EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh article in a year-long series, commemorating the history of the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in honor of its 40th anniversary. To read previous articles, visit www.mbcpathway.com/ConservativeResurgence.
NEW ORLEANS – Four years after Southern Baptists debated about Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s infamous liberal professor, Ralph Elliott, and four years after they accepted a new revision of the Baptist Faith & Message, the Texas lawyer Paul Pressler met at New Orleans’ famous French coffee house, Café Du Monde, with the young seminary student Paige Patterson. As a result of this meeting in March 1967, Pressler and Patterson hatched a plan to restore leaders who would affirm the complete truthfulness of Scripture to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and its institutions. Their plan, which came to fruition with the election of Adrian Rogers as SBC president in 1979, is now called the Conservative Resurgence.
Patterson, 76, championed the Conservative Resurgence for decades, serving in the SBC as president of both Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Today, Patterson ministers alongside his wife, Dorothy. To learn more about his ministry, visit www.paigepatterson.org. In a phone interview earlier this year, I asked him to reflect on the conservative renaissance in the SBC.
When did you become aware of how deep the problem was in the SBC?
“I pretty well discovered that by the time I was 15 years old and entered the ministry. But when I got ready to go off to college, my father had a sit down with me. … I can quote him almost verbatim: ‘Son, the day is going to come when there’s going to be a great day of reckoning in the Southern Baptist Convention.’ And he said, ‘You’re going away to college, to a Baptist University, and you’re going to hear a lot of things that you have not been taught in your home and in your church, and I want you to remember that that’s just symptomatic of why there’s going to be a great confrontation in the convention.’ So dad had prepared me for what I experienced in college. And when I did experience it in college, I was not surprised, although I was disappointed.
Tell me about the fateful day in March 1967 when, as a student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, you met with Paul Pressler at the Café Du Monde.
“Paul came by my apartment. He was on campus because he had a scholarship that he gave to students who believed in the inerrancy of God’s Word. I was never one of his scholarship recipients, but somebody told him that when he was on campus next time in New Orleans, that he should stop by and see Paige Patterson. So he came by. It was late at night, probably 10:30 or 11:00, by the time he got there and knocked on my door. And when he introduced himself, I said, ‘Well, I’m tired of studying any way. Let’s go down to the Café Du Monde and get some coffee and donuts.’ And so we left, went out to Cafe Du Monde. We talked till about 3:00 in the morning.
“And that is where the myth comes in. We really didn’t do much that night as far as hashing out how to do the conservative movement. That was all done later. But he challenged me to lead it. And I suggested that he was drinking something that he ought to lay off of. … I didn’t take him very seriously. When he kept pressing me, I just decided I’m going to stop this right here. So I just said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what, if you’ll lead it with me, we’ll do it.’ I thought he’d back off. And, of course, that was the first time I had met him, or I would’ve known better.
“The only thing we really agreed on that night in New Orleans was that it definitely needed to be done and that we had a base in the convention that not only believed in the inerrancy of God’s Word, but that were convinced that the lack of belief in inerrancy had become a major problem in the denomination.”
There were various theological issues at stake in the convention. Why did you focus on the issue of biblical inerrancy?
“We made a conscious decision that, if we went after everything, we would get nothing. If I can borrow an analogy from hunting: When you’re hunting in Africa, you may take something different than what you’re hunting. But you can’t go after it that way. You have to have made up your mind in advance what it is you’re going after. And so, in talking about all that, we decided that there is one issue that is foundational to all the others. And that issue is the nature of Holy Scripture, because we either do or we don’t have a sure Word from God.
“And so what we decided was this, that even the average Baptist who worked at the tire company and had never had a day of seminary in his life could understand the issue of the inerrancy of God’s Word. … And if he got that one right, he was going to go ahead and get the rest of them right.”
Between 1967, when you met at the Café Du Monde, and 1979, when the Conservative Resurgence began, what were you doing?
“During the 12 years between that time and the time we actually asked Dr. Rogers to allow his name to be put up (as SBC President), we did two major things: Number one, we studied the constitution and bylaws of the Southern Baptist Convention until we knew them like the back of our hand. We knew that there would be parliamentary maneuvering in any convention, and it was mandatory that we know what we’re talking about and be able to appeal to the bylaws when we needed to. … Second thing we did: We divided the United States in 25 states each. Paul took 25, and I took 25. And the whole idea was that we were going to find two men in each state, one pastor and one lay person, who would understand this and who would become our leader in that state. And through him we would funnel all the information and receive all the information that we needed in order to make the stand.
