Southern Baptists’ former confession of faith
July 1, 2003
Clearly from our lead story, controversy surrounding the Baptist Faith and Message is nothing new. The 1963 version of our confession was a reaction to the no-longer-deniable problems in our seminaries. Some seminary leaders and faculties at the time recognized the occasion of the confession and questioned the need for the revision. It should have been a warning to the rest of us that they were able to hold their noses and sign on all the same. This says something about the nature and purpose of the ’63 BFM.
Reactive, as was its 1925 predecessor, the 1963 BFM was apparently intended more to calm denominational tension than affirm our basic beliefs. Within a few years it was evident that the confession accomplished neither. If signing an affirmation of the confession with mental reservations would allow even neo-orthodox faculty members to avoid further scrutiny, they would wink and do it. That any seminary administrators, trustees, or SBC elected officers were willing for Ralph Elliot to keep his position after claiming such a low view of Scripture shows that the nature and purpose of the confession spawned by the Elliot controversy was not what most Southern Baptists thought or hoped.
Professor Elliot wrote a view of the Genesis narrative that was neo-orthodox in the factual details (persons, places, dates) but he drew orthodox, even evangelistic conclusions from the “parables” included in the first eleven chapters. This is oil and water. His friends and supporters seemed to think that his earnestness outweighed his vacating of the facts of Genesis. Why believe that our relationship with God will be restored by the second Adam if no first Adam actually existed, no perfect place ever actually was, and there was no perfect relationship to lose except in a storyteller’s imagination? Yet some agency leaders, faculty members, and seminary trustees found no essential problem with Elliot’s work, even though some of these supporters didn’t agree with the particulars of his teaching.
Robert H. Craft, a fan of Elliot’s work, was quoted in Leon McBeth’s, A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage as saying, “The (Elliot’s in The Message of Genesis) treatment of the first eleven chapters of Genesis demonstrates man’s basic problem—he is a helpless sinner in need of a Redeemer…” The point is, it can do no such thing. Elliot’s work may assert that man is a helpless sinner but it cannot demonstrate this fact without first acknowledging that the Bible tells of men and women who actually existed and lived the events attributed to them in Scripture. If the Creator’s revelation of himself is not reliable historically or scientifically, our redemption is similarly based on the shakiest of foundations.
Southern Baptists now have a confession that is more careful, theological, and useful than our earlier versions. Still, the 1963 effort to apply a little theology and a lot of politics to deep, widespread denominational problems has lessons for our time.
First, the Southern Baptist Convention will not operate properly as an oligarchy. Yes, we have gifted and God-called leaders. This does not mean they should ever be unaccountable or independent in their authority. If a professor at one of our seminaries writes and teaches beyond biblical orthodoxy, it is our problem and we are right to expect an accounting from our employees and leaders for their response. Those few who addressed the Elliot controversy seemed more concerned that the controversy was becoming public than that the book in question undermined biblical integrity.
A conservative elite class would not likely be superior to a liberal one, by the way. I don’t think we’re there but we’re certainly not immune. It’s not about doctrine or even good intentions; it’s about polity and human frailty.
Next, the administrator’s urge to keep the lid on things can never justify compromise of biblical convictions. All leaders face this temptation. “If we can keep this quiet, it will go away or we can manage it,” the thinking might be. In fact, as often as things are “managed” in all walks of life, it is seldom to the benefit of the institution. Not all things should be trumpeted, but a “managed” problem often recurs with more power to destroy. A leader who is courageous in the face of small decisions will not face monsters as often as those less brave. The conservative resurgence of our denomination was more difficult because it was delayed by well-meaning leaders in the mid 1900’s.
Also, a moderate’s defining urge to tolerate false teaching on significant matters is poisonous. Justifications (mercy, academic freedom, etc.) for allowing Ralph Elliot to continue teaching at a Southern Baptist seminary reappeared when a Baptist college president denied the full deity of Christ twenty years later and when Baptist college professors denied the omniscience of God more recently. It’s the same thing more fully developed. Some hold bad theology and will champion that cause. Others hold orthodox beliefs but will champion false teachers. Motives don’t matter as much as actions in these things.
The 1963 BFM was well-intentioned and not without use. The political nature of its wording crippled it from the start, though. As our agencies became more confessional, they were forced to use supplemental documents to close loopholes in the BFM. Our current confession is not as political and already serves the denomination more effectively than either of its predecessors. Our confession of faith belongs to Southern Baptist churches as do the agencies that use it as a doctrinal guide. Good stewardship requires that we know what our confession says as well as what our agencies profess on our behalf. (The Southern Baptist Texan is the newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.)