July 1, 2003
DALLAS — "The influence of confessions of faith has been largely dependent upon the use which has been made of them," stated James E. Carter in his review of confessions of faith for the Baptist History and Heritage series. Three years after messengers overwhelmingly approved the 2000 revision to the Baptist Faith and Message, nearly two-thirds of state conventions have affirmed the revised doctrinal statement and all Southern Baptist entities are operating with those guidelines in mind.
The first two Southern Baptist doctrinal statements were written to deal with controversies arising out of the seminaries. The 1925 statement failed to satisfy the anti-evolution sentiment voiced by a strong segment of the Convention much like the 1963 statement failed to satisfy Southern Baptists concerned that many seminary professors were teaching outside the mainstream of Southern Baptist life.
1963 statement keeps profs under the radar
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Charles S. Kelley observed that in the days surrounding the 1963 statement professors and publishers were introducing a new perspective intentionally in a very subtle way to keep it under the radar of most Southern Baptists. In his convocation address in the fall of 2000, Kelley said, "Language was being given one meaning in many SBC classrooms, but a different meaning in the churches."
He quoted from former Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Ralph Elliott’s reflection of the earliest years of controversy in a book titled The Genesis Controversy. Elliott wrote that "professors and students learned to couch their beliefs in acceptable terminology and in holy jargon so that although thinking one thing, the speaker calculated so as to cause the hearer to affirm something else."
Kelley asked, "How could the advocates of the new theology affirm the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message statement which, quoting directly from the 1925 statement, said the Bible has ‘God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter?’"
He concluded, "Obviously something must have been added to this historic language in 1963 that opened the door for a dramatically different theology to enter Southern Baptist life. It became apparent over the years that rather than serving as the expected course correction for the inroads of neo-orthodox theology in SBC educational institutions, two phrases added to the Baptist Faith and Message in 1963 were instead used to justify a radical departure from what most Baptists had always believed about the Bible."
Kelley cited the addition of the description of the Bible as being "the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man." He said, "To professional theologians this is a classic statement of neo-orthodox theology." He explained that the phrase on the Bible having "truth without any mixture of error for its matter" is interpreted as referring only to those portions of the Bible that are revelation, a dramatic departure from what 2 Tim. 3:16 teaches, he added.
"The problem this perspective creates is in how to know which parts of the Bible are revelation and which are merely the background record. Interestingly enough, not even neo-orthodox theologians could agree on what in the Bible is revelation and what is not."
Kelley also cited the addition of the phrase "the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ" as having provided "another neo-orthodox statement that would take Southern Baptists in a significantly different theological direction." He explained that many "professional theologians" could affirm the statement but "use Jesus as the spotter for separating divine revelation in the Bible from the human record."
"This new theology says my answer to the question ‘What would Jesus do?’ carries more weight than the clear teaching of the Bible. The Christ of my experience becomes the final authority for theology rather than the Bible."
Midwestern missions professor Ron Rogers who also has taught theology as well as observing the influence of neo-orthodoxy while a Southern Baptist missionary to Brazil, asked, "Did the architects of the 1963 BF&M know what they were doing—that is, did they purposely insert the language about Christ being the ‘criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted’ to satisfy the so-called ‘ignorant’ critics and to ‘umbrella’ the seminary elite?
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President L. Paige Patterson who in 1999 formed a committee to propose a revised BF&M, seems to find that the case. "The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message contained ambiguous language which was readily seized by neo-orthodox theologians and employed as loopholes to dismiss biblical materials which they believed to be intellectually unpalatable or politically incorrect."
Criterion language important to Hobbs
Midwestern church history professor Hugh Wamble corresponded with Hobbs as late as 1987 to nail down the reasoning behind the addition of the sentence, "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ." Fifteen years later, moderates would complain that the deletion of that phrase in the 2000 statement had ruined the document, charging that the Bible had been elevated as a higher authority than Jesus.
