God called me to be a pastor when I was eleven years old. In the thirty subsequent years, only one thought has given me pause about that calling. I have passed through seasons of my life when, although I knew that my calling was to pastoral ministry, I have felt some obligation to serve as a professor in a seminary or in the religion department of a Baptist university. As the Conservative Resurgence progressed and as SBC seminaries began to return to the denomination's conservative roots, I heard others wonder aloud where Southern Baptists would ever find enough conservative, Bible-believing, qualified professors to be able to staff six seminaries.
I fretted over the question as much as anyone else. Having gone to Baylor, I naturally assumed that the ratio of liberal professors of religion to conservative ones must approach 10 million : 1. Having heard the story of C. H. Toy repeated ad nauseum and having spent many sessions subjected to the patronizing musings of professors who were absolutely certain that, as I matured, I would certainly come to see things their way, I wasn't even optimistic that the one professor in ten million wouldn't be a Schleiermachian before all was said and done. Believing that I was capable of becoming qualified as a conservative scholar and professor, at times I succumbed to fear and worried over the thought, "If not you, Bart, then who?"
As it turns out, this concern is not unique to Southern Baptist conservatives post-1979. In a recent article by John Tierney in the New York Times entitled "The Left-Leaning Tower," the Gray Lady considers the plight of the conservative academic and actually dares to contemplate the possibility that the stock liberal explanation of the phenomenon ("that conservatives are just too close-minded and dimwitted") might not be a self-evident truth.
I no longer worry. As it turns out, it is not difficult at all to find or to make good conservative scholars. As a trustee and member of the Academic Affairs subcommittee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I meet a new crop of conservative scholars twice a year when we consider new faculty. They have terminal degrees from institutions like Princeton. They write about things like the appropriate classification and understanding of Dead Sea Scroll 4Q174. As it turns out, if you create a place where conservative scholars will not be vilified and ostracized, conservative scholars will come to you.
For The New York Times to scratch its head and wonder why the dearth of conservatives in academia is a bit like Captain Ahab trying to figure out what became of all the sperm whales. Before 1979, a conservative scholar couldn't get a job in the SBC system. Today, a conservative Ph.D. graduate of an SBC seminary still will be blackballed from the vast preponderance of the universities that Southern Baptists have founded. Like the desert flower erupting into color at the least bit of rain, with just the slightest encouragement conservative scholarship blossoms and flourishes. It's just that so few environments will, even grudgingly, allow those precious few needed raindrops to fall.
But the rain is falling in our SBC seminaries, and the resplendent flora reveal the glory of God. That so many of these scholars are now so young and so capable is reason to be hopeful about what is yet to come. May God give me the years to see it for myself.