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Culture Q&A

Albert Mohler

Paying the price

Hard decisions have a cost, but fighting for Christian truth is worth it

Paying the price

Albert Mohler (Illustration by Mark Fredrickson)

Albert Mohler earned a Ph.D. degree in systematic and historical theology. In 1993 he became president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is now a member of the World News Group board of directors. Here are edited excerpts of our Q&A at a staff conference in Asheville before the pandemic began.

After 27 years as SBTS president, are you seeing the children of those you originally taught and led? It’s worse than that. Dr. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary, was my vice president. One of his four sons, Paul, was the most predictably mischievous kid you’ve ever seen: You’d have to say to him, literally, “Don’t stick the screwdriver in the electrical outlet.” I recently named Paul dean of the Billy Graham School at Southern Seminary. There’s tremendous joy in that.

When you first became seminary president, were many professors there sticking something into the electric outlets, theologically? Basically all of them. 

You had to take some hard steps. Francis Schaeffer had helped me to see there are two different trajectories: orthodox Christianity based on Biblical accountability, and the other thing. I was chosen seminary president to support orthodox theology and get rid of the faculty who were trying to take the institution in the other direction.

A tumultuous change? We had helicopters over the campus. PBS did a one-hour documentary. I became infamous at age 33. I was willing to pay that price because I recognized how much depends upon whether this institution turns out preachers who represent the comprehensiveness of the Christian truth claim. 

How did your willingness to pay the price originate? It goes back to when I was 16 in an extremely liberal, agnostic school experiment. No teachers, only facilitators: the school without walls. 

You were naturally good and wonderful, and all the teachers had to do was to bring out that natural goodness, right? Right. And the smell of marijuana in the eighth grade was entirely natural, organic. I was a conservative Christian kid with no idea of what to do with this. It was a perfect mix for worldview confusion. In the midst of all that, Jim Kennedy, the pastor down the street at Coral Ridge, began to help me. He introduced me to Schaeffer.

How did Schaeffer’s Escape From Reason help you? Escape From Reason points to the fault of a Kantian worldview. Immanuel Kant divided all reality into the phenomenal and the noumenal—the phenomenal is the real world, the noumenal is the spiritual world. The deadliness of this: Kant said you can have more or less absolute truth in this phenomenal world, which you can count—two apples and two apples are four apples—but in the noumenal, spiritual, moral world, there are no absolutes. Reason allows us to be rational on the phenomenal level, but on the noumenal level all rules of rationality are off.

Kant wanted moral absolutes. He just couldn’t come up with a way to have them.

That makes Christianity impossible. It makes any moral absolutes impossible. Kant didn’t want that to be so. He wanted moral absolutes. He just couldn’t come up with a way to have them.

Schaeffer cut through all that. He said, essentially, forget the phenomenal and noumenal, just think of a two-story house. In the first story, the modern world wants to say, we have facts and truths: biology, the periodic table of elements, math. But moderns want to say that when it comes to the big questions of existence, God, and morality, there is no basic rational structure.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said we have the right to define our own existence, but you’ve said “ontology trumps autonomy.” In other words, reality is not a matter of individual opinion. I want to get down to being. This principle—ontology trumps autonomy—comes right out of classic Christian theology.

And that brings us to journalism, which should emphasize coverage of reality, not mere personal opinion. How did you become interested in journalism? When I was a senior in high school the yearbook had a picture of me holding the U.S. News & World Report. The cutline underneath said, “Albert Mohler likes to keep up with events in the world.” As a senior in high school I went back and read every 1945 issue of Time because I was really interested in coverage of the end of the war and its immediate aftermath.

Who were your models in commentary writing? William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will. I read them—every single column. I read classical essayists and others and thought, Whatever they’re doing, the way they distill ideas into this column format, this brief essay, that’s what I think evangelicals need.

At age 29 you were editor of The Christian Index, the oldest state newspaper serving the Southern Baptist Convention. My first editorial was titled “The Conflict of Visions,” a term I borrowed from Thomas Sowell. 

Did you have a hard line or a dotted line between news articles and columns? It’s a dotted line. That’s when I realized the choice of stories to cover, which reporter to assign, where it appears in the print newspaper: Those are all editorial decisions.

You soon had a conflict about news coverage. A major group of pastors had a meeting to talk about denominational issues, but without the sanction of the state convention. The state executive director said that wasn’t my business. 

What was your business, according to the state convention leaders? They wanted to reach people to give more generously. They wanted a newspaper that would tell people to go to Sunday school and report on which pastor died, etc. We still did that, but I was trying to help Christians reading this newspaper to think more Christianly. I believe Christians need serious journalism to force them to think.

And to understand the antithesis between Christianity and theological liberalism that J. Gresham Machen brought out almost a century ago in his great book, Christianity and Liberalism. There’s a bust of Machen in my study: Decades after he was dead he helped me to understand what I was really looking at. He brilliantly said there are not two variants of Christianity. Here’s Christianity and here’s some new religion that’s claiming to be Christianity. A 20-year-old seminary student reads that and the light goes on.