In his answer to Wamble, Hobbs made it clear that the "criterion" language was the most important change made in 1963, but cited far different reasons than do current critics.
"You will recall that this revised statement was written in the historical context of the controversy which centered in Ralph Elliott’s book The Message of Genesis, Hobbs explained. "When Elliott suggested that Melchizedek could have been a priest of Baal, his critics said his statement made Christ a priest of Baal. Though Hobbs did not take that to be Elliott’s meaning the committee felt the added sentence describing Jesus Christ as the criterion would prove helpful.
"After all, God’s full complete revelation of Himself is in Jesus Christ," Hobbs wrote. "Any interpretation which is in any way contrary to that revelation is incorrect. The final word, especially in Christology and redemption, should be as to how an interpretation fits God’s revelation in His Son. This statement was added as a precaution in interpretation."
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, a member of the committee that wrote the 2000 revision, explained to the TEXAN why further clarification was needed. "That statement, tied to a clear affirmation of biblical inerrancy, is not a problem because every responsible evangelical believes in a Christological hermeneutic, that is, that Jesus Christ himself is the fulfillment of the Scripture and all Scripture is a testimony to Him.
"But without an accompanying affirmation of biblical inerrancy, that statement became a license or a loophole for persons to deny certain texts by saying that those texts were not compatible with Jesus," Mohler added. "Now, of course that violates the authority of Scripture and it violates the very instructions of Jesus concerning the Scripture, who said that he didn’t come to nullify any Scripture but to fulfill every Scripture."
Diverse committee considers new challenges
The more recent Committee on the Baptist Faith and Message was far more diverse than previous committees, including two seminary presidents, a Southern Baptist ethicist, seven pastors serving from as far apart as Florida and Hawaii, two women serving in ministry positions, a layman, a collegiate minister and an evangelist. Among the members were an African American, Chinese-American and a Hispanic-American.
Chairman Adrian Rogers of Memphis explained the process used by the group. "Meeting over a period of several months, we reviewed the confessional history of our denomination and considered the challenges faced by the Baptists of this generation. We were guided by the rich heritage embodied in the 1925 and 1963 editions of the Baptist Faith and Message. We have sought to retain all the strengths of that noble heritage, to clarify the truths there expressed, and to address the needs of our own times," Rogers said.
"We have said one more time as Baptists that we believe the Bible and we want to live by the Bible," Rogers said following passage of the statement. "We love Jesus Christ passionately and devotedly. But the Jesus we love is the Jesus of the Bible — not the Jesus of imagination, subjectivity or personal revelation. That really is the watershed."
Kelley, the other SBC seminary president serving on the revision committee, affirmed the convention’s habit of summarizing for each generation what most Southern Baptists believe about basic Christian doctrine while also tackling current theological issues.
"They did this first in 1925, driven primarily by the need for a Southern Baptist response to liberalism and its denial of creation and anything miraculous in the Bible," he stated. "It happened again in 1963, driven primarily by a concern with the inroads in Southern Baptist educational institutions of neo-orthodox theology and its elevation of the human elements of Scripture above the divine."
Kelley said the 1963 statement will be tied forever to Hobbs whom he described as "one of the SBC’s most beloved pastor-teachers." In spite of having originated from the pen of a former president often described as conservative, Kelley said a cross-section of Southern Baptists expressed concern "not with the statement itself, but rather with the fruit of the statement’s adoption."
He argued, "Those who advocated the new theology introduced in 1963, whether they realized it or not, were starting Southern Baptists down a road that would eventually replace the authority of the Bible with the authority of personal experience and personal opinion."
In his 2001 Hobbs Lecture at Oklahoma Baptist University, Union University President David S. Dockery wonders whether a clearer expression of Hobbs’ own commitment to biblical inerrancy might have ended continuing controversy.
