The Southern Baptist Convention is in trouble. Its woes stem from a problem that has wracked other denominations and movements over the years: the nature and extent of biblical authority. The roots of the problem lie deeply buried in the second half of the nineteenth century in German higher criticism, which has been the source of much American theological liberalism during the twentieth century.
The older denominations have generally felt the impact of German liberal theology much more than Southern Baptists. Until recently, graduates of Southern Baptist seminaries did not generally go overseas to study for the doctorate. They stayed home and completed their doctoral studies in one of the many denominational institutions. But this was not true for other denominations. The Presbyterians, for example, saw many of their finest scholars drinking at the fountains of higher criticism in Continental institutions. Some came back more deeply convinced that their evangelical views were sound; J. Gresham Machen is one outstanding evangelical scholar whose European educational experience failed to convince him that orthodoxy was not a tenable option. Others, however, quickly adopted and later propagated liberal views they picked up in Europe.
Now things have changed. More and more Southern Baptist scholars are pursuing graduate studies overseas. And many others are studying in schools in the United States that are not Southern Baptist and have long been exponents of German rationalism.
This broadening trend is one that the Southern Baptists share with other conservative groups, including the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. At the synod’s last annual sessions its incumbent president was defeated by Dr. Jacob A. O. Preus, an articulate theological conservative. But the struggle going on in the synod’s seminaries and colleges has by no means been decided.
Dr. Preus recently opened his heart in a letter to the pastors of the denomination. “Make no mistake about this, brothers,” he said. “What is at stake is not only inerrancy but the Gospel of Jesus Christ itself, the authority of Holy Scripture, the ‘quia’ subscription to the Lutheran confessions, and perhaps the very continued existence of Lutheranism as a confessional and confessing movement in the Christian world.” He concluded: “It would be far better for such people [i.e., the liberals] to leave our fellowship than to work from within to torment and ultimately destroy it.” Some indeed have suggested that the time has come for the synod to divide into two groups, with those of liberal and conservative conviction working out amicably a separation acceptable to both sides. So the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, like the Southern Baptist Convention, faces the question of biblical authority.
There is on the American scene an amorphous group identifiable primarily by the names of individuals but known to many under the regrettable label neo-evangelicalism. The term neo-evangelical probably had its beginning in an address delivered by Harold John Ockenga at the inaugural convocation of Fuller Theological Seminary in 1947. Since then a number of evangelical institutions and many individuals have been lumped under this umbrella term. Into this group has come the same problem of biblical authority.
One of the main purposes for the creation of Fuller Theological Seminary was to defend the old Warfield view of the Scriptures, a view that included inerrancy. About ten years ago the seminary was shaken by controversy over the question of biblical authority, and particularly inerrancy or infallibility. Some members of the faculty and the governing board of the institution resigned, but the controversy was not fully settled.
The seminary has as part of its doctrinal platform the assertion that the Bible is “free from all error in the whole and in the part.” This was unacceptable to some in the institution, and the process of revising the statement of faith began. Sometime this spring the trustees will be called upon to adopt a new statement of faith that omits this assertion from Fuller’s creedal commitment. The new statement will be more in harmony with the view of one protagonist in the school that there is revelatory and non-revelatory Scripture: that which is revelatory has no errors in it; that which is non-revelatory has errors. Other schools have been struggling with the same question, although perhaps with less public scrutiny than Fuller, an institution of national and international prominence whose image is inextricably tied to Charles E. Fuller, the face and voice of the famous “Old-Fashioned Revival Hour.”
The present agitation among Southern Baptists is hardly new but is notable for the large number of people involved, the seriousness of the assault, and the uncertainty of the outcome. The question of biblical authority has been raised before and has received answers. But whether earlier answers will continue to be satisfactory cannot yet be determined.
In 1879 the Toy case brought the issue of biblical infallibility to light. Crawford Howell Toy was an Old Testament professor at Southern Baptist Seminary who had studied in Germany. Acknowledging his “divergence from the prevailing views in the denomination,” he presented to the trustees of the seminary a paper outlining his position. At the same time he offered to resign if his viewpoint was not satisfactory. The board accepted his resignation with two dissenting votes.
At the heart of Toy’s position lay the conviction that the Bible is not infallible. He separated the spiritual message of the Book from historical, factual, and scientific matters. He held that the writers of Scripture were men of their times who entertained the prevalent ideas of the day about the universe, and that increased knowledge had revealed that these opinions were erroneous. “I find,” he said, “that the geography, astronomy and other physical science of the sacred writers was that of their times. It is not that of our times, it is not that which seems to us correct, but it has nothing to do with their message of religious truth from God.” He further said: “The prophets uttered everlasting truths which are embodied and fulfilled in Jesus Christ and with which the geographical and political details have no essential connection.” With regard to the New Testament he asserted: “I will not see lightly a historical or other inaccuracy in the Gospels or the Acts, but if I find such, they do not for me affect the divine teachings of these books. The centre of the New Testament is Christ himself, salvation is in him, and a historical error cannot affect the fact of his existence and his teachings.”
The issue raised by Toy in 1879 has come up again and again among Southern Baptists. It was against the backdrop of this sort of question that the convention adopted the Memphis Articles in 1925. These included a confession of faith that made the following statement about the Bible: “We believe that the Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction; that it has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.”