“That took considerably more time than we thought, not because we had trouble finding the lay people. We found them pretty easily. The problem was to find pastors, number one, who believed the right thing. But, number two, even when they believed the right thing, we discovered that there was not a great deal of courage present there. We had trouble finding pastors at that stage who would stand. They would say the right things in private, but they wouldn’t take a stand when they thought they might be shot for it.
“And so those are the two things we did. By 1979, we had enough of a loose knit organization with those 100 people that we felt we were ready to attempt to do the one thing that we knew we had to do.”
“What is not well known … is that we intentionally made the decision to keep all candidates for convention president at arm’s length. They would not be a part of the organization, and they would not be told for the most part what was happening. And so Adrian Rogers, Jerry Vines, Charles Stanley, and so forth and so on – they didn’t know. In fact, when I was elected in 1999 as convention president, that was the first time that anybody had been elected who had been a part of the original group.”
Why was it so important that you took this stand at the moment you did, ultimately in 1979?
“All of us were getting older and we knew that we were going to have to move on it. People from other denominations told us that they waited too long. Frank Schaeffer had been very influential with us. He said that they had waited too long in the Presbyterian denomination, and they could do nothing. As it turned out, as we looked at the situation, it wasn’t just that they had waited too long. Their ecclesiology did not allow them to do what we did. So it was our autonomous view of the local church and freedom of religion and that kind of thing that really helped us, that gave us an advantage.
“But we knew we couldn’t wait much longer, that the situation was getting serious. I’ll just give you one example: One day I sat down and tried to calculate how many seminary professors we had in the six seminaries who believed in the inerrancy of God’s word, and I could only count 16. And eight of those were frightened out of their wits by the possibility of retaliation. So there were only, probably about eight who would stand up and be counted. And those were people like Russ Bush and Tom Nettles, and a few like that.
For young Southern Baptists, who perhaps have little knowledge of this movement, please explain the significance of what happened in the SBC during the Conservative Resurgence.
“Well, maybe the best way to do that would be to go back to my illustration about only finding 16 inerrantists on the faculties of all of our seminaries put together. Now, … fast forward to this year. As far as I know, there’s not one single professor in any one of our six seminaries who has a question about the inerrancy of God’s Word. That’s a monumental sea change that happened over a 30 year period. And, largely, no one was even fired. For example, I never did fire a professor for being liberal. I didn’t have to. We just made it hot in the kitchen and explained that everybody’s going to go on mission trips and everybody’s got to witness. And they didn’t want to be a part of that.
“The second way to understand (the Conservative Resurgence) is to see that it was part of a movement that was going on. At that same time, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy was taking place, and that was across denominational lines. Southern Baptists were not leading that. I happened to have been on the board, but I was the only Southern Baptist on the board. Also, President Reagan was elected president of the United States. And that was not a distinctively religious move. But of course what he brought to that were very conservative values. And so (the Conservative Resurgence) was a part of an overall movement that swept through the country.
“One final thing that was true: All of us who were in leadership in the conservative movement were committed to something that doesn’t ever come out. And that is that we would always say to one another when we got together for a meeting: ‘Now, let’s remember, we don’t have to win. All we have to do is to be faithful to God. And whether we win or whether we lose is in His hands. We’re here to do something that will give a chance to the 6 billion lost people on the face of the globe.’ And it was our conviction that liberal Christianity would never lead them to Christ. Only conservative, biblical Christianity could do that.
“And so we didn’t fight for a doctrine as such. We fought for a doctrinal position that would lead to the evangelization of the lost.”
In 2012, you wrote an article about whether or not Southern Baptists should rejoice as a result of the Conservative Resurgence. What is your assessment today?
“That article was written because I was fearful that I was seeing some rejoicing that I didn’t think was healthy. I reminded them that the Bible says not to rejoice over the defeat of the enemy, that you can rejoice in the victory that God gives, but not in the defeat of the enemy. And that’s a tough Bible verse, but a true one. That is a reminder that even people who have wrong positions are still precious people for whom Christ died. And therefore we cannot accord to them anything less than cordiality and kindness and Christian sympathy. …
“The landscape has changed now a little bit. And I would have another reason now that I didn’t have then for saying don’t rejoice too soon. … Clearly in some places, the inerrancy of God’s Word is being questioned. The doctrine of eternal punishment is under continual fire from people who used to be called evangelicals. And so it just reminds you that we don’t rejoice here. Here we work. When we rejoice is when we’re in heaven.”