"Certainly, Hobbs was a thoroughgoing biblicist since the early days of his ordination examination. However, with his huge influence over Southern Baptists, one has to wonder if the controversy over Scripture, which took place in the last decades of the 20th Century, would have taken a different road if Hobbs had emphasized in a more pronounced way his own commitment to biblical inerrancy," Dockery stated. "Hobbs clearly confessed the full inspiration, authority, truthfulness, and inerrancy of the Bible as the position of Southern Baptists at the conclusion of the 20th Century.
Dockery quoted from what may have been Hobbs’ final words from his powerful pen when he raised these questions: "‘Are you willing to place your trust in something that is in a constant state of flux? Or will you place it in the Bible, God’s solid rock of revealed truth? Your answer bears eternal consequences.’"
Criswell College theology and church history professor Ergun Caner regards the efforts of the Hobbs committee as well-intentioned but short-sighted. "Because of the inclusion of the questionable clauses, it allowed the scholars to carry off a coup. They were allowed to agree with the BFM in theory, but deny the very affirmations they were supposed to be supporting. Such linguistic gymnastics were noble negotiations at best, and outright deception at worst."
2000 BF&M statement establishes plumb line
NOBTS Provost Steve Lemke added, "The BF&M 2000 has been helpful in providing a plumb line by which doctrinal integrity can be measured in this generation of Southern Baptists." He regards "sound Baptist doctrine" as a prerequisite for anyone teaching in a Baptist seminary. Kelley added that the clearer language has helped the seminary screen potential faculty candidates as they search for professors who are both familiar with and committed to historic Baptist theology and practice.
Patterson observed that the Hobbs committee was responding to a crisis while the committee chaired by Adrian Rogers was responding to the will of the convention expressed over a 20-year period. He said the 2000 revision accomplished this "by codifying with greater precision the positions of the convention."
"This included such matters as racism, abortion, marriage, and gender relations not addressed by the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message. Additionally," Patterson said, "the committee made a deliberate attempt to rid itself of the neo-orthodox language" of the 1963 document.
For Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary President William Crews the current BF&M "has given impetus to a process that was already in place." In his inaugural address in 1987, Crews made a commitment to the SBC that he would honor the 1963 statement by continuing to require all trustee-elected faculty and SBC-elected trustees to publicly affirm the statement and promise to teach in accordance with it. He took it a step further by asking specific questions of all potential faculty in the areas affirmed by the SBC Peace Committee on which he had served.
"I insisted that signing the Statement of Faith should not be used as a means of getting or keeping one’s job at the seminary," Crews told the TEXAN. "I said that it should be signed with integrity or not signed at all. As the first seminary president ushered in during the conservative resurgence, he knew which questions to ask. "I did not allow any perceived inadequacy in the 1963 statement to hinder us from electing people who would uphold what I understood to be the prevailing interpretations of Southern Baptists."
Golden Gate Seminary Academic Vice President Rick Durst confirmed that the school’s conservative approach encouraged the practice of putting "trust in the facticity and historicity of Scriptures up front in all of our faculty searches." He added, "If persons were not willing fully to affirm the Word, they knew they would not fit in with the mission of Golden Gate."
Midwestern President R. Philip Roberts’ denominational experience extends to prior ministry at NAMB and Southeastern Seminary. "I have to say in my experience that the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message served adequately," he told the TEXAN. "I suppose it was because of the fact that I knew the right questions to ask and did not necessary express interest in hiring people that I thought were questionable theologically."
Recognizing that Midwestern Seminary gave impetus to the foundation of the 1963 BF&M as a result of the Elliott controversy, Roberts credits the 2000 BF&M with helping to "remove loopholes and raise sensitivities for those who may otherwise not have them."
The new document also prevents a misunderstanding on the nature of God, a problem that had not arisen for the earlier generation. "It clarifies God’s divine nature so that both Process Thought and the Openness of God positions are eliminated from the realm of Christian orthodoxy." He further commended the committee for addressing the question of women pastors in a satisfactory and biblical manner.
