The Southern Baptist Doctrine Problem
Posted by Wesley Spears
Since the 1970s, a vicious tug-of-war has plagued the Southern Baptist Convention. Early in the battle, on one side there was a fight for doctrinal uniformity (specifically regarding the nature of Scripture) as determined and enforced by the Convention. On the other side, many (who may or may not have agreed about the nature of Scripture) thought the Baptist thing to do was to leave such doctrinal matters up to the local congregations. As the tug-of-war became an all-out brawl, many on one side raised their hands in surrender and took their toys to go home. These Baptists remained quieter voices in the SBC, founded new Baptist organizations, or left Baptist life entirely. The newly crowned tug-of-war champions for the inerrancy of Scripture (primarily) enjoyed their newfound position of power and went about reshaping the Convention and its auxiliary bodies (e.g., seminaries, publishing houses, committees, etc.). Some tug-of-wars are not supposed to finish like that, however, and now Southern Baptist chickens may be coming home to roost.
The debate this time is not about the nature of Scripture (though that may lie somewhere at its foundation), but about Calvinism. Recently, Eric Hankins (First Baptist Church in Oxford, Mississippi) released “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” The preamble details the problem “New Calvinism” (or the “Young, Restless, Reformed” Movement) poses to Southern Baptists. The New Calvinist element in the Convention, Hankins says, has been pushing for an alteration of the Convention’s stance on theology. No longer are they content, he says, with the status quo of a plurality of theologies existing side-by-side. Instead, they are pushing their own soteriology as the one and only way to understand salvation (sound familiar?). Hankins proposed a “Traditional” Southern Baptist soteriology that all could affirm, and that is what follows in the document. Problem is … it denies certain key tenants of Calvinism (e.g., the denial in Article One rejects some forms of election and Article Two repudiates total depravity … there are more.) Signees of Hankins’ document included former veterans of the great tug-of-war Jerry Vines and Paige Patterson among scores of other Southern Baptists.
Southern Baptist leader, theologian, seminary president, and beneficiary of the great tug-of-war Albert Mohler celebrated its intentions but could not sign the document for theological reasons. Nevertheless, he followed that statement with an interesting train of logic in Baptist theology. First, he called the document (at least in part) “beyond Arminianism” and “semi-Pelagian” (terms few Calvinists have ever used properly, in my opinion). Secondly, he then asserted that surely the signees (all of whom he knows) did not actually believe what they had signed. “Surely, they’re smart enough to agree with me!” he seems to think. Then, he does something interesting, worth quoting. After he condemns “theological tribalism,” he says,
…we must recognize and affirm together that we have already stated where Southern Baptists stand on the great doctrines of our faith. The Baptist Faith & Message is our confession of faith, and it binds us all together on common ground. The BF&M does not state doctrines comprehensively, but it defines our necessary consensus. Every Southern Baptist is free to believe more than the confession affirms, but never less.
I found these statements somewhat confusing. As I grew up in a Southern Baptist environment, my leaders taught me that being Baptist was about freedom. There were several principles that comprised being Baptist theologically including (but not limited to): the priesthood of every believer, the competency of the soul before God, and the autonomy of the local congregation. Mohler’s words and his use of the BF&M seem to contradict every one of those principles at their core. Being Baptist is no longer a free enterprise about theological liberty but about uniformity and consensus. Yes, consensus is somewhat necessary, but Southern Baptists have always been non-creedal, that is, no document other than the Scriptures is necessary for an affirmation of faith. What Mohler did by saying that “Every Southern Baptist is free to believe more … but never less” than the BF&M was to make the BF&M into a creed. It is precisely this attitude that reinforces theological tribalism. New Calvinists can ardently back up their claims with the words of one of their own (Mr. Mohler, who, by the way, served as a primary architect for the current BF&M) as psuedo papal decree. When did a Roman hierarchy replace the Baptist congregationalism that has made our Church so distinctive for so long? (Answer: When Al started citing Humanae Vitae to support his new position on birth control.)
Southern Baptists are now at an impasse. Perhaps in the days to come, there will be another great tug-of-war. On one side, there will be a fight for doctrinal uniformity and on the other the stalwart defenders of the local congregation. Problem is, I have little sympathy for my Southern Baptist brethren and their new predicament, because they created it themselves. Now, they have to deal with the consequences.
About Wesley SpearsWesley Spears is a student of religion currently enrolled at Duke Divinity School and a graduate of Samford University. Read more: http://wp.me/PzOSl-si
Posted on June 7, 2012, in Church and tagged Al Mohler, Albert Mohler, Arminianism, Autonomy, Baptist Faith & Message, Baptist Faith and Message, Bible, Calvinism, Doctrine, Eric Hankins, Freedom, Jerry Vines, New Calvinism, Paige Patterson, Pelagian, Priesthood of the Believer, Reformed, Soul Competency, Southern Baptist, Theology, Tribalism. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.