The public controversy of 1979 did not emerge out of a vacuum; there was a history behind it. By the 1960’s, the Enlightenment had come to Dixie. A region that had long believed itself immune to history suddenly found itself grappling with the very questions that Northern evangelicals had confronted decades earlier and that European Christians had faced in the previous century. Now, Kant, Hume, Locke, and Hobbes arrived at the very threshold of the SBC.
The controversy that erupted in the SBC centered first and foremost on issues of truth and authority. With modernity having already reached our ranks, higher criticism and other ideological denials of the truthfulness of Scripture now presented themselves as challenges. Southern Baptists were thus forced to make a decision whether to assert, affirm, and cherish the Bible as the written Word of God, or merely to receive it as a human testimony of human religious experience.
Yale University professor Gabriel Josipovici once said that we should see the Bible as an arbitrarily collected group of scrolls, writings of tremendous spiritual interest and substance, but which say more about the persons who wrote them than about the God by whom they claim to be inspired. At such a fork in the road, there are only two options: either we will affirm the total truthfulness and verbal inspiration of Scripture, or we will decide that Scripture is to some extent simply a fallible witness to human religious experience. Southern Baptists first faced that choice in the 1960s, but they denied it for a number of years and papered over it for another decade. They tried to find some bureaucratic means of denying the elephant in the middle of the denominational room, but eventually the elephant grew so large it could be contained no longer.
By the 1970s, Southern Baptists had coiled into two separate parties: a truth party and a liberty party. Some tried to join both, but ultimately the controversy forced a choice. The issues became so narrowly focused and so intense in application that individuals eventually had to understand that the candidates running for the office of president of the SBC represented one of these sets of consuming interests.
The truth party understood doctrine to be the most basic issue confronting the convention. They were suspicious that heterodoxy had entered the ranks of Southern Baptists, and they had documentation to back up their claims – reports from students at colleges, universities, and seminaries. Soon, what had begun as a grassroots concern became an organized movement convinced that if the truth was compromised, all would eventually be lost.
The liberty party might best be described with what became a bumper-sticker slogan of the movement: “Baptist means Freedom!” To this party, liberty itself was the leitmotif of the Baptist movement. Now, it is certainly true that members of the liberty party also cherished truth, and members of the truth party had an understanding of Baptist freedom. But for the truth party, freedom had to fit within the truthfulness of God’s Word and the parameters established by divine revelation. For the liberty party, on the other hand, it was truth that had to be accommodated to the more important issue of freedom. Any parameters thus became not only awkward, but eventually impossible. This issue of freedom raises a host of questions, most obviously: “Freedom from what?” and “Freedom for what?” Eventually, the majority of Southern Baptists came to understand that if freedom were the only motif – or event the driving motif – of the denomination, it would finally mean freedom from accountability and freedom from doctrinal responsibility.
From 1963 to 1990, these two parties – truth and liberty – struggled to define the SBC and chart its course into the future. The issues over which they clashed were serious and substantial theological matters. They were not small, they were not minor, and they were not negotiable. Now, it is willful ignorance to suggest that Southern Baptists were not separated by theological differences of tremendous depth and great intensity. Those who say otherwise should simply read the evidence. The inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible were the primary issues of debate, though of course there was always more than that. Questions of epistemology, truth, and authority were only the entryway into an entire complex of debate that included virtually every major doctrinal issue and would ultimately affect the entire shape of the theological task.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Charles Spurgeon understood the Baptist Union in Britain to have slipped into what he called a “downgrade,” antiquarian language that nevertheless accurately communicated the reality of his day. Spurgeon saw the downgrade and gave the warning, but he was not successful in calling the Union to theological accountability. Today, the Baptist Union is a shell of its former self, hardly holding on to its declining membership. Southern Baptist conservative leaders in the 1960s, and especially in the 1970s and 1980s, put their lives, their careers, and their ministries on the line to prevent Southern Baptists from following a similar trajectory.
John Shelton Reed of the University of North Carolina (who once held the Margaret Thatcher chair of American studies at the London School of Economics) is one of the greatest historians of the American South. He recently characterized the Southern Baptist controversy as a “pitchfork rebellion.” Southern Baptists heard the issues, became alarmed, and were motivated to action. The true heroes of the conservative resurgence in the SBC were men and women who slept in their cars because they could not afford a hotel room. So motivated were they by the cause of truth and concern for the gospel, they would go wherever they had to go and sleep wherever they had to sleep in order to elect a president who represented their hope for the future of the SBC.
Where does the SBC stand now? Can we look back at the conservative resurgence and say the theological issues were settled forever? Absolutely not. Southern Baptists are now exceptional in the broader theological world. On same-sex marriage and a host of other cultural issues, the SBC is consistently recognized by the news media as being the one exception to a trend of churches acquiescing to liberal agendas. We cannot take confidence in that exceptionalism, for that would be a false confidence established on a very flimsy hope. In the conservative resurgence, the SBC was given a second chance, not a guaranteed future. It was not given a pass from history, or from the theological debates of the future.
That being the case, Southern Baptists have to grow out of a posture of inherent defensiveness and move to a positive agenda that points to the glory of God in the comprehensive embrace of biblical truth and takes delight in confessing the faith. We live in a day that is averse to theology and irritated by doctrine. If Southern Baptists find themselves being irritated by doctrinal questions, we will soon find ourselves sharing the fate of the mainline denominations – just slightly delayed. The tectonic plates of the contemporary theological landscape are shifting. Southern Baptists must accept the challenge of confronting these issues, not merely by defending against them, but by actually using contemporary debates to proclaim a theological reality that is firmly grounded in Scripture.
– From R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Southern Baptist Identity: Is There A Future?, 27-30