Churches hold seminaries accountable
Malcolm Yarnell, who served as academic dean at Midwestern Seminary for the past two years, pointed to the "One Faith, One Task, One Sacred Trust" covenant adopted by seminary presidents in 1997 as having adequately summarized those beliefs which are commonly held by Southern Baptist churches while also providing the basis for biblically educating future leaders of those churches.
"A seminary has no authority to operate unless it is empowered by the churches and the churches must hold the seminaries accountable for how the seminaries use the authority granted to them to raise up future leaders." He described the 2000 BF&M as "a great instrument of accountability by the seminaries to the churches."
In the years prior to passage of the revised BF&M, Midwestern utilized a comprehensive faculty questionnaire designed by a previous conservative administration, Yarnell explained. "This questionnaire was highly instrumental in bringing the conservative resurgence to Midwestern Seminary," he said, adding that it addressed issues of concern to conservative Southern Baptists that were not reflected in the 1963 BF&M.
Specifically, Yarnnell said, "The questionnaire appealed to the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy to foil the moderate hermeneutic" that regarded Christ as "an epistemological standard above Scripture which could be used to judge the validity of scriptural statements." And while the questionnaire addressed views of women in ministry and the new BF&M stipulated that the role of senior pastor is limited to males, Yarnell said he still finds it necessary to prove a faculty candidate’s views on this issue. "I now have an authoritative convention statement to which I can appeal in my discussions."
Those two areas of change, along with language favoring a complementarian view of marriage helped clarify to prospective faculty members the conservative theology which is driving the new administrations of the seminaries, Yarnell concluded.
Just as former administrations should not have depended upon affirmation of the 1963 statement as the only qualification to teach, Yarnell said, "It is still necessary to be diligent about the theology of prospective faculty members. Some prospects consider themselves conservatives and will sign the 2000 BF&M to prove it. However, their theology still needs to be gleaned in the interview process and diligence on the part of the [seminary] president, dean and existing faculty necessarily must be exercised."
Other issues that Yarnell said are surfacing in faculty interviews: "The doctrines of pneumatology and soteriology, specifically whether one can be saved without having Christ as Lord. "Although they are not hot button doctrines in the conservative resurgence, [they] are woefully misunderstood by many conservatives."
The importance of accountability arose last fall at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary when trustees passed a statement on theological and academic integrity, expressing a desire to be accountable to the SBC. "We affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 because we believe it expresses a faithful and foundational interpretation of God’s word which we seek to promote and extend in faithfulness to the calling of Jesus Christ."
Retiring Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Kenneth Hemphill said such a declaration was necessary because "various entities make declarations about what we teach or don’t teach that are inaccurate." He declined further comment for this issue.
Mohler also drew from his knowledge of pertinent issues in hiring faculty prior to 2000. He spoke of the process of transforming Southern Seminary during the 1990s, noting that the 1963 BF&M did not address some areas of concern. "In 1995 we made a part of the formal hiring process at Southern Seminary what had been my practice as president already, and that is to require all persons who would join this faculty to believe that and to teach:
- the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture,
- homosexuality is a sin,
- abortion is the murderous taking of innocent life, and
- Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation.
"Those issues were not addressed in 1963 because they were not issues of public concern in 1963. But by the 1990s, they were issues that no evangelical school could ignore without forfeiting or compromising its stewardship of the truth," Mohler said, calling the 2000 revision "an absolute confessional statement of clarity."
While the 2000 BF&M was not yet in place, Mohler said every one of the principles it embraces was a part of the seminary’s hiring and personnel policy put together in the 1990s. As a result, "No one has been added to the faculty who would not have agreed with what came in the 2000 BF&M."
Mohler added, "Baptists need to recover what it means to be a confessional people. That means that the confession of faith is not merely a symbolic document. It’s a living document that represents the dynamic faith of Baptists and of the Southern Baptist Convention."
The recently revised Baptist Faith and Message has already outdistanced the earlier confessions of Southern Baptists in the degree to which it is being used. According to the standard proposed in the study of Baptist confessions, that makes it the most influential statement in the SBC’s 158-year history.