Conservative resurgence was about theology, not politics, SBTS panel says
Theology, not politics, was the fuel that fired the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, members of a panel at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary asserted during a 25th anniversary commemoration of the resurgence on April 13.
While opponents of the resurgence argued that politics drove the conservative cause, it was theological issues in general, and the inerrancy of Scripture in particular, that animated conservative concerns, panelists said.
The panel consisted of Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr., Union University President David Dockery, Russell D. Moore, dean of Southern’s School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration, and Gregory A. Wills, associate professor of church history at Southern. Wills also serves as director of the Center for the Study of the SBC, the symposium sponsor.
“In the beginning, in the middle, and in the end, the controversy in the Southern Baptist Convention was about theology,” Mohler said. “... Even when those who denied it was theological made their arguments most vociferously, they did so in theological terms.
“Undergirding every assertion, not only in the closet, but standing out in the forefront, of every debate was theology. It is inescapably so because theology is the most fundamental issue of our knowledge, of our truth claims, of our thinking. It is the establishment of our worldview...Theology is the essence of the church.”
The SBC and its seminaries held to the inerrancy of Scripture without debate until the dawn of the 20th century, he said. This began to change in the first half of the century when Enlightenment ideology began to exert an influence on the denomination’s seminaries, Mohler said.
Enlightenment philosophy questioned the inspiration, inerrancy and authority of the Bible. Once these views took hold in the seminaries, the resurgence was necessary, he said.
“For the first time Enlightenment ideologies and philosophies as a challenge to revelation itself came to southern shores, to southern states and into the bosom of the Southern Baptist Convention, Mohler said.”
“If you accept the fundamental naturalistic and secular assumptions of the Enlightenment, then you can no longer think of Scripture as the revealed Word of God, the Word of God written.
“Instead, you see the Scripture as eloquent, articulate, moving and even consensually important documents that reflect how human beings have apprehended the divine reality. But you can no longer say ‘as Scripture speaks, God speaks.’”
Dockery pointed to the influence of pragmatism and naturalistic methods of biblical criticism on SBC schools in the middle of the 20th century. These drew the denomination away from its historic view of Scripture, he said.
“When the controversy began in 1979, one of the first responses ... was that people began to proclaim ... that inerrancy has never been a part of our Baptist heritage,” he said. “Yet a further reflection shows that not to be the case.”
Dating back to Southern Seminary founders James Boyce and Basil Manly, Southern Baptists have defended the inerrancy of the Bible, Dockery said. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary founder B.H. Carroll exemplified the historic Baptist view of Scripture when he said that it “is logically impossible for the so-called truth of science or philosophy to conflict or contradict ... the truth of the Bible,” Dockery said.
In the 1950s, however, many Southern Baptists began to emphasize programs at the expense of theological depth, he said. This move away from doctrinal emphases provided fertile ground for theological moderates to attack the doctrine of inerrancy, Dockery said.
“That’s when the controversy surrounding the nature of Scripture entered the public arena,” he said. “A theological understanding was lacking to examine and evaluate such issues. Even men and women who never questioned the reliability of the biblical message ... were confused by terms like ‘inerrant’ and ‘infallibility,’ which had been employed in previous generations.”
The 1960s and 1970s saw a series of battles between moderates and conservatives over the nature of Scripture, Dockery said. Moderates produced such works as “The Message of Genesis” by Ralph Elliot while conservatives responded with books like W.A. Criswell’s “Why I Preach that the Bible is Literally True.”
As conservatives gained control of the denomination over the subsequent decades, inerrancy emerged as the dominant position among Southern Baptists, returning the convention to its historic roots, he said.
If Southern Baptists wish to minister effectively in the coming years, they must continue to defend inerrancy, Dockery said.
“Southern Baptists cannot give up the affirmation of a totally true and trustworthy Bible because this foundational commitment serves all other essential affirmations of the Christian faith,” he said.
“A commitment to a completely truthful and fully authoritative Bible is the first step toward (awakening from) today’s theological and ethical trance that threatens the very heart of the Christian faith.”
While some erroneously argue that the resurgence was driven by a desire to “save America” through battling liberalism on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, Moore said the SBC must not turn the resurgence into a movement that views political and social issues apart from Scripture.
“There are real warnings that we must understand,” Moore said. “The intuitionism that Southern Baptists have expressed in the cultural arena must rest on a theology—a theology of biblical authority, of conversion, of confessional integrity.
“We cannot be left on the fumes of a previous understanding of Scripture and of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Where you do not have a bold and robust theology informing Great Commission passion, then so often, all you have left is politics. All you have left is a church that is indeed malleable by the culture ...Where there is no theological identity, there is a danger of becoming a constituency group.”
Wills said the conservative resurgence produced two distinct groups of Baptists—each claiming to be the heir to authentic Baptist tradition.
Conservatives claim that Baptist tradition most fundamentally includes a commitment to correct doctrine while moderates argue that Baptist tradition is based upon a commitment to freedom, he said.
Careful examination of Baptist history, however, reveals that commitment to right doctrine most accurately represents “the authentic Baptist tradition,” Wills said.
“On the one hand, there was considerable liberalism [in the Southern Baptist Convention], in fact far more than most conservatives even now know, in my estimation, in the seminaries and in the colleges,” he said.
“But more importantly, my point here is that Southern Baptists, throughout their history, have understood [Baptist] tradition to mean that the truth matters, that Scriptural faith and practice ought to be a condition of service as a professor in a Baptist college or Baptist seminary, as a missionary under appointment from a Baptist mission board, indeed as a pastor in a Baptist church. This is the authentic Baptist tradition over against the moderate claim that freedom is the Baptist tradition.”