While mainline denominations have declined numerically in recent decades, membership in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC,) now at 14.6 million, has steadily risen. Generally, Southern Baptists attribute their growth to a high view of Scripture and an accompanying emphasis on evangelism. However, the perception by some in the SBC that this high view is in danger has spawned an internal struggle that has consumed much of the denomination’s energy.

The battle between “conservatives” and “moderates” (opposing factions have various names for one another) began in earnest in 1979 when conservatives launched an intentional effort to rid the SBC of what they say is theological liberalism. The battle lines have been drawn on the issue of inerrancy, although opposing factions differ on whether this is the real issue. Russell Dilday, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, says virtually all Southern Baptists agree on their view of Scripture, though they express it in different ways.

In 1985 the SBC appointed a 22-member peace committee to study the issues dividing the denomination (CT, July 12, 1985, p. 34). At a meeting of this committee last fall, the presidents of the SBC’s six seminaries issued a seven-point declaration of commitments aimed at resolving the controversy.

One of the commitments is to convene three national conferences on inerrancy, the first of which was held last month in Ridgecrest, North Carolina. The six plenary speakers were evangelicals outside the SBC, invited because “the evangelical world has been debating this for 40 years,” said Dilday.

One of the invited guests, Clark Pinnock, theology professor at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario (Can.), spoke candidly in opposition to a strict view of inerrancy, a view he strongly defended as a Southern Baptist seminary professor in the 1960s. Pinnock said he “defended the strict view of inerrancy in my earlier years because I desperately wanted it to be true.” He said he has since realized that “absolute rational certainty,” which he said the theory provides, “was not something which I could have or even needed.”

Pinnock called for peace in the SBC, which he said is virtually free from true theological liberalism. Pinnock added that now the danger is “going too far in mopping up.… It saddens me to see men and women who have given their whole lives to the faithful preaching of the gospel now being labeled ‘liberals’ and defamed when they deserve to be honored and praised.”

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Responding to Pinnock, Adrian Rogers, president of the SBC, said it is a “rather sad thing to have to confront a brother as a theological adversary that we once considered a valued ally.”

Conservative Paige Patterson, president of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies in Dallas, Texas, said the problem of liberalism in the SBC is more serious than Pinnock realizes. Patterson, who referred to Pinnock as his “beloved mentor,” said conservatives in the SBC have had to endure “discrimination, misrepresentation, and isolation.” He said Pinnock’s “price for peace is too high. He would have us support those who teach the exact opposite of what we hold to be sacred.”

What’s In A Word?

Those who regard themselves as inerrantists define the term in different ways. Generally, strict inerrantists say the Bible is literally accurate in all it addresses, including matters of science, history, and geography. Moderate inerrantists say the Bible is true only in matters related to faith and practice. Thus, some who identify themselves as inerrantists believe that the story of Adam and Eve, for example, communicates God’s truth, though they deny Adam and Eve are historical characters.

Conservatives generally hold that inerrancy requires belief in a historical Adam and Eve. Ed Young, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Houston, said that once “historical facts and events are questioned, then so are the doctrines they teach. Once Adam and Eve are denied, then the fall of man is questioned. And when the Fall is denied, there is no reason for the cross.”

Moderates have alleged that conservatives in the SBC wrongly associate certain interpretations of Scripture—on such issues as women’s ordination and capital punishment—with inerrancy. Randall Lolley, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, said using the word inerrancy has come to connote a position on issues of interpretation. Lolley objects to the policy—advocated by conservatives—of requiring use of the word inerrancy before a person may serve on a committee or agency of the SBC.

Young, however, said using inerrancy signifies whether a person truly upholds Scripture as the Word of God. Those who do not use the word, Young said, have found ways of circumventing important biblical doctrines through “verbal gymnastics.” Plenary speaker Kenneth Kantzer, dean of the Christianity Today Institute, drew more than a few “amens” when he said the real reason many avoid the word inerrancy is that they do not believe all the Bible is true.

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Young dismissed as a “straw man” the charge that conservatives do not distinguish between their view of Scripture and interpretation. He said most conservatives rightly regard the issue of women’s ordination, for example, as a matter of interpretation. However, he puts belief in a historical Adam and Eve in a different category. He said that because Christ regarded Adam and Eve as historical, the fundamental issue is whether Christ is truly Lord.

Plenary speaker J. I. Packer, theology professor at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia (Can.), noted at a press conference that some scholars maintain that Christ referred to Adam and Eve in the same way people today refer to Hamlet—as “real,” though not historical. Packer said his own view is that Adam and Eve are historical. But he allowed that others could take a different view and still genuinely uphold the lordship of Christ.

Point Of Agreement

Despite their differences, conservatives and moderates have found agreement on an important statement released by the SBC seminary presidents at the meeting of the SBC Peace Committee last fall. Known as the “Glorieta Statement,” it holds that the Bible is “not errant in any area of reality.” Young said the statement is a sign the SBC is moving back toward a high view of Scripture.

Pinnock noted that SBC conservatives also think highly of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Innerancy, the 1979 statement produced by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. However, Pinnock said Article XIII of that statement is worded in such a way that liberal inerrantists may subscribe to it. He suggested that SBC moderates, to solve the controversy, “declare themselves ‘Article XIII inerrantists’ and be done with it.”

The debate on inerrancy, according to Pinnock, is bigger than the Southern Baptist Convention. He suggested that theologian Robert Gundry’s theory that the gospel writer Matthew invented many of his stories is congruent with the Chicago Statement. Pinnock said Gundry was ejected from the Evangelical Theological Society (in 1983) because he came to the wrong “exegetical conclusions.”

The Criswell Center’s Patterson said the Ridgecrest conference would benefit the building of relationships among adversaries. But he said it is unlikely to change many opinions. Thus, when the SBC holds its yearly meeting this month in St. Louis, the battle will likely resume.

By Randy Frame, in Ridgecrest,

North Carolina.

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