high.
    Are questions of justice as opposed to charity still too much to ask even of progressive Baptist churches; and does that question get lost when a congregation attempts to place itself on the conservative to less conservative spectrum?
    Obliquely addressing your concern here; but I hope I have made enough sense at least the question is understandable.

  2. Fox-
    I’m sure Balmer, Marsh, Kimball and everyone at Campbell, Gardner-Webb and Snyder Memorial are all avid readers of Baptists Today. And each is more or less conservative than someone they know.

  3. JD said,

    “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.”

    This is a good observation, and one which shows the tags “conservative” and “liberal” to be virtually worthless in evaluating what a school, church, or man actually is.

    The whole Baptist movement today is so far from any real Scriptural basis, that to hear Baptists talking about who is conservative and who is liberal is like criminals arguing over who had committed the lesser crime.

    Or, as Paul put it, when speaking of the Christian Pharisees of his day,

    “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.”

    The only real standard of comparison for a man of God is the word of God. The following statement was made by John I. Durham, who was, when it was published in the Review & Expositor in the summer of 1984, professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Southeastern:

    “To deal with the most frequent misunderstanding, the one connected with the ‘width’ of the concept messiah in the Psalms, we must note that messiah, in the Psalms refers always and only to the ruling king, the ‘Davidic’ king who was Yahweh’s appointed and so anointed mashiah,. representative. These references are not intended as predictions of Jesus who is the Christ (Christos also means annointed), though they have very often been taken as such, beginning as early as the New Testament period.”

    They have “very often been taken as such, beginning as early as the New Testament period” indeed! The taking of the Psalms “as such” is the most fundamental premise on which the New Testament rests – namely, that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God!

    And so we see that it was being taught at Southeastern, and published through Southern, that the apostles, the New Testament churches, yeah, that Jesus Himself had a “misunderstanding” of Old Testament Christology!

    The man who penned the above words is neither a conservative, moderate, nor even liberal Christian. He is no Christian at all. He is ant-Christian.

    And to the extent that Southeastern, Southern, or any other school advocated or tolerated such anti-Christian teaching, they were, in the words of the apostle John, partakers of evil, for

    “he that biddeth him godspeed is partaker of his evil deeds.”

    Mark Osgatharp
    Wynne, Arkansas

  4. Wow, Mark. Many of us stand amazed that you have been given the unique authority and ability to judge the heart and soul (not just the writings, which are always up for debate) of a beloved OT scholar. Sorry we didn’t get the memo that such a position had been bestowed on you that once belonged only to God.

  5. JP: I was gonna delete my original comment, but when I got back here a day later I saw your response and saw where with MarkO this blog had combusted; taken afire.
    I was thinking given other circumstances maybe I was a little too explicit with my comment and was gonna soften things with this wisdom from an August post from our friend Gus Niebuhr, blogging at Jon Meacham’s Newsweek site on religion and culture.
    Niebuhr reminds of this gem of a poem by Emily Dickinson

    Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–
    Success in Circuit lies
    Too bright for our infirm Delight
    The Truth’s superb surprise
    As Lightning to the Children eased
    With explanation kind
    The Truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind–

    But as things are, even with “explanation kind” some like our friend MarkO go blind askance, or anyway.
    Mark, if you loved Durham on the Psalms and Christology, you’re gonna go ozone with the great literary critic James Wood’s book review on most recent book about the Psalms. I found it entirely fascinating (current issue of New Yorker). You can find a direct link at my blog.
    I was already a fan Wood before this essay; had the good fortune to hear him lecture in person this last summer at Sewanee with the Episcopalians and a lot of other infidels (insert smilie emoticon).
    And MarkO, while maybe I got your attention, as well as the good people at Snyder and Campbell Div; I am very proud of the quote I got in Baps Today as a freelancer in 2000 and maybe on one other occasion.
    This is why what happenned at SEBTS is so important; as well as why folks at Snyder and Camp Div continue to read Baps Today, and hopefully Balmer, Kimball and Marsh as the position themselves to the right of center on the great spectrum.
    Cecil Sherman told me his friend Bill Friday, former chancellor of UNC system now with his weekly program about NC personalities on NC PBS; Friday Told Sherman and Sherman told me and I told the readers of Baps Today: The most significant thing to happen in NC in the decade of the 1980’s was the fundamentalist takeover of SEBTS. The Jesse Helms wing of Baptist fundamentalism knew that in SEBTS and its graduates they could infiltrate every suburb and hamlet of North Carolina.
    Helms Biographer Joe Ferguson has pretty much documented as much and what he didn’t others like Randall Balmer and Garrett Epps and Ellen Rosenberg have.
    MarkO; read Barry Hankins Uneasy in Babylon. Read The psalms. Read the sermons of Fleming Rutledge and Barbara Brown Taylor and talk it over with Ben Cole.
    I think you most likely are stuck where you are, but I have hope that Ben Cole is gonna pilgrim out; and hope some folks at Snyder are gonna see more light as they read my canon of Marsh, Kimball and Balmer; more light than they have seen in a good long while; though I commend every good report of the light they have already absorbed.
    Marney said go toward the Light. Consider it, MarkO, the Light.
    And as Wood said, the full meaning of which I’m not sure I fully comprehend yet: “Raise it, Raise it.”

  6. foxofbama,

    You said,

    “Consider it, MarkO, the Light. And as Wood said, the full meaning of which I’m not sure I fully comprehend yet: ‘Raise it, Raise it.'”

    Consider this, foxofbama, the meaning of which I’m only beginning to understand:

    “Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

    Mark Osgatharp
    Wynne, Arkansas

  7. Fox of Alabama and Mark of Arkansas-
    I feel like borrowing a phrase from my late father used often toward one of my brothers and me: “Am I going to have to separate you two?”
    Please address the issues at hand, not attack each other or anyone else personally.

  8. JP:
    My strongest point was the James Wood article is worth a read by all who mighta taken notice of my tip.
    In context, “Raise it, Raise it” is not a dare or sucker punch at MarkO at all. In fact, it is a celebration of the evolving hope of the Good Book; that is, again, if I understand James in the New Yorker.
    I thought my Friday quote was apropo and worthy of more than a “Huh?”
    Insert smilie emoticon here and have a nice day.

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