[Updated on September 20 to include a statement from Eric Johnson]
Eric Johnson is a leading Christian psychology professor and a 17-year veteran at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Students praise his compassion; fellow psychologists, his scholarship; colleagues, his faith.
And many of them are confused why he apparently no longer has a job.
Johnson announced at an event earlier this month what he had already told friends in private: He would be leaving the Louisville, Kentucky, seminary at the end of the semester in December. They were shocked to hear his plans to retire, especially when the news came just weeks into his first semester back from a year-long sabbatical and amid the release of a new book.
Johnson was the sole proponent of Christian psychology—a counseling approach that draws distinctly Christian practices from the history and traditions of the faith—in a faculty focused on biblical counseling, which emphasizes the sufficiency of Scripture to shape counseling ministry.
As an online petition in his defense added signatories by the dozens, the seminary kept the details on Johnson’s status hush.
“One of the frustrations of being president is at any moment there are questions, for good policy and structural reasons, I cannot answer,” said Albert Mohler on Thursday night, in his first interview about the situation.
The Southern Seminary president declined to make any comment on Johnson’s employment, but repeated what he said in a meeting the day before: “I have tremendous respect for Dr. Eric Johnson. What I said to the faculty in private, I will say to you in public: I have no reason to doubt his character, his commitment to Christ, or his sincerity in signing our theological documents.”
Mohler’s assurances haven’t helped much, according to one Southern professor who spoke to CT under conditions of anonymity. “All it does is make the question more frustrating,” he said. Supporters want to know, if not for those reasons, why Johnson is leaving now.
At least two prominent faculty members have met with Mohler to raise concerns, but others have kept quiet, telling CT that they feared speaking out would jeopardize their own employment. Southern did away with faculty tenure in 2014.
John Thweatt, president of Southern’s board of trustees, said officers discussed Johnson’s status at a meeting in August and will bring the topic before the full board at its meeting next month. He did not answer further questions about the professor or his teachings, citing privacy concerns over personnel issues and deferring to the president’s office.
Johnson noted his “early retirement” at an Institute for Christian Psychology event on September 7. He had been speaking about his new release, God and Soul Care, a 700-page volume on the connections between Christianity and psychology, at Sojourn East, a Louisville church where he is listed as the director of care.
He declined to be interviewed for this story, but days later shared a fuller explanation on Facebook, confirming that his departure is due to incomptability between counseling philosophies. On Wednesday, September 20, Johnson posted:
For a number of reasons, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has determined that Christian psychology is not compatible with the version of biblical counseling that they want to promote in their counseling department.
As a result, I will be finishing up my teaching at the end of this semester, and then assuming the title of Senior Research Professor until I obtain another teaching job.
I want to thank my friends, colleagues, and former students who have given me and my wife tremendous support over the past few weeks. I am extremely grateful for the years I have spent at Southern Seminary, and I wish it God’s best in the years to come.