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Former student’s journal depicts seminary as ‘radically liberal’

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Journal entries by a former student at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond describe the seminary as a home to liberal theological and political convictions outside the norm of most Southern Baptist churches. Noting that faculty and students often criticized Southern Baptist seminaries for trying to close the minds of students and indoctrinating them with denominational beliefs, former student John Ippolito found the BTSR community to be intolerant of traditional, conservative views on Scripture.

Ippolito’s journal, kept as a class assignment reflecting on his experiences at BTSR between the fall of 1996 and the end of 1998, appears in the April edition of the Baptist Banner, a newsletter published by Southern Baptist layman T.C. Pinckney of Virginia, and can be viewed on the Internet at www.thebaptistbanner.com.

BTSR President Thomas H. Graves responded to Ippolito’s journal in a May 3 open letter in the Religious Herald, the state paper of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. BTSR receives significant funding from the BGAV, as well as the Baptist conventions of North Carolina and the District of Columbia and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Alliance of Baptists. The school was founded in 1989 by what was then called the Southern Baptist Alliance, a group organized three years earlier in protest of the conservative resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“My struggle at BTSR was heightened because the atmosphere there was not one that I could, in good conscience, thrive in academically,” Ippolito wrote. “I knew that I wouldn’t agree with all of the professors’ theories, but I had no ideas their views were so radical.” He writes that professors or students condoned homosexuality as natural and acceptable Christian behavior, a charge Graves refutes by describing the seminary’s policy against homosexual and heterosexual promiscuity.

“Homosexual practice is not affirmed,” Graves responded, noting the seminary’s commitment to a discussion of the issue of the church’s ministry to the homosexual community as a necessary ingredient in its preparation of ministers. “Our students must be prepared to deal with this and other troublesome issues,” he wrote. “One need not condone a homosexual lifestyle to prepare oneself for servant ministry to the homosexual persons of our society.”

In his journal, Ippolito described a night class called “Women in the Church” in which he was enrolled during the fall of 1997. “A gentleman who was part of the dais one night announced to the class that he was a gay minister. This was quite shocking to me. I had never heard of, nor thought it was possible for someone to be gay and a Christian minister.”

Ippolito assumed that the professor did not necessarily support homosexuality and also was taken by surprise that “it was the first time [the student] had openly announced his condition to a large group of relative strangers.” No further comment was made on the matter by the professor, Ippolito recounted. “Little did I realize that I would soon be entering a seminary that not only accepted the homosexual lifestyle, but also openly promoted it and desperately tried to legitimize that kind of behavior from a Christian perspective.”

Raised as a Catholic with no recollection of ever opening a Bible, Ippolito admitted that his knowledge of Scripture was “embarrassingly limited.” His life was changed dramatically in the fall of 1995 when he became a Christian and began to attend a Southern Baptist church in Richmond. He soon became convinced that God had called him to ministry and was anxious to get started with seminary training.

“Choosing a seminary primarily for its location is a huge mistake,” he wrote in the introduction to the journal account, having regarded the convenience of BTSR in his own hometown as a part of God’s provision. With little awareness of the controversy that had occurred within the SBC, Ippolito heard it described at BTSR as “a fundamentalist takeover.”

“The impression I had was that there was a small rift within the denomination and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was formed in reaction to the conflict. I thought that Baptist seminaries could not be radically different, [but having] just slightly different views on a few theological issues,” he wrote. He perceived BTSR to be “slightly left of center” and heard individuals affiliated with BTSR and the CBF “portray their theological beliefs as moderate and mainstream.” Meanwhile, he added in his introduction, they labeled “the SBC and affiliated seminaries as part of some vast right-wing, extremist, overly conservative, hard-liner conspiracy.”

Within a month, Ippolito wondered if he had compromised his integrity through his association with BTSR. “I was waiting for the curriculum to turn the corner, that is, start being taught from the other side of the spectrum and not just the liberal side. But the balance in the approach to biblical studies that I had anticipated never arrived. The professors continued to espouse their liberal theories and I gradually became more and more disenchanted.”

BTSR’s original faculty was drawn, in part, from disenchanted professors who had taught at Southern Baptist seminaries but no longer supported their increasingly conservative leadership. Ippolito wrote in his journal of his disappointment that “a once-respected professor has now turned into a bitter old man.” The former faculty member of an SBC seminary “cannot stop bashing the SBC, SBC seminaries, conservative fundamentalists, and many other traditions that Baptists hold dear such as the Bible. Not a class goes by that he doesn’t take a shot at one of the above mentioned groups,” Ippolito wrote.

The journal Ippolito produced was assigned in the “Introduction to Christian Spirituality” which he took during his first semester of full-time studies. Previously he had taken night classes for a year. “I am very anxious to start attending classes,” he wrote on Sept. 8, 1997. “I do not know what to expect and I want to jump right in head first.” Acknowledging his lack of formal Christian education, he found assurance that “God will push me through,” adding, “I must endure and persevere. This will be the experience of a lifetime.”