Nearly four decades later the Kansas City Confession was adopted. It rose out of a controversy precipitated by the publication of a book on Genesis by a professor from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary “which some Baptists felt was not true to the historic position of Southern Baptists relative to the Scriptures.…” The 1963 action at Kansas City reiterated the assertion in the Memphis confession that the Bible is the Word of God and has “truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.” Before and after that decision, various Southern Baptist seminaries were disturbed by this question, and some professors, including the one from Midwestern, were removed from their chairs.
At this writing Southern Baptists are in greater turmoil over this question than ever before. There is more outward, vocal dissent, and the dissenters are more numerous and more determined. Moreover, there is no reason to suppose that the attitude of the dissenters parallels that of Toy in 1879, who subjected his future to the decision of his brethren and departed from the fellowship once they had decided that his views did not accord with those of the denomination generally.
The controversy was deepened by the publication last year of Why I Preach That the Bible Is Literally True by Dr. W. A. Criswell, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. His book unquestionably was a response and a challenge to those in the convention who do not believe that the Bible is infallible. (Criswell occasionally overstates his case; for a review see the June 6, 1969, issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, page 21.) The publication of the book by Broadman Press fanned the flames of discontent and brought violent reactions from those in the convention who disagreed with Criswell’s views. He then published another book under the auspices of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board. Robert Alley, professor of religion at the University of Richmond, called the second book “both sad and pathetic.” And Reuben Alley, editor of the Virginia Baptist weekly Religious Herald, wrote that the Sunday School board “made a grievous mistake by allowing itself to become an instrument for stirring already troubled waters and for widening the breach between groups within the Convention.”
The criticism leveled at Dr. Criswell produced its own reaction: Criswell announced he intended to run again for president of the convention. “After the criticism of my book,” he said, “I couldn’t turn my back on the whole thing.” It seems clear that he intends to make the question of biblical infallibility a convention-wide question and expects his re-election or defeat to determine the direction of Southern Baptists for some time to come.
More fuel has been added to the fire by the publication of the new Broadman Bible Commentary, under the editorship of Clifton J. Allen, a retiree from the Baptist Sunday School Board. Reviewing the first of the Old and the first of the New Testament volumes, one writer stated:
Unfortunately, from the viewpoint of the evangelical reader, the Old Testament volume reflects the negative critical theories of the current Old Testament scholarly consensus, and lacks the moderate conservatism of the New Testament volume.… Professor Davies holds that God has given us two sources of revelation, the Bible and nature, and that we should assess the truthfulness of Genesis in matters of fact in accordance with the findings of science.… This dodge … robs the plain assertions of Scripture of normative significance and makes faith meaningless. To allow that the Bible is mistaken in the testable (scientific) parts is to make the claim wholly unconvincing that it is truthful in the untestable (theological) parts.… The introductory article to the entire series elaborates the low view of biblical inspiration that accounts for the disappointing nature of the Old Testament volume. Editor Allen rejects verbal and plenary inspiration in favor of an imprecise “dynamic” theory [Clark Pinnock, in CHRISTIANITY TODAY, December 5, 1969, issue, page 17].
Allen says: “Therefore, a dynamic view of inspiration is not dependent on a mystical, inexplicable, and unverifiable inerrancy in every word of Scripture or on the concept that inspiration can allow no error of fact or substance.”
The criticism of the Genesis commentary has stoked other fires in different quarters. J. Walsh Watts, former professor of Hebrew and Old Testament interpretation at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, has entered the fray. “In response to requests from former students and intimate friends that I express my opinion of the treatment of Genesis in the Broadman Bible Commentary,” he said, “I feel compelled to write frankly—briefly but frankly.” After stating how he feels the commentary author undermines the infallibility of Scripture, Watts asks: “Can Southern Baptists remain loyal to their confession of faith in the inspiration of the Bible and promote a treatment that abuses it as this one does?” (Baptist and Reflector, March 5, 1970, pp. 6, 7).
More recently, members of the Association of Baptist Professors of Religion convened for their annual meeting at the First Baptist Church of Atlanta. Professor T. C. Smith from Furman University called for a new look at the canon, message, and authority of the Bible. According to the Capital Baptist, Smith “said that modern Christians should have as much liberty in determining their canon as the church fathers had in their time.… He said that modern scholarship has more valid criteria for selection of the canon than did religious leaders sixteen centuries ago.”
When the authority of the Bible is re-examined, Smith asserted, it is “the Bible, not God, whom we are questioning.” This points to the heart of the problem. Criswell says that the only certain knowledge we have of God is what God himself has revealed; that what God has chosen to reveal is found in Scripture; and that, therefore, to question Scripture is to question God. Smith on the other hand, says that to question the Bible is not to question God. Thus the final question is how much of the Bible is to be accepted as the source of religious knowledge.
Criswell has the vote of the convention on his side. Both in 1925 and in 1963 it declared that the Bible is the Word of God and has for its matter “truth without any mixture of error.” Smith and those of similar views are asking either that the convention change its statement on Scripture or that it allow those who disagree with that statement to continue in the convention, with the right to declare their opposing views freely and to seek to persuade others to them. Are not these persons placed in an ambiguous position in being related to a fellowship parts of whose confessions they cannot accept? Are they not opening themselves to the charge of dissidency and subversion so long as they remain within a group whose statements place them outside its pale?
It is likely that the struggle will erupt on the floor during the annual meeting of the convention in June. And the fact that the Association of Baptist Professors of Religion has agreed to deal with the question of the authority of the Bible at its meeting next year is a guarantee that the issue will not be settled quickly. The Southern Baptist Convention cannot avoid full exposure of the question much longer. Where it goes in the next decade or two will be determined by how it answers the challenge it now faces.
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