The Southern Baptist Doctrine Problem

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.


Dr. Eric Hankins Statement

Al Mohler’s Blog

Jerry Vines’ Response

ABP News Article

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About Wesley Spears-Newsome

Wesley Spears is a student of religion currently enrolled at Duke Divinity School and a graduate of Samford University. Read more:

Posted on June 7, 2012, in Church and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Dear Baptist/evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ,

    I ask you to consider these points:

    1. When God said that he would preserve his Word, what did he mean? Did he mean that he would preserve the original papyrus and parchment upon which his Word was written? If so, then his Word has disappeared as none of the original manuscripts remain.

    Did he mean that he would preserve his word in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek only? He would not preserve his Word when it was translated into all the other languages of the world?

    Or did God mean that he would preserve his Word…the message/the words…the Gospel: the free gift of salvation, and the true doctrines of the Christian Faith? Would God allow his Word/his message to mankind to be so polluted by translation errors that no translation, into any other language from the three original languages, continues to convey his true words?

    2. There is NO translation of the Bible, from the original ancient languages, into ANY language, ANYWHERE on earth, that translates the Bible as the Baptists/evangelicals believe it should be translated.

    No Bible translation on earth translates Acts 2:38 as, “Repent and believe in Jesus Christ every one of you and you will receive the Holy Ghost. Then be baptized as a public profession of your faith.”

    Why would God allow EVERY English translation of the Bible throughout history to be mistranslated or use such confusing language as to suggest that God forgives sins in Baptism? And not only all English translations, ALL translations of the Bible have retained these “mistranslations or confusing wording”.

    Do you honestly believe that God would allow his Word to be so polluted with translation errors that EVERY Bible in the world, if read in its simple, plain interpretation, would tell the people of the world that God forgives sins in water baptism??

    3. Why is there not one single piece of evidence from the early Christians that indicates that ANYONE in the 800-1,000 years after Christ believed that: Water baptism is ONLY a public profession of faith/act of obedience; sins are NOT forgiven in water baptism? Yes, you will find statements by these early Christians that salvation is by faith, but do Baptists and evangelicals really understand how a sinner obtains saving faith? THAT IS THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION, MY FRIENDS! Does the sinner produce faith by his own free will or does God provide faith and belief as a gift, and if God does provide faith and belief as a free gift, with no strings attached, WHEN exactly does God give it?

    4. Is it possible that: Baptist-like believers, at some point near or after 1,000 AD, were reading the Bible and came across verses that read “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” and “Call upon the name of the Lord and you will be saved” and established their doctrine of Salvation/Justification first, based on these and similar verses alone, and then, looked at the issue of water baptism, and since the idea that God forgives sins in water baptism didn’t seem to fit with the verses just mentioned, these early Baptists re-interpreted these verses to fit with their already established doctrine, instead of believing the “baptism verses” literally?

    Is it possible that BOTH groups of verses are literally correct?? If we believe God’s Word literally, he says that he saves/forgives sins when sinners believe/call AND when they are baptized? Why not believe that God can give the free gift of salvation in both situations: when a sinner hears the Gospel and believes and when a sinner is baptized?

    Should we re-interpret God’s plain, simple words just because they don’t seem to make sense to us?

    God bless you and keep you!

  2. I’ve lost track of the number of times that a Baptist or evangelical has told me that Acts 2:38 was mistranslated; that the “for” in that passage of God’s Holy Word should be removed and replaced with “because of”.

    It doesn’t matter to them that every English translation of the Bible translates this word in Acts 2:38 as “for” or “into” and never “because of”, because these Christians know in their hearts that God would never, ever say that baptism has anything to do with the forgiveness of sins.

    Below is an excellent article by Lutheran pastor, Matt Richards on this subject:

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