Ippolito described the professor of the spirituality class as “the founding father of the spirituality movement in Baptist life,” praising the prof’s emphasis on communion with God. Ippolito, in an interview with Baptist Press, recounted that several students spoke of having a personal spiritual formation guide or leader. “From the way that the students, and one professor in particular, spoke about their form of spirituality, it was more along the lines of Eastern religious mysticism. They believe they can have unobstructed or direct line of knowledge from God.”

A guest lecturer who authored an Old Testament text used at BTSR found fault “with a perceived white European male standard for interpreting Scripture,” Ippolito wrote in his journal, questioning why the “white European male” making the statement should receive a hearing. “The professors here, as well as many of the students continually question the authenticity of the Bible,” he wrote later the same month. “They close their minds to classical, traditional interpretation, under the guise of theology, but they do not realize that they are pulling away from the Lord.”

One professor declared that there is no revelation of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament, Ippolito wrote. “He stated that all major colleges and universities recognize the overlapping of myths and history in the earliest known recorded accounts of the ancient world,” Ippolito wrote, drawing an implication that “the Bible is like any other work and therefore not divinely inspired.”

Believing the master of divinity degree would prepare him for a life in ministry, Ippolito quickly concluded that had not been his experience. “I have learned how to dismantle the Bible instead of trying to learn what God is saying to us in each passage.”

In his refutation of Ippolito’s journal reflections, Graves wrote of a faculty covenant that regards the authority of Scripture as central to the Christian life. It states, “We pledge to study and teach the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments with diligence and firm commitment, knowing the Bible as sure and certain authority for understanding the nature of God, God’s work in he world, and our role as servants in the Kingdom of God; affirming the Bible as standing over all theories, interpretations, creeds, and confessions; and presenting the Bible’s primary function as witness to the revelation of God in Christ, who is the center of our work and worship.”

While disagreements may occur over particular biblical interpretations and applications, Graves wrote, “It is simply not possible to say the faculty of this school does not believe in the ‘sure and certain’ truth of Scripture.”

Ippolito, in his journal, lamented professors who propose “there are only bits and pieces of a revelation of God sprinkled throughout the Bible.” Using the historical critical method, professors “are obsessed with the slightest nuance in writing style of biblical authors,” Ippolito concluded, as they “over-analyze what is not there and the obvious is completely ignored.”

Attention to gender-inclusive language was viewed by Ippolito as a form of indoctrination encouraged at BTSR. “Referring to God the same way Jesus did, either as Father or with a masculine pronoun, will stir the radical feminists during class and the professors will make a note of it on your paper or exam,” Ippolito wrote. A spirituality professor encouraged him to use the name of God in order to avoid gender problems.

“A self-righteous feminist will either clear her throat or say, ‘What about us?’ if non-neutral language is used during class discussion,” Ippolito wrote. “Some students go to a further extreme by saying that God is a woman, or state that God is neither male nor female. Changing the Word of God in an attempt to satisfy your own political agenda or perceived prejudice seems to be commonplace here,” he wrote.

On another occasion, Ippolito said a guest lecturer played off a reference to the pro-life Operation Rescue organization to state that “sometimes women need a ‘rescue operation’ during pregnancy.” And “a former student speaking in chapel related that she spends more time reading from Oprah’s book club than from books on theology,” Ippolito wrote.

“One of the most outrageous incidents at chapel was when a missions professor had us get into a circle at the end of the service and we all participated in a Muslim ritual,” Ippolito wrote. “I do not mind learning about other religious customs during class time, but maybe we should keep the Christian chapel a place of praise and worship for God,” he suggested.

By the end of the semester, Ippolito found the completion of a New Testament class to be a “fitting end to a tumultuous semester.” The professor allowed students great flexibility in studying one of the parables of Jesus, with options ranging from “a paper or sermon to a wood carving or painting and almost anything in between.” Ippolito told of one student offering a dance routine in order to describe the prodigal son.

“The dancing was fine and the student is obviously talented,” Ippolito wrote. “But I was laughing at the irony of it all — a very liberal ending at a radically liberal seminary. It was the final nail in the coffin.”

Ippolito later enrolled at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., where he is scheduled to receive his master of divinity degree this month. “The odd thing is that when I was up there at BTSR they hated the SBC and what went on at Southern and Southeastern. They are constantly bashing [Al] Mohler and [Paige] Patterson,” he told Baptist Press. “They talk of how they’ll try to control your mind and tell you how to think.” Mohler is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., and Patterson is Southeastern’s president.

Impressed by Southeastern’s Articles of Faith, Ippolito said, “At least you know exactly what they stand for and can either accept or reject their principles. BTSR has a short and vague mission statement and you just don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. They try to present themselves as nice and neutral, and then when you are seated comfortably in class, the real agenda comes out.”

Still, Ippolito believes it is important “to listen to the language of the liberals” in order to understand “the implication that you are either a normal thinker or part of the extreme right wing.” He wrote in his journal, “At BTSR, the assumption was that post-modern theology was the only feasible line of thinking and traditional conservative theology was intellectually inferior.”

He found Southeastern Seminary to be a contrast and welcome relief from his experience at BTSR. “At Southeastern, the approach to study is from a believer’s perspective,” he said. “At BTSR it is from a doubter’s point of view.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: JOHN IPPOLITO.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter