Excerpt from Southern Baptist Identity: A Historical Perspective (Greg Wills)


IN THE INERRANCY CONTROVERSY that shook the SBC beginning in 1979, Southern Baptists divided over what it meant to be a Baptist. When Southern Baptists leaders polarized amid the conservative effort to make belief in inerrancy a condition of denominational service, their posture toward the inerrancy initiative derived in large measure from their understanding of Baptist identity. Conservatives believed that moderates had departed from the Baptist tradition and moderates felt the same way about conservatives. Each party in the conflict claimed to be true Baptists and claimed the imprimatur of Baptist tradition.

Conservatives believed that the true Baptist tradition consisted in maintaining New Testament faith and practice. They felt that they were responsible therefore to exclude false teaching. Those teachers and denominational leaders who held liberal doctrines departed from New Testament faith and practice. By their departure from the Baptist tradition they betrayed the trust of the denomination and relinquished their claim to their position. Sincere commitment to the traditional Baptist understanding of scriptural teaching, conservatives insisted, should be a condition of service in positions of denominational service.

Moderates held, on the contrary, that true Baptists did not exclude their fellow Baptists for divergent views of what the Bible taught. The denomination should not require seminary professors to believe some prescribed set of dogmas in order to serve the denomination, for that would infringe their freedom. When conservatives argued that seminary professors must be committed to Scripture truth, moderates effectively asked, “What is truth?” Truth, they held, was a matter of individual interpretation. To exclude professors for divergent interpretations sincerely held would be un-Baptistic. The true Baptist tradition, moderates said, upheld individual freedom as the central Baptist commitment.

Conservatives and moderates thus responded differently to the question of the legitimacy of liberal professors based on sharply different views of what it meant to be a Baptist. But their views of Baptist identity had broader ramifications. It undergirded their responses to other issues of controversy in the denomination, from the ordination of women as pastors to affiliation with the Baptist World Alliance. It informed their views of the church, of the faith, and of denominationalism.

Conservatives held that being Baptist meant commitment to right doctrine and scriptural church order as the basis of denominational unity, Baptist identity, and cooperative endeavors. They held that adherence to scriptural faith and practice was a condition of fellowship and denominational leadership. Conservatives held that this was at the center of Baptist identity. It served as a fundamental presupposition of the conservative position.

On the contrary, moderate leaders argued that the Baptist tradition consisted in individual freedom. They expressed it variously as commitment to soul competence, religious freedom, liberty of conscience, the priesthood of the believer, regenerate church membership, and no creed but the Bible. But at the bottom of each of these expressions, as moderate leaders explained it, was commitment to the sanctity of individual freedom. This was a legacy of liberalism or modernism. Modernism sought to adapt Christianity to Darwinism and the naturalistic historical criticism of the Bible. Since the adaptation would require substantial redefinition of traditional Christian beliefs, modernists argued for a view of true Christianity that included toleration of divergent interpretations of Scripture. They placed the meaning of Christianity in some nondoctrinal essence and went about adjusting traditional doctrines to the new knowledge. Modernist Baptists developed their view of Baptist identity as part of this development.

During the inerrancy controversy, moderates bristled at the conservatives’ premise that authentic Baptist identity included commitment to historic Baptist orthodoxy. Conservatives promoted commitment to inerrancy and the utility of confessions because they believed that scriptural faith and practice formed the basis for denominational cooperation and the boundaries of fellowship. Most pointedly, conservatives insisted that professors in Baptist colleges and seminaries should believe and teach in accordance with the views of Bible truth held by the churches. Conservatives held that many professors held liberal or neoorthodox views, starting from a rejection of inerrancy and culminating in such errors as the denial of the deity of Christ, the rejection of his substitutionary atonement, or opposition to salvation exclusively through faith in Christ.

Moderates responded in two ways. They first denied that there were any liberals teaching in the seminaries. In one of the most remarkable statements by a moderate leader, Roy Honeycutt, the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, stated in his 1984 convocation address that “one would be at a loss to discover a classical liberal among Southern Baptists, whether in the pulpit or classroom, college or seminary.” The professors were committed to the church and held the Bible in esteem, moderates argued, and therefore were not liberals. Conservative leaders found the denials implausible. Although most professors were careful to keep their errors hidden from view, conservatives readily identified a number of liberals in the classrooms. And many rank-and-file Southern Baptists did not find Honeycutt’s denials credible either. Many Baptists had sat in classrooms with these professors and had heard the liberal teaching first hand.

Moderates argued second that even if there were liberal professors, it was un-Baptistic to deprive them of their positions on account of their beliefs. Roy Honeycutt explained the moderate view of true Baptist identity in the 1984 convocation address in which he called moderates to wage “holy war” against the conservatives. He explained that authentic Baptists would not exclude any person of good will. (Since conservatives wanted to exclude sincere Baptists based on doctrine, they were not persons of good will.) The Baptist tradition stood on one conviction above all others: the individual is free. And commitment to individual freedom meant “commitment to authentic pluralism.” Honeycutt concluded then that “God calls us to exclude no one, but to include everyone” committed to cooperative missions. This pluralism, he claimed, was the basis of Baptist identity and “has characterized our denomination during its entire history.”

In fact, neither progressive nor traditional Baptists had ever practiced that kind of inclusion. In the twentieth century, progressive Southern Baptist leaders aspired to wide inclusion, but even the most progressive denominational seminaries and colleges operated within their own theological boundaries. They did not welcome inerrantists and at times dismissed progressives, however reluctantly. And before the twentieth century Southern Baptists generally maintained definite boundaries of faith and practice in their institutions at various levels of denominational life. Baptist churches practiced a regular church discipline that expelled unrepentant members who embraced fundamental doctrinal errors Baptist associations similarly expelled from fellowship any churches that departed from scriptural faith and practice. This traditional commitment to truth endured in the twentieth century as Southern Baptists opposed moderate leaders who tolerated the spread of error in their denominational schools.

When progressive theology spread on the faculties of Baptist colleges and seminaries, many Baptists voiced objections. Even before the Second World War many Southern Baptist colleges experienced controversy over professors suspected of modernism, some of whom they dismissed after pastors and lay members demanded their removal. W. L. Poteat, president of Wake Forest College and the most prominent liberal among Southern Baptists, overcame two efforts to oust him. Others similarly survived the campaigns against them. Baylor, Furman, William Jewell, Mercer, and Limestone all dismissed professors, as did the New Orleans Baptist Bible Institute (now the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary).

The progressive trend continued after the war. By the 1950s most Southern Baptists were convinced of the spread of liberalism in the colleges and seminaries and became increasingly vocal when denominational leaders responded to their demands for the expulsion of liberal professors with denials and temporizing. In 1960, SBC president Ramsey Pollard represented the views of most Baptists when from the platform of the annual meeting he insisted that the denomination’s colleges and seminaries should purge themselves of all liberal professors. Herschel Hobbs, who succeeded Pollard as convention president, felt assured that the “vast majority” of Southern Baptists supported Pollard’s demand. Hobbs spoke for them when he stated that “any man who aspires to teach either in our Christian colleges or seminaries should either stay within the ‘pasture’ of what Southern Baptist[s] believe and teach or else he should hire his own hall. I am not for furnishing him a place to spout out his own views.”

Southern Baptists did everything they knew to do to persuade denominational leaders to exclude such professors. Sometimes they succeeded. The trustees of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary fired Ralph Elliott from his position as professor of Old Testament in 1962 after Elliott’s Message of Genesis ignited one of the most heated controversies in the history of the SBC. Other professors came under fire in subsequent years and a few lost their positions.

Liberalism persisted nevertheless. Most Southern Baptists found the situation reprehensible and felt betrayed by denominational leaders who did not act to oppose liberalism except when the constituency compelled them. Rank-and-file Southern Baptists agreed with conservative leaders that orthodox faith and practice should be prerequisite to service as a denominational officer, missionary, or professor.

Throughout their history Southern Baptists have insisted that scriptural faith and practice formed the basis of their unity and identity. The shared commitment to that faith and practice also established boundaries of fellowship. Those who taught error departed from authentic Baptist identity and had no right to teach in the denominations schools or hold positions of denominational service.

In the twentieth century the moderate view of Baptist identity coexisted with this conservative view. Theological progressives dominated denominational leadership in the twentieth century and they promoted the notion that being Baptist meant freedom. But the moderate version of Baptist tradition was essentially an invention of the twentieth century. Before the twentieth century, few Baptists urged that freedom was the essence of the Baptist tradition, but after 1900 or so, progressive Baptist leaders urged this view increasingly.

– From Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Identity: A Historical Perspective, 65-69

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