Photos courtesy Hardin-Simmons University
By Loretta Fulton
Usually, if a split occurs between a Baptist university and an affiliate state convention, it’s the university that fires the first shot.
It wasn’t that way in 2005 when the Georgia Baptist Convention severed its ties with Mercer University, Dr. R. Alan Culpepper, retired dean of the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer, told guests Oct. 17 during a dialogue at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology. The convention ended its ties and its $3 million a year in support, Culpepper said.
“They couldn’t control it,” he said, “so they weren’t going to pay for it.”
Culpepper, who served as dean of the McAfee School of Theology from its founding in 1995 to 2015, spoke on a range of topics at the dialogue, which was squeezed in between his lectures as guest speaker for the George Knight Lectures Oct. 16-17.
His opening lecture was titled, “Creation Ethics in the Gospel of John.” The second lecture was titled, “The Knowledge of God: Prophetic Vision and Johannine Theme.”
Culpepper first spoke for the Knight Lectures 14 years ago in 2003. He joked that he would see everyone again in another 14 years, in 2031. In visiting with students, faculty, and guests, Culpepper said that many colleges with historical roots in the church are moving away from those roots.
Most of the universities founded in the southeastern part of the United States between 1825 and 1850 were started by a religious denomination, Culpepper said, because the founders wanted to provide a classical and theological education.
“They wanted an educated ministry,” Culpepper said.
By the 1960s, those colleges were moving away from their roots. Hardin-Simmons, with its ties to the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and other denominational colleges are providing an important niche, Culpepper said.
“There is an opportunity for dialogue that involves religion and religious issues that’s both affirming and critical,” he said.
Culpepper grew up in a missionary family, living in Argentina and Chile. He later attended a church pastored by the renowned John Claypool.
“I had the Cadillac of Baptist upbringing,” he said.
Even so, he did not have a sense of patterns in the the scriptures. He didn’t learn that in church, and that is why a theological education is so important.
“I didn’t get that in church,” he said, “I got that in a freshman survey class.”
The face of a seminary has changed drastically over the years, Culpepper said. Some seminarians are not from Christian homes and didn’t grow up in the church. Also, there has been an erosion in basic liberal arts competency, he said, so that theological education has to start from a different point than it did 20 to 40 years ago.
Theology professors have to recognize that challenge and what it means for the future of theological education. Information today is accessed differently and is being used differently, he said. We live in an American society that is suspicious of authority and of religious leadership, Culpepper said, “but with a real sense of spiritual need.”
The question is, “How will the religious community help people achieve that quest for spirituality?” Cupepper cited Ephesians 4:12, which refers to the equipping of saints, or the whole church, for ministry. Generally, he said, “equipping” translates to providing gear or tools need for a task.
But, Culpepper said, the same Greek word also means “mending their nets.” So, perhaps the church should be thinking about “mending the saints for ministry” instead of supplying them with gear.
“We need to help them become whole persons,” he said, and how that’s done may shape the future of higher education.